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Proper 9, Year C
Isaiah 66:10-16
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6:(1-10), 14-18
Luke 10:1-12, 16-20
Meal
Preached July 8, 2007

It’s your first overnight sleepover. You’re really excited – you’ve never had the freedom of being away from home. You’re also really scared – you have no idea what other people’s parents are like. Actually, you do have an idea – you’re used to playing the ‘other mothers’ card: other mothers let their kids stay up late, other mothers let their kids eat hamburgers for every meal. But deep down inside, you fear other kids’ mothers and fathers. What do they make their kids eat? What if they say weird prayers? What if they don’t say prayers at all? What if they smoke or drink? What if they don’t smoke or drink? What if they speak another language at home? What if they – gasp! – don’t have a TV?

My mother always gave me two things just before I left the house for a sleepover. She always gave me gum. And she always recited this little bit of wisdom: Be pretty if you are, be witty if you can, but be cheerful if it kills you. In reality, pretty, witty, and cheerful is a tall order. I can sometimes manage one of the three on a given day, but all three – the hat trick – is difficult.

The seventy disciples that Jesus sends to strange, potentially hostile towns might as well be children sent on their first sleepover. They are inexperienced, they are new to the whole disciple thing, and they are quick to react with anger and violence: In last week’s reading, James and John even asked Jesus if they could send fire down from heaven to destroy an unfriendly town. [Jesus’s answer: Ummmmm, no. Today he tells them to just brush off the dust from their feets, which – I think we could all agree – is a much kinder reaction.] So what advice is Jesus sending these children on their first sleepovers? How does he prepare them for unfamiliar homes and beds and meals?

Don’t pack anything.
Don’t talk to strangers. In fact, don’t greet anyone.
Be polite. Be pleasant. Wish peace wherever you stay.
But stay in one place. Don’t go looking for a better place just because the one you’re in isn’t in the best neighborhood.
Eat and drink whatever is given to you.
Let me say this again: eat whatever is set before you.

This seems to be simple advice, right? We’ve all been told to eat what’s on our plate and to be polite and pleasant.

At its heart, though, Jesus’s motherly advice is quite a subversive take on hospitality. We’re used to hearing about our roles as hosts in the church and the world. We’re frequently reminded in the gospels and in our own baptismal promises that we should treat all persons with dignity, that we should seek Christ in everyone and treat all with loving – even radical – hospitality. Some cultures take this a step further: in the ancient Greece of Homer’s Odysseus, humans were expected to treat travelers with generosity because there was always a possibility that your guest might be a god or goddess in disguise. In any case, we like to think of ourselves as the hosts and others – all those not like us – as the guests that we feed literally and figuratively in our homes, neighborhoods, churches, and relationships. And that’s important.

In Spanish, though, the word for host ‘huésped’ is also the word for ‘guest’. And if you think about it, we are both hosts and guests in the Christian story. We hear of Christ as the bridegroom, the Church as the bride; we are the wedding guests. We hear of feasts: eating and drinking at the wedding of Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine. We are often cast in the role of the dinner guest. We hear the Psalmist’s words to ‘taste and see’ that the Lord is good. We even pronounce these joyful words just before taking communion: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast. Alleluia!”

Easy enough, right? If all I have to do is be a guest at other people’s expense – eat, drink, hang out, sleep on their comfortable beds – it seems like I’ve got it made. It’s a slacker’s dream. They have to treat me well. It’s the law in some places. Well, not so fast. Like my mother’s counsel to be pretty, witty, and cheerful, it’s quite a tall order to be the guest. It’s relatively simple to treat others well on my own terms: when I’m in control, when I’m the host and when I’m surrounded by things and people and smells and tastes that I recognize; when I get to feed the guest the food I love to cook; when we are the dominant culture and everything that doesn’t fit that culture is the ‘other’, is the guest, and when the other has to eat whatever we give them. It’s quite another, though, to be asked to be the guest. it means being out of our comfort zones, submitting ourselves to the whims of a host who may smell funny or feed us weird food. It means acknowledging that others – even our enemies – can be kind, too. And I think we all know what it’s like to sleep in a lumpy unfamiliar bed, without all the little things we require for our good night’s rest: for me it’s two pillows, but for you it might be an eye mask, or earplugs, or an iPod, or an extra firm mattress with a pillow top and silk sheets.

