Well, I’d like to tell you about an invitation I got this year that started with my own road trip. In my case, it wasn’t anything particularly adventurous. It was more that near the end of this summer, our family found ourselves stuck in the car more than normal — all five of us driving around Massachusetts on various errands and little trips. And you know if you have kids or if you were a kid, the end of the summer is the cranky time, when your family’s seen too much of each other to be spending all this time driving around. And if you know our family in particular, you’ll know we have two teenagers and one pre-teen, and two kind of stubborn, opinionated grownups too, so that’s a lot to keep stuck in a car together, and the end of the summer, and not get on each other’s nerves.
But my wife Grace had another one of her brilliant plans that I didn’t buy at first. Her awesome parenting hack to keep our kids peaceful and engage them with some useful life skills was this. To play them these audio-recordings of long lectures by an academic researcher. That’ll do it. That was her plan. Now, it wasn’t just any academic researcher. These were lectures by Brené Brown – she’s a great storyteller, her talks are really popular. But still, lectures.
Anyway, Grace starts to play them. And turns out, of course, she’s absolutely right. Brilliant. These lectures are riveting. To everybody. Ride after ride, this or that kid asks us to turn them back on. We start hearing our kids pepper their conversations with comments about vulnerability and shame and courage. Brené says this or that. Wow – go, Momma – I did not see this coming.
So this lecture series we were listening to is called Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice. And Brené is talking a lot about the qualities that help people live wholeheartedly.
We use other verbs for this around Reservoir. Our vision statement is that as many people as possible in Cambridge and Greater Boston and beyond would connect with Jesus and with our community and thrive as a result. Thriving is one of the key words there — a life that’s full of life, deeper, truer, richer. I usually use a different word for this — so much so I’ve been teased for it I like the verb from the natural world flourishing. We had a whole series on this word a couple summers ago — this desire that our lives will grow and prosper regardless of our circumstances, that we’ll choose into deep vulnerability and at the same time deep agency that help us blossom into our best self for the world – a self of joy and love, purpose and power and peace.
Well, I think Brene Brown’s word for thriving or flourishing is “wholehearted” — this internally free and robust approach to life.
So Brené’s talking about the different qualities of wholehearted people, according to her research. And she’s telling stories, and kind of sideways inviting us all into more wholehearted living, and she says this line that stops me in my tracks.
You know that experience where you hear something or you read something and it’s like it’s spoken exactly to you, in this exact moment. It was like that. We’re driving home from some too-long errand, all five of us, using Brené Brown’s so-deep words to keep us from arguing, and she has this segment and when it ends, I pause the recording while I’m driving. And everyone’s like — come on, Dad, we want to hear more of the lectures. And I’m like — whoa, I need a break, because that was so deep it’s blowing my mind. Can we pause for a bit?
She’s been talking about forgiveness as one of the qualities of wholehearted people, how it’s hard to be resilient and grateful and calm and all these other good things when we’re gripped by our pain, or when that pain settles into resentment or bitterness. And she says, here’s the hard thing she’s learned about forgiveness, why we practically never really do it, or why we do it in a fake, shallow, moralistic way that doesn’t bring us freedom. She says she’s learned that forgiveness always involves death – it involves accepting that a person said or did this awful thing that can’t be taken back, and we can’t get back the innocence or intimacy or whatever we had before it happened. We can get some other form of it in the future, but not quite that. The bad thing happened. There was a loss, a death of something. And so part of forgiveness is grieving, naming and feeling the pain of that loss, before we can really let it go. And we hate pain, we hate to grieve, because it hurts. So it’s hard to forgive.
Bam, this hit me. Because I entered 2018 in a lot of unexpected pain from some wounds in my past, and when I told a friend of mine about that pain, and how I thought I was better, so I didn’t know why I felt all this stuff, he told me, Steve, you’ve put a good life together, and that’s a form of healing, but I’m not sure you were ever able to stop and grieve your loss. And when we don’t grieve, we can’t leave things behind. We can’t be free.
