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With Open Arms
September 19, 1993

MATTHEW 20:1-16

A mother and father shared,

It has taken us a long time to bring ourselves to write or talk to anyone about our dear son who is homosexual.

When he was fifteen we knew he was having problems and took him to be counseled by both our minister and a psychologist. What happened was that when he was eighteen he moved out of our home into the home of his male companion, a man ten years older than he was, and they have been together ever since--twenty-five years!

We have continued a good relationship with our son and he knows we love him. Our concern is that other parents faced with this situation, after they have done what they can to seek help and guidance, not let themselves become bitter and antagonistic toward a son or daughter. We are so grateful our son has a loving companion and a happy home.

What bothers us most is that he no longer goes to church. He says they do not feel welcome among the "holier than thous." He believes in God; he believes in prayer; he serves others in community organizations. We find it very sad that the church shuts them out.

What about our church? What is our attitude, our stance, toward those who are different? Listen to another example of a mother's pain.

My daughter is severely handicapped and has been since birth. She has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. Her speech is not easily understood. However, contrary to all appearances, she is brilliant--very sharp mind and wit. Do Christian people really understand how much pain even they cause the handicapped by their ignorance and thoughtlessness?

What does she encounter? Being shunned (this is the worst), spoken to as though she is stupid and hard of hearing (her hearing is especially sensitive, as a matter of fact), others speak to me for her as though she couldn't understand, and children are allowed to make fun of her, stare at her, and jerk her wheelchair which hurts her.

What about our church? Are we open to handicapped people? Many people are uncomfortable around handicapped people. Is that any excuse for insensitivity? Handicapped people are not necessarily deaf who need to be hollered at. Handicapped people are not stupid who need to be talked to in baby talk. Handicapped people want to belong, and be treated like everyone else.

Many people are uncomfortable around those with a different sexual orientation. Some people were born with a preference for the same sex. Why should that bother other people? Why can't people be allowed to be themselves? Today after the worship services, Ellie and I are going to San Jose to celebrate the birthday of our granddaughter Alison who will be two on Thursday. A couple of weeks ago she was in one of those "No" moods. No, she didn't want to let her mother rest. No, she didn't want a book read to her. No, she didn't want to get dressed. Finally, her grandma asked, "Can't you say Yes?" "No," replied Alison. "Do you know what Yes means?" With a twinkle in her eyes, she turned to me and said, "Bapa, I no say yes!" Brothers and sisters, We are an OPEN church. Let's say yes to people.

During the South African Boer War, a hungry group of people gathered to discuss the distribution of a small amount of food that was left. It was decided to let the churches handle the distribution. An Episcopal rector said, "All who belong to my denomination, follow me." A Presbyterian minister said, "You Presbyterians, all of you, come with me." Similarly, the Methodists and all the other denominations did the same. Then, the quiet unassuming William Booth rose and said, "All you fellows and gals who belong to nobody, follow me." I suspect the respectable people were fed by the churches. The rest were fed by the Salvation Army--the alcoholics, prostitutes, homeless, the rejected.

I believe one of the interpretations of today's Scripture lesson is that those whom society consider to be "last" may very well be "first" in God's eyes. The last shall be first in the kingdom of God, said Jesus. The rancher in today's lesson went with open arms to the hiring hall, or the hangout where the homeless waited for work. With open arms he hired them all, and paid them equally. The one who worked only one hour received as much pay as the one who worked eleven hours. God is not too good at business. I preached a sermon a few weeks ago about God's lousy math. Jesus took two loaves of bread, multiplied by five fish, and came up, not with ten, but enough to feed 5,000! It seems as if Jesus was not only lousy at math, but at business as well!

When those who worked all day complained about the inequity, the rancher said, Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" Jesus concluded, So the last will be first, and the first will be last. Brothers and sisters, what we consider first, consider the best, what we honor and affirm may well be what God considers last, and what we consider last, God may well consider first. Can Christ's church do any less, and still be considered a church?

As a church we have two choices. We can stand like Jesus with open arms, or we can curl up into what I call the fetal posture. Picture an unborn baby in the womb, insulated from the world, perfectly content to be cozy in his/her little world, where he/she is warm and fed. Few babies want to be born. They resist going through the birth tunnel out into the cold, cruel world. Many find the entry into the world so difficult they spend much of their lives trying to find another womb where they can curl up, close their arms around their legs, isolate themselves, suck on their thumb, and be content.

I'm afraid that many churches provide that womb for people. The posture of too many churches is that of the fetal position where a circle of folks who like each other insulate themselves from the cold, cruel world. They take care of one another, busy themselves with petty, trivial details of the institution, and design rules to protect themselves and their possessions by keeping other people out. The world out there is often cruel, often cold and heartless. The world out there is filled with people who are different from us. The world out there is often frightening, with too many changes happening too quickly, and many folks are looking for security. But, true security is found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not in a church. Our security is found in God's love and acceptance of us, not in a cozy womb. When a church's primary function becomes that of providing comfort, security and protection from the world, rather than inviting all people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, that church has chosen the fetal posture.

In 1990 Ellie and I were privileged to take a personal ten-week study leave in Europe. The topic of our self-directed study was The Church's Changing Self Image. We wanted to see how the church, especially in troubled lands, saw itself in relation to its culture, in relation to the world out there. One of the countries we visited was Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is being torn apart by strife between Protestants and Catholics. 1/3 of the population is Catholic Irish, and 2/3 is Protestant British. There is very little contact between the two groups. We were told that even in the work place, there is little relationship between Prods (meaning Protestants) and Romans. If a Prod gets too friendly with a Roman, the Paisleyites start harassing the Protestant. The Paisleyites are followers of the Reverend Ian Paisley, a fanatical anti-Catholic Presbyterian minister.

Where is the church in this conflict? There are Reconciliation Centers that have started outside the organized church to offer opportunities for dialogue between Prods and Romans, but there are only glimmers of involvement of churches in the strife. Many Methodist and Presbyterian clergy and lay people are also Orangemen which is a fraternal order of diehard Protestants. A Methodist Deaconess (the Methodist Church in Ireland and Britain have deaconesses) told us, "We Prods were not interested in what went on outside our doors." Irish Christianity is not alone. There are many churches in the fetal position, all curled up into themselves, insulated from the world, where they do not hear, see, or care about what goes on out there, and where they do not want to welcome anyone into their fellowship who is different.

Contrast the fetal posture--curled up, arms closed around the legs, thumb in mouth, isolated and insulated from the world--with the open arms posture. Can you see Jesus standing with open arms, embracing all who come to him, embracing the children, embracing the poor, embracing the hungry and lonely, embracing those whom society considers different, embracing the handicapped, healing the sick, saying Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest...The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

With open arms was well stated in the hymn we sang before the sermon. It is a new hymn for us with powerful words. With open arms, listen to this description of an OPEN church.

Help us accept each other as Christ accepted us;

teach us as sister, brother, each person to embrace.

Be present, Lord, among us, and bring us to believe

we are ourselves accepted and meant to love and live.

Teach us, O Lord, your lessons, as in our daily life

we struggle to be human and search for hope and faith.

Teach us to care for people, for all, not just for some,

to love them as we find them, or as they may become.

Let your acceptance change us, so that we may be moved

in living situations to do the truth in love;

to practice your acceptance, until we know by heart

the table of forgiveness and laughter's healing art.

© 1993 Douglas I. Norris