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.