The first time I experienced “mutual invitation” was at the beginning of the pandemic when all our meetings migrated online. On Zoom it’s impossible to simply “go around the circle.” In mutual invitation, the facilitator frames the question and offers their response. They then invite the next person in. That person can speak, or pass until later, and then they invite the next person in. And so on. This practice was developed by Episcopal priest Eric Law. He developed this tool to allow for more inclusive conversations amid differences of culture and communication style.
In both of our scripture texts today, I notice that God’s callings come to people through the invitations of other people. In our story from I Samuel, God’s people were having problems receiving divine invitations. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” The elder priest Eli’s eyesight had grown dim. Later we learn that this blindness symbolizes Eli’s reluctance to stand against harm done by his own sons. And yet, the lamp of God had not yet gone out. In other words, there were still opportunities for Eli, and his community, to see and hear God, to receive the difficult, yet necessary calling toward transformation. Because Eli was stuck in a place of resisting God’s calling, God reached out instead to his apprentice, to the boy Samuel.Samuel, not used to listening for God, thought the voice calling him was Eli’s. It was only through Eli’s mentorship that Samuel could hear God’s message. And it was only through Samuel’s voice that Eli finally was able to open himself to being accountable to God.
Mutual invitations are also at the center of today’s Gospel passage. Jesus invited Philip and then Philip invited his friend Nathaniel. Philip told his friend that Jesus embodied their ancestors’ wisdom, that he gave flesh to the teachings of the law and the prophets. Nathaniel hesitated, apparently because he found it absurd or offensive that God’s anointed one would come from an ordinary peasant family in a small, unnoteworthy town. Philip didn’t get discouraged. He didn’t argue. He just invited Nathaniel again, “Come and see!” And then Nathaniel had his own direct encounter with Jesus, a deep experience of seeing Jesus and being seen by him. These interactions are in fact part of a longer chain of invitation. John the Baptist had been told to look for a person unknown to him, on whom the Spirit of God would descend and stay. So it was John who invited Jesus into his ministry. And then John’s disciple Andrew began to follow Jesus, and Andrew invited his brother Simon.
Who, in your life, who has invited you into something important? Through whom have you received God’s callings? Take a moment to remember that person and to give thanks for them. And who might the Spirit be positioning you to invite now? Into what? Take a moment to pray for that person and for yourself as you consider how to respond to this nudge.
Today’s stories suggest to me that making invitations to each other is central to the way of life given to us by Jesus. And that the callings of God are most often mediated through these human invitations. This weekend, as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all the ordinary people who marched and sang with him, risked and even died with him, let’s honor his work by calling each other into it anew. Let’s respect Dr. King by not limiting the notion of a calling to that which is heroic in scope and scale. Let’s not think of a calling as something too big or too radical for ordinary people living ordinary lives. Let’s look and listen for the ways the Spirit nudges us to call each other, to give and receive invitations to build beloved community together.
bell hooks was a Black feminist writer, scholar, and social critic. At a time when the women’s movement largely didn’t acknowledge racism, her work emphasized intersectionality—the intertwining of our different oppressions as well as our liberation. hooks wrote extensively about love. She believed that our nation needed to reclaim Dr. King’s practice of love as the power for non-violent transformation. In “Teaching Community” hooks said:
To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination. A body of critical theory is now available that explains all the workings of white-supremacist thought and racism. But explanations alone do not bring us to the practice of beloved community.
Responding to God’s callings to practice beloved community, as embodied through Jesus, certainly will mean showing up at City Hall and the Capitol to demand change. It will spur us to change laws and make reparations. It will also mean changing our culture. Mutual invitation is one specific and concrete way we can address the culture of white supremacy and begin to practice the culture of beloved community instead. This simple, straightforward process is an example of how we can actively undermine the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination. We’ve all been in groups in which a few people do dominate the conversation while others remain silent. In American culture, shaped by the norms of white supremacy, assertive participation is rewarded and encouraged, and quieter, more marginal voices get ignored.
People remain silent for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s because they are paying deep attention, or in agreement with what’s being said. At other times silence indicates confusion, disagreement, disengagement, or a fear of not being listened to. And in some cultures, waiting to speak until invited in is the norm. Whatever the reason for someone’s silence, we all miss out when groups do not extend to everyone an equal chance to participate. Intentionally using the language of invitation emphasizes the fact that the whole group shares in the power of facilitation. Each person has the power to decide whether or not they will speak, and then to invite someone else into the conversation. What I have experienced with this more equitable sharing of power and voice is that it allows a collective wisdom to arise, as our individual perspectives weave together. It increases feelings of connection and empathy. And ultimately, it nurtures a more robust and engaged community.
Dr. King used the term “beloved community” to express the vision of humanity’s intersectional liberation.The practice of inviting each other into ministry is central to following Jesus. Through mutual invitation, we reveal the belovedness that we all share, the belovedness that dances in all creation, the belovedness that is a spark of joy, hope and creativity within each of us. As I mentioned last week, on the day of Transfiguration, February 11, we will have a time to tell each other stories of belovedness. So today, I want to give you a bit of time reflect about that. Maybe jot down a few notes. What story do you have to tell about belovedness—your own or someone else’s? Is there another person you can invite to tell a story? Whose voice would you like to invite to be heard more fully in this beloved community? Amen.