Saturday, March 29, 2014

Disruptive Grace--How Sweet the Sound!

Disruptive Grace—How Sweet the Sound!
John 9:1-41
Hope Lutheran Church, Fergus Falls, MN
Lent 4—March 30, 2014

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Let’s start with a multiple choice quiz.    Which of the following statements comes closest to the truth?

    A. Having Jesus come into your life makes everything better.

B.  Having Jesus come into your life disrupts everything.

C. Both A. and B.

I wonder how this man in our gospel lesson would do on this quiz.

Having Jesus come into his life certainly made everything better.  Here he was a man “blind from birth.”   Jesus comes into his life, fashions a mudpack for his useless eyes, sends him to wash off this mudpack in a pool known for its healing qualities.  And when the man does that—lo and behold!--he can see for the first time in his life!

I’d call that a very good day—to be blind from birth and then—all of a sudden, able to behold everything and everyone, whiter whites, brighter brights, the whole amazing universe suddenly alive and in focus!  Amazing!

Yesiree—when Jesus comes into your life everything gets better!

But wait.  There’s more here in John 9.  

What should have been the best day in this blind man’s life got very complicated. 

·      For all at once his life became a topic of interest, a source of speculation for his nosy neighbors.
·      His healing was brought to the attention of the local authorities who opened up an investigation and interrogated the blind man repeatedly.
·      His parents even got dragged into the situation and badgered by the powers-that-be.
·      The upshot of all this consternation is that the blind man winds up excommunicated from his community of faith--all because Jesus healed him, all because the man told the truth about the great thing that had happened to him.

Wow!  Having Jesus come into your life can disrupt everything, all in a day!

And Jesus himself—who’s off-stage for much of this long story—sums it up this way:"I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind."

The answer to our little multiple choice question is “C” don’t you see?   Jesus coming into our life makes everything better….but only because Jesus disrupts everything, first.

And thank God for that!

Because, you see, there are all sorts of things in our lives that need disrupting.  

First of all, our “natural” assumptions about how the world works and how God does business with us need to be disrupted.   That is apparent right at the start of this story when the disciples notice the blind man and ask:  Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

The disciples give voice to what I like to call “Maude theology.”  Maude, you’ll recall, was a TV show back in the ‘70s about a blunt, outspoken woman whose catch-line was:  “God’ll get you for that!”

God’ll get you for that!   Left to our own devices, that’s how we think of God—as a law-and-order, demanding Boss whose job is to keep us on our toes and under his thumb.

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" the disciples ask.  Their question allows them to keep their distance from this blind man.  They and everyone else took no notice of the real, live human being in their midst.  What the blind man’s neighbors knew best was his diagnosis—he was a man infected by sin and therefore "blind from birth."

No wonder the man’s neighbors seemed confused about his identity after he was healed.  They’d been so focused on his condition that they never saw him as a brother in their midst.

Does anything about that sound familiar to our ears?   Who are we oblivious to, even though we may stumble over them every day?  Who do we know as a diagnosis but not a person?

Jesus came along and disrupted that mindset.  Jesus’ healing action forced folks to notice a man they really didn’t know that much about.

But there’s more that Jesus disrupts here in this story.  The local religious authorities, rather than rejoicing in the miracle of new sight, became obsessed with the where and the when of the healing miracle.  

For it was the Sabbath day, the day to cease all work and activity in the world.   Folks were hung up on that when Jesus walked the earth.

In fact they worked very hard to make sure and everyone avoided work on the day of rest!  They transformed the gracious gift of rest into a huge cause for anxiety!

Does that sound familiar to us?   We know that obeying the rules and doing good works can’t make God love us any more than God already loves us…but really, don’t we still like to keep a few accomplishments tucked tucked away in our pockets, “just in case.”  

That needed disrupting, too—all the ways we turn God’s good gifts into do-it-yourself projects.  That cock-eyed way of thinking needs disrupting in our lives too.

And then there’s the fixation here in John 9 on the question of community—Who’s in and who’s out of our community of faith?   

This story in John 9 winds up with a man who’d been left out of the circle of community because of his disability…and in the end he’s bookted out of his community of faith, purely because he happened to be in the path of the Son of God, who heals all our diseases and makes all things new.

The blind man ran afoul of a religious community hell-bent on being an enclave of the like-minded, who agreed that “anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

That inward-focused, self-centered, “one-bad-apple-spoils-the-whole-bunch,” pinched view of God’s people needed to be disrupted….even as it needs to be disrupted in our time and place.

