What: this sermon
When: right now until…question mark?? (or approximately 20 minutes)
Where: 735 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, wbur 90.9 fm, wbur.org, our podcast
Why: well, to hear the Word of God in a new way with insightful commentary and explanation, or so I hope
RSVP: By staying in the pew, not changing the radio station, or not skipping over the sermon while listening to the podcast later
Invitations are all around us. I was invited to this pulpit today by our Dean Hill, asked to reflect on the word in light of our international student population here at BU. Thank you, Dean Hill for your invitation! In turn, I invited others – three of our participants in the service are international students here at BU – Eleanor Yan, who read the passage from Romans in Mandarin and English, Moises Rodriguez who read the gospel in Spanish and English, and soon after this sermon ends, Sanghee Lim, who will lead our Prayers of the People in Korean and English. I am thankful for their acceptance of my invitation as well as the help of the Rev. Soren Hessler in the extension of those invitations. Thanks to each of your for your help and participation today And then of course there is the invitation that we extend each and every week to all of you who are here or listening from far away. We invite you to be a part of our worshipping community, to hear the Word of God, to engage in prayer, to meditate on the musical offerings, to occasionally partake in the Eucharist, and most importantly, to worship God.
My role here at Marsh Chapel is to serve as the University Chaplain for International Students. Generally, when people find that out they ask what my job entails. What is a chaplain for international students? What do you do? I provide support for our international student population through pastoral care. I create opportunities for engagement, fellowship, and learning among our international and domestic student populations. I help plan worship opportunities like today and work with our interfaith and various faith student groups on campus. But mostly, I have the honor and pleasure of learning about and experiencing the various cultures and traditions present on this campus, and creating spaces for students to learn, explore, and be in community with one another. In short, my job rocks.
At the beginning of a school year, I would say that about 80% of a university chaplain or campus minister’s time is spent around the idea of invitation. Issuing invitations to students to come worship and events, being invited to beginning of the year receptions and gatherings, not to mention the running the actual events and gathering themselves. Here at Marsh Chapel we’ve hosted plenty of events and fellowship opportunities in the last week, meeting new students and welcoming back returning students. Joining them in fellowship over food, in discussion about faith, and giving space for clarity and mindfulness. Presenting them with open opportunities to interact through art, and opportunities to worship together. Our whole ministry staff team has put in hours of dedicated service to the community, often times by simply being present for a specific amount of time in a specific place. We have invited folks over the internet, over the radio, and via flyers and listings on the BU Calendar.
But perhaps one of our most effective ways of invitation was simply just being visible to others and enthusiastically welcoming them to join in our activity. You heard a bit about this last week, when the dean recounted our “greening of the dorms” activity out on the BU Beach. During this event, we stood out on the green lawn behind Marsh Chapel with small pots, paints, brushes, dirt, and seeds, inviting students to personalize their pottery and to take home planted seeds that will hopefully grow into delicious basil. What Dean Hill didn’t tell you was some of our invitation techniques. These included shouting “Hi! Do you want to paint a pot?” Or “Do you want some basil to take home?” or, and I think this may have been Br. Larry’s favorite tactic, wildly gesticulating at passers-by that they should join us by making large waving motions. The tactic worked, and most people, once they figured out what we were doing were enthusiastic about participating and conversing with us and other who had gathered around.
Not every interaction needs to be so lively, however. For example, Soren Hessler and Jen Quigley’s weekly offering of Common Ground communion on Thursday afternoons. And by every Thursday, I mean, EVERY Thursday, regardless of the temperature or meteorological conditions outside. They extend their invitation to passers-by rather simply, through a sign that reads: Common Ground Communion, Thursdays 12:20pm, Marsh Plaza, ALL ARE WELCOME. Having substituted for them once and also from hearing first hand accounts from both Soren and Jen, mostly you get a lot of stares, but usually there are a few who stop to take and eat. Through their simple sign they attract people, and have even created a small community of “regulars.”
