The Old South Church in Boston

Who Shall I Invite?

the Rev. Canon Peter Southwell-Sander

September 4, 2005

The Great Dinner – Luke 14: 12-24

George is a self-made man – he was brought up in the East End of London. He left school at sixteen, and tried various jobs in the building industry.  He’d always been good with his hands, so he did framing, then roofing. Then he moved on to more specialized carpentry – building stairs, fitting kitchens, making cupboards. And all the time he watched what others did - how foundations were poured, how the plumbing, wiring and heating were installed; and how the house was painted and finished.

Eventually, he thought he knew enough to start out on his own. He began small, but his business grew steadily over the years; he ventured into bigger projects; he bought out some other firms. Now he’s a multi-millionaire (that’s pounds not dollars, of course). He’s moved out to Essex and lives in a big, fancy house.

George is proud of the business he has created out of nothing. But he is even more proud of his son, Billy. Billy did so well at school that he got into Cambridge University, where he gained a first class law degree. That helped him land a job at a really classy law firm in London’s financial district.

Now, at thirty, Billy is getting married. “She’s a nice girl,” George tells his mates at the pub, for he still goes down to the pub on a Friday night for a pint or two. “She’s really got class – comes from a good family. Her dad’s an Earl.”

But as is sometimes the case with the British aristocracy, they haven’t much money. “That’s okay, your lordship,” George says to the bride’s father.  “Let me foot the bill. I’d be glad to. It’d be my pleasure.”

George tells all his friends about the wedding. “I want to give Billy a real good send-off,” he tells them.
So George arranges the wedding in the cathedral. He hires a country mansion for the reception. He plans everything with Billy and Mary, his fiancée – from the white Rolls Royce to the details of the service and the reception, from the top class photographer to the vintage champagne. “Nothing but the best for my Billy and his girl,” George says.

The invitations are printed and sent out. But, to George’s astonishment, refusals begin to come in. Both families are coming, of course; but his friends, or at least those he thought were his friends, begin to offer excuses and say they cannot come. Why?  Well, each letter gives a different reason.  One says he’s just bought a yacht and has to try it out that weekend. Another says he’s just bought a holiday home in Italy and must go and see it. His rich friends all have excuses like that. Most of his friends from the past are not so well off. One says she’d feel uncomfortable coming to a wedding; she’s separated from her husband and living with a female partner. Another says they can’t afford to hire clothes for the occasion.

George talks it over with Billy: “Why are they really not coming?” Billy says: “You know, Dad, I think they resent the fact we’ve made good. They may think you’re just showing off with this wedding. I know you want the best for me - but they may not see it that way.”

“Son,” says George, “I think you’re right. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Who needs friends like that? Who would you like to come?” “Well, what about the people who work for your firm, Dad?” Billy responds. “They’d enjoy a good do – and day out – they’d love it!”

So George invites everyone – managers, supervisors, sales reps, secretaries, foremen and construction workers. “And tell ’em they don’t need to buy or hire new clothes - they can come in whatever they feel comfortable.” Acceptances pour in – but there’s still room for more. So George tells his managers: “Invite anyone connected with the firm - suppliers, maintenance engineers, delivery men, even our contract cleaners. I’m only going to have people at my son’s wedding who want to be there.”

Of course, George hopes that some of his former friends will hear about this. He hopes they’ll realize what a good do they’ll be missing and change their minds. “But I’m not having none of them now,” he tells Billy and Mary. “I didn’t want to show off to them – honest. I just wanted to give you a good send off, and I wanted everyone to have a good time.”

We all get invitations from time to time. Some we are delighted to accept – some we wish we hadn’t received, but feel we must accept – others we refuse – or even ignore.

By our presence here this morning we have, in a way, accepted an invitation - Jesus’ invitation to be part of the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of God,” Jesus said “ is like this: Someone gave a great dinner and invited many …”

Did we realize we were accepting an invitation? And what were our reasons for accepting it – for being here? “I had to come today after the devastation brought on people’s lives by the hurricane.” “I was just walking by and thought I’d give it a try.” “I’ve just moved to the area, and I’m church shopping.”

Or, if we have been part of this, or another church, for some time, what about our reasons for still being a part of it – for continuing to accept the invitation? “I love this community and am so glad to be a part of it.” “I come for the quality of the music … or the preaching (well, perhaps a preacher shouldn’t suggest that!)” “I want to be part of a community that works together for others – whether it’s raising money through the United Church of Christ for hurricane victims, or working with those of other faiths to bring affordable healthcare for all.” Or … “I’ve never really given it much thought.”

Whatever our reasons, wasn’t Jesus saying through the parable: “That’s okay. The important thing is that you responded to the invitation. You’re here.”

And wasn’t Jesus also saying that invitations have to be sent out too? Don’t we need to extend some invitations ourselves?  To whom? To those, Jesus’ story says, who really want to come, but who are waiting to be invited.  Or, to those who don’t know they want to come, but who would come if they were invited. To those who need to be assured as we invite them: “You don’t need to wear special clothes. You don’t need to know that you’re ‘saved’. You don’t need to be a particular kind of person – or live a particular lifestyle. Whoever you are, you are welcome here – at Old South (or wherever your home church is).”

How can we invite others? By looking around us – at our friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. Who have I recently invited to come with me to church with me? Who could I invite now? Who is waiting for an invitation? Here at Old South we are in many ways a church of the open invitation. Today we are welcoming two families for baptism who have accepted the invitation to be part of this church community. And they are accepting the invitation on behalf of their children who have been baptized this morning.

Did you know that is how Old South started? Members of First Church restricted baptism to those whose parents could both publicly testify that they had been saved. Some families wanted to extend a wider invitation than that. So in 1669 they founded this congregation. And today this congregation continues to extend a wide welcome. Our sign outside earlier this week proclaimed: “No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Our church doors stand open every day and a sign welcomes people in - for those who come from near and far – the door stands open. You are welcome here.

Our collective invitation reaches a new phase this week: we are issuing special invitations – to our new jazz service on Thursday evenings. Each of us can take some of the red and black invitation cards. We can give them to others with our own warm invitation. You are welcome here.

And what about normal Sundays?  Am I welcoming to strangers sitting near me? Do I fill in the Fellowship Pad as an encouragement to newcomers to do so? Do I invite them to fellowship hour? Do I volunteer for any of Old South’s welcoming ministries? (We are especially in need of more volunteers to be part of the growing ministry of welcomers during fellowship hour.) How can I say clearly to others: “You are welcome here?”

Or, if I am one of those who have recently started to come to Old South, how have I responded to the invitation? Have I made my presence known by giving my contact information? Have I begun to talk to others and make new friends?

Whether we call Old South, or some other church, our own, Jesus tells us we are always invited, and ….
there are always invitations to be extended. Jesus told his disciples the story of the invitations to the Great Dinner. He is telling us that story afresh this morning. His story makes it clear that responding to, and giving invitations, is not easy; but it is the way, Jesus says, to participate in the kingdom of God; it is the way to build the kingdom; it is the way to extend Christ’s welcome to all; it is the way we, and those we invite and welcome, will be blessed.

What could be better reasons for accepting the invitation now? What could be better reasons for actively issuing invitations and being actively welcoming?


Copyright © 2005, Old South Church and by author.
Excerpts are permitted as long as full accreditation is made
to Old South Church and to the author.

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The Old South Church in Boston
645 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116
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