If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Our Mother City: Revelation 21:1-6a

 *This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on All Saints Sunday, October 28, 2012

What is your idea of paradise; that ideal place where you could  forever. Picture it in your mind for a moment. What do you imagine paradise looks like? A mirror lake nestled among the snowcapped mountains? Fields of waltzing grain? Waves crashing into foam on a sandy shore? An unspoiled wilderness? Farmland with rolling hills and ripe orchards?

Did any of you imagine a city? Hubbard? Woodburn? Canby? Portland? New York? For many of us the city resembles paradise about as much as Hubbard farmland resembles downtown Los Angeles? And yet, John had a vision in which paradise looked, strangely enough, like a city. As a matter of fact, it looked like Jerusalem; a thousand-year-old, cramped city, twice destroyed, without much splendor. This is paradise? I wonder what it would be like if we imagined our own cities as paradise?

Paradise can be envisioned as a new city. John had a vision of the new heaven and earth as a city, a new Jerusalem, descending from heaven. His vision of a new Jerusalem stood in sharp contrast to the pompous city of Rome. John refers to Rome under the cryptic title of another ancient city-- Babylon, where Israel was once held hostage. Both of these cities represented godlessness, oppression, injustice, and violence. It was Rome that was oppressing God's people at the time of John's writing. Rome flattened their beloved city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The city of Rome represented all that was oppressive, hurtful, and destructive of community to the Christians in Asia Minor of John's day.

We might compare John's vision of paradise to a black South African envisioning a new Soweto, a Bosnian envisioning a new Sarajevo, an unemployed man dreaming of a new Washington. People living in unjust and oppressive political situations often dream of their cities being made new. They envision a city without hungry children wandering in the streets, without farmers losing their farms to mounting debts, without tanks driving through streets of bombed out buildings. John, and other such dreamers of new worlds, envision future cities of hope that rise up in defiance of the old cities of their present pain.

John's vision is of a new city descending from heaven settling down on earth. In John's vision heaven is not seen as pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by and harps in the clouds. John's vision is earthy. His vision is made from a mixture of the sky and the soil; a new heaven and a new earth. The sod under our feet, the fields we plow, the brooks that gurgle, photons and neutrons, all of creation is made new by the touch of heaven's hand. The chasm separating heaven and earth is bridged. The longings expressed in the Lord's Prayer are finally fulfilled. God's name is hallowed. God's kingdom is come. God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The holy city descends from heaven to the earth. Paradise can be envisioned as a new city.

Since the vision is of a new Jerusalem, there is some continuity between the old and the new, between heaven and earth. This city is future and it is present. Within the old Jerusalem are the seeds of the new Jerusalem. The invisible is hidden beneath the visible. The new has been present in the bud of the old, waiting to flower. Glimpses of the new city can even be seen now in the old city. Pieces of heaven are hidden in the places we live here on earth. Or as Robert Browning put it: "Earth is crammed with heaven." The old Jerusalem is not totally unlike the new Jerusalem, just as the risen Christ is not unlike the earthly Jesus. Heaven is not totally unlike the earth. We have seen bits and pieces of heaven on the common ground we walk upon. We have caught glimpses of the heavenly city in the cities in which we live from day to day. Our vision of the new city is really the future hope of the full realization of God's will here on earth. The vision of this new city is not something totally other than the good we have experienced in our earthly cities, but the completion of what we now see only dimly and in part.

So now, we see the lights of this new city dimly reflected---in the courage of the woman who is working through the slow process of healing from abuse, in the clasped hands of leaders of nations that were once longtime enemies, in the full bellies of a homeless family, in stumbling grace of a a young woman kicking her addiction. The four walls of this city are peace, love, joy, and hope. And when we catch sight of it out of the corner of our eye, we recognize this city to be our true home.    

For God dwells in this new city. Since the division of earth and heaven has been healed, this new city is God's permanent home. And God will relate to the children who live in this new home as a loving Parent. God will be like a mother who wipes the tears of her child who has fallen. And like a compassionate Father, God will comfort the lonely man who has lost his wife to a heart attack. God will dry the eyes of those who have long endured the brokenness of their lives caused by early childhood traumas. Death, mourning, and crying will be no more. The pains and sorrows of the old city will be banished.

