Friday, December 27, 2013

Kitchen Table, Altar Table, Mission Table

Bishop’s Monthly Columns for 2014
The Mission Table:  Introduction

When our family gathered for supper on Christmas Eve, the youngest table-mate was only 6 months old with a first tooth just poking through her gums.   Though she wasn’t yet eating adult food, granddaughter Olivia was still seated in the family circle, her pudgy little hands folded gently by her dad, as we prayed our table prayer.   She didn’t know all that was happening, but still she grinned from ear to ear because she was part of it all—indeed with all the grownups gazing at her, Olivia was the center of our celebration.

We all know what it means to sit at table with one another.   For most of us, “sitting at table” began long before we were completely in touch with reality.   Every home, no matter how impoverished, has some sort of table where those who live under the same roof draw together for nourishment.   Unlike our friends in the animal kingdom, we human beings don’t graze in pastures or kill-and-eat our prey on the spot.  We prepare food.  We savor food, often in the company of others.  We are sustained by nourishment and conversation around the table.

Kitchen Tables

For most of us the kitchen table is the first one we remember.   Close your eyes for a moment and try to conjure up a memory of the first kitchen table you remember from your childhood.    What did it look like, sound like, smell like?   Who sat at table with you?   What was your favorite meal?  What sorts of conversations took place around that kitchen table?

Author Stephen P. Bouman, recalling the earliest kitchen table in his life, writes:  “At the table, I learned my values, my identity, my culture.  At the kitchen table in my home, each of us five children had a seat….We told stories around the kitchen table….Life around the kitchen table, the songs of our grandparents, the heartbeat of received story, and resurrection faith anchor us.  They stay with us all our lives and come alive when we need them most.”   (The Mission Table:  Renewing Congregation and Community, excerpted from pp. 17-19)

Altar Tables

Now imagine all the homes in your congregation and community.  Visualize all the kitchen tables where God’s children regularly come together.   And ask yourself:  Where do all these tables intersect?

For Christians, all the kitchen tables of their lives intersect at the altar table of the church.   Every meal we take at home anticipates the next time we’ll gather together at the Lord’s Supper—even as every time we eat the Lord’s Meal, we look forward to the Heavenly Feast that will never end.

What a ragtag collection of folks assemble regularly around the altar table!   In our daily lives we might scarcely ever see one another (not unlike many families nowadays).   If we were honest, we probably don’t see eye to eye with all the folks we eat with at the Lord’s Supper.   But the altar table isn’t about how similar or dissimilar we all are.  The altar table is about what God is doing in our midst:   forgiving sins, restoring relationships, kindling hope, giving life, sending forth.   The altar table—with the gifts of our Lord’s true Body and Blood—is at the center of our life as Christian people.

Again, Bouman writes:  “The altar in the church is the table that unites the kitchen tables of the congregation.  Here we mark life passages as a faith community; here we bring our gifts to be shared with a wider circle.  We seek to be fed and filled with spiritual food, to encounter Christ’s presence and peace, to praise God, to experience loving community across the generations.  All roads meet at the altar table when the church gathers for Holy Communion.”  (p. 23)

The first altar I remember was shoved up against the wall of the chancel in our little congregation.  I remember this altar not so much as a table as a symbol of God’s holy presence in our midst.   When the pastor faced the altar—his back to the congregation—we knew that he was coming before God, and inviting us all to do the same.   I remember being a little scared of this table, which was tucked inside altar rails that only the pastor could regularly enter.

Thank God, most of our congregations have moved our altars out away from the wall, so that they might become again what altars were always meant to be:  tables around which God’s people can gather—tables that reflect a God who is not aloof or fear-inducing, but close by and constantly present with us and for us.

Mission Tables

But it doesn’t end here, in the coziness of a comfortable sanctuary.   The God who meets us at the altar table is a missionary God, who is always saving us in order to send us back out into God’s world.   We regularly visit the altar table, but we do not live in the sanctuary that houses it.

Altar tables point us back out, beyond the doors of our church buildings, to all the tables where we will now continue to encounter one another along with our neighbors.  Altar tables produce mission tables in God’s world.

