Harrowing Of Hell
January 21, 2024

Inviting Someone to Church

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

I don’t know about you, but I thought Jesus and John the Baptist were friends. That’s what the tradition implies, and yet we hear today: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the Good News {of God}” (Mk 1:14). Seems now that John has been thrown into the clink Jesus can sweep in and scoop up his disciples and move to the head of the pack as #1 rabbleI don’t know about you, but I thought Jesus and John the Baptist were friends. That’s what the tradition implies, and yet we hear today: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the Good News {of God}” (Mk 1:14). Seems now that John has been thrown into the clink Jesus can sweep in and scoop up his disciples and move to the head of the pack as #1 rabble rouser in the neighborhood. I mean, that IS what happened.

But it doesn’t seem very Jesus, does it? Which is why, when we encounter scripture that seems to strike against the Jesus we know, it is an invitation to go a little deeper.

So, let’s rethink the story a bit in search of insights Jesus may be revealing. John was arrested. John was a significant community leader. John was beloved by many and followed by quite a few. He’s been arrested unjustly and thrown in jail. That is bad news. Not Good News, but very bad news.

Jesus takes that this bad news, however, and turns it into a hook upon which to hang the story that God is present, God is with them, that the Kingdom of God is here, this near, closer than an electron to a proton… and that is Good News.

Sometimes it takes bad news to turn our attention to God. Rarely do people show up in my office when they’re feeling on top of the world. It’s more likely bad news is the impetus, and that’s OK with me, because I am delighted to talk about God at any time under any circumstance.

Anyway, there was bad news in the air two thousand years ago running along the coast of the Galilean Sea. Everyone knew about it. The incarceration of John the Baptist was just one more piece in an ugly puzzle that was being assembled by the Romans. Best to just keep your mouth shut, and go about your business.

And yet, that is exactly when Jesus makes the invitation. That’s exactly when Jesus calls out to a couple of guys fishing, keeping their heads down, doing their work, getting by day-to-day, and invites them to follow him. Peter and Andrew. James and John. And the surprising thing is they set down their nets and followed Jesus.

They were open to an alternative life experience, because, I suppose, as they saw it things weren’t all that great. A culture deeply divided, even within the Jewish community. An economy controlled by dictatorial Rome. Freedom curtailed at every intersection. Anxiety. Insecurity. Division all around. John in the clink. And Jesus shows up inviting people to experience the Good News that God is here, right here, right now. And I wonder how different are things today. Is there division, insecurity, and anxiety? How about Good News?

Some people think that Good News can be found right here at Epiphany. I witnessed this just the other evening. It was raining out, dark and cold. More so than usual. I imagine from the street the warm glow radiating out the stained-glass windows; and the choir rehearsal wafting beyond these walls; and the open door with Amanda standing there ready to welcome whoever wandered in…Epiphany seemed a sanctuary, a welcoming home for any soul.

At 5:27 pm an old friend of Epiphany came through that door. COVID had kept her away for years. She arrived by bus, her primary mode of transportation. A cold, wet, winter night wasn’t enough to keep her home.

On the bus she met a man. It was probably her sense, since she could not see him as she is blind, that he was ready for a little bit of Good News. So, she invited him to join her at Epiphany for Evensong. They rolled in through the front door, and she went and found a seat up front. He, on the other hand, felt less secure about going into the sanctuary, as he trailed behind him a wagon full of his life’s possessions and in his arms a little dog named Pepper.

Staying in the Narthex was just fine. I pulled up a chair for him. He parked his wagon by the coat rack, took up his bulletin, and worshiped God. After the service he said to me: “This is the most beautiful church service I have ever been to in my entire life; and I’m a church going man. I am surprised it is not standing room only. Thank you.” And he blessed me.

We may never see this gentleman again. That’s OK. For that one night he was embraced by the mystery and the beauty and the hospitality that called his attention to the presence of God. That is what we do here.

