“Extending an Invitation”

The Rev. Dr. Seth Weeldreyer, First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo

January 21, 2024 – Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah 3:1-5, 3:10-4:1; John 1:43-51

As the movie begins, Cardinal Bergoglio speaks to a crowded plaza in a poor Argentina neighborhood. People pack between buildings, on balconies. He jokes about the soccer team he supports, knowing he’s in rival territory. He tells the story of St. Francis—inspiration for his personal walk of faith, and invitation to others listening. God calling him to repair a ruined chapel—resembling church as Bergoglio sees it, knows it in lives of those he touches, talks to right then, and by whom he’s touched in sacred reciprocity. The crowd is rapt. “Even the longest journey starts somewhere—the most glorious, often with a mistake (more about that in his own life a bit later). When you feel lost, know that God still looks for you. If everything seems broken, know that God won’t give up on you. OK?” Then he accents and extends one of the holiest practices—praying through Mary—by inviting them to share the effort. “Lots of troubles here. Not fair to leave it all to Our Lady. Who can we ask to help?” He calls out a younger man, among well-dressed friends, perched above the rest. Everyone knows they’re drug dealers. What’s your name? Lorenzo. San Lorenzo … will you pray for us? As he leaves the plaza, Bergoglio offers blessings and shares drinks. A local church bell rings and a woman bursts in to say Pope John Paul II has died.[i]

Looking for something to warm the heart on a cold, winter night recently, I watched the Two Popes. There’s good humor as Cardinal Ratzinger (to become Benedict XVI) practices flash cards of world leaders. As Bergoglio jokes with a local merchant that his stamps don’t work because he hasn’t received a reply to his letters. We see touching human connections as Bergoglio shares communion with many who would be deemed unfit to receive, jokes with his driver, and banters about oregano with the local gardener in the papal palace as he waits to meet with Benedict. You see, one way to view the movie is to get how each pope, Benedict and Francis, tried earnestly to spread good news, to connect people with Holy Love through the church. No doubt, they did with different ways, priorities, perspectives, values. Still, that desire and humility changes how they see one another and binds them together, as they keep following Jesus, accepting God’s invitation to live the way of Christ’s love.

Jonah could have used that desire and humility. In the big fish tale part of the story, he’s lost. God still looks for him, didn’t give up and calls him again. Now swallowed by the vast, hectic, bustling huge-beyond-conception enemy city, he’s like a mouse in Times Square on New Years’ Eve. He barely opens his mouth to squeak, and it’s like the world stops spinning. The cacophony falls silent. Everyone stares. Then the Ninevites treat it like, I don’t know, an invitation to the hip grand costume party no one wants to miss. Except kind of opposite the capital in Hunger Games imagination or Halloween masquerade ball. Jonah speaks and they all don sackcloth and ashes – every person from the king to lowest commoner, even flocks of chickens and herds of cows, every dog and cat! Imagine Monty Python or Whoopi Goldberg with her Sister Act having fun with this script. You see, the author of Jonah uses satire and hyperbole to make a point. If the feared nasty Ninevites can respond and relate with God so faithfully, then why not Jonah himself (who’s all petulant self-righteous having a pouty pity-party … “just kill me now!”). He sulks because God won’t throw a few thunderbolts of vengeance as Jonah wants. God is gracious, merciful, abounding in steadfast love (as we say to begin worship every week). And as God calls us all to be Jonah’s and Johanna’s sharing good news of Holy Love, here’s the question. If nasty Ninevites relate so faithfully, then for me, at least, why not see other people generously expecting a gracious yearning-for-love-in-life inclination, rather than fighting in mind a spirit of judgmental, accusatory condemnation so often hanging in the air and heart.

You see, friends, beyond personal moral perfection to get into the cloudy place, the Bible tells us time and again: God calls to live as a blessing to others in this world. To spread good news of hope and mercy. In grace to envision possibility for abundant life beyond whatever limits currently bind and confine. This is a sermon about evangelism. Which may make us shudder just hearing the word. Will you please, help me, friends? I don’t want to be like Jonah—run the other way when called to speak. We don’t like to be pushy. Nor do we believe God wants us to put our heads in the sand or a snowbank about social concerns. If we really believe, as Jonah hears and we say, that God is loving and merciful, and that people need that love—to hear it, know it practically, feel it transformatively—then I want ways to share it. Friends, evangelism doesn’t have to be bullhorn blasting on a street corner caricature. No threats of hell, twisted fantasy detached from reason and reality we rightly resist. Truth is, there are plenty of other ways we hear and say even if unintentionally: you aren’t good enough unless you do this, think that, or fit a box concocted by society or our own anxious minds and hearts. No condemnation. No, God simply wants us to start with caring human connection. Offer a loving invitation: come and see.

After Simon and Andrew, as John tells the story, Jesus calls Philip to join the journey. No elaborate doctrinal argument. No scary threat or even stunning miracle. Yet to prove he’s anything special. “Will you come and follow me?” Here’s a curious bit about Philip and about how we follow or not. John says nothing about Philip responding to Jesus directly. He goes to extend the invitation to Nathanael. So, I wonder if we ever really receive God’s grace, follow the way of Divine Love, until we offer it to others. Come and see. “To see” here really means to know deeply, intimately, as completely as I am known in the Divine Mystery. In John’s gospel more than the first disciples it’s a Samaritan woman and Mary who prove the epitome. The Samaritan woman who’s known a lot of loss in life, meets Jesus at the well. He offers her living water, tapped deep inside her, flowing to others. She drinks deeply then goes to tell others about Jesus, to offer that grace she received. And Mary on Easter morning—first to the tomb, she’s addressed by name barely above a whisper by one she thought the gardener. She gives her heart to believe the promise of resurrection as she runs to declare it to the others still locked up in fear.

