"The Power Of An Invitation"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 18, 2009

I Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

     Some time ago I was interviewing a couple that requested I perform their wedding ceremony.  One of the questions I asked them was, “How did you meet?”  That question frequently generates more colorful stories than anyone could possibly imagine.  When it comes to figuring out if there is a mutual attraction, sometimes potential partners are not on the same wave length.           

     This couple met in a college class they took together.  Both sat up front in the front row but across the room from each other.  The young woman watched this guy and noticed how he interacted with others, a style that radiated lots of laughter and a happy spirit.  She said that as the weeks went by she would choose a seat one row closer.  She kept doing this until she was sitting right next to him.  Every time he spoke or laughed, she tried to catch his eye.  Nothing happened.           

     Finally, she discovered what door he used to exit when the class was over.  One day she followed him and found him talking to some of his friends.  She lingered hoping to engage him in small talk.  She was successful but nothing happened.  Then he said to her, “I don’t feel like going to my next class.”  She surprised herself by saying, “Why don’t you hang out with me?”  Nothing happened.  It was as though her question did not register with him.  She repeated herself, “Let’s hang out together!”  He said, “Would you like to get some soup?”  “YES!” she said.           

     He confessed that the disconnect between the two occurred because she was so attractive and he felt that he did not stand a chance with her.   He remained blind to her attempts to get to know him and was completely unaware that she had been working for weeks to find a way to break the ice.  She said, “I have never been that aggressive in my life with wanting to meet a guy, but I had settled on this one and did not want him to get away.”           

     Most likely many couples have stories that are equally as unique as this one.  My point in telling you of this experience is to illustrate the power that can be in an invitation, “Why don’t you hang out with me?” Nothing would have happened without it. That invitation led to an engagement and finally to a marriage.             

     Our Gospel lesson today is one of my favorites because it lifts up attitudes that have not changed that much through the centuries.  Philip met a friend whose name was Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one whom Moses and the prophets said would be coming.  He is here now.  His name is Jesus.  He is the son of Joseph.  His family lives in Nazareth.”  Nathanael said, “Nazareth?  You’ve got to be kidding me!  Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Philip extended the invitation, “Come and see for yourself.”           

     This episode occurred when Jesus was inviting people to become his disciples.  Nathaniel accepted the invitation, got involved and eventually became one of the twelve that Jesus chose.  The power of an invitation is what has allowed the church to grow for thousands of years.  What we are reading about in this passage is the very beginning of a spiritual movement that has spread around the world.  

     Very few unchurched people simply walk into a church on any given Sunday morning and become involved.  They hold church life at arm’s length.  They may wonder what keeps people interested in coming to a church, but seldom would they find the motivation to get out of bed on a Sunday morning to join a group of people they may not know.   Would we do that if we were not intentionally shopping for a church?  The chances are good that when the service concluded they would go home and say to themselves, “Whatever got into me?”          

     We could take this same experience and add the chemistry of an invitation and find a far different outcome because of the power coming from an invitation.  

     For example, we find ourselves at a very fascinating and ground breaking place in our nation’s history.  Tomorrow we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The next day the first African American will take the oath of office for the presidency of the United States.  There was a very unique set of circumstances that was set into motion to make these next two days possible.  This chain of events happened because of the power coming from a series of invitations. 

     Many of us remember Ronald Reagan’s televised invitation, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!”  Gorbachev did just that.  During an interview he was asked, “What inspired you to tear down the wall?”  Gorbachev indicated that there were a number of factors, but the greatest inspiration came from Lech Walesa. 

     Walesa was an insignificant industrial worker who invited other workers of Poland to form the Solidarity Movement, a movement that changed the political landscape of Poland.   Gorbachev said, “I accepted his invitation for radical change and took steps politically to begin the process of dismantling the Soviet Union.”           

     When self-conscious Lech Walesa was granting interviews to news anchors, he revealed that it was Dr. King’s concept of passive resistance that influenced and inspired him to unite the workers of Poland.  Lech Walesa accepted the invitation to lay down all weapons and hostility as a means of evoking change and he succeeded.  Yet, what took place in Dr. King’s life that inspired such a strategy?           

     Dr. King had received his doctorate from the Boston University School of Theology and accepted an invitation to serve as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.  He was in his mid-twenties when, before Christmas in 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested because she refused to move to the back of the bus.  King did not want to get involved.  A layman came to him and said, “You must get involved!  Please show some leadership and fight this.  This is America and this double standard for white and Negro people must end!”  There was the invitation!           

     King led the boycott against Montgomery’s segregated buses.  He was arrested, his family was threatened and his house was bombed.  In 1959, he visited Mohandas Gandhi who had secured India’s freedom from England by passive resistance.   King’s future strategy against powerful political forces was influenced by Gandhi and the writings of Henry David Thoreau.           

     The one who started the chain of events was Rosa Parks who died in 2005 at the age of 92.  During an interview on her 90th birthday, someone asked her, “What motivated you to refuse to give up your seat?”  It was then that we learned that she was not the beginning of a movement that would lead to our first African American president.  Someone far less visible sowed that seed.           