I love the story about Ole the Norwegian who was stranded on a desert island for 30 years.   When he was finally discovered by persons on a passing ship, they were amazed to see how Ole had constructed a whole village on his tiny island—complete with stores, a school and a church.   But as Ole’s rescuers toured his “village,” they noticed another church building, just a few yards away.

“What’s that?” they asked Ole.

“Oh, dat!” Ole replied.  “Dat’s the shurch I USED to belong to!”

That way of thinking and imagining the church needs to be disrupted, which is precisely what Jesus does when he comes into our lives….calling into question our insulated tendency to associate only with persons who’re exactly like us—even in the church!

Pope Francis names this crucial reality when he says: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security….More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, 'Give them something to eat.'" [1]

When Jesus comes into our lives everything does get better….but only because when Jesus comes into our lives FIRST he disrupts everything—everything that needs to be disrupted, everything that distorts how we understand God and God’s way with us, everything that blinds us to the neighbor in our midst, everything that even hints we can play “let’s make a deal” with God, everything that causes us to become inner-directed, inwardly-focused on ourselves in the church.

All of those tired old dilapidated ways of thinking, seeing and believing…all of that needs to be disrupted, set aside, cleared from our path…so that Jesus might have room truly to walk in our midst, opening blind eyes, forgiving all our sin, and wooing us into a gracious, merciful community focused, laser-like on following Jesus in his mission to restore and bless the whole world.

This, my dear friends, is the rhythm of Lent, this wondrous season of preparation for the Easter joy that shall soon be ours.    Jesus still walks among us, upending all our rotten assumptions, and setting us free for the life and the future he intends for all his people.  

Jesus’ grace is amazing, but only because it first disrupts everything that needs to be disrupted--so that we might be set free, free for God, free for our neighbors, free for this good earth, free for the future that Jesus Christ is bringing to us as a sheer gift.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

God Gives the Growth

Augustana Lutheran Church, Fergus Falls, MN
Epiphany 6/February 16, 2014
Installation of Pastor Benjamin Durbin
Deut. 30:15-20; I Cor. 3:1-9; Matt. 5:21-37

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

This morning, Pastor Ben, you become a permanent fixture in the history of Augustana Lutheran Church.  

For as long as anyone pays attention to Augustana, there’ll always be at least one line in this congregation’s narrative about you.   Your mug will be there, in ever collection of former pastors’ pictures!

Now that’s sort of a heady thing to think about…for one so fresh to the role of pastor.   It might even give you pause, to see your photo with a little brass plate that reads:    Pastor Benjamin Durbin, 2014-“whenever”!

If all of this is true, though, why does it matter?  What’s the point?   What are you here for?   Why does anything you might think or say or do make a difference?

You are here at Augustana, Ben, to stand on the side of life—God’s life, for the life of the world, and the vitality of this congregation...including everyone who’s impacted by Augustana.

It’s about life, Ben—the life God lavishes upon us in Christ Jesus, God’s beloved Son.

You are here to tend this full, free life in Christ…which is why I love the imagery of our Second Lesson for today.

I bet you appreciate this imagery too, because inside you lurks a farmer (I’ve seen your Facebook page!)

The Corinthian congregation was in a snit over which of their former pastors had been their shiniest penny!   Some liked their first pastor Paul, others were still gaga over that flashy preacher Apollos, others preferred some other former pastor….

Here in our Second Lesson the apostle cuts right to the chase and proclaims that all these pastors, with their gifts and personalities, collectively tended the life of God in the Corinthian church:  “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. …”   

Pastor Ben, a whole succession of “farmers” have cultivated this garden called  Augustana since 1877.  Today you fall in line with them…nurturing the life of this Christ-community for a few planting seasons.  The Holy Spirit got here ahead of you, Ben--and long after you’ve departed the same Spirit keep fussing with the folks here at Augustana.

You are here to stand on the side of life, Ben, inviting God’s people (in the words of our First Lesson from Deuteronomy) to “choose life,” to embrace even as they are embraced by the life of God in the world.

Moses still speaks to us from our First Lesson, as he pleads with the people of Israel who’re on the cusp of crossing over the Jordan River into their Promised Land.

