Open the door

Open the door

The Rev. William Ferguson

Oct. 14, 2018

Luke 7: 7-14


Remember, as a kid, your mother shouting at you ‘shut the door’ when you’d go outside, leaving the door open, or your dad yelling, “What, do you live in a barn?  Do you know what a BTU is?”

Shut the door, close the windows: It was meant to keep the heat in, the dog 
in, or to keep things out.

In an earlier career, I worked in a juvenile jail for a while that had locked doors after locked doors 
after locked doors, to keep offenders in and to keep their people out as well. There is a time and a place for both. 
Years ago, not too long ago, and unfortunately in some instances today, signs were and are used as messages to keep people out; different races, ethnicities, genders and orientations

Unjust Jim Crow laws separated races from sharing water fountains, bathrooms, classrooms, buses.

Policies are written to keep people out intentionally, or keep people in.

Businesses choose whom to serve based on religious beliefs.

There are times and places for locked doors. And exclusion. And not just laws written to do so, but actions and demonstrations as well.

I remember my Dad explaining about book burning and book banning in the 1950s and ‘60s. He gave me advice that I still remember to this day: “If someone tells you not to read something, go and get it and read it! Understand what they are talking about, figure out why they may be offended or challenged or afraid by what they are reading, it will give you insight into their hearts and minds and will open your mind wide to understand.”

We are living in times when we have seen the constructions of walls to divide countries; East and West Germany, and a time to break those walls down. And of course, we are living in a time now when debate is raging about building a wall to keep people out, for some concerned about security or immigration.

Time and a place

Not only do we build physical walls, we build emotional ones as well.

Counselors will tell you that we work hard getting people to open themselves up to what they are keeping hidden, inside; that to open themselves up allows therapy and healing room to grow and learn about ourselves

Why we think what we think.

What the origin of those thoughts are and the behaviors that follow, in order to break down those walls

We build institutional walls as well, policies that are meant to exclude or divide, split up, keep out. And religion, being an institution, is not immune from building those walls up.

In my own lifetime I remember my grandmother telling me not to walk in front of the Roman Catholic Church because I was a Protestant boy, and we were not welcome there.

My Catholic friends were given the same advice from their grandparents and some parents as well. The only time we saw all together was when we played them in basketball, a full gym of Protestants and Catholics rooting for their side, like the outcome would mean who was saved or not and who God would bless.

It seemed so foreign since we were all such good friends, welcomed in each other’s home and gyms, but not churches. 
When we pause to reflect on breaking down this institutional thinking, we are called to look to the reasons why,to reflect on the value of having walls, of shutting doors, or the value of opening them up and knocking them down, to allow room for the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, to work and to grow.

Open and Affirming is the opening of doors. 
The challenge of Open and Affirming participation is to ensure that our beliefs that our church is welcomingto everyoneis heard, displayed and celebrated. Because to be honest, in the history of our faith, we have not always proclaimed this message of Inclusion.

Looking back on race relations, not too long ago in the history of this country, and sadly, even today, not all churches extend the practice and belief of inclusion in the life and love of God in our churches.

I have changed my mind over the years about Open and Affirming. I once had questions and challenges that caused me to take a hard look at what I believed in my practice and proclamation of my faith in a God of love.

It started with my understanding of marriage, and reflecting on what marriage is.

In my study I found that the Old and New Testament does not say much of anything about same sex committed relationships or homosexuality, contrary to what I once believed.

Nowhere is marriage defined as we know it. Digging into the text, or “Exegesis” about the meaning of the writings, enlightened my study. The Gospel of Jesus Christ reminds us how Jesus treated others and to see who 
Jesus loved.

What did Jesus want me to do, want us to do? Because its a very deliberate decision 
to be a follower.

Because I am not a first Century Jew the Scriptures in Leviticus concerning keeping the holiness codes were not written for me.

I’m an admirer of the Apostle Paul, but I follow Jesus Christ.

I listened for the sometimes still, small voice of God, that whispers, and comes in the dark, in the night, when the world is still and quiet. And I allowed room for the spirit to work on my life.

Because this spiritual “stuff” needs to have room to work. When we make room for it, it does work. Amazing that it does … when we make room for it.

Looking at the institution of marriage, we see that it did not have its roots in the church, it was a civil, secular institution, and institutions are created by human beings, not divine declarations.

I asked how I was to understand God’s word — literally or experience driven?

Was I able to look away from the things that make me feel uneasy and uncomfortable, about the things I don’t truly understand, and allow the spirit to work? Because these were things about me and not the relationship of two people who love each other.

And finally, I thought about my own kids and how their happiness is my heart, regardless of their own orientations. I would love them just as much as I do now and do whatever I could do to make them happy. 
Listening …. learning. … talking several lifelong friends who are gay, lesbian and transgender…. praying. 
And now, in the understanding of Open and Affirming, I have concluded that if the door of the church, the door that welcomes people into the life of the Holy, of God, of love, is not open to all, it is not open to any. 
And as I understand it, this decision is about hospitality.

