When I was growing up, our summer vacations would almost always include a multiday road trip in our family’s brown Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon. Those extended road trips would, of course, require us to secure overnight accommodations for several nights in a row before we reached our final destination. On a good day that meant that we would stay at a Holiday Inn. You remember, the one with the green sign, the swimming pool in the back, and a Denny’s restaurant in the front. For a nine-year-old boy, that was the best possible scenario.
But it turned out my parents had a lot of friends and family up and down the entire eastern seaboard of the Unites States. And so, more often than not, we would make arrangements to stay with a family member or a friend. Now, for a nine-year-old boy, that scenario raised several profoundly important questions. Will I have to sleep on the sofa bed? Do they have a swimming pool? And, most important of all, what will they serve for dinner? I mean, at the Denny’s there was the guarantee of chicken fingers and French fries on the kids’ menu. But at someone’s home, all bets were off. You might get a casserole with multiple unidentified ingredients. You might get a meatloaf that sort of tastes like your grandmother’s basement. You might get goulash, which doesn’t sound bad, but it’s been getting soggy on the stove for hours waiting for your arrival. But whatever the mystery dinner might be, my mother would always give me the same stern instruction: “Remember, you will eat what is set before you.” These are words that have echoed in the hearts and minds of children for generations. You will eat what is set before you.
However, it was only recently that I realized that mom’s everywhere have actually taken their cue from Jesus. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is sending out seventy disciples to go out into the surrounding villages to proclaim that the kingdom of God, the reign of God, has come near. In preparation for this missionary work, Jesus gives his disciples very specific instructions. He says, “Don’t take a purse or a bag or an extra pair of sandals. Don’t even talk to anyone until you come to a house. And to each house you enter you declare, “Peace to this house.” Shalom, wholeness, and healing to this house!” If they don’t receive you, don’t worry – your peace will return to you. But if they receive you, stay there! And like a mother preparing her children for a road trip, Jesus reminds his disciples not once, but twice, to eat what is set before them.
Now, these might seem like just basic instructions. We might hear these instructions from Jesus and view them as sort of a checklist that Jesus is reviewing to ensure his disciples behave themselves and have proper manners. But I think there is something deeper going on. I think Jesus is reminding his disciples that the mission of God in the world is rooted and grounded in radical hospitality. Think about this: Jesus is sending out his disciples into the world with no means of support other than the hospitality of those to whom they are being sent. No purse. No bag. No staff. No sandals. No food. The disciples have to fully depend on the resources of others, and they have no choice but to eat what is set before them.
And I have to imagine that those same disciples one day reciprocated this radical hospitality when a fellow traveler happened to stop by their house. This is a vision of mutual hospitality. Because that’s how the mission of God grows. That’s how the kingdom of God is made manifest on earth as it is heaven. Not primarily through institutions and structures and buildings and programs, but through relationships and radical hospitality. When you read the New Testament, you read over and over again about people gathering in each other’s homes to share fellowship, to share stories, and to share a meal with one another. Not because it was just a nice thing to do once a week, but because the experience of radical hospitality was and is an icon of the kingdom of God. My friends, through Jesus Christ, God has shown us the most radical hospitality imaginable in coming among us, living and dying as one of us, welcoming and embracing us as his beloved sons and daughters. Even when we wander far from home, God seeks us out and calls us back to the table.
Over the past several years, there are many who have suggested that this is precisely the vision of God’s mission that we need to reclaim in twenty first century. In a time when more and more people are walking away from institutional religion. In a time when more and more people view the church with suspicion or even disdain. In a time when people are finding a greater sense of community at their local gym than their local church. This is the time to reclaim hospitality as an essential part of God’s mission in the world.
Now I know as Episcopalians we’re not always comfortable with the “e” word – evangelism. But what if we began to think about evangelism in terms of hospitality? What if an effective form evangelism was simply inviting someone to dinner? What if evangelism is about creating connections, fostering conversations, gathering around a table to share our stories with one another? Not because these are just nice things to do, but because they an icon of the kingdom of God. They are opportunities to speak peace into the life of another human being, to speak the shalom of God where there is pain and hurt and despair. These moments of hospitality are moments when we declare, “the kingdom of God has come near!” And so, I want to challenge you this week to seek out at least one opportunity to show hospitality to someone who needs it. To share a meal. To speak peace. To embody God’s kingdom as you gather around a table.
As I think back on those road trips as a young boy my preference may have been for the swimming pool at the Holiday Inn and the chicken fingers at Denny’s; I may have despised casseroles, meatloaf, and goulash; but many of the experiences that most profoundly shaped my perceptions of the world and of God and myself were those that took place around a family table.
My friends, every Sunday we are invited by Jesus to join him at his family table. We are invited to be recipients of God’s radical hospitality. We are invited to eat what is set before us. And as we eat, we are filled – we are filled with the very presence and power of Jesus – the One who loves us, the One calls us, and, of course, the One who sends us into his world.