I wonder who it’s been in our lives. Who has loved us into living? Who’s touched us, inspired us with something we’d call faith? Who’s tapped inside us a deep well of compassion and desire for justice like an ever-flowing stream? Who’s helped us see and believe a promise of new life beyond ashes of loss and sackcloth straightjackets of limits we’ve known? Maybe it’s a profound special turning point experience. Or maybe it’s more steady caring presence from before we ever knew any different.

Friends, whoever comes to mind, whatever memories the eyes of our hearts see, I expect it’s when we’ve felt affirmed, maybe challenged, inspired, ever valued and accepted with grace. I dare say we know from experience that fear may get our attention—pulse increases, hormones race. But grace and love always changes hearts more than critique or attack. To whom is God calling us? Who needs a sacred invitation to abundant life in Holy Love. “Preach the gospel at all times,” St. Francis urged. “When necessary use words.”

I had some fun with words this week, but looking back it was about the Spirit moving in our collaboration. I thought: what tools do we have to proclaim good news? Our signboard! So Kelly designed a slide: “Come, warm your hearts!” And Shelly braved the cold to capture the angle for our bulletin cover. That welcome gets embodied by greeters every day, volunteers on Wednesday night. We all share the effort as we give money, winter gear, birthday cupcakes to meet needs, or extend a hand and smile on Sunday to someone in a nearby pew we don’t know, or share in routine committee business always ultimately about touching someone else with new life.

I had some fun with words—inviting us to all share just before we leave, singing we are one in the spirit – “we will speak with each other, we will speak heart to heart.” Then Chrissy helped me refine “and invite all to come and see and share a servant part.” Hope it’s not too complicated and we get lost on the musical way! God still seeks us. We’ll try to insert my little creative whim between verses 3 and 4. Walk hand in hand, work side by side, then speak heart to heart. As the Spirit moves, it shows how evangelism can be ordinary creative fun much more than heavy fear-filled doom-saying. After a bit of fun with words, God calls us all to preach the gospel in all we do. What simple messages can we send with our presence like a signboard? What shared experiences can we create where people know we are Christians by our love?

Come and see, friends, that in and beyond our best justice concerns, theological insights, enduring spiritual practices most importantly and powerfully, people need to know they are loved. That’s where living faith begins. That’s how it grows. We get it most fully when we give it generously. We truly accept God’s invitation when we extend it to others.

The Two Popes movie turns on that meeting between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio (to become Pope Francis). Bergoglio earnestly wants to resign as a Cardinal Archbishop to just serve local people as a parish priest. With those stamps that don’t seem to work, he’s written letters to Benedict who must sign approval. Then Bergoglio gets an invitation, a papal summons, to come to Rome. Benedict restrains antipathy and suspicion that Bergoglio’s resignation is all a partisan protest. When Benedict was elected, Bergoglio came second in the voting—lauded as Hispanic reformer from outside Europe.

Tense conversation and accusation in the garden thaws when they spend a relaxed evening getting to know one another, with surprising things in common. Next morning, they continue in the Sistine Chapel.  The mood softens so much, respect and trust grow to the point where they open vulnerably to one another. How they’ve struggled to follow Christ, to do God’s will in the world, feeling lost, swallowed like Jonah by military dictators or Church bureaucrats. They confess to one another profound mistakes on their journey of faith. Bergoglio with the junta in Argentina, not doing enough to stand up against tyranny. Benedict isolating himself his whole life in books, ideas, doctrine more than people … rules that left him empty of the world the Church is meant to help .. and of course, allusion to the horrible clergy abuse. Again, each moved by what they believed to be right, but now see as wrong. Benedict reveals he’d been unable to see, to know, to hear the voice of God, until Bergoglio arrived. And that grace utterly changed him from defiantly continuing as pope so Bergoglio couldn’t be … to seeing, affirming, challenging that Bergoglio cannot resign as Cardinal Archbishop, because Benedict plans to renounce the papacy. And he’ll only do so believing that Bergoglio will be elected, in part to correct what went wrong in his reign. Benedict and Francis each were like Jonah in their way, imperfect, not fully proclaiming the good news with caring human connection or standing up for what’s right as God wants. Still, they tried to be like Philip, inviting friends … inviting one another as they moved from rivals to friends into the depths of Divine Love. And still Francis tries to speak to the world maybe a bit like Jonah to Nineveh.

Dear friends, I don’t want to be like Jonah at his worst running away, staying silent when God calls to share good news of Holy Love. I don’t want to get petulant and pouty if things don’t go as I plan or imagine. Will you help me? As I’ve heard many of us remark: how wonderful it is when we open up to one another and tell our stories, feel the Spirit bind us as one. Maybe Annamarie, Chrissy, and I are like Philip’s and Philippina’s inviting all of us others to come and see. Come and see, dear friends, what I believe about the power of Christ among us. God who is gracious, merciful, abounding in love for all. We aren’t perfect, still there is geyser of Divine Goodness flowing among us. I believe we are good and fun companions for the journey as we walk hand in hand and work side by side. I believe we have a good words to speak about Love and Grace in our world. And I believe there are many, many people yearning to hear good news, to share forgiveness, to find hope, to do something that makes the world a better place, more full of life for others. I believe others would join us on the journey, if only they knew, if only they heard: Will you come and follow me? As we sing it, I hope we feel it. No doom and gloom fear, no threats or condemnation. We make a caring human connection and extend a loving invitation: just come and see.


Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] From The Two Popes, screenplay by Anthony McCarten, 2019.