In Luke’s passage today, Jesus asks us to leave the baggage – all our eye masks and earplugs and iPods and hangups and snap judgments and nitpicking obsessions – at home. How else can we treat others – those stinky, strange, others who just might speak another language or practice another religion or another version of our religion – as Jesus would treat them? In other words, how can we be radical hosts if we haven’t yet learned how to be radical guests?

So how do we do this? How do we follow Jesus’s sleepover advice? In Luke’s version of this episode, the most important bit of advice is probably his repeated suggestion to eat what’s placed before us. This piece is only found in Luke’s gospel; Luke’s is also the only gospel that mentions seventy disciples instead of the normal 12. And both of these details are related: According to Jewish tradition, there were 70 world nations, so to send seventy people out means that Jesus is covering the whole world. This is also consistent with Luke’s Gentile perspective, which opens up the Christian message to all people. In Acts, also authored by Luke, we hear of Peter’s dream of eating all sorts of foods that were against Jewish dietary laws, and he interprets his dream as a sign that the gospel should go out even to those that are not culturally Jewish. So to tell these sleepover guests to eat and drink whatever is placed before them is to tell them to ignore dietary laws, pointing to a new creation that includes everyone: this new creation – to use Paul’s phrase from today’s reading from Galatians – will replace a world that divides people according to what they eat and what they don’t eat.

If I sit with you at your table, then, and eat whatever you eat, I am also showing that we are truly companions – from the Latin ‘with bread’ – despite our differences. In fact, I’ve left those differences at home with the rest of my baggage. I am showing you that even though you might be eating parts of the cow that I had never imagined as food, using new kinds of silverware or no silverware at all, I see you and me as part of the same table. As part of the same body.

In this text, then, Jesus prepares us for a new creation in which the difference between guest and host is artificial. He teaches us to see others’ languages, customs, habits, quirks, hygiene practices as things that ultimately shouldn’t divide us. As Paul notes in today’s reading from Galatians, marks of difference – for him, circumcision, but for us, perhaps gender, or social class, or political party, or education level, or age, or nationality – are not helpful when they get in the way of this ‘new creation’. If we take Jesus’s advice, this new creation means letting others be our hosts. And ultimately, it entails a bit of letting go. It means letting go of our baggage. Letting ourselves be guests that don’t pack and don’t have an agenda. After all, the reason most of us don’t like being guests is because we don’t get to be in control. And we live in a world that sends us the message that control is everything. A world that tells us we can do it on our own, that tells us to resist help from others. Being a guest is difficult because it puts us in what seems to be an inferior position. That’s the point, I think. Jesus sends out these friends to foreign lands, and asks them to let themselves be helped and fed by those that seem dirty, or powerless, or little. Perhaps for some of us it’s useful to see this passage as a request to let ourselves be children again. To let ourselves receive advice from our mothers and our fathers and our teachers, but also from those we are supposed to advise – our children and our students. And even from those who we think are unlike us. This is a command to be fed by those we are supposed to feed. What do we let ourselves learn, for example, from our Tuesday night guests? As we feed them literally, what do we let them feed us figuratively? What do we let ourselves learn from the little, marginal, blink-you-miss-‘em creatures of our world?

Jesus is also preparing his friends for another meal, the last he will share with them, when he will give them food and drink that they are probably not quite ready to eat. And so he is also preparing us, his friends, his guests, for the meal we celebrate today and every Sunday. So today, we are all guests, invited to ‘take, eat’. Just what are we invited to today? A meal, yes. But not just a meal. A feast. A party. A celebration of a new creation. You don’t need to bring a thing. In fact, please don’t. Stow your baggage underneath the pew in front of you. And most importantly, eat what you’re given. Let’s hear that again. Eat what’s set before you.

And one more thing: If you think you don’t belong at the party – if you don’t know what to wear or how to mix and mingle or how late you want to stay or if you’re not quite sure what the party means or what we’re all doing here – then you know you belong. The body of Christ is the body of the blink-you-miss-‘ems, the misunderstood, the weak, the wallflowers. In other words, it belongs to all of us:

George Herbert, 17th century Anglican poet:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

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