I know there are many of us, not only those who live in the areas surrounding cities near Zion, but those who care about the healing of all communities, who long for this new city to come. As citizens of the heavenly city, those who live in urban and rural areas long to see the day when there are no longer drug dealers on the streets or racism in its neighborhoods. There are those who would rather be able to walk on streets that are safe and just, more than upon streets made of gold. We hope for the day when those in our world's cities who have tasted the bitter tears of war and death, may taste the fruits of the tree of life. We long to see those struggling to make ends meet with decent jobs and wages.  We long for the day when the races of peoples are reconciled and join hands in an eternal circle as brothers and sisters. Some of us long for that city where our bodies no longer hold us back from doing what our minds dream of doing, like when we were younger. We long for that city where disease and death no longer rob us of our loved ones, where tears are dried, mourning has ceased, grief has been healed. Citizens of heaven, that city is coming! Hallelujah! It lies just over the next horizon. It is a new city, where God forever dwells with God's people.

And this new city, she is our mother. Motherhood represents our primal connection to life, our identity, our most original, earthly relationship. Paul speaks of the new Jerusalem as our true mother. He makes an allegory of Hagar and Sarah as two covenants. Hagar is our covenant with earthly Jerusalem. Sarah is a new covenant with the heavenly Jerusalem. She is our true mother. The new Jerusalem is our mother city. The suffering, brokenness, and bondage of the old cities in which we live are foreign, temporary residences. Our true township doesn't have streets that are marked with signs that read---despair, depression, oppression, rejection, unloved. Those are not the streets of our true mother city. Look closely. Can you see the street names of our true city? The signs read---Freedom St. Hope Dr. Love Circle. Forgiveness Avenue. Peace Way. These are the hometown streets on which we walk. The new Jerusalem is our true mother city.

Can you envision paradise as such a city? If, like John, you can envision a new city coming, what would be the purpose? Surely John's vision of the new city is not a mere fantasy. He is not preaching escapism for those who live under the shadows of the old city. No. Rather, he is offering an alternative vision of the city for Christians who live in cities like Thyatira, Pergamum, Ephesus, Canby, Woodburn, Mollala and Hubbard. This vision was to be read in seven city churches in Asia Minor. Now, we read it from within the cities in which we dwell.

John's vision is subversive visionary rhetoric that instigates a new reality for the city. It's not just pie-in-the-sky images of what we wish our cities could be like, but never can be. Rather, the purpose of this vision of the new city is to move us to live as if the holy city is a present reality and to so create the reality around us as to reflect our vision. As someone once said, "Our visions, stories, and utopias, are not only aesthetic: they engage us." We are being called upon to imagine and live in a new reality of the city here and now in the light of the new city that's coming.

Until the city from above descends, we are to be about the business of laying its foundations. The ground is cleared by those who seek to serve God by serving their neighbor. The mortar is mixed by hands that sew quilts, share monetary resources, and volunteer in community human service organizations. The cement is poured out by those who visit the elderly, the lonely, the sick. The foundation of the new city is set in place by those challenge injustices and inequities in our institutions, church structures, communities, and political policies. The city that comes can only rest upon the foundations built by Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the whole communion of saints. The site where the holy city begins to touch down won't necessarily be Jerusalem for us, but rather the city where we live. As paradoxical as it may sound, it is in our own cities where we lay the foundation for the new city only God can build. In the cities where we live today we will seek to live within the borders of the city that is to come. In our very own cities is where we live for the city that is to come.

There was once a man was tired of the violence and injustice of his city. His family and friends sat for hours listening as he spoke passionately of his desire for a city where peace and justice were wed. Night after night his dreams were filled with images of a city where heaven touched the earth. One day he decided that he could wait no longer. He packed a meager meal, kissed his family, and set off in search of his heavenly city. He reached the woods at nightfall. After eating his meal he lay down to sleep on the hard earth. Again images of the heavenly city danced like phantoms in his dreams.

