Everybody knows that you’re not supposed to run into a burning building, but they did anyway. Courageous souls, these country folk. A bolt of lightning fell from heaven and lit up the steeple of their sanctuary. But even as the flames danced above their heads, in they ran. Farmers lifted pews. Women scooped up hymnals. Children grabbed what they could. Finally, a group of men hefted the altar and, amidst a fiery rain of embers and through clouds of smoke, they rushed it outside. As the bonfire raged into the night, and board upon board dissolved into ash, the band of believers stood in that red Oklahoma dirt around an altar that no longer had a church.
By the time a young pastor named Chad Bird, fresh from the seminary, arrived to serve these believers, that fiery night was part of the local lore. The new church they had built in town had long housed the pews and hymnals and altar from their former sanctuary. The acrid smell of smoke had dissipated. The altar bore fresh paint. I stood before that selfsame altar, Sunday after Sunday, to offer prayers, to serve the Supper, to declare Christ’s word, to fulfill my vocation. But, for some reason, in the back of my mind, this altar always seemed to whisper to me that it had once stood under a roof of stars, in the dirt. It had been an altar without a church.
Time like an ever flowing stream has washed me downriver since those years I stood before that altar in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Wellston, Oklahoma. But it’s as fresh in my mind as if I ministered before it yesterday. And, these many years later, I think now I realize why it whispered its story to me. Why I couldn’t forget that it had once stood in the dirt. Why it had stars for a roof. I think perhaps the Lord who governs my life with an unseen hand, was ever so gently reminding me even then that not every altar sits within a sanctuary.
Every morning I arise, get dressed, and go to work as a priest who serves at an altar without a church. And whether you realize or not, you do, too. You might say that I lead a double life. I am what people see, and I am what they do not see. They see a man dressed in black shorts and a red shirt who pulls up at their place of business in an International truck pulling a 53’ trailer full of freight. They see me climb down from the tractor, use my pallet jack to move their merchandise onto the dock, visit with them while I’m working, get their signature, and wish them a good day as I climb back into the truck to move on down the road.
That is what they see. What they don’t see is a priest dressed in the white robes of the righteousness of Christ who pulls up at their place of business in an altar with a diesel engine. They don’t see me climb down from that altar and engage in a liturgy of labor in which I am but Christ’s hands and feet and mouth. They don’t see my work as an unsung hymn, my pallet jack as a sacred tool, my unloading as a sacrifice upon the altar of love. They don’t see that not every altar sits within a sanctuary.
And it is the same with you and your own double life—the life people see, the life unseen to all but God. What does your altar look like? A desk with a computer on it? A cash register with customers lining up to make their purchase? A dental chair with an open-mouthed patient staring up at you? A changing table with wet wipes and diapers on it? Where you labor in your vocation, where you serve as a baptized priest of Christ, where you are the hands and feet and mouth of our Lord to serve your neighbor in love—there is your altar, there is the place where the liturgy of daily life and the sacrifice of love is enacted.
The gifts of forgiveness and life and salvation which the Lord Jesus gives you from the altars in your churches, those gifts bear fruit outside the walls of the sanctuary. Christ goes homeward with you. You have died with him, risen with him, bear him within your own body, even as he bears you within his. You are a priest in him who is our great high priest. Sacred work you do, because it is Christ who does it in and through you. He serves the world via your hands and feet. Your altar may be a truck, a tractor, a classroom, a baby bed, a hospital bed. From that altar of your vocation Jesus serves the world whom he loves.
I thank God that I once stood before that altar at St. Paul’s. And I thank God for the story behind it, that it once stood in dirt, beneath the stars, as a reminder to me that not every priest serves in a sanctuary, and not every altar sits within a church.