A number of years ago I saw a very provocative poster. It was a depiction of the doors of Washington. Nothing more than a series of doors, arranged in rows on the poster, probably twenty or twenty-five, all photographs of various doors in this city.
Some of them were beautifully simple doorways to private homes. Some were grand doorways to office buildings and government structures, public places.
Some were old and some were new. Some were drab and some were ornate. Some felt inviting and warm; others felt forbidding and cold. But there was one thing common to all of them. There was one common denominator among all the doors of Washington. They were all closed. Every door on that poster was shut. Shut and locked tight.
That poster, I think, broadcasts a message about our world. The message is that no matter where you go, somebody is being shut out. No matter what kind of place it is, whether it is a home or a store, an office or a factory; whether it is a school or a church, a hospital or a theater, somebody is being shut out. Somebody is constantly being told, "You may not enter here."
Being shut out is an experience common to all of us. But there are some ways of being shut out that are especially burdensome. There are some doors, when closed, which bring particular pain.
A generation ago, or less, we would have been talking about the closed doors of opportunity. We would have been weeping that just because you were female or just because you were black or just because you were not American or just because just because … you were shut out. If you tried to make it through, well you found the doors slammed shut in your face.
I think I have mentioned before how, somewhere back in the middle ages, I started out as an engineering student. The first day of classes the dean got us all together and said, as deans everywhere do, "Look to your right and then look to your left. Because the chances are that at graduation only one of the three of you will be there.” Well, I looked to my right, and saw my friend, who, as a chemistry nut had persuaded me to enter engineering school, and I thought, "He might be the one who makes it." Then I looked to my left, and saw … remember we are talking about 1955 now ... I saw the only member of the entering class who was both black and female. What did I think about her? You know. I thought, "She won’t make it. Not a prayer." And, unfortunately, I was right. She didn’t last the first semester. The truth is that the door was really slammed shut in her face. In 1955 blacks and women didn’t get far in the engineering fraternity.
I say, we used to talk about people being shut out because of circumstances like race or poverty or place of birth. Praise God, many of those doors have been opened. But that does not mean that the problem is solved. That does not mean that no longer is anybody shut out.
No, in fact, I would argue that today it is even more sinister to be shut out. Today people are shut out emotionally and spiritually. Today people are shut out, either by their own bad choices or because someone else has stolen their sense of belonging. Today people are shut out, not just because of where they were born or into what circumstances they came, but because emotionally and spiritually, some terrible choices are being made.
I am thinking about children who have to raise themselves because their parents are so into their own thing that they do not invest in the children. One of the realities about the use of drugs and alcohol is that these habits so draw a person inward to focus on his own wants that he cannot spend any energy on anyone else, not even his own children. Many children today are being shut out.
I am thinking about emotionally deprived people, spiritually damaged people, who seem to be flying blind. People who have no moral compass, no sense of right and wrong, no guidance. We are seeing more and more of this in the news, stories of people who kill apparently at random, who will kill just for the thrill of killing, who will take lives just because somebody is in the way. A couple of years ago your life could be forfeited to some youngster if you were in the way of his getting sneakers and a jacket. Well, those kids have grown up. Now it’s your gold-plated car wheels that will get you shot. But whatever the object of desire is, the point is that somebody is taking life not just because he or she wants something. They are taking life because they feel emotionally and spiritually shut out, closed off. Nobody else matters.
We are living in an emotionally shut out generation.
I am also thinking today about people who have shut themselves out emotionally and spiritually. They see no adventure, they have no ambition, they know no goals, they are captured by no dreams. I am thinking about people who have walled themselves off because in them there are no directions, no driving forces, nothing that makes them want to get up out of bed in the morning and get at their day.
I recently was sent a questionnaire by somebody who was studying motivation in ministers. They wanted to know not only what made me go into the ministry in the first place; they also wanted to know if after thirty years I still feel like getting out of bed in the morning and getting at the day’s work. Good question! Key question!
Is there anything that drives you and gives you purpose? Or is each day the same old same old? Is there for you, as one author put it, a "magnificent obsession"? Or has your life shut down and shut out? Shut out from the rest of the world, shut out from passion, shut out from God’s great purposes?
What is to be done about those who are shut out? What can we say to those who obviously, desperately need to be included? Who is there who can give clues to the clueless, help to the helpless, and friendship to the friendless? Who is there who can open doors to the shut out?
I invite you today to meet Jesus, the friend of the shut out
Consider those to whom Jesus was speaking. By and large they were the shut out of that day. They were poor men, shut out from the good life. They were Jews, hated by the political powers in Rome. And even within Judaism, they were the common people, despised by the super-pious Pharisees. They were the shut out.
Listen what the friend of the shut out said to them. And what He says to those who today feel shut out.
