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


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