As some of you know, in my 20’s I was a teacher for a year in the Central Province of Kenya, living in a Kikuyu village near the Aberdare Mountains. It often happened during my stay that I was invited to visit the home of one of my students or of someone in the Bible study group I had joined. And so I would travel over steep hills, past tea plantations and mango trees and herds of skinny cows to small concrete or mud homes, where I would always, always, always be fed.
Sometimes it was just tea and bread. But sometimes it was much more. Sometimes it was tea and bread, and then hard boiled eggs. And then the slaughtering of a chicken, the preparation of the chicken – which takes a long time, and a chicken feast. Sometimes people would sit and eat with me, and sometimes people would sit and watch me eat. And then there was more tea. Sometimes someone in the home spoke English. Sometimes no one did, which made for a long afternoon – for me, but not for them. They weren’t bothered at all, they weren’t in a hurry, and they understood visitors as being a blessing. The longer I stayed, the more the blessing. It didn’t matter whether I was hungry. It didn’t matter whether I had other things on my agenda for the day. Kikuyu culture was such that I sat and waited for the feast.
The people in the area where I lived were not wolves, snakes, or scorpions, to use the language of today’s gospel. They were incredibly welcoming and generous. But it was still hard to let myself be hosted. It felt awkward to be received in this way, and sometimes it was hard to eat the food set in front of me, either because I didn’t care for it or because I knew they really couldn’t afford to be giving it to me. It was only after several months of these kinds of experiences that I began to relax into them and grow in my capacity to let myself be hosted.
I learned a lot from my students and friends in Kenya about hospitality – not just how to offer it, but how to receive it. But I still had more to learn.
A few years after returning from Kenya, I was living outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and attending the Episcopal parish there. The priest asked me if I’d like to try doing pastoral visits to shut-ins, and he set me up to visit one woman on a regular basis. She was a soft-spoken, deeply faithful elderly woman who had a hard time walking. Just answering the door was a good bit of work for her. She was always glad to see me, and she always asked me if she could make me a cup of tea. I didn’t want her to go to any bother for me, so I always said no.
After several months, the priest called to check in with me about the visits. “How are they going?” he asked. I explained that I was glad to be making the visits, that I was getting more comfortable praying with someone. I asked, “Have you spoken with her? Is she glad for my visits?” He paused and then said, “Yes. She likes you very much. But you should let her make tea for you.”
When we think of Christian mission, we often think of welcoming people into our space – by which we usually mean our church building. That’s definitely part of it. This week we held a lively meeting about capital improvements to our building – we yearn to make changes here so that this space is safe, beautiful, and useful as we welcome people here in Christ’s name. This is definitely important.
But today’s gospel shows us another aspect of our calling that is at least as important, and perhaps harder for most of us. In this story, Christ sends seventy people out ahead of him. They take no purse, no bag, no sandals. They take no welcome brochures, no banners, no tchotchkes, no ashes to go, no bumper stickers announcing “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” They go on faith. They have nothing in their backpacks except Jesus. He tells them to go into the homes and announce the gift of peace. Then, he says, eat the food set before you.
Why? What’s the big deal about eating the food?
In the culture of Jesus’s time, Who you broke bread with mattered. Being welcomed to a meal was a sign of trust and fellowship. If these followers of Jesus were offered food, it was a sign of openness to relationship. And maybe more.
Sharing food is a sharing of self in many cultures throughout time. In some homes, it is a sacrifice – someone else might not get quite enough in order that the guest can eat. In some homes, it is a sharing of history, a central part of what a family has brought with them from another land or through generations of growing food on the land or learning from one grandmother just how to knead the bread and just how long to cook the meat. In sharing a meal we are sharing life.
And so when these followers of Jesus arrive at the doorstep, hungry and dusty, offering peace to people they do not know in a place they’ve never been, there is shared vulnerability. “Will you feed me?” they ask through their presence. “Will you receive our food?” the householder asks through placing the offering before them. “Will you let us host you?”
To follow Jesus is to follow a savior who went out to the places people were. Jesus shows up in the fields, in the marketplace, at the gate, at the well, in his friends’ homes, in the tax collector’s living room, on the fishing boat, in the valley, at the Jordan River, on the road to Emmaus. He doesn’t wait for people to come to him, but rather meets them where they are. He eats their food. He lets them feed him, pester him, ask him questions, touch him, denounce him, pray with him, baptize him, pour oil over his head, arrest him.
How about us? We who are the Body of Christ in this world – where are we? Are we willing to go out without purse, bag, or sandals and eat what is set before us?
Here are some ways some Christians are doing this:
Some are intentionally reading newspapers, blogs, and magazines from other cultures or political perspectives than their own. One leader in the Black Lives Matter campaign suggests that a great first step for those of us who are white who want to bridge the gap between races is to read the Black press on a regular basis.
Some churches are taking on the ministry of “laundry love.” A few people from the church show up at the local Laundromat and offer to pay for the laundry of five or ten people. They serve lemonade to everyone there and sit and chat with people about life while their socks are spinning.
In some churches, lay leaders are attending the open meetings of AA meetings or NA meetings from time to time, just to listen – to be present to people and let themselves be hosted by those whose lives are being saved in the church basement week after week.
In at time of rising anti-semitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric, some churches are sending delegations to attend prayer services and Temple services, simply to learn and listen and be present and be fed by others.
I think this aspect of Christian mission – being sent out to offer peace and to let ourselves be hosted by others – is especially important now, in a world where we are building walls rather than rappelling over them. We live in a time when the range of opinions most people will take in is narrowing, and our freedom to avoid dealing with difference is growing.
On this Independence Day weekend, as we celebrate our freedom of movement, travel, thought, religion – this gospel challenges us to consider: how are we actually using this freedom? Are we offering the peace of Christ to a broad range of people? Are we bringing hope and healing to those whose lives are different from our own? Are we curious and open-eared when we meet someone from a different culture? Do we wait for people to darken the door of the church or do we look for opportunities to listen, healing, and break bread outside these doors?
Now, when those seventy followers of Jesus were sent out into the villages, it didn’t always go perfectly. And some people, hearing today’s gospel, are put off by Jesus’s advice about what to do when that happens. Whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.
Well that’s a bit much, we think. But here’s the thing:
According to the story, their journeys went better than they thought they would. They didn’t come back hanging their heads. They didn’t come back saying, “Well, we wiped a lot of dust off our feet!” No, they came back with joy. They had been transformed by their experience – both the good parts and the dusty parts. And these regular people, sent out without anything other than their faith, did such holy work that Jesus reports to them, “I saw Satan falling like lightning.”
“Satan falling like lightning” – That’s pretty good! And with that encouragement, I issue you a challenge: I challenge you to let yourself be hosted this week. Find a way to travel outside your comfort zone and listen, watch, taste, and receive whatever is set before you. Then, next Sunday, join me after church to share what happened. Let’s give it a try together.
We don’t have to travel to Kenya to learn how to let ourselves be hosted. But we do have to pray for opportunities, be curious rather than afraid of difference, and trust that our Savior is with us always, to the end of the age.