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An Open Door
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RENEWAL LEAVE UPDATE #5

I had the privilege of preaching at the Tunnelton Presbyterian Church in Tunnelton, PA, on Sunday morning. This was my grandparents’ church and the church where I was baptized. In many ways, this was like coming full circle—coming back to the church where my spiritual journey began. For this week’s update, I’m posting the message I delivered to this little church which was been part of the community since 1878.

 

AN OPEN DOOR

Genesis 18:1-15; Revelation 3:14-22

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Tunnelton Presbyterian Church

Tunnelton, PA

It is really great to be here this morning in a place that is a part of home for me. Of course, as I take this pulpit I’m reminded of the story of the only time Jesus returned to his hometown to preach. At the end of it, the crowd looked to throw him off a cliff. There are fewer cliffs here, but a lot more bridges and railroad trestles…so we’ll see how it goes. 

 

This place is “home” for me in a real sense. Our mom, Ora Lee, was raised here in Tunnelton by her uncle and aunt, Bob and Edith Russell, who would become grandparents to my sisters and me. Many of my cousins on the Duke side of the family lived here and still live here. I spent the first couple of years of my life living in a house in Coaltown, and while we moved to Butler County and went to school there, we returned here to Tunnelton often, particularly during holidays and during the summers, where we picked the best sweet corn in the world from Uncle Elmer Duke’s cornfields and my cousins and I played baseball from sunup to sundown, only stopping when someone finally got plunked with a ball they couldn’t see in the dark, or if Mike hit the ball into the woods and we couldn’t find it…whichever came first. 

 

This church is a big part of that history and my memories. I was baptized right here on September 13, 1964. My great uncle, Joe Duke, held me, and my baptismal certificate was also signed by Alice Long and Nat Nesbit, who were longtime members. Every Sunday we were in town, we drove down here in Pap’s brown ‘73 Ford Galaxy 500 for Sunday School and worship. I sat in these pews with my mom, and with Pap and Nanny (as we called them).

 

“The Light of the World.”

William Holman Hunt, 1853

It was such a fascinating place compared to our church in Butler. For one thing, it had an outhouse at the time—no indoor bathroom. That outhouse was a dark and scary place, so I knew not to drink too much at breakfast. I loved the feel of the old building, though, and especially the people in it—they became spiritual mentors for me at a very early age. I remember Nanny constantly plying me with sticks of Beeman’s Gum or those little root beer barrel  candies to keep me occupied during worship. But of all the things I remember most, it is that picture of Jesus knocking on the door that always drew my attention. If the sermon was boring (like this one), I simply studied the picture.

 

I learned later that the title of this painting is “The Light of the World” and it was painted in 1853 by British artist William Holman Hunt. It was widely copied and very popular among Protestant churches at the time, thus a copy found its way here. It’s based on one of the texts we read earlier—Jesus standing at the door and knocking on an individual’s heart, wanting to come in. If you look closely you will notice there is no door handle on Jesus’ side—it has to be opened from the inside. It’s a beautiful image and it depicts an important truth—Jesus is never an uninvited guest in our lives. We must invite him in and receive him. 

 

But when I went to seminary and studied the book of Revelation, I learned that the verse the painting is based on actually has a very different context. It’s not a verse directed at an individual, but to a whole church—the church at Laodicea, one of the seven churches to whom John gives the message he received from Jesus. It’s hard to see this in the English translation, but all of the second person pronouns in this message are plural—written not just to “you” an individual, but to “you all” (or as they say around here, “all a yinz.” So when Jesus says, “Listen, I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you and you with me,” he is saying this to the whole church—and at this point it was a church that had lost its way. 

 

Laodicea was a wealthy and prosperous town in what is now modern day Turkey. The church there had grown prosperous as well, with lots of wealthy benefactors, but as with many affluent churches it had become complacent, relying on comfort and ease rather than taking risks for the Gospel. The people had become fat, dumb, and happy, going through the motions of their discipleship. They didn’t realize, however, that they were spiritually poor—indeed, Jesus says that they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (v. 17). They are of little use to the cause of Christ as they then stood, and through John Jesus uses a metaphor to describe their situation. 

 

Laodicea had no water supply of its own—water had to be brought in from several miles away using an aqueduct (which the Romans were famous for building). The problem was that the only water source was a hot spring, which meant that when the water arrived in Laodicea it was lukewarm. Nobody really likes lukewarm water—it’s not good for much. I mean, do you have a “lukewarm” knob on your sink? We want hot water for washing and bathing and cold water for drinking. This water was warm, had a lot of sediment in it, and required a lot of doctoring to use it. And Jesus basically says to the church—you are like your water—you are neither hot nor cold; you are lukewarm and I am about to spit you out. But, he says, there is still a chance for you to change—I am knocking at the door, if you, the church (all’a yinz) will let me in, I will come in and eat with you and you with me. In the Middle East, to share a meal with someone is a sign that you are friends for life. Jesus desires to be part of their fellowship again, to be present with them in Word and sacrament, and to restore them to their mission. He wants them to be washed in the warm water of baptism and refreshed by the cool living water of his presence; to be on fire and hot with the gospel and willing to give a cup of cold water to those in need. When Jesus comes in as the invited guest, he quickly becomes the host and changes everything. The letter to the church at Laodicea is thus a warning and an invitation—when Jesus knocks, answer the door! 