In both of our Scripture passages this morning, we hear of the need to offer hospitality. In Isaiah, if you spend yourself on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will shine in the darkness.

And Luke talks about offering your place “In humbleness” to others, not assuming you are the honored guests, and your humility will be recognized and honored.

These are the passages that should be powerful for us, not the “gotcha” passages from Leviticus that have been interpreted as rules for exclusion. These holiness codes in Leviticus were meant for Jews of the first century who were returning to their homeland, who trying to establish a society that had no rules, or rules of the Romans and Egyptians that were against their core beliefs, so they laid out laws and proclamations.

These were codes that set the people of Israel apart from the rest of the world.
If you read the whole passage and not just the line condemning pedophilia, (not homosexuality)  you will also read that you could not cut your hair if you were a man, or wear clothes with blended fabrics, or needed to stone adulterers, or marry your brothers’ widow. Not passages that sound very relevant to us, do they?

Sodom and Gomorrah was not about same gender loving relationships. It was just the opposite. It was about rape and domination. It is a story about extending hospitality, or a lack of it.

There is nothing in our Scriptures specifically written about same gender loving committed relationships.

There was no resemblance to a loving committed relationships we have come to hold  as a standard of marriage.

So we come to the conclusion that Jesus calls us to be followers, and he has a lot to say about loving each other, 
about equality, 
about not hoarding power and authority over the defenseless and poor. 
These were the people he sided with the most. As I read the Gospels, I conclude this: Jesus says to love one another as God loves me … to love all people all the time, not some of the people some of the time.

I believe the spirit is working among us. Open and Affirming gives us the opportunity to say that in our church, in this community of faith, we will attempt to us walk the walk and talk the talk of our faith. It makes this community personal, when we put a face on our hospitality, on our love for one another, when we talk about ourpeople rather than those people, we are on our way.

A couple of weeks ago we heard from a former pastor of this church, and his wife who raised a transgender child, and a Pastor of the UCC, a transgender woman.. We heard of their need to not be open with their lives because of perceived limits of acceptance, in the world and in the church as well, and the often painful journey to discovering their true genders with some of society’s biggest phobias and actions against her. It was hard to hear for some because these are things we want to “keep out and to close off”. But healing only comes with opening, like a book that needs to be read to be understood.

In my previous church, one Sunday a transgender visitor came in to worship. During the time of Passing the Peace and offering a hand of friendship, I made my way down the aisle and extended my hand of welcome to her. She seemed taken a back but shook my hand. I invited her to fellowship time for coffee and conversation. After church ended, she left without coming to fellowship. A few weeks later I got a note from her, thanking me for my hospitality and our churches warm welcome. She told me that she sat in the parking lot for an hour and a half before getting the courage to come inside.

She thought that I was going to ask her to leave the church as I walked down the aisle to welcome her, as other pastors in other churches have done in the past.

She was moved at the welcome of this congregation, which she sought out under the “Open and Affirming” website of the UCC, She traveled well over an hour to come to our church.

And I thought, how incredibly brave it was of her to risk coming into church and how incredibly sad it was that this had to be a choice she had to battle. Would she be welcome in the house of God? 
We welcomed a woman who felt she had no place at the table to begin with.

When people see our church and know they can come in that door, be accepted as the people God has created them to be, not seeing gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, physical ability, age, but instead seeing a child of God 
… when we can be proactive in our faith rather than reactive to the world, we are on our way. 
I have three children, two daughters-in-law, one granddaughter. Two of my boys have met the women of their dreams, are married, and are happy and blessed. I pray for the happiness of all my children, to be blessed as I have been to be with the one I believe God sent me to be complete and know love …. why would I work for that happiness to be denied?

I want the babies we baptize in this church to understand that the church, this church, you and I will always love them, accept them as God has created them to be and will break down walls and fling open doors to affirm their place in God’s heart.

I want to lead a church where we proudly declare we are open and affirming … of God … of you!

There are almost 2000 Open and Affirming churches in the UCC. A project that started with 15 churches in 1987 has grown in 31 years to become the largest welcoming church movement in the world.

Neither is the effort to be Open and Affirming limited to UCC congregations. The United Methodist church has what they call “Reconciling Congregations”, the American Baptists, “Welcoming and Affirming”, the Evangelical Lutherans, “Reconciling in Christ”, the Presbyterian Church, USA, “More Light Presbyterians”, the Episcopalians, “Integrity Partners”, and, naturally, denominations such as the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have, in general, been open and affirming for quite some time. There’s even a movement within the Roman Catholic church called “Dignity/USA” that seeks to gain full acceptance of gays and lesbians by the church.

Most ONA churches expand their welcome not just to the LGBTQ community but also to all races, ethnicities, ages, economic circumstances.  Some congregations also include a welcome to single parents and their families, to military service members and veterans, and to persons living with mental or physical illness or disability.

All of this leads to one thing:

We serve a God, we are led by a son and are guided by a Spirit to open the doors, for all to see and to know that there is a recognized place at the table of the lord, and we are the hosts to assure all are loved, just as God has created us to be.

Open the door!

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