As an expression of hospitality, invitation is the way we let others know that they are welcome into our space to share in a moment with us, whether significant or not. Invitation takes on many forms. The formal invitation, printed on cardstock, delivered through the mail. The evite – an electronic invitation sent via email. The Facebook event invite, which basically is what it sounds like. The informal invitation – which can be done in person, over the phone, or via text message. All of these forms of invitation require that the host extend the invitation, although not all require the same level of response.
There are rules about invitations. Who gets invited, when we invite them, how we expect to find out who is coming. For more formal affairs, invitations are exclusionary – only close friends or family, or important people are invited to such an event. These events generally require that the attendees are notified far in advance and that they send their response in enough time for the host to prepare for them. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the public event, those opportunities which are open to any person who happens to be in the area, and which may or may not require a response from the attendees. These events might occur at a moment’s notice and bring together a disparate group of people for one purpose, for example a protest or a flash mob.
While formal events still occur, for which people follow the rules of etiquette regarding invitations such as weddings and galas, our society has tended toward looser definitions of invitations and RSVP’s with the advent of social media and texting. When was the last time you received an invitation on paper to something? I’m willing to bet for many of you it was to a wedding, which has remained steady in the execution of formally extending and invitation (although even now, that may not always be the case). Technology makes it easy for us to be wishy-washy on our responses – it gives us to say “maybe” rather than yes or no to an event, or to choose to say that we are interested in an event without committing to going. And believe me, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing 7 “goings” and 40 “interesteds” on a Facebook invitation. What does that mean? How much food should I make. It brings to mind a campus ministry colleague’s posting earlier this semester: “Hmmm. Should I order 3 pizzas or 12 pizzas for tonight’s event? You just never know, do you?” Or about the first meeting of Global Dinner Club this semester, where we had about twice as many attendees as I was expecting, necessitating a last-minute run to the grocery store to pick up extra supplies. Ministry involves opening the door for community, but much of the time you’re never quite sure who will show up.
Today’s gospel revolves around an invitation and the accompanying customs of the time. The parable Jesus tells is in the midst of attending a banquet, a carry-over from the beginning of chapter 14 in Luke. Perhaps this is why this particular parable is left out of our lectionary offerings – it is too similar to the opening of chapter 14. This parable, like the one at the beginning of the chapter, also focuses on banquet etiquette, but does so in framing the story around a specific event rather than proclaiming general etiquette rules about where you should sit at a banquet and why. More specifically, the emphasis in the parable is on the responses the host receives from those whom he had invited first. Luke goes into detail explaining each of their excuses, framing them as the focus for this ethical tale. The first invitees, like the host, presumably have money and are at the same social level. They also presumably initially responded yes to the host’s invitation when he issued it. But, upon being prepared to receive the guests, the host is confronted with a barrage of lame excuses from them. The first two respondents are too concerned with their material possessions that they cannot attend. The first needing to survey the land that he just bought, and the second needing to try out the oxen he just purchased. It’s similar to having invited a friend to a dinner party, having them agree that they will be there weeks ahead of time, and then texting you two hours before to say “I just picked up my new iPhone 7, and I really need to test it out. Sorry!” The third response really gives no reason why, just “I just got married, I can’t come.”
Maybe you’ve been in the position of hosting a party or an event only to have a significant portion of people make excuses for why they can’t come at the last minute. Perhaps you understand why the host in this story becomes angered because of this. Or alternatively, we’ve all been in the position of making an excuse at the last minute to get out of going to an affair we’ve known about for a while. In justifying our behavior, we may assume that everyone else will follow through with their “yeses”, so us not showing up will not have any impact on anyone else. But if everyone cancels at the last minute, then the host is left without guests, and the event fails. The men who fail to show up at the appointed time in the story may feel that they have no need of what is being offered at the banquet (food and community), and therefore remain unaffected and somewhat unrepentant in their excuses.