Upon waking he couldn't exactly remember which direction he had been traveling. But, nevertheless, he set out, driven by his strong desire to reach his new home. He didn't realize he was headed back to where he came from. Emerging from the woods he saw the skyline of a city on the horizon. A foggy haze made the city look like it was floating above the earth. "It must be the heavenly city," he thought. As he got closer to the city he thought it looked strangely familiar. Little did he know. He walked down a street that looked much like his own. He greeted some citizens that looked strangely like his old neighbors. He knocked on a familiar door and greeted the family he found there, and lived happily ever after in the heavenly city of his dreams.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth...and I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…and the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

To Whom Shall We go? John 6:56-69

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, October 21, 2012.
John Updike's novel In the Beauty of the Lilies tells the story of Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister during the early twentieth century. While reading Robert Ingersoll's book Some Mistakes of Moses in order to refute its atheism for a troubled parishioner, the good pastor watches his own faith slip away. He becomes convinced that Ingersoll is right, that "the God of the Pentateuch was an absurd bully, barbarically thundering through the cosmos entirely misconceived. There is no such God, nor should there be." Wilmot confesses his loss of faith to his wife:

My faith, my dear, seems to have fled. I not only no longer believe with an ideal fervor, I consciously disbelieve. My very voice rebelled, today, against my attempting to put some sort of good face on a doctrine that I intellectually detest. Ingersoll, Hume, Darwin, Renan, Nietzsche—it all rings true, when you’ve read enough to have it sink in; they have not just reason on their side but simple humanity and decency as well. Jehovah and his pet Israelites, that bloody tit-for-tat of the Atonement, the whole business of condemning poor fallible men and women to eternal Hell for a few mistakes in their little lifetimes, the notion in any case that our spirits can survive without eyes or brains or nerves—Stel, it’s been a fearful struggle, I’ve twisted my mind in loops to hold on to some sense in which these things are true enough to preach, but I’ve got to let go or go crazy. I love you for feeling otherwise, and would never argue a man or child out of whatever they believe, but to me it’s all become relics, things left over from our childish nightmares, when there’s daylight now all around us—this is the twentieth century! I can’t keep selling myself and others the opposite of what jumps out at me from every newspaper and physical fact I see. The universe is a hundred percent matter, with the energy that comes in waves out of matter, and poor old humankind is on its own and always has been.”

When Wilmot seeks to resign his ministry, he is accused of selfishness by his wife and told by the moderator of his presbytery to remain in the ministry despite his doubts. But, Reverend Wilmot wants to be true to himself and his unbelief.

The novel traces four generations of the Wilmot family in and out of faith. Updike's characters remind us that some followers, in all honesty, turn away from their faith, while others choose, in all honesty, to remain believers.

Sometimes I’ve wondered why some people turn away from their faith. I have not always understood how at one moment in life someone can live in faith and another moment try to live without it. I have wondered how a person can begin to follow Christ, then later just stop following. Well, it happened one day after Jesus told a crowd of his followers that they must munch on his body and slurp down his blood. Did they take his words literally and think Jesus was calling them to become zombies for Jesus or cannibals for Christ? The dispute that ensued sounds like a much later church conflict over whether or not the bread and the cup of the Eucharist are the real body and blood of Christ. We know that the Romans, who heard of the early Christians practice of eating Christ body and blood, accused them of cannibalism! What Jesus meant by saying that his disciples must eat his body and drink his blood was probably about the necessity of consuming his teachings and feeding on his life to have life withinthem. But, some took his very graphic language to be a bit too much for them, particularly for Jews who avoided rare steak, let alone consuming blood.

Or those who heard this hard saying of Jesus very well may have clearly understood him. Maybe they realized that it meant to radically follow Jesus. It meant consuming and being consumed by Jesus. It meant daily taking upon oneself the identity of being a follower of Jesus, even when things got rough, even when there was a cross down the road, even when it meant becoming part of his peculiar people, and even when it meant standing out within their own Jewish culture. It’s interesting to note that after Jesus’ hard saying about his body and blood there is a statement about one who did not believe and would betray Jesus at the Last Supper. Mention is also made in the context of this saying about Jesus’brothers, who didn’t believe in him. Those are the hard realities.

