“‘Open Doors’ Means Open Arms

“‘Open Doors’ Means Open Arms

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This morning is the second in a 4-part sermon series called “Unafraid.” This series is intended to help us live with courage and hope in a time of uncertainty and great anxiety. Isaiah 41:10 is our theme Scripture, which begins, “Don’t fear, because I am with you; don’t’ be afraid, for I am your God.” Today’s message focuses on the call to welcome with open arms those who are different than us. Today is also Baptism of Lord Sunday, when the church recognizes remembers and celebrates Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River (see Matthew 3:13ff.).

Scripture Readings: Matthew 21:31-46 (Unafraid series); Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (Baptism of the Lord Sunday)

I’d like to say something, but I don’t want what I say to be misunderstood or misconstrued to mean something different from what I intend it to mean. Hopefully, by now you know that it’s not my habit to turn my opportunity to speak every week into a bully pulpit, nor do I use my writings to give voice to my personal political perspectives. With this in mind, I want to say something that could be construed as a political statement, but it’s not. Yes, what I want to say is born out of current and hot-button political issue, but I’m coming at it from a faith-based perspective.

And here it is. Regardless of whether or not I personally believe our nation needs a 30-foot wall along our southern border, or whether or not such a wall would be an effective means of border security, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am deeply distressed by the increased animosity on the part of a growing number of American citizens towards those who aren’t “like us,” and by that I specifically mean those from Latin America as well as those from predominantly Muslim countries. I’m distressed by the notion that because someone practices the Muslim faith, and because someone is a Hispanic, they’re automatically seen by a growing number of people as an enemy of sorts, and to be kept out of our country at all costs. You can find videos on YouTube people screaming at Latino U.S. citizens, “Go back to your own country!” It also seems like the word “immigrant” is now on the same shelf as “terrorist,” someone we should fear because we believe they’re out to harm us. This really bothers me.

And what’s more, it distresses me that because of the actions and words of a number of high-profile Christian leaders, many people outside the Christian faith probably think that’s how all Christians view immigrants. Let me be very clear, this is not a comment on the political issue of border security or the wall. It’s a personal comment on what I see as a heart-issue behind some of the political policies being put forth, heart-issues which I believe are at odds with the words and teachings of Jesus, whom we confess as our Lord.  As Lord, he’s the one on whom we model our thoughts, words, and actions.

There. It’s been said.

One very unfortunate byproduct of the Fall is the human condition whereby people are highly suspect of anyone who’s different. I think this condition crosses cultural and borders; it’s a human condition. There’s a reason we say that birds of a feather flock together, and that’s because we’re a lot more comfortable with people who look and sound and think the way we look and sound and think.

Let me ask you a question: which comes more naturally to us, segregation or integration? The fact is, not a person here has to consciously work very hard at making friends with those of the same race, religion, socio-economic, and socio-political station. But making friends with and hanging out with those who are in a different social, political, or religious place—that we have to work at.

It’s an indictment against the Church, but as a whole, we’re a living example of this reality, at least the Church in the United States. Here’s a short clip of one of the most telling quotes about the state of the church (opens in a new tab)” in this regard, and from my perspective, not much has changed. It’s a clip of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was filmed back in 1960, and the quality of the recording reflects the technology of that day. (For those reading this sermon from a hard copy, the quote is, “One of the shameful tragedies [of our nation is] that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours if not the most segregated hour in Christian America.”)

Why is this so? For a people who preach the love and grace of God for all, who proclaim that Jesus torn down the walls of hostility that divide one from another, how is it that we seem to be unable to live into those truths – at least not without a lot of conscious, intentional work?

Anytime you call upon a predominant racial constituency to divest themselves of power and influence, you’re going to have fear and insecurity.

Maybe it’s an oversimplified answer, but could it be that it comes down to good ol’ fashioned fear? Fear of the other? The other who’s different? The other whose difference feels threatening to us and our way of doing things?

There’s a YouTube video of some church leaders answering the question, “Why are churches segregated?” One of them has this to say: “Anytime you call upon a predominant racial constituency to divest themselves of power and influence, you’re going to have fear and insecurity.” It breaks my heart to say it, but it’s the sad truth that our unchecked human condition results in fear and insecurity whenever we feel that we’re in some way threatened by those who are different, who look different, who have a different way of doing things, who speak a different language, who dress differently, who have a different set of values, who worship a different god (or don’t believe in God).

young caucasian woman with long dark hair
young caucasian man with trimmed moustache and beard

Other than describing the above woman’s physical appearance, what can you know about her just by looking at her image? How about the man? What can you tell me about him just by looking at his picture? [answer: nothing] If I told you that both of them were very kind people, would you have any visible reason to doubt me? If I told you that both of them have service-focused jobs, where they gladly serve other people all day long, would you have any reason to doubt me? For the sake of discussion, let’s say they both enrolled at the same college, and signed up for the same class, and on the first day of classed found themselves sitting next to each other. Based on their pictures, is any reason to believe they wouldn’t get along sitting next to each other? [answer: no]

Now, what if I told you that she’s an Israeli Jew, and he’s Palestinian? With that bit of information, what can we likely know about them now? Based on what we know about Palestinians Israeli Jews, it would reasonable to conclude each of them would likely perceive the other as an adversary, maybe even an enemy. And it wouldn’t be because he hates women with long dark hair, or because she has an uncontrollable urge to punch men with beards. It would be because one is Jewish and the other is Palestinian, and Jews and Palestinians are enemies.

This is just one of many examples of this terrible human condition whereby we’re fearful of those who are different. We don’t like to admit it, but unchecked, we fear the other. And because of that, we tend to huddle with those who are the same. And resist if not outright reject those who are different.

