How to Make a Bigger Circle


At West Rowan Middle School, where I was once a student, the day started about the same every morning. Seventh and eight graders got to school by bus or their parents giving them a ride and all of our classes were on one long hall and kids would be going to their locker and getting ready for class, and every morning there was a circle that would form of the most popular boys and girls. They were talking about plans for the weekend, who was dating who, and what they thought about things, but the content of the conversation was far less important than who was in this circle of power.

There were some kids who had such a cache of cool they would always be in the circle, and some kids who couldn’t hope to ever be in the circle, but then there were a lot of people in the middle — the kids who were on the edge. Maybe if they said the right thing, or wore the right clothes, or worried enough about it, or made friends with the right people they could get into the circle.

There was this tremendous gravity pulling everyone in so there would be three and four rows deep around the circle of people hoping to get in. You could feel the palpable desire. People on the outside were hoping someone would leave the circle and they could just squeeze their way in and maybe be unnoticed but just be there, or more truthfully, probably, hoping that someone would invite them in and make room for them because they were wanted in the circle.

The truth is that this doesn’t happen only in seventh and eighth grade or at West Rowan Middle School but it happens at lots of schools.

And it happens for adults in the places that we work or among the people that we know.

And it happens in the church.

There are insiders and outsiders. And its true that there are greater and lesser degrees of being aware of all this going on.

John, one of Jesus’ disciples comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher there was someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us – because he wasn’t one of the people in your inner circle.

The heartbreak of course is that John is so worried about who is in and who is out of the circle that he misses the real point that the man who was casting out demons in Jesus name was bringing healing and relief to lots and lots of people.

Living in the 21st century, we might not know what to think about demons and we can be glad that they aren’t mentioned in the Apostles Creed as something we even necessarily have to subscribe to. There is a freedom to believe that the term is a stand-in for mental and physical illnesses that weren’t to be diagnosed for a long time. Of course, we can also believe that some sort of personified evil or dark force may have inhabited people. I have certainly known people who have seemed to have demons – something hard to describe but no less real – that they couldn’t quite shake and that tormented them.

Whichever it is, to talk about someone “having demons” could only be meant to describe a person with some sort of sickness, it could only mean someone who is living with hurt and heaviness and darkness and misery – and how heartbreaking that John couldn’t see how glorious it would be for these people to experience relief and health and release and freedom from these dark forces.

But sometimes we can get so focused on who is inside and who is outside and our own place in it all that we lose sight of the bigger picture and what is important.

Jesus’ kind but firm response to John is that the inner circle that John has imagined isn’t a reality and that John and this man are not enemies or separate from one another in some way but are working for the same thing.

Jesus shows his true friendship and compassion to John in how carefully he invites him to see his point of view. He could have brought up the fact that John’s motivation for his complaint in the first place is his jealousy and that the reason he is mad and hurt is because he and the other disciples had just recently tried to cast demons out of people and failed. Miserably.

Instead, Jesus invites John to give up his desire for power and his hunger for a place of privilege and be humble enough to receive from those who would minister to him: “For truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

Jesus cares for those that others would consider outsiders, talking with and befriending women, the poor, the forgotten and overlooked; a man who heals the leprous, the blind and the sick.

Jesus is so devoted to those people who others would consider outsiders and who others would exclude that he turns the world upside down and inside out by being abandoned by all and crucified outside the city walls of Jerusalem, in order to bring you and me and the whole world into the circle of God’s embrace.

Jesus binds us all together in the embrace of God and we are made one body, even though we are different and have different experiences.

Those of you who are suffering – there is a place for you. Those of you who are cheerful – there is a place for you. Those of you who are sick – there is a place for you.

Jesus casts out the demons of exclusivity and control and privilege and includes everyone in his community… and he asks us to do the same.

And the gift he gives to us to enlarge the circle until it includes everyone is prayer.

James writes: Those who are suffering should pray for strength and healing. Those who are cheerful should sing songs of praise, which is just a prayer with a melody. And those who are sick should call the elders and let them know you’re sick so we they come to you and pray with you in person.

James says, in these words addresses to the entire community, “pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

The Southern English translation of the Greek is, “Y’all pray for one another, so that y’all may be healed.”

Or the real, real Southern translation, “all y’all pray for one another, so that all y’all may be healed.”

Whatever dialect, the meaning is clear. We are all healed when we all pray for one another.

James’ words are not addressed just to individuals but to the community in which everyone has a place, no matter their circumstance. Everyone in this community is worthy or our prayer.

A wonderful, sweet and faithful woman who is a member of the congregation was in the office this week. She is sick but there is a very good treatment. All the same, it came as a shock to get the diagnosis she received.

