Apple Valley Dreams: Invitational
Last week I started sharing with you my dreams for our congregation. Do you remember the first one? Yes, I hope we will be a prayerful people – a deeply and thoughtfully and powerfully prayerful people! A second dream I have for you shouldn’t be too surprising: I dream of an Apple Valley that is full of invitational people. I want us to be inviting. This shouldn’t be surprising, because I’ve given you homework assignments before – invite someone to church – and at Advent and Lent I’ve handed out cards about our worship times for you to use to invite others to church, and I’m constantly asking you to share our facebook event invitations with others for whatever we’ve got going on in the community. So I’m sure you’re not too surprised that I think a lot about us being an invitational people.
But today I want to tell you about my big dreams about being invitational, and why it is so important to me. When we talk about being inviting or invitational, we say this in a few ways. One way of being inviting is in the sense of being appealing, welcoming. We might say that a room looks inviting if it looks comfortable and warm and like you’d want to spend a lot of time there. And so sometimes we think about our churches being inviting in this way – how does our space look? How easy is it for people to come to worship here? If they visit, will they stay? Will they come back? Will people be able to find important things like the sanctuary, and the snacks, and the restrooms? Part of the focus of being inviting as a church is on being welcoming, offering hospitality. The scriptures, particularly the Old Testament writings, stress the importance of being welcoming to the stranger, the foreigner. God reminds the people again and again to welcome others because the Israelites, too, were once strangers, and relied on the welcome of others. They were meant to remember what it was like to need a warm, hospitable welcome. People were commanded to welcome whoever might show up at their door needing shelter, whether they were family, friends, or complete strangers. And people also had a sense that in welcoming others, they were possibly welcoming God into their homes, entertaining the divine in disguise. They had to be welcoming, because you never knew when God might show up at your house for a stay.
At Annual Conference this year, Bev and Dot attending a workshop on being A Welcoming Congregation, and I know that they have things to share with us from that experience. For example, you can set up a “mystery guest” to come to worship and then give feedback: did people say hello? Introduce themselves? Sit with them at coffee hour? Complain that a newcomer was sitting in their pew? We implemented this program at one of my former congregations, and learned a lot about what kind of first impression we made.
So, one part of inviting is thinking about drawing people in. But that’s just a piece. If that’s the only way in which we seek to be an invitational congregation, I just get this picture stuck in my head of a Venus Flytrap. Do you know what that is? It’s a carnivorous plant, a predator plant. But obviously, plants can’t get up and move to catch flies! So, they try to look very alluring and inviting, bright and eye-catching, and then snap, they’ve caught their dinner! Most of the time, though, the plant just has to wait, and wait, for someone to come by. It’s a very passive way of being invitational. And as I look at the life and example of Jesus, I’m reminded that there’s nothing passive, nothing “sit back and wait” style about how he practiced being invitational.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus is on the move, going into new places and into homes and into neighborhoods that were considered “shady” and among people who were considered sinners and outcasts and rejects and unclean, and Jesus was even on the move among the wealthy and elite and the scholarly. And everywhere he went, he was inviting people, offering hospitality, even though he wasn’t the one at home, but the one who was the guest. Jesus carried his welcome with him, and from nearly his first interaction in the gospels, he’s calling disciples: “Come, follow me.” And he just keeps on inviting people.
That’s what we see happening in our gospel lesson today. This is story that is etched on my brain from childhood, when we sang about Zacchaeus climbing the tree to see Jesus, complete with hand motions. Jesus is passing through Jericho, and a crowd is pressing in on Jesus, as usual, including a wealthy man, a chief tax-collector named Zacchaeus. Tax collectors were despised – more so than we might joke about IRS agents today – but despised because they were Jewish people working for the Roman government, who was the occupying force controlling the lives of the Israelites. So Zacchaeus and other tax collectors were essentially working for the enemy for their own financial gain. Zacchaeus, we read, is short in stature, so he climbs a sycamore tree so he can get a look at Jesus. We don’t know what his reason for wanting to see him was – if he was curious, or wanted to keep an eye on him, or was interested in his message. But Jesus spots Zacchaeus immediately, and calls out to him. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus has just invited himself over. And Zacchaeus responds with joy, happy to be able to welcome Jesus. Others start grumbling though, upset that Jesus is going to eat with a sinner. Such an action would make Jesus ritually unclean, but the real issue is simply that people look down on Zacchaeus, and they can’t believe Jesus would associate with such a lowlife. Zacchaeus seems unfazed, no doubt use to such grumbling. But he looks only at Jesus, and offers to give half of his possessions to the poor, and offers to payback fourfold anyone he’s wronged. It’s above and beyond the requirement of the law, by far. But this is the impact Jesus’ invitation has on Zacchaeus. It changes him. It changes everything. And Jesus says to him that salvation has come to Zacchaeus, and that Jesus’ purpose is to “seek out and to save the lost.”
