Sermon: Invitational Leadership

A sermon, based upon one preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison in 2011 to a United Reformed Church congregation in Essex, at a service where Elders were beginning a new period of service.

 In the URC the Elders Meeting – Minister and elders elected by the congregation – collectively ‘exercise oversight of the spiritual life of the Local Church’ (URC Manual)

Matthew 22: 1-14 (Isaiah 25: 1-9, Psalm 23)

“The king was enraged [by having his invitation spurned and by the mistreatment of his servants]. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” (22: 7) I do hope that you are not taking the king’s response here as a role model for how United Reformed Church Elders should carry out their leadership tasks: “turn up for Church Meeting, you lot, or else”. All the same, this peculiar story – and it is one of Jesus’ stranger ones – does say something to us concerning leadership in the church, and what the church is here for today.

Sometimes this parable has been interpreted as being about the relationship between Christians and Jews. The theory goes something like this: those who first receive an invitation to the son’s wedding have their chance but reject it and so in turn are rejected by the king. Then a second group receive and accept the invitation, happily entering into the wedding feast … as long as they are dressed correctly. Some Christians have interpreted the story to put the Jews in the first group and Christians in the second. Beware of that interpretation, and not only because of its use to justify those who have done terrible things to Jews.

We should always be wary of interpreting parables to put us in the right and others in the wrong, no matter how convenient or comforting that might be for us. Specifically, I don’t see how a parable told by a Jew (Jesus) to other Jews could be intended to have such a meaning. In fact, Jesus is not only telling this as a story amongst Jews, he is telling it in response to a particular group among the Jews of his day: the ‘chief priests and elders of the people’ (21; 21). This parable, is one of a set that begin in the previous chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus’ authority is questioned by the official religious and political leaders of the people. If this is a story aimed at anyone it is aimed at religious and political leaders; so here we are, back with our Elders and what sort of leadership they should offer to the Church today.

What sort of leadership do we look to our Elders to practise today? Firstly, such leadership is invitational: “The kingdom of heaven,” the way God works, says Jesus, “is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son” (22: 2) to which he invited all sorts of people. I grant you, when an invitation comes from a monarch, prime minister or president it carries a certain amount of weight. Few people today, for example, receiving an invitation to the Queen’s garden party would just toss it in the bin, at least not without some thought first.

The people in the parable, however, do feel free to turn down the invitation, preferring to spend their time working their land or carrying on with their business activities. In some cases they abuse and kill the king’s representatives. To take such a risk they must have thought that he had begun to lose his grip on power, though as they quickly find out, when he sends his army to “destroy these murderers and burn their city” (22: 7) this is not the case.

Church leaders – Elders – today exercise an invitational leadership, calling upon others to enter into the life of the Church and into a deepening relationship with God. Church congregations, like today’s congregation, promise to accept their leadership, encourage them in it, respond to it, acknowledging that it comes from God.

At the same time, the reality is that URC Elders can’t force people to do things. They don’t have the powers of a first century Middle Eastern King, nor an army to back them up, and even if they did, they shouldn’t work in this way. This maddened and murderous king bears more resemblance to King Herod than he does to King Jesus, or to the sovereign God of the universe. In contrast to the king in the parable, when confronted by human rejection, God offers his son’s life rather than take ours … but even then, people can still say ‘no’ to the invitation. If that’s how God chooses to work, then Church leaders need to take note: church leadership in invitational.

And the invitation our leaders are called to make is a wide invitation: “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (22: 8-10) We look to our Elders to have an invitational approach that has a wider vision than the boundaries of the current congregation. Jesus is our role model here, issuing God’s invitation to one and all; not only to those within boundaries of religion and respectability, such as Israel’s chief priests, Elders and other religious leaders, like the Pharisees, but also to those deemed to be outside the fold, including, famously, tax collectors, prostitutes and foreigners.

In the light of today’s parable I don’t think that it’s a complete coincidence that one of the ways Jesus chose to do this was to sit down and eat together with such people; to invite them to a banquet, so to speak. Given that we live in a time when the great majority of the population have little or nothing to do with the Church we look to our Elders to encourage us in thinking not just about ourselves but about the invitation we can offer to others, both those we regard as ‘good’ and those we see as ‘bad’.

So, the leadership Elders offer is invitational; the invitation is a wide one; and the invitation is to something good. Remember though, the ‘something good’ is not the Church itself, though it might happen in a church setting, and be helped to develop by being within a church. The invitation in the parable is to a wedding banquet and that image had specific meanings for a Jew like Jesus and his equally Jewish audience. In the Old Testament, marriage was employed as a metaphor for the relationship between God and his people, Israel: “’In that day,’ declares the Lord,” according to the prophet Hosea, speaking to Israel, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master’. (2: 16) And the image of the banquet was used to speak of the celebration of that relationship: “the Lord Almighty”, declares the prophet, Isaiah, “will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wine.” (25: 6) And let’s not miss some important implications of familiar words from the twenty-third psalm: “My table thou hast furnished in the presence of my foes; my head thou dost with oil anoint, and my cup overflows.” (R&S 679)

The widely made invitation that characterises the leadership of Elders in this church or any church is an invitation into a healthy relationship with God. At a time where Elders face on-going challenges concerning the present and future of the church; at a time when we have to make choices between a host of possibilities on the basis of limited resources, it is useful to remember this point. To what extent does what we do help us to grow our relationship with God, as God has been made known to us through Jesus Christ? To what extent does what we do enable others to hear that invitation to come into a closer relationship with God? These are the essential priorities that Elders need to address, and these are the matters that Elders must lead a congregation to address. We do so, however, in the knowledge that Elders are not attempting this on their own initiative. They do this, and are able to do this, because God is issuing an invitation – a wide invitation to one all, good and bad included: come and live your life with me, come and join the party – you’re invited.

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