So that set me into some grieving, and near the end of the summer, there was somewhere I was still stuck in all this, and I had a sense there was another particular loss I had to let go of, some other stuff I might need to grieve, and then here comes this stranger through the speakers of my car, naming it as clear as day. I’d actually heard this line from Brené Brown before — maybe I’ve even taught it here when I’ve taught about forgiveness, but this time, it’s like Brené’s got her hand on my shoulder, looking right into my eyes, saying Steve, there’s freedom and wholeheartedness ahead of you. There’s thriving and flourishing, but there’s this loss you’ve got let go of, and that’s going to take a bit of grief.
Boom, so hard, and so good. Now I don’t know if this sounds abstract to you because it’s inner work I’m describing, but it’s been concrete and powerful for me. This one moment the lecture at the end of the summer has given me a road map for my spiritual life and inner work this fall.
It’s been my version of this thing Claire was describing, of life handing me this invitation to life — to deeper, better, richer, more — and I get to notice it or not, wave it off and forget about it, or take this invitation by the hand, and say yes, and see where it takes me.
The notion I want to explore in today’s talk is that this is a thing for all of us – that life can be this dynamic journey, that life gives us these invitations, these opportunities to get unstuck and move forward into more life. If we’re people of faith, we might even consider these invitations as coming from who or what we call God, the center of life, inviting us closer to God and into thriving or flourishing or wholeheartedness, into more and better life.
And our role is to notice these invitations or not, to see if we can put ourselves in the position to see these invitations, and to say yes when they come.
Like Claire, I call these invitations from Jesus, because my faith is that Jesus is the clearest picture of God I can see or know in this life. And because — as we’ll see today — I think this is Jesus’ way – a compulsive invitation-sender, always looking for ways to invite us into greater, fuller, more abundant life.
Today is the first of a four-week series, Your Faith Journey at Reservoir, where Pastor Ivy and I will offer, or re-offer, some of our very best insights on an abundant, healthy faith journey, starting with today’s Saying Yes More.
Let’s take a look at a teaching of Jesus that’s been important to us over the years.
Luke 14:15-24 (CEB)
15 When one of the dinner guests heard Jesus’ remarks, he said to Jesus, “Happy are those who will feast in God’s kingdom.”
16 Jesus replied, “A certain man hosted a large dinner and invited many people. 17 When it was time for the dinner to begin, he sent his servant to tell the invited guests, ‘Come! The dinner is now ready.’ 18 One by one, they all began to make excuses. The first one told him, ‘I bought a farm and must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ 19 Another said, ‘I bought five teams of oxen, and I’m going to check on them. Please excuse me.’ 20 Another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ 21 When he returned, the servant reported these excuses to his master. The master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go quickly to the city’s streets, the busy ones and the side streets, and bring the poor, crippled, blind, and lame.’ 22 The servant said, ‘Master, your instructions have been followed and there is still room.’ 23 The master said to the servant, ‘Go to the highways and back alleys and urge people to come in so that my house will be filled. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
So earlier in the chapter, it seemed like Jesus was teaching about how to behave at parties, or maybe how to throw parties, which is sort of not surprising, because when you read the Jesus stories in the Bible, you notice that Jesus is always at a meal or a party and often talking about meals and parties too. This was one of the sources of criticism he faced from some people, who said he ate and drank with sinners, as if that was a bad thing.
For whatever reason, though, while Jesus is at this party, and talking about how to act at parties, a guy stands up and gives this toast — Happy are those will feast in God’s kingdom. He thinks there’s this place called God’s kingdom off in the future sometime, he likely has some assumptions about who will or won’t be there, and he’s looking forward to it.