When Jesus tells us a piece of his purpose, part of what it is he came into the world to do, I think our best strategy is to help in that task. We don’t have to do the saving part – Jesus has that covered. But seeking after the lost? That’s what it means to be invitational.
Whatever Jesus says he came to do, our best plan it to help Jesus in that task. That means to seek out others, not for us to save, but for Jesus to save. My dream is for us to be more and more like Jesus in the way we move in the world. I don’t mean we have to travel from town to town. But I mean that I dream that our impulse is to seek those who are lost, who are on the fringes, who’ve been hurt or excluded or others have written off, who people consider in some way beyond redemption – I dream of us being people who see and seek and invite and love and share God with those whom we encounter.
My dream for Apple Valley is that we keep asking ourselves, with whom can we share this? How can we share it? When we think about our church and inviting, inviting, inviting people, I’m not compelled by asking people to come to church because we are worried about surviving. Surviving is not a very inspiring dream. I don’t remember one single time Jesus talked about simply “continuing to exist.” My dream is that we’re invitational people because what we experience of God’s love is too good not to share. Too hard to contain, and keep to ourselves. This spring I read a book called Exponential by Dave and Jon Ferguson. They’re church planters who function on the principle of multiplying everything they do in ministry. If you start a small group, you immediately identify a leader in the small group who will eventually form a second small group. If you find a gifted worship leader or musician, that person immediately starts to find another gifted worship leader to be an apprentice. Each pastor is always mentoring someone else to be a pastor. Each disciple is always seeking a group of disciples to guide. There’re parts of the book that frustrate me, but the way they write is so full of enthusiasm and joy and confidence that I couldn’t help but imagine what Apple Valley would be like if every time we had a Bible Study, the expectation was that some person in the group would be preparing to teach one of their own with different people, or if every lay leader was recruiting another person to become a lay leader and every new worshipper was immediately sharing the good news with someone else, because it was all too good not to share, about this God who seeks and seeks and seeks after the lost and broken-hearted.
I dream of being invitational people. And I think we can do it. And I want to be clear – sometimes we confuse being invitational with being extroverted, door-to-door type people, charismatic, bold people, and those of us who are shy and reserved start to panic. I get that. Since I’m up in front all the time, people often assume I’m a confident extrovert, but I’m actually very shy in social settings. I think of my Uncle Bill, pastor and district superintendent, who I hope to get here to meet you all someday, and he’s pretty incredible to watch in action. He’s about 150% extrovert, and he’s charismatic, and people just follow his lead. We’re lucky he uses his powers for good, because he’s a charmer! And he just can’t stop inviting people to follow Jesus. He talks to everybody everywhere we go. That is one way to be invitational. Maybe it is your way. But I think, too, about my grandpa, my Uncle Bill’s father, my mom’s father. He was a much quieter kind of guy than my uncle. Not shy, but quieter. But he always wore this clip on his sweaters that said “Jesus loves me.” Pretty much always. He went through so many of them though. He worked after he was “retired” as a gas station attendant. You might think that was a “nothing” kind of job, but he loved it, like he loved most everything about life, and he made it something special. If people asked about his clip, he’d hand it over to them. A small gesture of the big love he wanted to communicate.
All of us can share God’s love. All of us can be invitational. All of us can value the lost and look at people through Jesus’ eyes. Some of you might remember filling out some time ago an information sheet for me called, “Apple Valley is Talented.” I asked you questions about what you were good at and what you liked doing. I asked you about whether you liked to read scripture in worship or if you played an instrument or if you would be in skits during worship if we had them. And I asked you one question that might have seemed a bit strange: I asked you to tell me about the last thing you invited someone to do with you. When did you last ask someone to come with you to something? What was it? Here’s how you responded: You invited someone to go to dinner, to go for a bike ride, to go to the movies, to have a girls night, to go out to lunch, to drive together to a work function, to go on a house tour, to come over for dinner, to hang out together, to knit together, to go to the theatre together, to go to Buttermilk Falls, to go on a Senior Citizens trip to the Catskill Mountains, to come meet a new nephew, to attend a concert, and yes, even to go to church or Bible Study. I asked you this question in part, so I could share with you all what I think you might doubt: You are already an invitational people. You know how to invite people to do something! You invite people to do things all the time! My dream is that we channel what we already know how to do. That we make it a part of our discipleship. That we remind ourselves that we’ve experienced something, or are learning to know something in our walk with Jesus that’s too good to keep to ourselves. And that we seek out the people who most need to receive an invitation. We need company in our faith walk. We need companions on the journey. And there’s a world around us, just waiting to be asked. Amen.