Pastor Bouman draws our attention to the “sending stories” in Luke, chapters 6 through 10, in which Jesus sends his followers out into the countryside to bear witness to God’s reign.  For example,

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.  He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, not money….Whatever house you enter, stay there and leave from there….”  They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.  (Luke 9:1-6) 
Commenting on these verses, Bouman observes:  “[The disciples] travel light.  They leave behind the props of their daily existence—staff, bag, money, bread….Mission is the seeking of hospitality at the tables of our neighbors in the world, seeking a welcome.  We don’t approach our neighbors primarily to catalog and meet their needs.  God is already there.  Great competence and giftedness are already present.  We go to listen to the stories of our new hosts at the table, to receive their welcome, and if invited, to tell our own story.”  (pp. 31-32)

Jesus didn’t send out his followers in order to form tight-knit enclaves of the like-minded.   Jesus’ instruction to “eat what is set before you” (Luke 19:8) absolved his missionaries from needing to “keep kosher” in their eating habits!   Mission tables are not cookie-cutter havens for the holy.  Rather they are evangelical ventures into the messiness of the world, where all manner of human beings gather—including, especially, unbelievers (better yet:  “not-yet-believers”) in our midst.    That’s how the gospel gets out into the world, when we dare to sit together with people who are decidedly NOT like us.   Jesus sends us to construct messy mission tables where the good gossip of the Gospel can get over-heard by neighbors and strangers.

During this new year of 2014, my monthly bishop’s columns will invite us to consider this powerful image of The Mission Table.   As I write these monthly columns, I’ll draw heavily upon Stephen Bouman’s new book, The Mission Table:  Renewing Congregation and Community (copyright 2013, Augsburg Fortress).  But I’ll also share some of my own reflections along with stories of mission tables that are popping up all around our Northwestern Minnesota Synod.   I invite you to join me on this wondrous journey from the kitchen table to the altar table to all the mission tables God creates in our midst.
 Lawrence R. Wohlrabe serves as bishop of the
Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

For personal reflection or discussion
Ponder (or share with your group) your most powerful memories associated with
·       A kitchen table in a home where you have lived.
·       An altar table in a church building.
·       A mission table somewhere ‘in the world.”

This is the first in a series of monthly bishop’s columns during 2014 on the theme, The Mission Table.  These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use each column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.   Readers are encouraged to purchase and read The Mission Table:  Renewing Congregation & Community which can be ordered at


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Starting at the Ending

Midweek Advent Worship
Our Savior’s, Moorhead
Advent 1/December 4, 2013
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Let's start at the very beginning/
A very good place to start/
When you read you begin with ABC/
When you sing you begin with do re mi/….

Starting at the beginning sure makes sense, doesn’t it?  Most of the time we begin at the beginning.

Except that in the peculiar logic of the church--where the last is first and the first is last-- we tell time differently.  Our song, if we had one, would be: “Let’s start at the very ENDING…”

Let’s begin this new year on the church’s calendar by zooming way ahead, to the final future, the destination toward which we’re heading.

Truth be told, part of me is always a little annoyed when Advent begins, because someone decided, long ago, that we can’t just jump into Christmas, as much as we might like to…

We’re not allowed simply to get out all the warm fuzzy holiday stuff from the boxes in the crawl spaces, where we’ve squirreled it all away from last year….

Instead of jumping into the “hap, happiest time of the year”….we need to warm up to it, to place Christmas in the broadest possible context so that it will hit us with full force.

Let’s start at the very ENDING….let’s begin our waiting for the Christ Child by remembering where this is all heading, where God is moving us, toward the consummation of all that God has been, still is and will yet be doing in the remainder of our journey here on earth.

So in this first week of Advent we focus on the End of this world as we know it…because (like a fine engagement ring) only a setting that encompassing can hold the diamond of Christ’s first coming to us, in Bethlehem’s manger, with Mary and Joseph and angels and shepherds all standing there slack-jawed.

Let’s start at the very Ending, a very good place to start.   Because starting at the Ending reminds us that our God finishes what he starts.

That’s what we confess, week after week, when we wrap up the second article of the Creed by saying that Jesus the Son of God will come to judge the living and the dead.  Jesus came as a Baby…Jesus keeps coming in water, Word, bread, wine and community…and Jesus will come again, one last time, because God finishes what God starts.