Jesus maybe shares some of his assumptions, not all of them, though, so he sticks with this party theme and takes it somewhere unexpected. This is a thing in Luke’s gospel in particular — Luke has Jesus emphasizing that what God is doing, and especially where and with whom God is doing it, is unexpected. And sometimes Jesus gets at this through these little stories he tells called parables. Parables are not allegories – where every character and action represents some timeless truth about God and us. They’re both simpler and more complicated than that. Parables are short, ordinary stories where something extraordinary happens. They’re meant to provoke us, to lodge in our imaginations and hang on, and teach us something unexpected about ourselves or our world or our God.
And in this parable Jesus tells, we’ve got an ordinary situation — some rich guy throws a large dinner party — maybe a wedding feast, maybe a birthday or anniversary party. But his family and friends make these lame excuses and don’t show up, and our host turns really angry. I’ve got to check out my land. I’ve got to break in those new oxen of mine. I’ve got to stay home with my spouse. Come on, people!
So our host channels his anger into a new plan – a whole new set of guests off the streets. People no one had thought to invite in the first place. People whose lives aren’t so full of new purchases. People who’ve got some time on their hands. People who won’t make excuses but would love to be at this dinner party.
This story reminds me of the most important metaphor we’ve used at Reservoir to talk about how we practice community and how we practice faith. We’ve called this centered-set faith.
The center of our faith is Jesus. At Reservoir, we welcome people of any religious background or no background at all, but we’re anchored in a tradition that says that in the teaching and life and especially in the co-suffering, sacrificial, compassionate love of Jesus, we get the clearest possible picture of the one God that is behind and at the center of all that there is and all that there ever will be. That faith is also that Jesus has risen after death and is knowable now through the Spirit of God as well.
And centered set faith says that Jesus at the center is kind of like the party host in the story — eager to invite people to good things — to more and better and deeper, and also not particularly discerning about who gets to be at the table. The more, the merrier — everybody turns out to be welcome.
You’ll notice from the picture we’ve drawn, and from Jesus’ story, that what doesn’t matter at all is how far or near you are from Jesus, whether you’re supposedly “in” or “out”. Instead, it matters whether you’re moving forward toward Jesus or not. Like in Jesus’ story, presumably a lot of people on the guest list who didn’t feel like coming to the party were friends and family. But at least in this instance, they didn’t act like friends or family, and they didn’t get the feast either, as Jesus points out at the end.
Instead, these nobodies around the neighborhood gladly come to the feast and they get food, company, honor — anything else the host is offering.
The difference isn’t religious status or any other identity, it’s just whether or not they pay attention to the invitation and whether or not they say yes.
This is why I think it’s so great that in practice, we can find Jesus’ invitations everywhere.
I caught one in a Brené Brown lecture Grace was playing for our kids. And in the wise counsel of a friend who helped me interpret my crazy emotional life last fall. I’m doing some hard inner work this year, but it’s bringing forth new peace and new freedom and new energy.
Claire heard an invitation from Jesus in the unusual circumstances of a trip she took, and the sense that she had found a new way of living to bring home. And she’s learned that now she’s put herself in the position to notice more daily invitations from Jesus, often in the circumstances and people around her.
This weekend I felt this desire to show up with my Jewish friends and neighbors at a couple of local synagogues, and then when I wanted to back out because, you know, weekends, my best friend told me I had to keep saying yes, I had to go. And that was so rich for me, and apparently a gift to my neighbors too, they kept telling me.
You’ll notice that none of these things I’m calling “invitations from Jesus” are audible words we heard or messages written in the clouds. They’re feelings and people and circumstances — the stuff life throws at us. But as followers of Jesus, we look at our lives and wonder, how is God calling to me these days? What is Jesus speaking through my life? Where is the invitation to more life?
And we try to say yes.
A lot of us have found that it’s easier to notice these things when we’re engaged in some kind of regular spiritual practice where we’re trying to connect with God, be shaped by Jesus. So Ivy will talk next week about why we’re so committed here to deepening lives of spiritual practice and formation.