I’m afraid that we in the church today often want to soft pedal or alter Jesus’ hard sayings, rather than understand them and their deeper implications for our lives. I’m afraid the church is in the business of domesticating Jesus and taming the gospel. We want to make them more comfortable through our compromises. We find ourselves in the company of some earlier disciples who said, “Jesus, your teaching about eating your body and blood is just too harsh. And if it means that we must consume your life, then that’s going too far. It offends my sensibilities and my family members. You aren’t looking to drive away potential followers are you? Couldn’t you say something a bit more palatable and that doesn’t cause people to have to decide for or against you.”

We don’t like Jesus hard words. We don’t like it when Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Carrying my own form of execution? That sounds too harsh. Can’t our relationship be more casual? We don’t like it when Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Youcan’t mean Muslims! That’s going way too far, Jesus. Does this mean I have to stop supporting any and every war? We don’t like it when Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. If you don’t hate your own family, for my sake, you cannot be my disciple.“ Hate my own family? Are you serious? Do you mean that my love for Christ should be so deep that next to it my love for my own family looks like hate? I don’t know if I could tolerate any division in my family over following Christ? We don’t like it when Jesus says, “Unless you consume my body and blood, digest all that I am into your life, then you have no life in you.” Jesus, can’t you tone down all that exclusive language? Aren’t we all believers in our own way?

In seeming contrast to my own message last Sunday let me say this: We don’t like it when there are boundaries to our Christian circle. Would Jesus consider as his true followers all the nominal Christians, half-hearted, occasional, cultural Christians, people who just want to take a little lick of Jesus, but don’t want to consume and be consumed by Christ? By their lives and practice many are in essence saying, “If this journey is too narrow, too well defined, too intense, too time consuming, too life consuming, too harsh, too much like a cross, then I don’t know if I want to be a follower any longer.”

I hear a deep sadness in the tone of the words that follow Jesus’ hard saying: Many of his disciples no longer went about with him. The text may be translated: "Many of his disciples went back to the things of the past." They turned back to the lives they led before they met Jesus. How sad. And it’s still sad. People who have made a profession of faith when they were young get involved in the things of their own lives and never or rarely engage in matters of faith, let alone attend church. They may nibble on “Cheeses of Nazareth,” but find it hard to swallow Jesus whole, body and blood, to eat up his hard as well as his more palatable teachings. No thanks. See you later. How sad. Understandable, but sad.

It's the same kind of sadness I once felt looking through some old photographs of people I used to go to church with. There's "John" in a black and white photo taken at our church. "John's" wife was a member our church. "John" had no interest in church and religion, until he met a bunch of us who from the church. After many conversations about faith and Christ, "John" came to believe and was baptized. He was a faithful church member, following Jesus the best he knew how. Later, he dropped out of church. I can't say that I know that he lost his faith, only that it was no longer a consuming part of his life. As writer George Bernarno once said; "Faith is not a thing one 'loses,' we merely cease to shape our lives by it." John ceased shaping his life by his faith. I often wonder why.

Or I look at the old photo of our church youth group. 70 strong. Young, fresh faces, alive with new found faith in Jesus. Reading their Living Bibles. Praying with intertwined fingers. Crying big crocodile tears at youth camp. Now, I can probably count on my fingers those who still have a living faith and attend church. I often wonder why.

You may imagine a picture on the wall in your home of a son or daughter, niece or nephew, who grew up in church but has since left behind the church and, for all practical purposes their faith, at least the kind of consuming faith Jesus was talking about. We all can picture in our minds people we know who followed Jesus at one time, but at another point in time turned away to pursue their own lives and personal agendas or whose lives are no longer shaped by faith. I still wonder why.