     Rosa Lee Parks remembered a Sunday School Teacher in her late 70s was the person who inspired her to act.  Rosa and nine other girls were in her class.  In teaching her students that they mattered in God’s sight, she said, “I want all of you to remember to never allow anyone to take away from any of you, your dignity as a child of God.”  That was the invitation!   Parks said, “When I was told to move to the back of the bus, I remembered my saintly Sunday school teacher’s words and I did not get up.”           

     Perhaps it was the Illinois State Comptroller, Dan Hynes, who first extended the invitation to Barack Obama when he said, “I have decided to publicly announce that I intend to openly support you for President of the United States in 2008 should you run, and in fact urge you to seek the Presidency.”  The invitation was extended!   Because of that, on Tuesday another glass ceiling will be shattered.       

           Whenever an invitation is extended to us or we extend one to someone else, there is a choice that needs to be made.  The question comes, “Do we stay with what we know and where we are, or do we take our lives in another direction by saying “yes”?           

     When Nathanael accepted Philip’s invitation, he was taken to Jesus.  Almost immediately, Nathanael’s life became intrigued by the Master’s words.  Jesus said, “Here is an authentic Israelite.  There is nothing false about you.”  Nathanael said, “What made you say that?  Do you know me?”  Jesus said, “Yes, I remember observing you when you were sitting under a fig tree long before Philip invited you to meet me.  I do know you.  If you stay with us, you will experience many greater things.”           

     Think of yourselves as agents of change.   That Sunday school teacher could not have known the power in her invitation or where it would eventually lead. What does it cost us to be like Philip and to extend an invitation?   If someone responds to us, “Come to church?  I grew up in a church that made me feel guilty and a failure at least once a week.”  You could respond, “Okay, but come to my church and see for yourself.”           

     I can’t tell you the number of times I find people who remember their life in the church as a frozen memory in their background.  Something about their experience sent them running from church, never to go back to any of them again.  Perhaps there was a pastor who held a narrow, rigid theology.  Perhaps there were sermons every Sunday that were either oriented toward issues of salvation or social justice.  Perhaps all the pastor could talk about was the need for the congregation to give more money.  Who knows? 

     People who perceive their church experience as painful have also distanced themselves from what could feed an area of their lives that would provide them with an entirely different orientation toward what has been happening in their lives.  Dr. Wayne Dyer was so perceptive when he titled one of his books, “There’s a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem.”             

     What we do not understand is how God will use our invitation to heal someone’s past, or to inspire someone’s imagination to be open again to the power of their unseen world of spirit.            

     One of the things our Disaster Response Teams do when planning their trips to the Gulf coast is to invite members from other churches to go along.  This was one of those, “Come and see for yourselves” invitations.  These people came back with a renewed sense of mission, purpose and enthusiasm for what is possible for their church family.           

     Even though it costs us time, energy and money, I could not be more proud of our congregation for its generosity toward families and children during our Thanksgiving and Christmas projects.  Someone told one of our women, “It just amazes me when I hear everything your congregation does for our community.”  She said, “Why don’t you join us on Thursday, December 11 from 9:00 to 12:00.  We’re stuffing our Christmas sacks for kids.  You’ll love it.”  She came.   All Philip was doing was sowing a seed in Nathanael’s life.  That is all we need to do – God will do the rest.  Try it.  Invite someone to join you.  Tell them to “Come and see for yourself.” You just might save someone’s life from being held prisoner by unhealthy thought and emotional patterns. 


     Eternal and every faithful God, we come knowing that trusting you gives us confidence to face the uncertainty of the future.  Fortunes change.  Our parents, spouses and children leave us.  Our dearest friends move away.  Even the memory of more youthful days eventually fades from our thoughts.  What a remarkable comfort it is to know that we are always safe, always loved and always secure in your care.  We thank you for the inspiration of your calling that helps us overcome our fears.  We are grateful that letting go of painful chapters in our past helps us give purpose to them.  We appreciate how you change our failures into stepping stones and our unexpected events into life-changing guidance.  Help us to deepen our trust in you, so that every day we are prepared to celebrate life with gratitude.  Amen.


     Loving, merciful and always present God, how grateful we are for the quality of life that most of us enjoy.   Too often we take our experiences for granted.   Or, we complain and grow despondent when changes occur over which we have no control.  How often we forget that with you by our side, nothing can defeat us. 

     This week, our country will once again demonstrate to the world how three hundred million people can have a change in our national leadership without aggressive hostility.  We will show the world how our constitutional form of governing ourselves works.  In fact, we marvel ourselves at how anyone could spend a half billion dollars to be elected to an office none of us would want. 

     This morning we pray for Barack Obama and his family as they enter the White House and experience their lives becoming radically changed in ways they cannot imagine at the present.  When we look at addressing the issues facing our country and world, one scarcely knows where to start.  We do know one thing, O God; it is going to require the teamwork of all of us pulling together in the same direction.   Thank you for the gifts we possess of having hope, keeping the faith and having the courage to lead.  Inspire the spirit of our people, as diverse as our citizens are, to become as one voice.   Walk with us as we bring healing and the mending of so many fences in order to enter tomorrow with confidence and fortitude.  We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .