In the fall of 1980, second year seminarians who were returning for classes at what was then the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, were typically pretty excited. Because our completion of the first year preaching course, Exegesis to Proclamation, meant that we could now supply preach on Sunday mornings. In 1980, this part of the state was included in the then Central Pennsylvania Synod, a synod of more than 500 congregations, that spread out to the middle of our state. And a good number of congregations that lay west of Gettysburg were without pastors for various reasons. Living in Gettysburg offered virtually no job opportunities for spouses of seminarians back in 1980, because other than Zerphing Hardware and the Monaghan Funeral Home, nothing was open in the winter months. So supply preaching offered an opportunity for second and fourth year seminarians to make some money doing something we were all excited to do. So, one Sunday in January, Nancy and I braved the snow in our 1975 VW Rabbit and drove to Altoona to preach at two Lutheran churches. You got $50 to preach at one service and 75 to preach at two, while also receiving a few cents a mile for travel. So the 250 drive meant you could take home almost a $125 … a King’s ranson for a seminarian in 1980 Gettysburg.
We arrived at a small Lutheran Church in the city, which will remain nameless … a little early for the 9AM service. As we entered the sanctuary, the Sunday School hour was finishing up, and we walked into the back of worship space where a sign noted the Dorcas Class for women was meeting. The class leader was speaking from the pulpit to about 6 women who were sitting at least 12-15 rows back in the sanctuary. What I heard were these words, emphasized by pulpit pounding that would have made a Southern Baptist fire and brimstone preacher proud:
People say we’re not friendly! I say we are very friendly! Anyone is invited to be part of this class if they want! All they have to do is come! And if some people think we are unfriendly … well, they can just stay home! THIS is a FRIENDLY class!
The story emphasizes the challenge related to our final core value of “Inviting” that we consider here at the close of our six-week sermon series this Easter season. For the act of inviting is built upon the premise that you know something about that experience to which you invite others. When you invite someone to your child’s birthday party, then you are expected to know what might in fact be fun for those pre-teens who will gather in your backyard for two hours … tow … long … hours. When you invite someone you know to join Facebook so that you can “friend them”, then you are expected to know the strengths and weaknesses of this social media behemoth that will gobble up your friend’s time with Disney Princess quizzes and funny cat videos. And when you invite someone to church … the activity to which our preaching statement for today asks your participation … you should know something about Jesus … and who Jesus hangs around with (folks like us) … and what Jesus wants us to do (the Ten Commandments are a good start). That is why the core values that have shaped our mission statement draft began with ones that describe how God loves us and shaped us as God’s children …. and then moved to those values that lift up the ways God makes us followers of Jesus …. and only now, challenge us share that experience of being a child of God with others, through the outward actions of serving and inviting.
I’m not going to ask you to answer this question out loud, because … well … I’m not the one who needs to hear your answer … (and because I think you get tired of me coming out of the pulpit and asking you questions). But the question is this … When … not “if” but when … when you next invite someone to church, and they ask you why you come to church, think for a moment about what you will say. What is the experience, or experiences that bring you here, that you would share with another person. What brings you here instead of a Sunday morning Mah Jong group … or calls to you with greater strength than your lawn which is screaming to be mowed … or feeds you in a way that Panera’s cannot feeds …. Awww, dang … wait a minute … a bunch of you do go to Panera’s after or before church, don’t you? … OK strike that last one. What brings you back … what ministries inspire you to serve … what teachings and truths help to shape the way you live your life. What happens here that makes a difference in your life. Know the answer to that question … and you will know how to invite others to meet Jesus here … and elsewhere in God’s world.
The Gospel Lesson we read this morning is from a part of John’s Gospel that is called Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” It is a series of instructions that Jesus gave to his disciples on the night before his death, as an encouragement to continue to live as his disciples in a world that may not always receive them well. Our Gospel Lesson today comes at the very end of that discourse, and is a prayer that Jesus prays for his disciples to be one … one with God … and one with each other. This oneness that Jesus speaks about is grounded in the word of God he has given to them. It is a oneness grounded in the joy we experience when we know that we are children of God. It is not the silliness that the world gets all hot and bothered about when we identify ourselves with particular groups, or state our loyalty to political parties, or define ourselves by the things we wear or the shows we watch or the stuff we collect. It is not the shallow identities we all get caught up in, identities which separate us from others and which we think make us unique and one-of-a-kind beings. The labels we wear in the world, tend to distinguish us instead of unite us. The name that God calls us … child of God … brings us together with other across the other artificial boundaries we set up between ourselves and others, and allows us to celebrate those unique differences which lift up our life as a daughter or son of God. In the end, it is this kind of community to which you invite those you will meet in the world. A community that actually has a chance to break down the dividers we erect between ourselves and others, and point to the unity of the Word of God and the joy of God which bind us all together, in spite of the differences that we think distinguish us from others.
In a moment, we will sing a hymn text that was commissioned today, as we finish our core values sermon series. Dr. Mark Oldenberg of United Lutheran Seminary has crafted it for us, and it draws together all six of our core values, that you identified as central to our congregational life. But more importantly, like Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in today’s Gospel Lesson, the hymn reminds us of how God unites us through these values and through our lives as the children of God. In the sacraments and the Word through which God comes to us and fills us with the presence of Christ. In the prayers and the praise that arise from our lips and hearts in worship And in the world into which we venture to live out what God has taught us about love for our neighbor. That is the world to which we extend invitations for others to “come and see,” That is the world for which we show our love with our gifts of our time, our talents and our treasure. That is the world that reminds us of the love of God that makes us one, and which overcomes any division … any discord … any separation that we create between ourselves and others.
You are about to sing these words as the final verse of our hymn of the day. But hear them now as a prequel to the entire hymn. … as a summary of the life to which God calls us. … as a picture of the world into which you will invite those you meet in the communities in which you spend time.
To his service Christ invites us, washing, healing, feeding all
With his flame he now ignites us, by his model and his call.
Using all we have been given to relieve our neighbor’s plight
And inviting them to live in God’s abundant life and light.
Now why don’t you go out and invite a friend to live in God’s love and light. Amen.