She was telling us the news and we asked her, “would you like to be put on the prayer list?”

And she said, “Well…I’m not dying.”

And we said, “You don’t have to be dying to be put on the prayer list.”

She said, “Well….if you have space.”

Prayer is a powerful gift from God and there is space, there is room in our prayers, for all whom we hold up to God, because God has already made room for us all.

Prayer truly heals us and enlarges our heart.

This past week thirty-one women were given a temporary home in Price Hall as lots and lots of us made meals, washed clothes, and befriended our guests.

The seventh and eighth graders of our youth group and their families volunteered to cook dinner on Wednesday night. There were more than a dozen of us who gathered in the kitchen to cook ham, potatoes, green beans, and dessert, and was about a half an hour to forty-five minutes of down time after we got everything in the oven and while we waited for it to cook. So we were just waiting and during this time the women who were staying with us all arrived back at Epiphany, from working or looking for work.

Some of the kids had a question ball. A question ball is a large, inflated ball that has maybe 50 questions written all over it, which is used to get to know one another better. You throw the ball to someone and when they catch it, they read off the question that is under their right thumb and share their name and answer the question. There are questions like: What book would you take to a deserted island? If you could ask God one question what would it be? If an actor played you in a movie about your life who would it be?

On Wednesday night, the game started with just a few people – a couple girls and one of the girl’s father— but they invited more people to play, and as they did the group formed into a circle and as people walked by they would say, “won’t you join our circle and play with us?” And each time someone new joined in, everyone would take a step back and make room for more people in the circle.

And all of a sudden there was this large circle of seventh and eighth graders, their parents, and a woman named Melanie who was one of our guests, all tossing the ball back and forth, asking questions and taking time to get to know one another. And many of our guests were invited but declined to join in the circle, too tired to stand up on their feet after a long day, but they pulled up their chairs and watched and listened and laughed along so that the circle became, really, everyone in the room.

These seventh and eighth graders and their parents have an answer to the question “How do we make the circle bigger?” In the name of Jesus, you take a step back and make room.

Where are the places in our individual lives, in the workplace and school, that we have an opportunity to step back and make room and invite people into the fellowship of Jesus?

What are the opportunities we have as a congregation to step back and make room for others to be a part of friendship in Christ?

May the Holy Spirit remind us that God’s embrace of love encircles our lives and may that same Spirit inspire us to step back and make a place for others so that they know they are loved and that there is a place where their face is welcome.

From this Seed

Well, this is finally it. For most of our students and their families, this is the very last weekend of your summer (Not that you needed me to tell you!). You have today and tomorrow and then your whole world will change.

This past week at Epiphany Nursery School, the halls were buzzing with parents and children. Some of the kids brought flowers picked from their yard to give to their brand-new teacher. Some came extending drawings in ecstatic reds and blues. Some of the teachers had gifts to give their new students. One teacher was handing out Teddy Grahams with a card stapled to the corner saying, I’m BEARY glad to have you in my class.

This coming week all over town students will ride school buses, catch rides from parents, or drive themselves to school, and locate their room, and find their very own desk and sit down with expectant, perhaps even nervous hearts in front of their new teacher, asking: Who is this person? What’s she like? Will we get along with one another?

The 7th chapter of the gospel of Mark begins to develop a picture of Jesus as Teacher and invites us find a seat and to sit down in front of him to see who he is, what he’s like, what his hopes are for us. And we are given a chance to see who Jesus is by the contrast that is developed in comparison to those other famous teachers – the Pharisees.

In schools these days, especially high schools, there are sometimes fights – There’s a lot of emotion and sometimes a lot of frustration coursing through your veins when you’re a teen or preteen – and I have heard about these fights. Sometimes the fighting in the hall is just bumping one another, but sometimes there’s a push and it can become a fist fight, as a large group gathers around to watch.

It goes without saying that these fights are usually between students. It would be strange to see teachers in a fight. However, what we have today in the gospel is a teacher fight, and not in the privacy of the teachers’ lounge but out in public.

Jesus has been traveling and healing people in cities and on their farms and wherever he meets them, and when he passes through this village, a group of teachers – the pharisees and some of the scribes from Jerusalem – they surround Jesus in the hall. And they have come for a fight.

Because these Teachers have a particular paradigm – they want to teach about God, and to be faithful to God. And they think they are more faithful than Jesus.

The Pharisees’ burning passion was to sanctify and make all aspects of life holy. They lived and breathed to remember and remind Israel that God had called them to be a light to the nations and to show the world what it looked to live in covenant relationship with God.