I recently read a survey about how new people land in church. Of these newcomers, 2% came because they saw an advertisement; 6% came because they knew a pastor; another 6% came because a stranger knocked on their door, Bible in hand, and invited them; and 86% came because a friend brought them. 86% came because they were invited.

At Epiphany we do not invite people to church, I hope, to save their soul, or to get them to be Christians, or to win one for Jesus, or to facilitate their entry into heaven when they die.

We invite people to church because we have something to share…a place that speaks of God as a present God, a loving God, an inclusive God, an interesting God, a God of Good News, where at the bottom of it all, at the very depth of the deepest darkest place we could ever imagine, on the coldest day, at the darkest hour, at the bottom of whatever abyss may be opening up under us or out in front of us, personally or culturally, there is Good News because there we will find God, every time.

That is why we invite people to church. That is why Christianity spread throughout the world. Our God is a God of Good News, Good News for everybody. Because if it’s not Good News for everybody it’s not Good News for anybody.

So, invite somebody to church. Don’t overthink it. I know you know how to do it. I know because you’ve told me all about Ted Lasso, and your favorite book, and your latest vitamin supplement, and the best place for dim sum, and your coolest workout app, and your most effective hiking socks… all unsolicited because that is how Good News spreads.

I know that sitting in these pews there are evangelists, because I have witnessed your lives! So, why not invite someone to Epiphany? I know the answer to that: because you live in Seattle. Christianity has a brand problem here. Because there’s a lot of people who for a very long time have used the Christian brand as a way of hurting people, and excluding people, and accumulating power unto themselves. So, we have a bit of a brand a problem, which gives us pause when talking about church.

And then there’s just the complexity of Christianity. What if somebody asks us a question that we can’t answer? What if we love our church, but also, are legitimately uncertain about some of the precepts and prayers and practices?

So, it feels risky to talk about church. And it feels even more risky to invite somebody to church. It feels a little reputational, like you’re putting your own personal brand on the line tying it to the Christian brand and by doing so risking your social credibility score. This is Seattle after all, and everyone has a strong opinion about Christianity, whether it is well-informed and experiential or not.

Which is why entering into a conversation about Christianity can feel daunting, and risky, and maybe not worth it… UNLESS we have a hunch that there is something to this Good News. That there may be a God. That there is a God. And at the core of this God, as at the core of all creation there is a force, an energy, a vitality that in Greek is agape and in English love.

This place that we come to on Sunday, this place–Epiphany–is a place dedicated to the practice of love, and that makes it a rather rare place indeed. This is a place everyone can come, even a guy with a dog named Pepper.

In a world where anxiety and division is ramping up, particularly as we move toward a presidential election in November, the world desperately needs places where everybody belongs; where at the bottom of the abyss we find common ground where God is present, and God matters, and love is recognized as the foundation that holds all things together.

That’s not only worth sharing, there is a necessity for sharing it, a providential compulsion that the world needs right now. How will we do this? Well, it’s like anything… we train, we practice. So, be on the lookout for the workshops and training events we are going to be doing on how to talk about church.

I don’t think sharing your experience of Epiphany can ever be done incorrectly, however, as long as you’re sharing your heart; and doing so because there’s something good here you have experienced that you want to share with somebody…just like that Netflix show you’re watching or that book your reading.

And in the same way you don’t have to know everything about that book the life story of its author, or how it was bound together, or its distribution network, or who edited it, nor do you have to know everything about Christianity. You just have to know what it means to you.

Jesus models this invitation in today’s Gospel when he invites a few guy’s fishing on the Sea of Galilee to broaden their experience of life. And, it seems, they were ready to be invited, quick to step away from their regular routines and perspectives…they were ready to be invited into a deep, beautiful, and sacredway of being in the world. They were ready for that.

And there’s somebody in your life who may be ready for that as well. Take a chance. Invite them to Epiphany.