I guess there are a lot of reasons why people stop following Christ. Those in John's gospel who turned away from Christ had problems with his hard sayings. It became difficult to follow Jesus when it sounded like a life consuming, Jesus consuming practice. So, some disciples stopped following him. Sometimes I wonder why more Christians haven’t stopped following Jesus over his hard sayings, like “sell all your possessions and give to the poor,” “if your eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it from you,” “You must be born again” “If you love your family more than me, you cannot be my disciple” and on and on I could go. Jesus once told the parable of the seed and the different soils to show his disciples different reasons why some people don't last as disciples; shallow soil, initial bursts of enthusiasm that don’t last, or the temptations of this world snatch away their faith. I’m sure there are even more reasons. Some disciples simply stop following Jesus.

Today there are many different reasons why people give up on faith, or should I say, cease to shape their lives by it. Two-thirds of nonbelievers or “Nones,” as they are being called, in the US today were former believers. We are becoming more and more a“post-Christian” society. In our increasingly secularized culture, there may come a time when more people will have grown up without believing at all than those who once believed but no longer do.

Step into the gallery of former disciples and look at the portrait collection. On that wall are some snapshots of people who had negative church experiences, like my next door neighbors who were faithful church goers, had a bad experience, and haven’t been back since. Some turned back from following Christ because of church conflicts and dealing with bickering people. Those young faces in the photos dropped out from experiences with unbending church members who were unwilling to try anything new or different from "the way we have always done things."

See those pictures over there? Those people turned away from faith because they had seen too many hypocritical Christians, who profess one thing and live another. They couldn't, in all honesty, believe like that. And those pictures there; the studious-looking people with question marks floating above their heads. Those are the thinkers. They came to view Christianity as intellectually unbelievable. They asked the hard questions of faith and didn't get any adequate answers, like Bart Ehrmann, respected NT scholar. He was once a conservative Evangelical and is now an agnostic. Many former believers, like Ehrmann, have turned from faith to rationalism.

Then, there are those photos over in that dark corner. Those people experienced senseless tragedies or terminal illnesses, either their own or of a loved one. They questioned why God would allow such things to happen. They received no answers; only a deafening silence. So, finally they turned from the path of faith. And those faded portraits? They are those whose faith just seemed to slowly slip away. They started attending church less and less. Their lives got wrapped up in other things; work, family, children, enjoying their weekends, buying stuff, entertainment, enjoying life in and of itself. After a while they joined the "Church Alumni Association." All the people in this gallery turned back from following Christ. To be honest, a number of times I have imagined my portrait hanging in one of the corners of this gallery of former disciples. Still, I can't help but think, "How sad." As you can see with your own eyes, there are many reasons why people give up on being disciples.

Since faith is a dynamic relationship, a lifetime of faith isn't guaranteed.Following Christ is an ongoing journey, a daily affair. Because we follow Christ one day doesn't mean we will the next. Belief, in its biblical sense, is not so much about intellectual acceptance of a list of doctrines that we confess. Belief is more about ongoing trust in God. Believing in God is an active posture of continuing trust. Faith in God requires an ongoing, developing relationship. It isn't something static that we have once and which remains constant regardless of our present relationship. Faith is a verb, not a noun. Faith is a dynamic, spiritual relationship. Faith is a posture and not a possession that we always have like some kind of ID card stuck in our pocket that we show on occasion, which can never be lost no matter what we do or don’t do.

Since faith and following are active, living realities, they hold no lifetime guarantee. Though we exchange rings and vow "'til death do us part," there are no guarantees that any marriage will last a lifetime. The fact is, currently the statistics say half of marriages don't last. That's because the marital covenant is an active, dynamic relationship that must be constantly nurtured and developed. Faith in God and following Christ are also covenants that require constant nurturing and development to last. There's no ultimate guarantee that anyone's faith in God or journey with Christ will last forever. There will be those whose faith ceases to shape their lives and who turn away from following Christ.