First, the friend of the shut out includes them and changes them by trusting them with truth. Jesus is the friend of the shut out because He trusts us with truth, He trusts us with knowledge. Think about it: when you know what is going on ... we call it "being in the loop" ... when we know what is going on, we can live with direction and purpose. We can feel included.
But when you just don’t know, when life is a mystery and when it seems that everybody around you understands and you don’t understand, then what happens? You feel hostile. You feel scared. You feel left out. You are shut out.
Jesus, the friend of the shut out, says to these disciples, who had never been anybody, who had never been asked for their opinions, who had never exercised any leadership, who were just the ordinary folks of the day … Jesus said to them, "l have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father." Now listen to that:
I have made known to you everything ... I didn’t hold anything back. I am trusting you with the most precious information anybody could possible desire.
You, Peter: I have told you what you need to know about forgiveness. And you, John: I have shared with you a vision of the Father’s majesty. And you, Andrew: I have taught you how God wants to reach out and include others in His Kingdom. Disciples, I have given you all Ph.D.’s in spiritual things. “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."
I had an uncle who was a member of a secret order called the Rosicrucians. I think they sometimes refer to themselves as the Mystic Order of the Rosy Cross. It was one of these clubby things that people get into sometimes, and it purported to have secret knowledge and mysterious information. My father would often ask his brother, "What is this Rosicrucian thing? What is it all about? What do you do and what do you stand for?" My Uncle Ernest’s standard reply was always, "Oh, you wouldn’t understand!" "You wouldn’t understand!" Do I have to tell you how angry and how shut out that made my father feel? When there is knowledge out there, and somebody tells you you can’t have it, you feel shut out.
Men and women, as we begin this Advent season, let’s remember that part of what God is about in Jesus Christ is making Himself known. He is revealing Himself. He is including us who feel shut out by letting us in on the communication loop. In this Advent season we hear again the ancient text, "The word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory ... full of grace and truth." Jesus is the friend of the shut out because He was and is disclosing to us the ultimate things of the Father. He is stripping away some of the mystery of God. He is making God available to our little human minds. He is the friend of the shut out. He trusts us with truth.
Oh, I’m, so glad to be a part of a community that values knowledge. I’m so pleased to be associated with a church that encourages people, that trusts people, to study the Bible. God’s truth is available to us. It is not something we have to leave to the experts and the scholars; it is here for the taking. God’s truth is not shut away from us. Do you realize that in medieval England it was actually illegal to translate or to study the Bible unless you were a priest, that they executed men like John Wyclif and William Tyndale, whose only sin was that they translated the Bible into the language of the common plowboy? I tell you, it is a precious treasure, to know that the friend of the shut out includes us in by trusting us with the truth. "I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."
What a friend we have in Jesus! The friend of the shut out trusts us with the truth.
But there is something more that He does for us. There is another dimension to Jesus, the friend of the shut out.
Not only does He trust us with the truth; He also trusts us with a mission. He gives us something to do and He trusts us to do it. He gives us a task to perform and then He trusts us to do that task.
Listen: "You are my friends if you do what I command you ... you did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last." The friend of the shut out includes us by trusting us with a mission.
I submit to you that one of the most excluding things anybody can do is to give you an assignment and then come along and do it for you. One of the most devastatingly shutting out things anyone can do is to tell you you have a task to perform, and then just wipe you out by doing it himself.
A number of years ago, in another church ... because surely, surely this wouldn’t happen here … in another church, I was told about the preschool Sunday School class. It seems that that they were going to make greeting cards for their mothers for Christmas. They would cut and paste lace and scraps and pictures on colored paper, and come up with a creation to give Mom after Sunday School. Would I please come in and watch? Well, I went in the classroom and watched. I saw a pile of colored paper, a mound of lacy things, a couple of magazines with brightly colored pictures. I saw a pair of scissors and a pot of glue. I also saw ten moppets buzzing around the table, eager to put their hands on things and start creating.
But then, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a teacher, waving them off! Pushing aside every little hand, ordering every little body to sit down in its seat. And said teacher proceeded to cut the pictures, trim the lace, paste it all together, and hand out the products, one by one, to each child. “Here, you can give this to Mommy now; tell her you love her and you made it just for her".
I guess I wasn’t too surprised that when the bell rang for the close of Sunday School, every one of those Christmas cards, perfectly crafted and beautifully pasted ... by the teacher ... every one of those cards was left behind, trampled on, and forgotten about.
There is nothing so shutting out as not being trusted with the task. There is no one who feels so shut out as the person whose mission is taken away. But there is also no one who feels more empowered, no one who feels more included, no one who feels more built up, than the one who is trusted with a mission.
