Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Come and See" - The Amazing Power of Invitation

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 15, 2017

Year A: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

“Come and See” – the Amazing Power of Invitation
            Many of you know that long before I became your Rector, my wife Sue and I were parishioners here at St. Paul’s.
            And, whenever I think about the unexpected turn of events that have brought us to this point, I’m reminded of the amazing power of invitation.
            It was about seventeen years ago, and Sue and I had been married for a few years and were living in our little house over on Highland Avenue, just a few blocks from here.
            She was working corporate and I was teaching history at St. Peter’s Prep.
            At Prep, I got plenty of religion and church baked right into my job, but after a while I recognized that this was something important that was missing from Sue’s and my life together. So, I pitched the idea that we should go to church, and, I thought, the beginning of the church year, the First Sunday of Advent, would be a perfect day to start.
            Not really into it, but being a good sport, Sue agreed, and that Saturday night we went to Mass at one of our local Catholic churches, which will remain nameless.
            It was a pretty dismal experience for both of us.
            Knowing what I know now, 2017 me would tell 1999 me that it was just one service and everybody has an off day and I shouldn’t judge a whole church by one seemingly lifeless and irrelevant experience.
            But, that’s what we did. We decided this was a mistake, not for us, and we would never return.
            The following week, I told this story in the faculty room, probably making it sound worse than it really was to get some laughs from my colleagues.
            One of my colleagues laughing along with everyone else was a math teacher named Patty Nickerson, and once things calmed down a bit she said very quietly, “You should come to my church someday.”
            And that church was a little Episcopal church on Duncan Avenue.
            Somehow, I convinced Sue to give church another shot. I remember saying that, if nothing else, we’d get to see the inside of this interesting-looking church.
            So, on the Second Sunday of Advent, Sue and I walked over from our house and walked through those doors. And, our lives were transformed in ways we certainly could not have possibly imagined.
            As I’ve told you before – and like many of you the first time you came here – we were stunned by the diversity of the congregation, bowled over by the peace, overwhelmed by all of these different kinds of people who seemed genuinely happy to see each other, overjoyed to just be together.
            It felt like a dream come true, not my dream, but Martin’s dream of us living as beloved brothers and sisters, which, of course, is really Jesus’ dream of the kingdom of God.
            You old-timers who remember Patty Nickerson remember that she’s a quiet person, no street corner evangelist waving a Bible and shouting at people to repent and be saved, yet that day in the faculty room, I believe she allowed Jesus to speak through her to me.
            “You should come to my church some day.”
            As Jesus says to Andrew and the other disciple in today’s gospel lesson, “Come and see.”
            Come and see: the amazing power of invitation.
            That first Sunday at St. Paul’s we met someone who would transform our lives and become not just our priest, but a very close friend.
            He approached us during the peace, stretched out his hand, and said, “I’m Dave. Welcome to St. Paul’s.”
            Now, just like a lot of you, we didn’t dive into life at St. Paul’s right away.
            In fact, in those early weeks we skipped coffee hour. It seemed too scary and awkward to socialize with people we didn’t know.
            We were still just testing the waters.
            So, for those first Sundays we would leave through the front door, sometimes catching Fr. Hamilton’s eye, who stood where I stand today after the service. He looked sort of disappointed but in fact he was waiting for the right moment.
            When that right moment came, Fr. Hamilton did something unexpected, at least to us: he invited himself over to our house!
            We both probably looked stunned, so, in his very casual way, he said something like, “I’ll come over, we’ll talk about the church, get to know each other, but don’t go to any trouble.”
            Well, we were in a panic! The priest is coming over! So, we spent hours cleaning the house from top to bottom. Sue baked a cake.
            And, then the big night came and he came over and we told our stories and talked and laughed just like the good friends that we were fast becoming.
            After that, we started going to coffee hour, became pledging members, and one thing led to another and here we are together today.
            Jesus is always extending an invitation to us – and sometimes Jesus just invites himself over.
            As Jesus says to Andrew and the other disciple in today’s gospel lesson, “Come and see.”
            Come and see: the amazing power of invitation.
            Many of you could tell stories not so different from ours. I’ve heard you tell them, how a neighbor or a friend invited you to come check out St. Paul’s, to come to church or to a musical event or the community supper, whatever.
            Thanks to the amazing power of invitation, many of you have been enriched by discovering Jesus here.
            Your lives have been transformed by the power of God working in and through us, in and through this beautiful old place.
            As Dave Hamilton used to say, “I don’t have to believe it. I’ve seen it.”
            But, you know, I’ve learned a lot standing outside St. Paul’s for coming up on almost four years now.
            I’ve learned that people don’t believe in, or even know about, Martin’s dream, Jesus’s dream, of a beloved community.
            I’ve learned that, despite all our signs and our open door and all of our social media, despite all of that, people don’t know that they’re invited.
            I’ve learned that a surprisingly large number of people think they’re not invited because of who or what they are.
            I’ve learned that more people than you’d think worry that they’re not dressed the right way, or they don’t know the right words to say or the right way to behave in church.
            I’ve learned that a lot of people think they’ve been away for so long that they’re no longer welcome, that it’s just been too long and they’re no longer invited.
            I’ve learned that a lot of people have been hurt by the church, in some cases it’s been physical hurt but in even more cases it’s been emotional and even theological hurt, the threat that if you don’t believe the right things all the time that somehow you’re beyond God’s love and care.
            Well, we are all called to be like Patty Nickerson and allow Christ to speak through us, each in our own way, quietly invite people over:
            “You should come to my church some day.”
            We are called to be like Dave Hamilton and allow Christ to speak through us, by extending our hand in welcome:
            “I’m Dave. Welcome to St. Paul’s.”
            “I’m Tom. Welcome to St. Paul’s.”
            And, yes, in some cases, we may be called to just invite ourselves over, to let people know that we care about them and want to get to know them, that they are welcome to be part of the dream come true.
            You know, life is hard, and, unfortunately, there’s a good chance that for many of us life is about to get even harder.
            So, maybe more than ever, we are called to say, we need to let Christ say through us,
            “Come and see.”
            The amazing power of invitation.