Moses cajoles them to dive into the deep, rich life God is dying to give them:  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him…” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

“Choose life!” Moses pleads….and how hard can that be?   Not much of a choice, really—life or death?   “I think I’ll take life if that’s OK,” we say to ourselves.

But therein lies the rub!

“Choosing life” is never as easy or natural or automatic as we imagine it to be.

For we are a self-focused people who consistently swerve toward death—whether or not we always realize it.    Even when we think we’re choosing life, in fact, it’s usually not the life that God wants to give us that we’re choosing.

When we choose life, we usually choose life on our terms, not God’s terms.   We suppose that life is within our grasp, something we can create for ourselves, fashion in our own likeness.

Which is to say that we’re almost always ready to settle for something far less than what God wants to give us.

So (shifting gears now to our Gospel lesson) we imagine that on our own we aren’t doing all that badly.   We choose life (we think) by keeping our noses clean, staying out of trouble, obeying the rules.

We may even be rather proud of ourselves:  “I haven’t committed first degree murder.  I’m still married to my first spouse.  Folks take me at my word” we tell ourselves.

But here in Matthew 5 Jesus barges in and pours cold water on all such self-satisfaction. 

In a relentless string of  you have heard…but I say to you” declarations, Jesus demolishes all our self-satisfaction, leaving no one standing when he’s finished with us.

We may not have committed homicide…but have we displayed anger, hurled insults, resorted to name-calling?

We may not have committed adultery with our hands…but have our eyes wandered?  Has our lust overtaken our imagination?

We may have not sworn falsely…but have we ever “shaved the truth” or propped up our words with pious palaver?

When Jesus takes the Law into his own hands….no one is left standing!…

….which is the point, after all.   None of us ever “stands” on our own two feet, when all is said and done.  

If we stand, we stand in the strength and the confidence that always comes to us as sheer gift from God’s open hand.

If we stand, if we choose life, it is only because God has first chosen us for such life.  In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ God has gratuitously decided to bestow on us a Life we could never fashion on our own.

Pastor Ben, this is the life-giving, death-defying Word you are called to tend here, for the life of this congregation and all who are touched by its ministries.

You are called here to stand on the side of life, not a life of our own choosing, but God’s overflowing life.

That is why you’re taking your place here at Augustana this morning.

It is to hold forth the life that God desires for all people—a life that trusts God completely, loves our neighbors unreservedly, and cares for this good earth unstintingly.

And thank God, Pastor Ben, you’ve been given all the tools you need to do the job.

You’ve been given the gift of Baptism—your baptism and the baptism you’ll administer here, immersing God’s children in the new life only God can give.

You’ve been given the gift of the Word—that you might be able to speak here, not out of your own intelligence or cleverness, but as a messenger of Christ Jesus, delivering “the goods” that mean life for us sinners.

You’ve been given the gift of the Supper—because God never just plants seeds and forgets about them.  The Supper nourishes what God has begun in us, feeds us with Christ’s very presence, so that we might journey together toward that Final Day when God will make all things new.

You’ve been given the gift of this community—because there are no Robinson Crusoe Christians, because we can’t make it on our own.   So God comes to us in the guise of our neighbors, especially those closest to us, who share with us the rich, rich life of Christ.

You’ve been given the gift of God’s mission of redeeming and blessing the whole world in Jesus Christ.  That should keep you out of mischief, Ben, for as long as you serve here!   You and all these folks serve a missionary God who is forever sending us to bear his Light and woo others to choose the life of the God who has already graciously chosen them.

This is indeed heavy, heady stuff, Pastor Ben.  It is more than you or any mere mortal can handle—which is why God promises to supply you with all that you’ll need.

And these people of God—trust me on this!—they will both love you AND keep you humble.

Years ago I returned to the first congregation I pastored.   Celebrating a congregational anniversary, they’d invited back all the “old pastors” to join them.

Before worship service I encountered in the narthex my old friend Clarion who’d been my congregational president and fishing buddy.  We reconnected, laughed and shared a few stories.

Then I joined my wife in one of the pews.  Shortly thereafter Clarion and his wife sat down right behind us.  I knew that because I overheard him whispering to his wife:  “I just saw old what’s-his-name down in the narthex…..”

“Old  what’s-his-name?”   Here, I’d been his beloved pastor, dear friend, faithful fishing buddy—and he couldn’t even recall my name!

