Sunday, October 16, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Four Open Doors"

Revelation 3:17-22

After all, you say, ‘I’m rich, and I’ve grown wealthy, and I don’t need a thing.’ You don’t realize that you are miserable, pathetic, poor, blind, and naked. 18 My advice is that you buy gold from me that has been purified by fire so that you may be rich, and white clothing to wear so that your nakedness won’t be shamefully exposed, and ointment to put on your eyes so that you may see. 19 I correct and discipline those whom I love. So be earnest and change your hearts and lives. 20 Look! I’m standing at the door and knocking. If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to be with them, and will have dinner with them, and they will have dinner with me. 21 As for those who emerge victorious, I will allow them to sit with me on my throne, just as I emerged victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 If you can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Common English Bible)

“The Wounded Healer: Finding Strength in Our Scars,” Week One

It was a moment straight out of a novel or a movie: the long-lost brother, not knowing that he is in fact talking to his brother, realizes over the course of their conversation that he is conversing with a sibling whom he has not seen in years, decades, even. The reasons why can drive the entire plots of stories such as these, but sometimes, reality does indeed rise to meet the level of fiction.

You probably haven’t ever heard the name of William Still, though in truth, you should have—we all should have. If the world were truly just, his name and deeds would be taught in every history class in the country, for he, along with other 19th-century abolitionists, created the Underground Railroad of Harriet Tubman and so many others. William Still is credited by historians with having assisted 800 or more slaves to their eventual freedom, and he worked for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, which acted as a resource for abolitionists and free blacks alike—free blacks like Mr. Still himself. You may well have been imagining a white man, but William Still was black.

One day, a freed slave named Peter came to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society for help in locating his parents and siblings. William was known for keeping meticulous records, including of his own family, listened to Peter recount what he knew about his family, and it began to dawn on him that they were in fact brothers. The clincher was Peter describing how another brother of his was whipped to death, and William exclaimed, “What if I told you I was your brother!”

Afterwards, Peter got to see his mother, whom he had not seen in 42 years.

Though it might not occur to us to think so, these slaves who traveled the underground railroad were essentially refugees, fleeing an oppressive government in search of freedom. In this manner, we might liken them not to fugitives, as was the case back then, but to the very same people we count as our ancestors, looking to a new world to open a door to them that had before been closed in their face. It is right for us to honor that quest for the open door, and it is Biblical for us to honor it.

This is a new sermon series that will take us up to the church season of Advent, which is the time we prepare for Christmas. Before we arrive at the land of egg nog and gingerbread, though, we have one more series to undertake together, and it is based on a formative book which I first read in its entirety when I arrived here and a colleague gave to me: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian who passed away about twenty years ago, but not before leaving behind him a rich vein of theological and pastoral literature. Though relatively brief as far as theological treatises go, The Wounded Healer is arguably Nouwen’s magnum opus: accessible, lucid, poignant, and passionate in its fundamental premise that only by understanding our own wounds and scars can we as Christians and as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ then, in turn, heal others of their own wounds and scars.

The Wounded Healer is a four-chapter book with a prologue, and we have five weeks in all, so we will be able to spend a week on each section, beginning with the book’s prologue, in which Nouwen writes in part:

As Antonio Porchia says, “A door opens to me. I go in and am faced with a hundred closed doors.” (Voices, Chicago, 1969) Any new insight which suggested an answer led me to many new questions, which remained unanswered. But I wanted at least to prevent the temptation of not entering any doors at all out of fear of the closed ones…in the middle of all fragmentation, one image slowly arose as the focus of all considerations: the image of the wounded healer…(a minister’s) service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks. Thus, nothing can be written about ministry without a deeper understanding of the ways in which the minister can make his own wounds available as a source of healing.

In truth, what Nouwen is saying here, in a single sentence, is that our experience is what defines us. It is not a new notion—the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote that character is destiny—but it is a notion that we tend to forget and are in frequent need of reminding of.

