Directly beneath the pulpit in the church I serve, under the sanctuary, sternly stowed in the basement is a massive, black marble altar. It is elegantly carved. It is commanding, present. And it’s a real problem to move. Which is a good part of why it’s currently in the basement, kept as part of our history in a room we use for pot-luck suppers and Bible studies.
Pot-luck suppers. Huh. I used to know what those were.
The black marble Monstro and many of its liturgical accoutrements were exiled down under in favor of sanctuary fixtures that could be moved easily and that expressed the warm, invitational character of the congregation that gathered around it. A friendly, blonde wood table now sits in the central place in the sanctuary of Salem Lutheran Church, a Scandinavian-heritage community in a hurting-yet-changing neighborhood of Spokane, Washington. Bright paraments adorn the honey-toned surface in seasonally fitting colors. And yes, it moves easily: the strength of one five-foot two-inch pastor can scoot that sucker anywhere I please. And I did. I (I, myself!) pushed our altar, the very beating heart of our Eucharistic life as a parish, off to one side and out of camera view when the pandemic hit. And there it sat for over a year.
Yes, that altar moves easily: the strength of one five-foot two-inch pastor can scoot that sucker anywhere I please.
I’m not sure I have ever considered sins I may have committed against pieces of furniture until this moment of writing about shoving that gorgeous altar out of its rightful, central, communal place. Forgive me, blonde wood.
Of course, had you asked me two years ago if I would ever be rearranging a holy gathering space according to the logic of what a camera set to live stream over the web could see, I would have thrown holy water from our black marble baptismal font right in your face. Heck no! How dare you even dream of such a possibility. And the Holy Spirit would have had herself a good laugh. Online connections fostered the only table fit for gathering amid a terrible pandemic, albeit a digital one.
And had you also asked me, two years ago, to speculate how the worldwide Body of Christ might mobilize around such a deadly and global crisis to ensure that the most vulnerable be cared for and safeguarded and that the abundance of the planet be justly and fairly shared in a time of crisis, I would have wagered just as wildly we Christians were up to the task. Again, the Holy Spirit would have had a good laugh. Or rather, a deep, familiar groan.
That Eucharistic table stands in the center of our worship space as an affirmation of the table of solidarity of those who eat at it with all who hunger. The reason I felt that I had sinned somehow in moving this central sign off to the side was probably a gut level fear that we might also be de-centered from one of our primary callings as God’s people: to set a well-ladened table and to call everyone to the feast. St. Augustine taught that we receive from the Eucharistic table who we really are in faith: Christ’s own broken body, offered for others. But in truth, that table and its proclamation of solidarity has been tragically out of central place for a very long time. It may as well have been in the basement. Christians all over the world have somehow made peace with letting other humans starve to death.
That Eucharistic table stands in the center of our worship space as an affirmation of the table of solidarity of those who eat at it with all who hunger.
Many times I walked over the empty floor space where the altar would have been, often with the camera running. Often I was grumpy. Dismayed at the behavior of Christians in my nation who screeched about freedom but ignored their neighbor’s needs, doubtful about the efficacy of gathering digitally to share a message of grace, and hesitant to acknowledge my own hungers, I wasn’t very capable of listening to the other stories held in those floorboards.
On Sunday, May 16, 2021, we had just wrapped up another live stream liturgy. It was the 7th Sunday of Easter. At noon, a fully vaccinated crew of three or four volunteers came to help ready the sanctuary for Pentecost. The white and gold of Easter was folded and tucked away to welcome the bold, fiery red of Pentecost. Alleluia!
I had publicized that Pentecost Sunday would mark our return to in-person worship. Masks, spacing, limited singing, limited touch. An awkward return at best, but still a return. I knew that the team of practical, altar guild folks would have one major task on their list: move the altar back to its rightful place. Not to overstate things, but that table looked really happy to be back. And I wept tears of joy. Yeah, you would cry too if you finally got to put the anchor of your whole vocation back in it’s rightful place.
I’m from solid Scandinavian stock, so the skill of stuffing strong emotions is well honed. For better or worse, I chose to flee to my office and hide my tears on that Sunday. But the following Tuesday I had the sanctuary to myself. May God be praised for rare unscheduled weekdays and the slant of light of 10 AM, greeting my now freely-flowing tears through pale colored panes of glass that survived the fire of 1946. This simple, mobile, patient table, was all at once adorned by its own forbearance and backlit by a Matins glow. Is it gratitude for survival I am crying over? Is it the joy of returning to the Eucharist? Is it the evidence of so many unseen hands of faithful people over countless generations who have prepared this space with love?
Yes. Yes, to all of it. Yes to survival. Yes to tears. Yes to awkward returns and imperfect practices, to praying and preaching that God would teach us solidarity with the poor. Yes to bringing our deepest hungers to one common table. Yes to the hope voiced in the prayer of St. Augustine that we would become that which we receive: the very Body of Christ, broken and blessed for the life of the aching, table-less world.
Yes. Yes, to all of it. Yes to survival. Yes to tears. Yes to awkward returns and imperfect practices.
When the day of Pentecost came, the people gathered together around the table. We remembered the words and gestures. We sang our songs of blessing. During the announcements, someone shared that an ecumenical ministry supported by our congregation had become the primary food distribution site for our whole county during the months of the pandemic. They are located just one block south of our sanctuary. In a way, our Eucharistic table had moved even farther than we could see.
As it turns out, a mobile table was exactly what the hungry world needed.