It was then, thank God, that Paul’s word came back to me:  “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. …”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Pastoral Letter: Addressing the Peacetime Emergency

A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Wohlrabe


February 2, 2014
The Presentation of Our Lord

To:  The congregations, rostered leaders and members of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA

Dearly beloved in Christ,
May Jesus our true Light shine in your hearts and lives during this Epiphany Season.

From time to time we are called upon to address natural disasters that threaten the lives and well-being of our neighbors.    This brutal winter of 2014 has brought us into a peacetime emergency as announced by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton last week.

Because the extended bitter cold snap has been exacerbated by a shortage of propane gas causing a sharp spike in fuel prices, many folks are being put at risk.   As usual the poor are most vulnerable.

In the last few days two ELCA members associated with Community Action Agencies on the territory of our synod have contacted me. 

Pastor Del Moen of Wadena, who serves on the board of the Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership, Inc. in Detroit Lakes, reported that propane prices have risen to three times the normal price (from roughly $2 per gallon to over $6 per gallon).   Mahube-Otwa has received over 600 calls from distressed residents, struggling to pay their heating bills under this intolerable set of conditions.

Mr. Joe Pederson (a member of Rollag Lutheran Church, Rollag) who directs the Lakes and Prairies Community Action Partnership in Moorhead  writes:  “This emergency is likely to become even more critical in the weeks to come. Propane suppliers in many cases have delivered propane to families/individuals who do not have the means to pay their bills. They [suppliers] are not in a position to continue to provide propane without payment.”

In response to this peacetime emergency, I urge members and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA to please respond in the following ways:

·        Remember those affected by this emergency in your daily prayers and in the weekly intercessions of our congregations;

·        Check on your neighbors (especially the frail elderly and others who are vulnerable) to make sure they are OK, staying warm, and living safely;

·        Open up your congregation’s or community’s “Good Samaritan” funds to supplement the strapped resources of agencies that provide fuel assistance; and

·        Make a special financial gift personally or from your congregation to a local agency that is offering help to poor people affected by this wintertime emergency.  (For information on your local Community Action Agency go to:    Recognizing the seriousness of this situation, Joy and I are making a personal gift, and I am requesting the synod executive committee to release some dollars from the NW MN Synod Disaster Relief Fund as well.

Let us pray:  Eternal God, amid all the turmoil and changes of the world your love is steadfast and your strength never fails.  In this time of danger brought on by bitter cold and a shortage of heating fuel, be to us a sure guardian and rock of defense.  Guide our  leaders with your wisdom, comfort and safeguard those in distress, and grant us courage and generosity to care for all who are in need; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.   (ELW, p. 76, adapted)

Your brother in Christ,
Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Taking On Sin

Living Grace Lutheran Church, Hawley, MN
Installation of Pastor Hope Deutscher
January 12, 2014
Matthew 3:13-17

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Think back to a time in your life when you were the dirtiest you have ever been--when you were the dustiest, sootiest, muddiest you could imagine yourself every being.

I grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, and farms are places where it’s easy to get dirty—on a regular basis, in fact.  

One of the dirtiest jobs I remember was when we sold our stored soybeans—often in the heat of summertime, eight or nine months after harvest.    I remember climbing into a hot, dusty grain bin….scooping the grain into the chute in the bottom of the bin that fed the augur that took the grain up into the truck we used to haul our harvest to the elevator in our little town.

The dust hung in the air and it clung to us, mixed with our own sweat, as we scooped and swept out each bin of soybeans.

We were so dirty—my mom, my dad and I—that we actually needed a pre-wash of sorts….we needed to hose ourselves down outdoors, lest we drag all that dirt into the bath tub in the house.

And even then, when we’d gotten the worst of the dirt off us outdoors, the bath water could get pretty nasty….which was bad news for whoever drew the short straw and was the last in line to use that bathwater…because in our modest farm home we took turns “getting clean” in water that we shared.

It’s pretty bad when bathwater gets so dirty that you’re not sure if you’ll come out of it any cleaner than when you went into it!

Hold that image, please, and look again at this gospel reading for today, the Baptism of our Lord.

Jesus comes from Galilee to the Jordan river—a river that was hardly clean to begin with, a river made even dirtier by all the sinners who were flocking out to hear John’s preaching and to be baptized by him, to wash their guilt and regret and mistakes and waywardness—to wash it all away.

