20 January 2008

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany: "Invitation and Information"

Jesus and his disciples were walking along one day when Jesus said to them, “Who do you say that I am?” The disciples answered, “You are the incarnational essence of all that is divine. You are the eschatological in-breaking of God’s future. You are the kerygma through which the world is interpreted. You are the source and ground of all existence.” And Jesus said, “Huh?”[1]

Information is seductive. A friend of mine just got back from a conference on healthy congregations. He said, “when [they] speak of “keys” [to healthy congregations], I get a little lost in "silver bullet" thinking. You know, if we just do these three things, then everyone will come! Yahoo!” [2] We need to know better than this. We need to understand that life is about far more than information – especially in an information-saturated environment like our own.

Here in John’s gospel we see that information is not the only show in town. What gets things rolling in John's gospel is invitation, not information; "Come and see," not "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" Both are important. Both are necessary components of the story. Both have their place within our own lives of faith. But the invitation is the catalyst for the information to take root and grow. Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, you have found us here, listening to your summons to “Come and see.” Help us to see you rightly, as the One who gave us His life on the cross. Help us to hear you rightly, to remember your promise of love and mercy. Help us to witness to you rightly, to offer the invitation we have received to others: We have found the Messiah – Come and see!” Amen.

So: how did you get here this morning? Let’s share some invitation stories, shall we?

Invitation is more than someone asking you in, or tricking you into coming through the door. Invitation is being made to feel welcome, wanted, part of a larger whole. To be invited into a faith community is to be told that you have something of the image of God within you, something that makes you a part of the body of Christ – and at the same time, to be told you’re not welcome, not invited, is in some ways a denial or rejection of that same image of God. All of this, and much, much more, rises out of these three words from the gospel of John: “Come and see.”

I’d like to share two stories of invitation with you this morning. The first happened when I was a college freshman. It was just after spring break and I hadn’t found any summer employment around my hometown. The prospect of another summer working for my dad on our family farm wasn’t really inspiring for me, but I’d just about run out of options. During the school year I was working in one of the dormitory snack bars, and one night Mike, the boyfriend of one of my coworkers came down for a burger and fries during a study break. He happened to be wearing a staff shirt from Camp Carol Joy Holling, the Lutheran church camp I’d attended when I was a kid. I asked him if he worked for CJH, and he said he had, and that he was planning to return for one last summer that year. I mentioned that I’d always thought that being a counselor there would be fun. Mike said, “Well, we’re still looking for male counselors – why don’t you apply?” He immediately went back to his room, grabbed the program director’s business card and brought it back to me at the snack bar. I called the camp, interviewed the day after I finished my finals, and two weeks later I was in staff training to be a counselor. All because Mike had seized an opportunity to simply offer an invitation. Mike didn’t know me particularly well: we’d never once had a conversation about faith or camp or anything that would have indicated the slightest possibility of my working at camp. But when the moment came, Mike allowed it to happen – he simply offered the invitation and let things go the way God wanted them to go.

The second invitation story I’d like to share with you happened the following summer. Roger, our executive director had been out among the campers that day, and he’d spent several hours at the site where I was working as a counselor. At the end of the evening, after worship was finished and the campers were heading off to bed, Roger threw his arm around my shoulders and asked, “Scott, have you ever considered ministry as a career?” To that point, I hadn’t: I was a dedicated music major with plans to become a band director after college. But once Roger offered the invitation, I couldn’t stop thinking about the ministry as a career. Again, there was nothing to suggest to Roger that the possibility was even there: but Roger sensed something and allowed the Spirit to guide him, to see how God might be at work in that moment in my life and his own. Those two invitations, and many, many more, have made me the person of faith that I am today, and I sense the same is true for you in your own story of faith.

In the body of Christ, invitation doesn’t happen by accident. Turn in your hymnals to page 1162, where you’ll find the Small Catechism. Now look at the bottom of the page, to the explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed. Martin Luther wrote “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with its gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”[3] We don’t come to any of this on our own strength or power: it is the power of the Holy Spirit that brings us here, the work of God that invites us here, just as it was the power of the Holy Spirit that brought Andrew and Philip and Nathanael and Peter and all the disciples to Jesus through one simple invitation: “Come and see.”

At the same time, the power that calls us in is the same power that sends us out to invite others to experience the same welcome and belonging that we have experienced. This, also, does not happen by accident. Just as you were called and gathered by the Holy Spirit, not through your own strength or understanding, so you can be the one inviting, calling and gathering others into the same body of Christ, through simple invitations: “What are you looking for? Come and see what I’ve found here in this place!” As you’ve heard from my stories and from your own, it isn’t the information that creates the sense of belonging and desire for community: it is the invitation that makes the information worth knowing and experiencing.

“Once a young student asked [Karl] Barth [perhaps the most influential theologian of the 20th century], if he could sum up what was most important about his life's work and theology in just a few words. The question was posed even with gasps from the audience. Barth just thought for a moment and then smiled, ‘Yes, in the words of a song my mother used to sing me, 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’” [4] Barth was a scholar whose grasp of the faith and the love of God had revolutionized the Protestant church in the 20th century. Barth was an ardent opponent of the Nazi Party and one of the most courageous voices against Hitler in the 1930s. Yet this giant of theology reminded his listeners that information alone cannot reach the human heart: without the assurance of love, faith cannot grow into the life-altering experience it is meant to be. It has nothing to do with how much we know and everything to do with how much we love and are loved in return. John the Baptist himself knew that this was so: he said, “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” John’s ministry was never about himself – it was always about inviting people into repentance and a relationship of faith with the God who loves them. And so it is for us today: invitation is the name of the game.

Audrey West, a professor at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, said that “Jesus' ministry begins not with a mighty command to silence a demon, as in Mark; nor with a sermon to the crowds who have gathered on a mountain, as in Matthew; and not with a quotation from Isaiah to proclaim his anointing for the year of God's favor, as in Luke, but it begins with a question: "What are you seeking?" What are you looking for? What do you need? It is a question worth wrestling with—as individuals, as congregations, as communities—since our answers will have a great deal to do with what we find as well as with the journey we take to get there. What are you seeking? What motivates you? What is that you really need, not just on the surface, but deep down into the core of your being? What are you looking for?[5] Whatever it is we are looking for, whatever it is we have found here, it came through invitation, through someone being willing to say, “What are you looking for? Come and see what I’ve found!” Be joyful, friends, for the invitation to which you listened today is and invitation that will fill you with love, mercy and grace to meet the week ahead of you. And when the Spirit opens a door for you to offer the same invitation, don’t be afraid to ask, “What are you looking for? Come and see what I’ve found!” As you’ve been invited, so you may invite others, and in that invitation you might find your own faith challenged and strengthened as well. God’s blessings be with you in the week to come. Amen.

[1] This is a great joke that I haven’t told entirely correctly here.

[3] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, © Augsburg Fortress 2006, p. 1162.

1 comment:

  1. Just say no to the "silver bullet!" Thanks for the mention, Scott. I am honored.