What the host does next teaches us about the radical hospitality of God. Instead of trying to find more friends who might be able to attend, the host instead instructs his servant to invite the lowest of the low to the banquet; the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Does he do this out of spite for his friends that turned him down? Perhaps. But the host’s actions may also be out of recognizing who really needs and would benefit from such a banquet. Those who are hungry or left out from the rest of society would not turn down an invitation such as this. Or even if these new invitees have second thoughts about attending, the host tells his servant to compel them to come, to fill his house with people. And, in turn, to exclude those who initially turned away his invitation.
We could understand this story eschatologically, signifying the great banquet in the Kingdom of God and who or who will not be invited. It suggests that God’s invitation to the “great banquet” is available to all, but individuals must agree to accept it. In Lutheran or Methodist terms, that the grace of God is extended to all, but that we should not be distracted by other obligations or material gains in recognizing it. And this is an important reading of the gospel for all Christians, but we also need to recognize how this parable teaches an ethical lesson in addition to the theological points it brings forth.
But I think another way to look at this story is to see the situation as an example in present reality which is meant to teach the people Jesus is dining with and the audience Luke is writing for about proper Christian hospitality toward others. We are included in that audience. Christian hospitality requires both the host and those invited to be open to one another. Extending this form of hospitality is mutually beneficial for both the guest and the host. It calls on us to form community through our invitation, rather than to only acquire material goods. Even if material goods (i.e. the food) may be needed by those who do attend, the feeling of being connected to others and being considered a part of the community becomes what is ultimately important. In some ways, the Eucharist serves a similar function for us. It is the time when we all come together to share in a meal regardless of background or status and it anticipates the great banquet that will occur in the Kingdom of Heaven.
God’s invitation and the Christian notion of hospitality asks us to take on a radical form of egalitarianism, placing all on the same level. In welcoming the stranger, as Paul instructs in his letter to the church in Rome, and welcoming those from all walks of life, as the Gospel presents through Jesus’ parable, Christian hosts dismantle the levels of power which may otherwise exist. By extending an invitation to the stranger, we come to know the stranger as a person and care for them as a part of our community. We learn from the stranger and become fuller human beings. At the same time we are invited by God and by Jesus to rest and seek peace in them. To live as a Christian is to be both host to others as well as guest in the presence of God.
What we do here at Marsh Chapel is try to model this form of hospitality. Our stated mission is to be “a heart for the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.” Our context in an area of the United States with the highest number of people self-described as “nones” … that’s n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s…those having no religious beliefs, according to the Pew Research Center. We are also in the middle of a University setting where young people begin to question the traditions they learned at home and become more skeptical. We exist in a complex matrix of belief systems, enriched by multiple perspectives from around the globe. And despite these challenges, we send out an open invitation to all.
We, as a community of faith, are happy to meet people where they are. We attempt to embody this openness in a place that can sometimes feel resistant and cold to hospitality. To the lost and the lonely, we offer a place to be oneself and to find others. We model Christ’s teachings. We learn from our sisters and brothers from other faith traditions. We welcome all whether believer, questioner, or none. We form community, give grounding, a sense of place, and facilitate growth, personally, spiritually, emotionally, vocationally, and communally. . We invite our students to claim Boston as a home away from home where they can grow and learn from people and perspectives from a many places around the world. We accept the invitations of others to learn and develop in our understanding of the world as well as expand our relationships within the BU community, in the city of Boston, regionally, nationally, and globally
We do all these things, not for our own sake, but because of the higher cause that we serve. For as Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated in his writings while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp: “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell [people] of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”
How will we as a community issue an invitation to the world today? Will we accept an invitation from others? From God? Will we be committed to the yes that we give, or instead be “maybes” or “interesteds” who prioritize other pursuits at the last minute? The decision is ours to make. An ever-present invitation waits for us. How will we respond?
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