When Jesus showed up by the Jordan, something in John knew it was all wrong.   And he gave voice to his apprehension:  “Wait a minute, Jesus.   You don’t belong here, and you certainly shouldn’t be the one getting washed by a miserable sinner like me.  By rights ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’   This is all wrong—there is nothing right, nothing righteous in you, Jesus, getting soiled, stained by the accumulated filth in this river!”

But Jesus just brushed away all that kind of talk.  “You’ve got this ‘righteousness’ business all wrong, John!   ‘Righteousness’ isn’t about possessing some kind of pristine purity—it’s not about keeping your distance from those who are dirty with sin.   No—righteousness is about making others right, right with God, right with one another, right with the good creation.   I need to be here, John, in the Jordan River, dirty as it is. ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’”  

So Jesus who’s clean as a hound’s tooth—Jesus who bears no sin of his own—Jesus insists on falling into line with all those sinners who came out to the Jordan to be washed by John the Baptist.

Jesus brings no sin, no dirt to the river….but he comes out of the river just covered in sin, covered by the dirt of others….because that is what he came for.

So it’s entirely right and proper that here—precisely here where sin and guilt and regret are all most palpable and real—it’s the perfect time for an epiphany, a “revealing” to take place as Jesus hears these words:  “"This—this sin-identifying, sin-embracing, sin-removing One--this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

God in Christ never keeps a safe distance from sinners.   No-- God in Christ goes right toward sinners, gets close to sinners, so close that their sin rubs off on him.   That’s how it began at the River Jordan, and that’s how it would be throughout Jesus’ time on earth, and that’s how it would all end for him—on a sinner’s cross, where Jesus who (in Paul’s words) “became sin,” crucified sin once and for all—doing away with it for good—“so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  (II Corinthians 5:21)

Pastor Hope, I was so excited when I realized you’d be installed today, as we remember the Baptism of Our Lord, because this amazing gospel story is what pastoral ministry is all about—and, I think it’s what Living Grace Lutheran Church is all about.

A church is not a haven for the holy.   

A church is not a fortress for the righteous. 

A church is a hospital for the sick, a forgiving, healing place for persons who know their hands are empty, folks who realize they can do nothing to get on God’s good side, that they stand before God “guilty as charged.”

The church is not where we escape from, where we run from sin and sinners.   The church is where God the Beloved Son does what he does best—runs toward sinners, embraces sinners, forgives sinners, transforms sinners into new creations, and sends those redeemed, now righteous sinners into his royal service in the world.

Living Grace exists because there are in Hawley, Minnesota believers who get it—that God loves sinners unconditionally, that Jesus came to “take on sin,” and that a church worthy of his name will always open its arms to everyone, and I mean everyone, absolutely everyone!

Lately, no one has been giving voice to this vision of the church better than this amazing new pope, Francis.    In late November he released his first major encyclical, appropriately titled The Joy of the Gospel, in which Pope Francis laid bare his evangelical heart and set forth his approach to the mission of God in our world.

Francis wrote:  "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security….I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures….More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, 'Give them something to eat.'"[1]

So, Pastor Hope, that’s what it’s all about.   No one shows us the way better than Jesus our Lord.   See where he locates himself here in this gospel lesson.

Jesus takes his place among sinners.   Jesus gets close to people who are lost, needing direction.   Jesus associates with the dirty, the dregs of this life.

Conventional wisdom says that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch”—and yes, if we were responsible for the produce section of the local grocery store, we’d need to heed that warning on a daily basis.

But God calls you to tend people, not produce.   And in the amazing grace and abounding mercy of God another wisdom holds stray:  One Good Apple transforms the whole bunch….and the good apple I’m talking about is Jesus.

For Jesus “takes on” sin in order to undo sin, to take it away, to bear it to his Cross and Grave for you and me and all sinners everywhere.  

This is the Jesus whom you serve and whose forgiving, cleansing Word and presence you now bear as pastor of this faith community.

So walk in this Hawley community and move within this congregation as a sign and ambassador of the One who went down under the water of John’s baptism in the muddy Jordan River.   Get close to sinners—rub elbows with them every chance you get—and tell them, better yet show them, this Jesus who takes on sin in order to take away sin from us—as far as the east is from the west.

And then set them free to become signs and ambassadors of this Jesus, wherever they go.  For Jesus never saves us to make us fat and sassy and content with ourselves.  Jesus always saves us to send us into his great mission of redeeming and blessing all people and the whole creation.  Help and guide and encourage these folks and all who will come here simply to live in the grace that has found them.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.


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