Picture above entitled "Compelling Invitation" depicts a wooden boardwalk stretching out to the sea surrounded by windswept grassy fields.
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
October 14, 2018
Mark 2:13-17; 6:6b-12; 10:17-31
Inviting is the word we have in mind today. It’s the first word of our mission statement, “inviting all to share in the Christian journey.”
What do we think it means to be “inviting?” It’s a nice word, isn’t it? It’s an inviting word. Something or someone that is inviting is pleasant and welcoming. It’s nice to be invited – usually better than being left off the list, and much more respectable than crashing the party. There is one thing, though, about an invitation. All invitations come with an expectation. A wedding invitation comes with the expectation that you will behave well and bring a gift. A party invitation comes with similar intent. An invitation to employment obviously comes with the expectation that the inviter will profit in the exchange of what the invitee performs and what the inviter pays. So, there’s a bit of an edge to “inviting.” In fact, the origins of our English verb “invite” are a little obscure. It comes from the French “invitation” – which in turn comes from Latin “invitare” – to summon, to call, to challenge. It’s actually a little like saying, “Bring it on!” So, at its roots, “inviting” is a little impolite, a little demanding, perhaps even a little edgy.
In the Gospels, the Greek word is klesis – but is almost always translated as “to call” rather than “to invite.” Jesus “called” the disicples. God “called” to Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam – the prophets and to David. The Greek word for the church is ekklesia – the “called out” – and being the church comes with an expectation. The call – the invitation – always comes with an expectation.
Biblical scholar Ched Myers – a native of Cascadia who reads the scripture with a prophetic justice lens – understands the entirety of the Gospel of Mark as an invitation to discipleship. What kind of invitation is this? I’ve sampled three stories from Mark as examples of the kind of invitating we should expect from the Jesus depicted in Mark – and therefore the kind of inviting we should expect to do as disciples of Jesus.
In the first, Jesus happens by the tax collector’s booth and strikes up a conversation with the tax collector himself. Funny, though, I don’t think Jesus just happens by anywhere. It’s not like it was a secret that this man, probably Judean by birth, and thus nominally Jewish by faith, but certainly not a true son of the covenant – a bar mitzvah – according to the Pharisees. He trafficked with Gentiles, and extracted the heavy taxes from the common people that funded the occupying Roman army. The empire kept the peace – meaning the domination system favored by the landowners and temple elite – on the backs of the poor.
Jesus may seem to have to just be sauntering by, but I think he wanted the religious scholars to see him engage the “enemy” and the “unclean” in their midst. So, Jesus issued an invitation. It was an odd invitation, because he was inviting himself into the life of this sinner by inviting the sinner to follow him. What’s even stranger is that when they got together, it was at the traitor’s house with an odd company of guests. There, in the home of the undoubtedly wealthy tax collector, were a bunch of deplorables – probably folks who, by circumstance and definition, could not afford to keep the holiness code. They were the very folks who the tax collectors preyed on. Street folks there in the home of the mercenary enforcer. The Pharisees must have been tailing them – peeking in the windows – tsk-tsk-tsking – almost giddy at finding Jesus in delecto flagrante. But for Jesus, it was a sign of the kindom – the here and now of the not quite yet. What kind of invitation does Jesus extend? One with expectations that the lion and the lamb will sit at table with one another.
Second, later, not quite halfway between his baptism and the last supper, Jesus put into motion the plan for those he had invited to follow him. He got to the expectation part. He sent them out – called them to go out – invited them out – to be the called-out ones – the church. He didn’t send them alone, but he also didn’t send them with seminary degrees or bibles. He gave them specific instructions. Invite yourself in wherever you go. Follow my lead. Just as I went to the home of Levi and inaugurated an instance of the kindom right there between the debt collector and the debtors, I want you to go right up to people where they live and tell them to turn around, to put down the burden of keeping up appearances. Depend on your hosts for all your needs. Invite them into your lives and into mine. Don’t be alarmed at the responses you get. There is an expectation that comes with being invited into the kindom. People won’t like it. For decades the church growth movement has been telling us we need to sweeten the message – to deliver the invitation with a spoonful of sugar. Jesus wasn’t concerned with that. At least he didn’t expect his disciples to be concerned with how their hosts responded to the invitation.
Ched Myers explains,
“Rendered a ‘stranger at home,’ Jesus is instructing his community to learn to be ‘at home among strangers.’ The suggestion is simple and clear. Where the gospel is received and embraced, disciples are to remain; where it is rejected, they are to move on. This severs evangelism from any practice of domination or conquest. How different the history of the world would have been had Christian missionaries heeded these directives!”[i]
Who knows, perhaps the disciples even knocked on the doors of some Pharisees.
In the third example, Jesus is again going along the way, this time with a sense of purpose and destiny. His progress is interrupted by someone of even higher station than the tax collector. This was a man who had many properties. He probably came by them by exploiting subsistence farmers who had lost their land through debt and punitive taxation. He was probably just fine with the domination system – those who benefit from it rarely question it. Just as he had amassed an inheritance to pass on to his heirs – in some circles then and now, one’s estate is a means to eternal life – he also wanted a guarantee that he would eternally bask in the grateful devotion of his descendants. Eagerly he assured Jesus that he had scrupulously kept the law of Moses. He probably even dropped a few shekels in the collection plate every sabbath – like Jeff Bezos doling out raises instead of changing the system that perpetuates his outrageous fortune at the expense of his employees.
Imagine Jesus, looking at him, and loving him. The love he expresses – the invitation he makes for the rich man to experience eternal life in the already and not quite kindom of God – only causes the man to leave in sorrow. Jesus doesn’t chase him down. You see, it’s like those folks the disciples visited who did not receive the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice when the disciples knocked on their doors. Jesus loved the man by inviting him to the only thing that could bring him what he was asking for. It was an invitation with an expectation. It was an invitation to turn around.
Our mission statement begins with “inviting….” It just occurred to me this week, though, that there is something missing from the very beginning of our mission statement. Do you know what it is? It’s missing a subject. There is no subject in our mission statement. It’s vague. Just who is it that’s doing this inviting? Who are we? And who are we to be doing this inviting? We may be participants in the domination system like the tax collector. Still Jesus invites us to sit down in his company and in the company of the deplorables. That is the kindom. Individually we are fearfully and wonderfully made – welcome in the company of saints and angels – fallible and clad only with one pair of sandals, without an extra tunic. Still we are invited to go out and extend the invitation to turn things around, and to invite others into the knowledge that they too are welcome in the company of saints and angels. We may be among the most privileged on the planet – well – we are among the most privileged on the planet. We are able to choose not to deal with the deepest consequences of the domination system – even if we are enmeshed in it, contributing in some small way to the redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top. Still, Jesus loves us and invites. Follow me, he says. Unburden yourself and expect to inherit eternal life, he says. I love you, and you are mine, he says. Come on in, you are invited.