It was within the final few moments of our free community dinner program that my congregation runs every Wednesday night in our church basement. This community dinner program, which attracts a wide variety of individuals ranging from college students to those with families, is not only a way for people to build relationships with those in their neighborhood. But it’s also a way for people to get a free meal.
“We have a problem,” a student said to me looking anxious as our college student volunteers were taking down tables and washing dishes as the night was over. “There are men out there who look very hungry and we don’t have any food left. “What are we going to do?”
Being able to feed people each week during our weekly dinner sometimes requires miracles. From the businesses who sponsor the meals to the students who prepare them, we had been fortunate to provide a meal to all those who walk through our doors. However, with our main dishes of meatloaf and mashed potatoes gone and seeing students begin to go home after cleaning up the dishes, we needed a miracle. And when I least expected it, we received one.
“What about all the uncooked pasta in the food cupboard?” one of the students asked me. “How about me and some of the others make Italian dinner for them?”
Quickly, three students who were headed home saw that hands were needed to make an extra meal began to turn around and start cooking. Other students went out to the church’s dining hall and began setting up tables complete with tablecloths, forks, spoons, and napkins. As the men gathered around the table, the students set their table for them. And shortly after, they brought out to them a full meal of spaghetti, salad, garlic bread, and dessert. And they did so all within twenty minutes.
I am not sure how long it took Jesus to feed five thousand with just five loaves and two fish. And while for us feeding three men a warm meal with only three students did require a miracle, it also reminded us of the important gift of compassion and hospitality and the need to never turn anyone away from the table who comes to it seeking nourishment.
Every week, when Christians eat bread and drink the cup which symbolizes the body and blood of Jesus broken for them, they gather around a table which seeks to be open to all no matter who they are or where they are on their faith journey. For the cup and the bread not only symbolizes the redemptive we find in Christ. But the table represents something which has been set for us and something we are called share with others who seek it.
“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy,” writes Henri Nouwen. “Hospitality is not to change people but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
For us, showing hospitality to the outsider, the traveler, or the stranger not only is an act of hospitality on behalf of a church or a person. But it’s an act of hospitality emulated from Christ which symbolizes our need to recognize that all people should be welcomed and loved no matter their economic or social class nor their ethnicity, age, religion or sexual orientation.
The table has been set for all of us by Christ through an act of hospitality and compassion. And for us, this is a gift and a blessing we are called to share.