If God had given them the law, they would follow it, and they would go further. Since the law required the priests to wash their hands before performing holy actions, they would teach that everyone should abide by the law of ritual hand washing, so that everyone could be as holy and set apart as the priests. They say: Let’s wash our hands and cups and pots and all sorts of things in the kitchen when we eat as a reminder of God and our relationship with him.

And now as these Teachers gather around Jesus they are really on a mission, because the backstory is that they’re worried about the future of their faith. The numbers are coming in and it doesn’t look good. The numbers of people who identify as “nones”- that is, those people unaffiliated with faith – is on the rise. Since the Roman empire has overtaken their people, less of the Hebrews are coming to synagogue, they are more often found in the colosseum. The Pharisees want to renew the people and call them back into relationship with God.

Their desire to wash hands and to perform other sacred rites is simply a desire to have ways to remember God. These Pharisees want to be faithful and they will attack anything that they see as a threat to that aim, even this new teacher in town, and they have come for a pedagogical showdown with the intention of embarrassing Jesus in front of his disciples and the crowd by proving that he is not as devoted and faithful to God as they are.

But Jesus points out their misunderstanding. They have come to believe that their relationship with God is as good as their own end of the bargain. They have come to believe that their devotion to God is what keeps the relationship with him healthy. They have become enamored with their own perceived goodness.

If we’re honest with ourselves and one another, we might agree that sometimes our own discipleship can become an attempt to impress ourselves and others rather than a sincere attempt to be faithful to God.

If I’m honest with you, I would tell you that I sometimes wonder if we believe in Jesus and his promise.

Oh, I know we sing and pray to him. We talk about him. We believe that God sent his Son into the world, that he died on the cross, and that rose from the dead to walk out of the grave – and he did it for all of us.

But do we believe in Jesus to help us when we’re in trouble? Do we really believe in his promise and make decisions based on that belief, or do we most often believe that it’s up to us to save ourselves, to use our own intelligence, to work it all out for ourselves, and to figure our own way out of the jams we get ourselves into? Do we rely on ourselves rather than trusting Jesus to save us, and help us, and guide us?

We live in a culture with a deeply-rooted belief that its up to us to save ourselves through our good grades, completed projects, strategic thinking, our morality or success or whatever else. We hear it so much and so often, we’re all susceptible to believing the lie.

But this is the truth: only Jesus saves us.

These Pharisees mean well. They mean as well as we do when we believe our prayers will save us, our attendance in church will save us, our volunteering at a food bank or local school, or anywhere else will save us.

But salvation does not come within us. It comes from outside of us, from God, as a gift.

One coming-of-age story that some young children will read this fall is Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White’s story of a pig headed to the slaughter and certain death, but saved by an industrious web-spinning spider who writes superlatives above his stall such as, “some pig,” “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble.” These astonishing messages in silk bring attention to Wilbur and convince his owners that he is better to them alive and so they allow him to live and subsequently to compete in the county fair.

After the exhilaration of competing in the fair, Wilbur and Charlotte talk to one another alone in Wilbur’s stall.

“Charlotte,” Wilbur said after a while, “why are you so quiet?”

“I like to sit still” she said, “I’ve always been rather quiet.”

“Yes, but you seem especially so today. Do you feel alright?”

“A little tired perhaps, but I feel peaceful. Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur – this lovely world, these precious days…”

Charlotte stopped. A moment later a tear came to Wilbur’s eye. “Oh, Charlotte, why did you do all this for me? I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”

If you have any knowledge of yourself, any self-awareness, any self-understanding, Jesus’ words ring true: for it is from within the human heart that evil intentions come. We don’t deserve God and we do not do anything for God.

So God comes down to us in the word, in the meal, and in the bath of our daily baptism. God comes down to us to penetrate into our hearts.

The Luther’s Rose illustrates how God puts his word into our hearts and, from that seed, our life blooms into health and faithfulness.

The real challenge from the gospel is that it asks for true transformation of our heart.

As for me and my house: Let me at the ritual practices. Where’s the water and the soap. It would be easy to follow the most complicated hand-washing instructions or the most convoluted ritual practices, but instead the gospel invites us to leave ourselves open to the transforming power of Jesus Christ.

So we throw ourselves on the mercy of God and pray: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Jesus invites us to follow him in trusting God with our life, and to trust that even if we come to the cross, we will come to the empty tomb, where God remakes the world and shows us that Jesus is the teacher we can trust.

So may we trust Christ with our worry, with our fear, with our hope, and with our future. Christ is faithful and he is worthy to be praised.