But regardless of how the invitations from Jesus come, Jesus says that our part is to show up and say yes.
I was telling my boys the other week about what it was like for me when dozens of us from Reservoir showed up to a large public meeting for justice the other week, and I got to speak and offer a bit of leadership there. And I told my two boys, I wanted them to know that when they grow up, it’s never too late in life to try new things, to take new risks to try to do good in the world and to try to really be alive. And one of my boys was like: yeah, Dad, that’s obvious. And the other one was like: well, Dad, it’s too bad that grownups usually stop doing this.
Wow, so true. It’s obvious, but a lot of the time grownups stop showing up. We stop saying yes. We settle into what in the high school English classroom, we call the life of a static character — one that is kind of flat, one that doesn’t develop or move or change. The characters we love, though, are the dynamic characters – the ones that move and change and grow.
Jesus calls this dynamic life in God the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God. It’s the biggest topic of his teaching, in the story we’ve read today and in many, many others. In contrast to a kingdom like the Roman Empire, the Kingdom of God isn’t a single place with borders and armies. It’s more like anywhere on earth where things are going God’s way, it’s the spaces where people and maybe all of creation is saying yes to God’s good freedom and life.
As I’ve taught before, some modern scholars have noticed that this kingdom language is kind of archaic and patriarchal — we don’t live in a feudal age anymore. And they’ve suggested that a world like kindom — dropping the “g” and emphasizing the family of God — might capture the spirit of Jesus’ original teaching better. So I’ve taken to writing kingdom with little brackets around the (g) to remind me of both meanings.
I’ve taken a stab at defining this kin(g)dom along these lines – it’s the places and spaces and community where the life of God is flourishing. And Jesus tells us that the role of the living Jesus, the role of our ever-living party host is to keep inviting us forward – to keep inviting us into the places and spaces and community where the life of God is flourishing.
For what it’s worth, this is actually how we understand the purpose of our community at Reservoir — to have a church be a site for the ongoing Jesus dinner party. To have our church be one of many local centers for the kindom, another place and space and community where the life of God is flourishing.
We want to teach and inspire each other to keep looking out for Jesus’ latest invitations to us. We want to remind each other that Jesus is calling us to a dynamic life – to more and better and richer and deeper. We want to even find a few invitations for life and purpose together, things we can do not just on our own but in community. We want to flourish, and be people who help make flourishing possible where we go as well.
As a centered-set faith community, we love whatever connection — however small or big — people want to have to this community. One of our core values is freedom, so make of this place what you want.
But if you like this community, if you feel some life here, we hope that you can consider yourself a co-host and not just a guest here, that you can be one of the people who helps throw the party we’re offering our city. For us, that doesn’t mean signing a faith statement or promising to live by a certain code or anything. Everyone is welcome here, without exception, as a co-owner too, not just a guest or a renter.
We simply ask, we invite you, to make this community your own. So membership at Reservoir is understood on the terms of the passage we read today. A member here is a guest at the party, but also a co-host. A member at Reservoir shows up to the Jesus party — being around the community here, and looking to say yes to invitations from Jesus. A member at Reservoir treats all the guests well — committing to love and respect for others in the community. And a member at Reservoir helps throw the party — giving time and money to the community, and inviting people as you are able.
And if you like this church and haven’t yet done these things, or really said, “This is my church”, all you need to do is tell us that you’re on board. So, our membership forms will be at the info kiosk in the lobby all month. Simply fill one out and drop it in the baskets on Sunday, or give it to any of our staff, scan and email it to one of our pastors, and we’ll welcome you gladly.
So if you’re not a member yet, I’ll mention this again next week, but consider that our first invitation today.
And here’s our last two:
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Where are you stuck in life, more static than dynamic? Could there be an invitation here from Jesus towards your own movement or your generosity to others?
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Ask Jesus each morning for the attention to hear that day’s invitation to abundant life and for the courage to say yes. Listen for a moment, and notice what comes to mind.