January 28, 2014

The All-Important Invitation


Text: John 1:39: “He said to them, ‘Come and see.’”

Since last fall, at my instigation and with the permission of the Vestry, Saint John’s has been engaged in something called the Small Parish Study. It’s a research program of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and has been undertaken in collaboration with the Diocese of Massachusetts.

The purpose of the study has been to gather together representatives from small parishes that have, in the view of the diocese, “promise”—that’s the word. We are a “promising” parish. And the idea is to organize those selected parishes around identifying a single program, or idea, that can help the focus their energies on helping the parish grow—in any way the parish wants to measure growth.

Now, I’m going to say more about this, but first let me stop right here and point out the assumptions that seem to be behind all this. One is that there is a problem with small parishes—or, perhaps, that small parishes are a problem, or that small parishes have problems. And while it may be true that small parishes have problems, it is at least equally true that large parishes have problems, and sometimes, well, larger problems.

The second assumption is bound up with this notion of “promise.” If you are a promising student, or a promising artist, or a promising preacher, it means there is some potential glimpsed in you that you haven’t yet fully grown into. It means that there is still more to be discovered in you.

So having said that it seems to me that every parish has promise; every parish is “promising.” The business of selecting twelve parishes out of the one hundred and sixty or so in our diocese on the basis of being “promising” may be a kind of dangerous thing. But for better or worse, we have been seen as one of them; as one of those parishes that has not yet quite fully become what it might become.

Okay; enough about the assumptions. As I said the basic idea of the program is to help the selected parishes bring some focus and attention to selecting, and engaging with, a single project that is intended to help realize that potential. It’s to give those of us in the gathering a kind of liberty to give up thinking we have to do everything well, and focus on identifying our strengths—and translating those strengths into an idea, a concept, for the parish to claim as its own.

Our team has given a lot of thought to one thing we do really well here at Saint John’s; we build community really well. We make a community of people who feel connected to each other in a particular way, an important way, out of a group of individuals and families that might not otherwise even be found on the same bus together, let alone hang out with each other.

And in view of that particular gift of ours, we’ve centered on hospitality as our theme, as the thread from which to weave a programmatic focus. The reason for this is pretty simple: If what we do well is knit people together into faithful community, then the thing we need to do that is the people to knit together in the first place. Hospitality is the gate through which people enter the gathering where community is made.

If you think about it, hospitality is also a perfect Epiphany theme. The idea behind Epiphany season is manifestation; it’s about getting the word out, about telling the story, about shedding the light that has been lit in us.

In the stories from scripture we see that in a variety of ways. Epiphany starts with the story in which the little story of the family in the manger, a very private story, becomes a public fact, when the travelers from the East come on the scene. And it brings us the story of the Baptism of Jesus, a kind of coming-out party for this man at the threshold of his work as a teacher and healer and prophet.

Today a third Epiphany theme comes out of the Gospel story. This time it’s becoming clear who Jesus is because he’s calling people to join him in his work—he’s calling disciples. And the way in which Jesus does this is meant to be a model for us—for anyone who wants to be known as a child of God and a follower of Christ.

First of all, here’s what he doesn’t do: He doesn’t meet their curiosity by reciting a list of requirements. He doesn’t respond to their interest by testing their intentions. He doesn’t give them any gifts. And at least in this version of the story, he doesn’t even ask them their names—although of course at some point he comes to know them.

No, what he does is to answer their curiosity by way of an invitation. Where are you staying? What that means is, where can we find you? Where can we come and hear more, or see more, or get a little more information?

It’s critically important that Jesus doesn’t just say to them: I’m staying at 297 Lowell Avenue in Newtonville. You know, it’s at the corner of Lowell and Otis Street. By the Star Market over the Pike. He may have said all that, or something like that; but much more important is that he doesn’t just answer the question, he invites them to see for themselves. Come and see.

That’s a risky move. It packs a great deal of significance into a very few words. First it says that if you come, you’ll find an answer to your question. Maybe not the answer you wanted, but an answer.

Second, it makes the relationship a mutual matter. You are invited; but you need to extend yourself at least as far as showing up in response to the invitation. That’s really important. Discipleship isn’t about what the church delivers to you. Discipleship is about how you can serve God better within the community of the faithful than you can on your own.

And third, in a lot of ways it’s a mutual dare. It’s as though someone asked you where you lived, and you replied by saying, “There is a present for you at my house.” It sets before the person who asks a tantalizing possibility; but it also means that there had better be a present there when they arrive.

That is the kind of hospitality we’re called to offer. Inviting, not interrogating; welcoming, not waffling.

Now usually this would be where the sermon takes a turn into the territory of “What does this mean for us?” I’ve done the exegesis, and I’ve done the interpretation, and now it’s time for the exhortation—the things we’re now supposed to get up and do in response to the scriptures today.

But instead I want to talk about how I think we are already doing this, in important ways, how we are making this invitation. It’s not that we’ve done all we need to do; but I think we have a lot of the pieces of this response in place around us, that we haven’t thought of as a single, unifying theme.

The first goes back to the idea of collecting adjectives about Saint John’s and turning them into a word cloud. We did that now more than two years ago. We carry it around on our mugs at Coffee Hour, and we put it on a banner out in front of the church, because the sort of question the disciples were asking Jesus—where are you staying? Where can I find you?—in our day, with so many churches around and so many ideas about what “church” means, is a different question? What kind of church is this?

And our answer, for more than two years now, has not been: This is an Episcopal Church. Or even, This is a Christian Church. Or This is a liberal church, or a conservative church, or any of that.

What we did was offer some clues—in the words we chose to describe ourselves; and then we made the invitation. Come see. Just come see.

Second, we have made the place more welcoming. We’ve made the garden outside incredibly beautiful and beautifully welcoming. We painted our dismal vestibule to make it bright and orderly.

Now, all that may have happened because Rose Yevitch loves gardening and Alastair Battson loves workdays. But the reality underneath all that is that we’ve started taking seriously this basic notion of hospitality: First impressions matter. They matter enormously. And when people come into our building and see that we tend it and look after it, they get the idea that we care about what goes on here and about the people who make it happen.

Third, we’ve put ourselves out there in the terms of the culture around us. We’ve kind of given up insisting that people will find us because we are a church-shaped building, and we’ve invested in making ourselves present on the internet, and on Facebook, and—gasp—on Twitter. You may think this is froth and frills.

I thought so, too, until the last six new people who showed up here told me that they came because of what they found on our web page.

I thought so, too, until I got a very nice e-mail from someone who was concerned about my health after my little hospital adventure in October. A lot of you wrote me nice notes, too, but what made this one rather special was that the lady who wrote it lives in Canada. She’s never been here. But she came to see, too.

Of course, there’s more to hospitality than signs and word clouds and mugs; there’s more than gardening and painting, and more than web pages and Facebook. I will go so far as to say that I think we managed in the best way to live out a call to invitational hospitality last week, when we baptized a new Christian, a new member of our community, on the spot.

That is the ultimate “come and see” answer to the question, what have you all found here? I know that some of my brothers and sisters in ministry would be amazed, maybe even outraged, by that. But I am immensely proud to be part of a community that could pull that off.

We cannot be all things to all people. We can’t even be all things to the people here. But we can claim the gifts that God has given us, and we can choose to show our appreciation for those gifts by building on them in ways that help us make the most of them.

We have received the gift of building community, of caring for the people who become part of this gathering. We can build intentionally on that gift by being a place of hospitality, of being a congregation made up of welcomers and ushers. We have done that, and I pray we may continue to do that, in response to the good gifts God has given us. Come and see. Amen.