Consider for a moment the church in Philadelphia (not Pennsylvania) to whom John of Patmos is addressing in this passage from Revelation 3. It is the same church that, immediately prior, John famously rebukes for being neither hot or cold but lukewarm, but (and this would have been a great installment for our last sermon series on taking famous Bible verses out of context!) we forget why exactly the church in Philadelphia is seen as lukewarm: because, as John writes, they have placed their faith not in God, but in material idols—“After all, you say, ‘I’m rich, and I’ve grown wealthy, and I don’t need a thing.’”

If that is the sum total of our human experience—the pursuit of mammon—then we need John’s words, and Nouwen’s words, more than ever, for both John and Henri Nouwen speak of the need to open up a new door to new experiences in our lives. John evokes the image of God Himself standing and knocking at our doors, and Nouwen speaks of having to resist the temptation to not open any door that may be available to us.

The overall lesson is the same: we are meant to fashion for ourselves new experiences, new opportunities, new chances to grow in our faith and to branch out into the faith of others. Our own growth is limited if we only look inward—we must be continually looking for that open door that has been placed in front of us, and ironically, sometimes we miss that door even when it is in as plain of sight as the beautiful Gothic doors to our sanctuary.

On the day before my ordination, I posted a poem to my Facebook page. The poem itself is anonymous, but I came across it because one of my college friends had shared it years previous upon her conversion to Judaism and her ceremonial mikveh. The poem reads:

Either you will go through this door or you will not go through
If you go through, there is always the risk of remembering your name
Things look at you doubly, and you must look back and let them happen
If you do not go through, it is possible to live worthily, to maintain your attitudes, to hold your position, to die bravely
But much will blind you, much will evade you, at what cost who knows?
The door itself makes no promises
It is only a door

If you choose not to go through an open spiritual door in your life, yes, it is still possible to live a decent life, to stay true to who you are, and to one day die with dignity. But what will you have given up to remain in stasis, to remain only who you were and not who you one day could become? That may seem a luxury to us, but only because of our relative privilege, like the church in Philadelphia. I promise you that for someone like Peter Still, going through that door was not a luxury, it was an imperative. He could not bear being enslaved, saw the open door before him, and strode through it.

I use that language deliberately. Spiritually, we are refugee slaves ourselves, on the run from our enslavement to sin and on the route that, we hope and pray, leads us heavenward towards God.

It means that we should be able and willing to similarly open the doors that present themselves to us in the form of the choices we make—the choice to show Christian compassion and charity, the chance to reach out and try to understand someone’s story, the chance to create a new relationship where previously there had been only you and a stranger.

These are the sorts of choices that define us, as people and as Christians. Being Christian is not simply defined by your baptism, by some water and some words that I speak over you, no, being Christian is defined by the doors that John and Nouwen write of, the doors that may be closed but that can be opened with the love of Christ.

As a church and as a religion, we shut ourselves off from the world far too often. We put too much faith, as the Philadelphian church did, in our own human-made trappings of comfort and we become unwilling to branch out and actually step outside the door into the unknown, into the wilderness, into the mission field that Jesus would in fact have us dare to tread foot in. My proof, as it were, is the existence of another door, the rolled-away stone that once sealed the tomb of our Savior but was cast aside on the third day as a sign that the grave had indeed been conquered.

Yet even with death defeated, our ultimate home is not the home we live in now, and so we, as refugees, live and worship alongside other refugees. It is incumbent upon us to honor them, then, with the consideration of an open door, a set table, and a kind and caring presence.

I like being able to end my sermons with my own words, but today, I deviate from that rule because, in the spirit of honoring our roles as spiritual refugees, I thought it best to instead honor another fellow traveler from long ago, Emma Lazarus, by telling to you her words in the second half her most famous poem, “The New Colossus,” whose words are etched for eternity into the Statue of Liberty that has stood to greet refugees from the world over as they arrive upon our shores:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Ah, there it is, that image of the door again. With the light of God illuminating our sight, may we too strive to find it, like the Easter tomb’s stone, open, with the life that it promises to each of us lovingly and gloriously laid out to behold.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 16, 2016

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