And even though that promise sounds a little different each time we hear it in the scriptures, it all boils down to this:   God is making all things New--so get used to the notion that the current state of affairs will not be the final state of affairs.

So for old Israel, to whom Isaiah prophesied, for old Israel which was forever being run over roughshod by neighboring, conquering nations whom God used time and again to chasten his wayward people…

For old Israel, as Isaiah pictures it, the time will come when the Temple mount in Jerusalem will be raised up as the highest of all mountains, God’s own Mt. Everest….and the nations will no longer be God’s means of chastening Israel for its failure to measure up to God’s standard of justice.

No, the nations will not always be arrayed against old Israel, but rather when Mount Zion becomes the highest of the mountains, the nations will take notice and say to themselves:   "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths."

That’s one of the Bible’s images for it—one way of picturing what we know to be true:  that God is going to finish what God has started…..and that all the people who dwell on this old ball of mud will one day recycle all their weapons into gardening tools, when “Waging War 101” will no longer be part of the curriculum, when God’s encompassing peace, God’s shimmering justice will be all in all.

So as another Advent rolls around, we begin at the ending….our scripture lessons all focusing on “the Day of the Lord”…

….and with that always comes a rub.   Because if we believe Jesus will come again, one last time, we curious cats want a timetable—we hanker for the when, the where and the how of God’s final future.

In short, whenever we talk about Jesus’ final coming, we want God to dish out the details, because we forget how much the End of all things is like the Beginning of all things—an article of faith, not a piece of forensic evidence we can dissect in a laboratory.

So, we confess that God is going to wrap it all up….but then we get distracted by our own curiosity about the “mechanics” of all that… God has to remind us about the folly of speculation.

Martin Luther was once asked what God was doing the day before God created the world….

….to which Luther, with a wry twinkle in his eye, responded:  God was cutting hickory switches to thrash foolish persons who ask questions like that!

So right alongside all the diverse ways the Bible talks about the End of all things….in the very same verses, the Bible holds at arm’s length all our “curious cat” questions about how and when and where it will happen.

Our gospel lesson from Matthew 24 is as blunt as any of them:  “"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Amazing!  Not even the Son of God knows when he’ll return one last time to earth.

That’s God’s business.   And if any TV preacher tries to tell you otherwise I urge you to flip the channel!

It’s God’s business—to wrap it all up, to finish the job.  It’s God’s business—how and when and where that will happen.

And if all of that is God’s business, what’s left for us?  What’s our business?

Here’s where these end-of-the-world Bible texts get really interesting.  

Because just at the point where you’d think the veil might be drawn back and we’d learn a few juicy secrets about Judgment Day….these end-of-the-world passages divert us from God’s business and point our little noses back into what’s our business.

And our business, my friends, is how we will live in the mean time…in between Christ’s first coming and Christ’s final coming. 

How now shall we live?   The Bible stubbornly keeps dragging us back to that question which is really the only question that matters.

And here’s what we’re told about our business…

From Isaiah—“Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

From the Apostle Paul—“Wake from your sleep… lay aside the works of darkness…put on the armor of light”

And from our Lord Jesus himself—“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming….be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Martin Luther advised Christians to live each day as though Jesus died this morning, rose this afternoon and is returning to earth this evening.

When we put it that way, we see how in Jesus Christ every day is “charged” with the prospect of God’s promised future.  Every day spills over with the energy of God’s eternity.   Every day anticipates all that God has in store for us.

So we lean into God’s future, as if that future was already here, present, right now.

You and I are, in a sense, “from the future”—God’s final future.   We know how the story ends.   We audaciously believe that we can start living now as if God’s future had already arrived.

So if in the fullness of time oppression will be a thing of the past, we can live today daring to believe that justice will win out.

If in God’s final future war will be no more, we can live today as if peace will actually win out.

If in God’s great tomorrow there will be no more cryin’ and no more dyin’, we can live today, inhabiting life with no limits, no dead zones in our path.

If in God’s coming Kingdom there will be a place-card for everyone, we can live today as if hospitality was the kindest gift we could ever offer to others.

If in God’s New Creation the word “scarcity” will be banished from our vocabulary, we can live today as if abundance is already overflowing.

If in God’s dawning day Christ will be all and in all, we can live now as if Jesus is already in charge, exercising his strong but gentle rule over all things, starting with you and me.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.