Eat what is set before you

Miles packed his bags yesterday for a week of counseling 8er’s camp with Hope at Bethany Hills. He didn’t pack any socks, only shorts and t-shirts and bug spray. Add a Bible and your toothbrush and you’re pretty much good to go. It’s simple. Swimming trunks? Maybe. Shorts are fine for a quick dip in the pool, he said. It’s really simple.

When Jesus sends the seventy on ahead of him it isn’t for a trip to the lake or a week at camp. It is a different kind of trip. It’s not just a break from their daily routines, but rather the beginning of a whole new way of being in the world.

It started in the towns of Galilee where at some point Jesus called together the twelve and sent them out to do what he had been doing – proclaim the kingdom of God. Now he is on his way to Jerusalem and he appoints seventy others and sends them on ahead of him in pairs. Their job is, like John the Baptist’s, to pave the way for Jesus, to go, as Luke says, “to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” And where is that? Where is it that Jesus intends to go? Everywhere: Jesus intends to go everywhere, to every nation and every tribe. At the end of Luke the risen Christ announces, “Repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed ... to all nations” (24:47). There are seventy of these missionaries, and that’s not just a random number. In Genesis 10 seventy nations are listed to represent the entire world population. The seventy messengers represent Jesus’ intention to be present to all humanity, regardless of national borders, ethnicity or culture. In the kingdom of God, there is room for the full diversity of humanity, and the full diversity of humanity participates in the proclamation. What do you pack for a trip like that?

Tim O’Brien wrote a book drawing on his memories from his days as an infantry soldier in Vietnam. The story is titled “The Things They Carried,” and it is filled with descriptions of the things the soldiers packed in their gear as they marched and fought.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.

They carried diaries, photographs, binoculars, socks, and foot powder. They carried fatigue jackets, radios, compasses, batteries, maps, and codebooks. They carried guns and ammo belts. They carried plastic explosives, grenades, and mines.

Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.

What they carried was partly what they thought they needed to survive, partly a function of rank and duty, and partly an expression of their combat mission. “They carried all they could bear,” writes O’Brien, “and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”[1]

But what about disciples? What are the messengers of Jesus supposed to carry on our mission? “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” says Jesus. In fact, carry nothing, not even what prudent people would pack for a trip—no money, no extra pairs of shoes—nothing. He strips us down to little more than nothing. All we carry is his word of peace and his announcement that the kingdom of God has come near. For everything else his disciples depend on each other and the hospitality of strangers. The only equipment we need for his peace mission is ourselves and each other.

A couple of weeks ago, on our way back from the lake, Nancy, Miles and I stopped at Cracker Barrel for lunch. It’s become a family tradition. When we’re on the road, we stop at Cracker Barrel; Miles and I eat Momma’s Pancake Breakfast and Nancy gets the hashbrown casserole, no matter what time of day it is. And we gladly drive the extra miles to the next exit with the familiar sign to eat what is good and continue the tradition. I read about a preacher’s kid who said that the most challenging part of Jesus’ travel instructions to his messengers was this line, “Eat what is set before you.” His dad had been a pastor in rural South Dakota, in a poor area with lots of small farms. The family was often invited for lunch after church on Sunday, and the young man recalled how he and his siblings were admonished just about each time to eat whatever was served. And the problem wasn’t broccoli or stringy beans. Many of the farm families relied on whatever they could kill or catch nearby for food – occasionally it was chicken, sometimes it tasted like chicken, but on many a Sunday the preacher’s kid had no idea what he was eating.

Jesus sends his disciples to every nation on earth to proclaim the nearness of God’s reign; he tells us to depend on the hospitality of strangers and to receive their gifts with humility, respect, and gratitude. Nowhere in his little send-off speech does he tell us to pack enough food to feed the hungry, or extra outfits to clothe the naked, or a spare blanket for the homeless. When we think about mission, locally or globally, we think about sharing our resources to alleviate suffering as a witness to the compassion of God. We think about works of mercy and justice, we think about giving. But in this episode from the road to Jerusalem, Jesus sends us to proclaim the kingdom of God not with the things we bring, but with his peace on our lips and our need for the gifts of others. His peace is made manifest in how we receive and eat the food of strangers. For the first Jewish missionaries that may have meant eating not only with Gentiles, in their homes, but eating their food.

The story of Jesus is built around shared meals—again and again he is either on his way to eat or eating with others or just leaving the table. He eats and drinks with all kinds of people in all kinds of settings, but there’s not a single story of him giving a dinner party. He is always a guest. When he says, “This is my body, which is broken for you,” he’s breaking somebody else’s bread. He takes whatever we bring, our best and our worst, and makes peace from it. That is the peace he sends us to carry to every house we enter. He empowers us to let go of the control that comes with having and giving. He encourages us to let go of the power that comes with determining who gets what, when, and why. He sends us to discover how the word of peace we carry in our hearts and on our lips becomes manifest when we enter the world of others—their home, their town, their country, their culture—and eat what is set before us, literally and metaphorically. He invites us to share in his mission by sharing in his vulnerability. “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves,” says the Lamb of God. He is under no illusion that his mission is a safe one. He knows he’s on his way to Jerusalem. He knows what awaits him there. Yet he continues on the way because he trusts with every fiber of his being in the faithfulness of God whose kingdom is near. And so he says to the seventy and to every generation of disciples, “Go!” Begin where you are, not where you think you ought to be or wish you could be. Begin where you are, go. Whomever you encounter, whatever house you enter, first speak a word of peace. Eat whatever is set before you. When you enter the world of another, do so without imposing your assumptions. Meet them with the readiness to receive what they offer. In receiving their gifts you receive them.

I believe that’s what the preacher’s kid began to grasp at the Sunday tables in South Dakota. Every meal is a communion, or rather every meal is open to becoming recognizable as communion, as the sacrament of God’s hospitality and Christ’s gracious embrace of all. Eating what is set before us, we can stop pretending that our mission as followers of Jesus is solely a matter of giving others something we have and they need. Instead, we can discover the nearness of God’s reign in every encounter and know it together in that moment when Christ takes what we each bring, our best and our worst, and makes peace from it.

“Carry no wallet, no bag, no sandals,” says Jesus. Carry nothing but my peace and the good news of the kingdom. Sandals will wear out and wallets become empty and moths will eat your bags, but my peace will not wear out.

[1] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, 1-9.

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