Several years ago, my husband asked me a simple but life-changing question,
"Who eats at our table?" In other words, to whom are we hospitable?
The answer to that question was simple: the people who ate at our table were primarily our church friends. They were people who tend to see life like we do - the same religion, the same Christian denomination, the same economic class, the same education level,
That was clearly our practice, even though the Bible we read tells a very different story about hospitality, and even though Jesus gave us a very different example.
Bread is a central theme in the Bible.
Once you start looking, bread is everywhere in God's story.
In the iconic story of Naomi and Ruth, there's bread. As two hungry widows make their way in a new town, the story centers on the grain they need to make bread. So, a kind man tells his workers to leave extra grain for Ruth, the hero of this particular story. On another occasion, he invites her to dip her bread in his oil (today, we might call that a pick-up line), and when Ruth later approaches him to confirm his interest in her, it's on the threshing floor where the grain is kept. Here's the detail original readers would not have missed: Ruth, a Moabite, is an outsider! She's not the same, the same, the same as the others in the story. We get a giant hint that God invites people we don't expect to the table. (The book of Ruth)
Later, we read about another widow who has only a tiny bit of meal and oil to make one last piece of bread for herself and her son. In the story, God sends a miracle-worker to stay at her house, and with his presence, the meal and oil are replenished, providing survival. Again, here's the thing we might not notice about the story. The widow, from a place called Zarephath, is an outsider to the central characters of the story. Original readers would have realized that the table in this story was not a table of people who were all the same. They would have seen the giant hint in the story that at God's table, all are welcome. (1 Kings 17:7-6)
When Jesus comes onto the scene in the Gospels, the theme of bread is still central. On two notable occasions in Mark's gospel, Jesus takes a small offering, like a simple sack lunch of fish and bread that's enough for only one boy, and miraculously multiplies it to feed thousands. A point of the twice-told story is that on one occasion, the miracle takes place among people who are the same as Jesus and his disciples, while the other story takes place among people who are different. The repetition of the bread-multiplying stories illustrates that God welcomes all people to the table (Mark chapters 6 and 8). In example after example in the Gospels, Jesus gathers around tables with people who are not the same, the same, the same, and in doing so, he gives giant hint after giant hint that God sets an open table.
It's like God wants us to follow all these breadcrumbs strewn throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
From manna in the wilderness to the last supper, we're supposed understand God's kind of table. Breaking bread, sharing life, building community across the boundaries humans erect, is a non-negotiable for God's people.
When our family made it our goal to practice biblical hospitality in this sense, we
joyfully found that it required learning to cook
gluten-free . . . .
In the process of shopping in the organic section, detecting the kosher symbol on canned foods, and googling "halal recipes," we entered new worlds in our very neighborhood that were previously unknown to us. And through it all, God taught us new things.
We learned that eating kosher and halal required spiritual discipline that we admire.
We learned that eating local, sustainable food is a justice issue.
We started to see agrarian and ecological themes in the Bible that we had never noticed before.
We learned that the food we eat and the people with whom we eat all week long is mysteriously connected to the sacramental meal of bread and wine we eat at church on Sundays.
We learned that saying grace before a meal is more than we ever before imagined it to be.
Of course, we still invite our church friends to dinner often, but now we can introduce them to other friends too. The people around our table are no longer predictably the same, the same, the same as us. And in turn, we have been guests at tables of generous new friends of all kinds. In it all, we experience precious moments of human solidarity.
With all the problems in the world, it may not seem like inviting people to dinner or breakfast or lunch or coffee will make much of a difference, but like the young boy in Mark's Gospel, we simply offer what we have - a little lunch, a little bread.
I guess you could say we believe in miracles - that God still brings people together today through the breaking of bread (even if it's gluten-free).