 

That’s quite a contrast to Jesus’ letter to the previous church here in Revelation 3–the church at Philadelphia. No, it’s not the same Philadelphia where the Flyers play (I know as Christians we’re not supposed to hate anyone, but I keep looking for Scriptural justification that the Flyers are an exception to that rule). Anyway, this Philadelphia was also in western Turkey and it’s a church in a much different situation than affluent Laodicea. Look at verse 8 – “I know you have but little power and yet you have kept my word and not denied my name.” They are a poor, persecuted church, but they have remained faithful. And so Jesus says to them, “I know your works. I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut…” Did you catch that? At this church, Jesus didn’t need to knock—the door was already open, open for Jesus to come in and for the people to go out. It’s a church that understood its mission. It may have been a small and struggling congregation, but God had opened a door for them to do the work of the gospel, and it was a door that no one and no situation could shut. 

 

With my sister Beth Kaylor Sinclair

in a place special to both of us.

The doors to this little church in Tunnelton, PA, have been open for worship since 1878. It’s never been a large church, never been especially prosperous, but the gospel has been proclaimed here for generations and has changed the lives of people. I stand here today as a product of this little church—it was here that my spiritual journey began. I received the hospitality and teaching of Jesus every time I walked through those doors as a kid, and I am deeply humbled and honored to be standing in this pulpit today. There are so many memories here. 

 

But we live in a time where churches everywhere are struggling. Our culture is changing; people don’t go to church as much as they used to. Indeed, many have become hostile to Christianity and see it as a barrier to the agenda of progress—progress defined in our culture as unrestrained freedom to do whatever with whomever whenever you want. I pastor a large church in Colorado, but we experience the same issues—it’s tougher to be a Christian today and harder to be the church. It’s like being a rock in the middle of the Conemaugh River—everything is pushing against you, wanting to take you downstream. 

 

A lot of churches today are worried about keeping the doors open; but this passage reminds us that it is Jesus who opens doors that can never be shut. When Jesus is invited in, a church can thrive no matter the situation. It’s never been about numbers anyway. Remember that Jesus changed the world with 12 guys who came from towns that were smaller than Tunnelton. It’s not about how big or how much, but about whether a church is running hot with the gospel and cold with the living water of Jesus. What matters is maintaining an open door that can never be shut. 

 

That open door enables traffic to go both ways. Yes, we open the door to Jesus, but it’s also through the open door that we go out to extend Jesus’ hospitality and invitation to others. Because the truth is that when you welcome others into the open door, you are welcoming the Lord. 

 

That’s the point of our Old Testament lesson from Genesis. Notice how Genesis 18 begins: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre…” How would you know if the Lord appeared? We’d expect it to be pretty awesome, spectacular, and terrifying. But in this case, the Lord appears to Abraham in the person of three ordinary men (whom early Christian writers saw as representative of the Trinity). Abraham doesn’t recognize them as divine visitors, at least not at first. But notice verse 2–“When [Abraham] saw them, he ran from the tent entrance [the door] to meet them and bowed to the ground.” And then he invites them in for food and refreshment—he extends hospitality. Come and have supper and rest a bit. Abraham didn’t wait for a knock, he ran out to meet his potential guests and invited them in—not recognizing that in doing so he was hosting God himself! Having been invited in, the Lord in the person of these three men delivers the news that the elderly Abraham and Sarah’s long awaited son would soon be born. And all this happened because of an open door. God’s promise would be realized in the most unlikely of situations. 

 

When I was a kid running around these parts, I don’t remember there ever being a closed and locked door. You could show up at a cousin’s house, or a neighbors, or at an aunt and uncle’s, and you were always welcomed in and usually fed something really good. It was a place of open doors, including the church on Sunday mornings. Later I would learn that most places aren’t like that, but I am always glad to have experienced those open doors at least once in my life. They have helped to shape me into who I am today. 

 

With my cousins Mike (right)

and Darrin Reid

A couple of months ago I was back in the area to officiate at my baby sister Sandy’s funeral and Mike and I had a chance to reconnect after a very long time. We were talking about the fact that he had taken on leadership of this church after years of serving as an elder at another one. He felt the need to help keep these doors open, like they have been for our family and the people of this community for 140 years. Mike said, “I felt the Lord calling me to do what I can to help and to keep proclaiming the name of Jesus in the town of Tunnelton.” 

 

When I was a kid, I looked up to my cousin Mike. As an adult now, I admire him even more. In fact, I admire all of you who have invested your lives in keeping these old doors open, welcoming people in the name of Jesus. 

 

But I also want to challenge you this morning—an open door is also an invitation to go out and, like Abraham, to invite someone else in to experience the hospitality and love of Christ found here. The open door is an invitation to welcome extended family, neighbors, and even strangers to discover what happens when you are part of Jesus’ family. After all, when you welcome someone, even a stranger, you never know who you’re actually welcoming! Abraham would  discover these three men were actually representatives of God. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some of entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). When you invite others in, you are opening the door for the Lord himself to come and abide, to dwell with you, to set before you an open door that can never be shut. 

 

It is a powerful experience for me to be here this morning, and an emotional one. Most of the people I knew in these pews are gone to be with the Lord—but then again, they are not really gone—the door is open to them as well. Hebrews also tells us that as we gather here today we are surrounded by a  “great cloud of witnesses”—with all those faithful people who have been part of this great church. And so, following their example, we must “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-2).

 

The doors of this little church matter. You matter. You are a portal for people to become part of the family of Jesus. “I have set before you an open door,” he says. May that door always be open here in Tunnelton.

Amen. 

 

 


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