I remember my grandfather. He died when I was only nine years old, but this I remember. He had been a master mechanic for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad; he was one of those people who could make anything work. As a young man he had crafted a working miniature steam-powered locomotive and had entered it in the St. Louis World’s Fair, about 1890. He was a tinkering genius. And so, in retirement, he had a basement workshop, which was most attractive to a small boy, and every time we were at my grandparents’ house, I just had to be puttering around in that workshop with my grandfather. One day he asked me if I wanted to build an airplane. Would I like to build an airplane in his shop?
Well, against the proclamations of my no-nonsense grandmother, who already knew it would not fly; against the murmurings of my fastidious mother, who thought I might get dirty, my grandfather said, "Come on, let’s go." And, using an orange crate, some old wagon wheels, some plywood scraps, an old fan motor, and other odds and ends, we built an airplane. No, it didn’t fly; my name is Smith, not Orville Wright. And yes, I did get dirty, but it washed off.
However, I will tell you what did fly, and I will tell you what did not wash off. What did fly was my sense of accomplishment! What did fly was my self-esteem! What did not wash off was the affirmation I got out of being allowed to try something for myself! What did not wash off was knowing that I was not shut out of this family. The master had trusted me with this task!
Oh, men and women, Jesus is the friend of the shut out, because He trusts us with a mission. He trusts us to do a most important task. "You are my friends if you do what I command you ... you did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last."
Jesus, the friend of the shut out, is including us in the task of Kingdom building. He is including us in His mission of redeeming other lives. He does not shut us out because we are clumsy, He does not shut us out because we are unsure of ourselves, He does not shut us out because we are not good enough. He is the friend of the shut out, and He trusts us with His mission.
What a friend we have! What a friend we have in Jesus! He trusts us with the truth, and He trusts us with a mission to perform. We are not shut out! We are included.
But there is another way in which Jesus is the friend of the shut out, and this is the best of all. There is another way in which Jesus has become the friend of the excluded and the shut out, and it is the deepest good news of all.
Jesus is the friend of the shut out because He has paid the price to include us; He has paid a price we could not pay for ourselves. Jesus is the friend of the shut out because He has borne a cost that we could not bear for ourselves.
Oh, hear this word of the Lord: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."
Jesus is the friend of the shut out, because on the cross of Calvary He laid down His very life for us. He reached out and included us in His great, "Whosoever will may come". He reached down to the lowest of the low, He reached out to the most remote and the most distant, He reached up to the most aloof and the most uncertain, and He paid the price in His own blood. He paid the price of admission that we could not pay.
Oh, I tell you, nothing feels more including than to have someone pay the price of admission. Someone calls up and says, "I have tickets to a concert; I thought you and your wife might like to go with me!" How wonderful that feels!
Some of our youth ... it’s getting close to time for that ski trip. Last year you knew you don’t have the money for it. But the Youth Committee is sometimes able to say, "Someone gave the money so that you could go"! You not only felt excitement about skiing; you also felt so much a part of this church, you felt included, you felt not-shut-out!
Some other folks here ... you’ve been without jobs, or just short on funds ... what did you feel when, thanks to the generosity of others in this fellowship, I was able to visit you and give you a check? Not a large one, but something that said, "We know, we care, and you are a part of us. You are not shut out. The world, the job market may have shut you out, but we do not shut you out." Somebody is paying the price for you, to include you. How does that feel?
How many ways may I say it? How can I find the eloquence with which to express it? Jesus is the friend of the shut out because at Calvary he paid the price in blood, sweat, and tears, the price we could never pay, the price for our sin, the cost of our foolishness. He did it to break down the walls that separate us from God and from one another. He did it to call us friends. Friends. "I have called you friends … no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."
What a friend! What a friend! What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a friend!
Last Sunday afternoon, after I finished here, I went to preach for the First Spanish Baptist Church of Maryland. Now, you know, no habla Espana!. I was a little shaky about how I was going to preach with a translator. But, more than that, I was not sure how these folks, almost all of whom are first-generation immigrants, would accept this very Anglo-Saxon, white bread, ancestors-back-to-the-Mayflower preacher.
Now I could pick up a few words along the way. Not many, though. Why do these folks talk at such lightning speed? I gave up trying to sing the hymns in my fractured Spanish and just sang the words I knew, along with yabba-dabba-doo when I couldn’t remember. But I did catch a few Spanish words. And some stuck in my mind.
So after I had been introduced, when I stood up to preach, I tried a little something. They were kind enough not to laugh when I attempted it, "Hermanos y hermanas, Jesus es salvador, Jesus es Senor". Brothers and sisters, Jesus is savior. Jesus is lord.
I don’t think, then that it’s any accident that after the message, all the little children in the house came running up and threw out their arms in a gesture of love, No accident at all. They knew that the funny-looking gringo was a brother, a brother, because Jesus was his savior, Jesus was his lord.
He is the friend of the shut out. He will be your friend too, if you will receive Him. What a friend you may have in Jesus!