"When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you." --Luke 10:8, New International Version
Marilyn Salmon, a professor of the New Testament at United Theological Seminary recently wrote about an experience she had in her classroom as her seminary students were studying the passage in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus is sending out seventy disciples two by two. In Luke 10: 1-11, Jesus offers instructions of how they are to travel and move in the world as they are sharing the Good News. Salmon asked her students to envision themselves as one of the 70 and imagine what would be most challenging about this journey.
Salmon recalls, "Many responses were predictable: not taking any money even for emergencies; no change of clothes; no food; depending on strangers for food and lodging; not being able to choose one's traveling partner; judging people who did not accept the message. But one student who had not previously spoken in my class; in reflecting on verse 8 said, "Eat what is set before you." (verse 8) There was silence, and then a bit of nervous laughter followed. But the student repeated, emphatically, "Eat what is set before you," conveying by his tone that he was serious.
When I invited him to elaborate, he told us that his father had been a pastor in a rural, very poor area in South Dakota. The family was often invited for dinner by parishioners, most of them farmers. He recalled that he and his siblings were admonished to eat whatever was served. I supposed that he referred to a child's finicky tastes or disdain for green vegetables. But he went on to say that people on remote farms often relied on whatever they could kill or catch nearby for food, even for company. He added, "We just never knew what we would have to eat." Then I understood. I recalled my father's stories of growing up in such a place during the Depression. As a young boy, he often hunted squirrels, rabbits, and other wild creatures. I could not imagine eating such things, but they did."
One of the common themes about Jesus' ministry found threaded throughout all of the Gospels is radical hospitality. At the core, this seminary student's reflection on what it means to "eat what is set before you" speaks to the challenge of hospitality, especially when we are called to be the gracious recipient.
Sometimes radical hospitality is not about what we have to offer, what we can give, or how we can control the situation. Instead, sometimes, radical hospitality happens when we allow ourselves to enter completely into the lives of others. It is about welcoming the opportunity to learn, experience and be transformed by the presence of the other. It is about eating what they have set before us, experiencing their culture, their story, their truth and to be willing to see the world through someone else's life and experience.
This type of hospitality requires us to be fully present with others. It invites us into a space and frame of mind through which we can more easily look for and see the presence of the Divine in the other. When we are able to do this, we can let go of focusing on how we would do things, what we would serve, or what we would eat; and we are more readily able to receive, accept, appreciate, and welcome the Spirit of God in others.
In most of our churches we think of hospitality as being the way we welcome newcomers into our midst. We focus on being friendly. We practice ways we can tell the newcomer what our church has to offer. We prepare for new members' classes that speak to our traditions, our history, and our practices. All of this is fine and needed, but I wonder if there is a vital component of Jesus' call of discipleship that we are missing.
Are we ready to fully enter (literally and metaphorically speaking) the homes, the lives, and the experiences of the newcomers in our midst? Would we be comfortable "eating what is set before us" if others were invited to share their customs, their practices, and what sustains them and gives flavor to their lives? Could we be willing to include a variety of flavors, tastes, and palates, not only to learn from one another, but also to grow in our understanding and to ultimately be transformed by the variety of the Divine in all of God's beloved?
Jesus sets the invitation and challenge of true discipleship before us. Are we willing to "eat what is set before us" in order to receive and practice the kind of radical hospitality Jesus is calling us to live out? If we are, I imagine our personal and shared lives in our congregations will be nourished in ways we never could have imagined.
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, Conference Minister