If you’re willing to take honest look at yourself, can you see how this is true in your own life?

motorcycle rider with tattoos and wearing a sleeveless leather jacket and bandana on his head

I know I can. I wish I could honestly say that if this guy showed up here on a Sunday morning, I’d feel totally comfortable. But that would be a lie. Because the truth is, I’d probably be uncomfortable. Why? Because they’re a lot different than me! I don’t happen to hang out with guys who look like this and ride in motorcycle groups.

So let me ask you, what if a man dressed as a woman wanted to join our church? Or a married homosexual couple wanted to be an active part of our church family? What if an African-American woman were appointed here? How welcoming would we be? I’m not suggesting we wouldn’t be welcoming; I’m just wondering how welcoming we’d be?

Bishop Sharma Lewis; African-American clergywoman wearing a black pulpit robe and a red stole
Bishop Sharma Lewis

This is Bishop Sharma Lewis who, years ago, served a cross-racial appointment in Marietta, GA. It’s sad to say, but I’d bet my next paycheck that there were people in that church who left because she’s black. And in doing so, they missed out being blessed by a pastor whose dynamic leadership transforms churches. At a later appointment, Sharma leadership resulted in in over 600 new and restored members and worship attendance doubled – all in 3 years!! But those who left missed out on this kind of leadership. Why? Because she was different. She was the other whom they feared, and allowed those fears to dictate their response.

But this is not how is should be with the people of God who follow in the way of Jesus. If you’ve chose to follow Jesus, then you’ve consciously chosen a different way from what’s popular. The way of Jesus is counter-cultural. The way of Jesus is often in conflict with way of popular culture. And by virtue of following him, we’re going to be counter-cultural, too.

Jesus was known to begin a teaching with, “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you.” People will tell you it’s OK to do this, but I’m here to tell you to do that instead. For example,

You’ve heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven.  He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?  Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.(Matthew 5:43-48)

I think Jesus asks a good question. What does it ultimately accomplish if we love only those who love us? If we only hang out with those who are like us? If we welcome only those with whom we’re most comfortable? The answer? Nothing.

During Advent I talked quite a bit about Jesus’ eventual return to earth, at which time God will usher in his eternal kingdom in its fullest. This coming day is sometimes called Judgment Day, and I’m pretty sure it’ll have nothing to do with an invasion of space aliens. According to Scripture, it’ll be the day when every person who ever lived will stand before their Maker, who will decide their eternal standing.

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives us a glimpse into that decision-making process. If we take Jesus at his word, there are two possible outcomes: either you’re in or you’re out. According to Jesus, just as a shepherd will at some point separate a heard of sheep and goats into two different groups—one, the sheep, and the other, the goats—when he returns, the entirety of the human race will be gathered together before the Godhead, and we will be separated into two groups, some to his right, and the rest to his left. To those on his right he will welcome into his eternal kingdom of light, but to those on his left he will send away into eternal darkness. End of human history.

What I want us to hear is the criteria by which we will be separated.

  • When Jesus was hungry, did we feed him?
  • When he was thirsty, did we give him something to drink?
  • When he was a stranger to us, did we welcome him?
  • When he had nothing to wear, did we clothe him?
  • When he was sick, did we take care of him?
  • And when he was imprisoned, did we visit him?

And how, exactly, will the Father determine whether or not we did these things for Jesus? By whether or not we did them for other people in this world, in this life. But not just for anyone. The real criteria is whether or not we did it for the least of God’s children.

And just who are the least? Those without power, without voice, without influence. Society’s marginalized, forgotten, overlooked, and disregarded: immigrants, children, prisoners, victims of violence, victims of political policies which benefit a small minority of the people, and victims of prejudice and bigotry in any form. In a word, the other. If we only do these things for people like us, we’ll have missed the mark. The target is not those with whom we are most comfortable because we share a lot in common, but those with whom we’re probably the least comfortable on account of not having a lot in common.

colorful puzzle pieces
black and white puzzle pieces

If the image on the left reflects the diversity of the Adrian community, why would we settle for looking like the image on the right?

Here’s the thing, becoming like this will only happen through intentional effort and work on our part. It’s not likely that those who are different from us will just start coming. By and large, we’re going to have to put forth the effort to invite them, and let them know they’re welcome here. More importantly, show them they’re valued. Not just by how well we welcome them here in this place on Sunday morning, but by the ways we reach out into their worlds and find ways to serve them there.

Your baptism, regardless of your age or mental awareness of what you were doing, set you apart for God for the purpose of 1) displaying his light in a world darkened by sin. And 2) living out his grace-filled, unmerited love in a world that fears and rejects the other.

Because you and I were set apart for these purposes, I’ve decided to give us a homework assignment this week. We’ll call it our discipleship task.

  1. Sincerely ask God to “arrange” a personal contact with someone of whom you’re typically uncomfortable, then attempt a brief conversation with them, trying to find out their name and what they do. Maybe even find out one thing that interests them.
  2. After doing the above, ask God to give you a welcoming heart for someone like that at our church.
  3. Next week: share with the congregation your experience

Closing Prayer: Your word of light and hope floods into our lives, O God. We have lived in darkness, in despair and fear, doubt and strife. But on this day of celebration, you remind us that we are marked by you to be witnesses to your light of new hope. As the heavens opened at Jesus’ baptism, so is your love poured out on us. We have brought before you names and situations which concern us, people who face illness and grief, whose lives are torn by poverty, war, alienation, addiction, and hopelessness. We ask for your loving mercy on them, O Lord. Heal them and bind up their wounds. Help us to be people who are ready to be involved in ministries of peace and justice, bringing the light of your hope to those who dwell in darkness and despair. We ask this in Jesus’ name, as we pray in one voice, saying, “Our Father…”

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