But still, why would we turn away from Christ? Where would we go to find words of life? Simon Peter not only speaks for the Twelve, but also for us. If we were to turn away from following Christ, to whom would we go to find the words of eternal life? Who would give us the love, joy and hope we have come to know in Christ? In the midst of our world with its death-dealing violence, where could we find such words of peace? Where would we find the words that make us into new persons? Where would we go to hear such words that turn our world on its head? Why would we turn away from Christ? Who has such wonderful words, that transform us and give us new life?

Paul was a drug addict and an alcoholic. He had to steal in order to support his expensive habit. He stole whatever he could get his hands on. One of his targets was unlocked cars. One day he found such a car. There was nothing inside but a book on the back seat. It probably wouldn't buy him a fix, but it would at least give him something to read between drinks. So he took it.

The book had a red and black cover with the single word "Jesus" on the cover. It contained the gospel words of Jesus. Paul read the words. The words didn't sink in immediately. Sometime later, two young men asked him, "Have you ever heard about Jesus?" "Yeah, I read a book about him," he said. As the conversation continued Paul became more interested and began asking questions. After more reading and conversation, Paul decided to follow Jesus. His life took a dramatic change. He became a totally different person. Paul went to seminary and entered the ministry. He still wonders who left the book in that car with Jesus' words of life in it.

The prospects of death from overdose or the slow death of alcoholism had always been an ever present reality for Paul. Jesus' words were literallywords of life for him. If Paul were to turn back to his past, where in the world would he go to find words of life? Where in the world would any of us, who have experienced the sprouting of new life in us, go to find such words of life?

The truth is, we are faced daily with the choice to believe or not to believe, to follow Christ or to turn back. So, on this day I invite you to choose to believe. Choose to follow in the way of Christ. Choose to live in the light of God’s reign. With Peter we profess that Jesus is the Holy One of God! And we continue to follow Christ in life. That is a choice we made in the past, but also continue to make in the present and will be called upon to make in the future. In the midst of people dropping out of church, giving up on faith, turning away from Christ, somehow by the grace of God, we have chosen to believe and follow in Jesus' way. Honestly, knowing the world in which we live with its comforts and attractions, I am surprised that there are people who still actively choose to follow in the way of Christ! Surprised by grace!

The path we have chosen to follow is not always the easiest one. But, the path of faith leads to life. There's a Native American legend about the two paths of life. One path slopes gently down some low hills to the valley below. The legend says that this is the broad and easy path, but it leads into the desert where death waits. The other path winds upward over a steep and rocky trail. It is filled with difficulties and side trails that lead off to dead ends. There are times on the trail when you may feel like turning back. Only those who chose to endure the difficulties and uncertainties at each turn and trust the main path can reach the heights of the mountain where the eagles soar on the wind.

There is for us one path to life: Jesus Christ. Where else would we go to find such words of life? Today, we stand before the path that Jesus trod. It is the path of trust in God, following Christ one step at a time, one day at a time. Choose this day the path that leads to life. Choose this day the path that leads to the place where we soar with the eagles.

Reflective questions for the reader to ask themselves:

What steps do I need to take to further follow in the path of Jesus and his body, the church?

Do I need to affirm Christ’s words of life for myself?

Do I need to step into the circle of Christian faith and fellowship, to accept Christ as Lord and Savior and publicly witness to my faith through baptism and church membership?

Do I need to renew my faith until I consume and am consumed by Christ’s life?

Do I need to fully commit my time, talents, resources, and all that I have and am to Christ?

Is there a special road or a difficult path Christ is opening up for you that you need strength and support for to take the first steps?

Christ is inviting us all to faith, to follow, to fellowship. Will you choose faith? Will you choose to follow? Will you chose fellowship? To whom else can we go?


Sunday, October 14, 2012

The God Outside Our Circles: Numbers 11:24-30; Mark 9:38-41


Nine-year-old Billy was a popular kid on the block. He had a circle of friends in the neighborhood; mostly boys. No girls were allowed in any of the clubs he created on the spur of the moment. It was a Saturday and his friends were hanging around his driveway bouncing a basketball, skating on the sidewalk, drawing a hopscotch pattern on the driveway with big pieces of colored chalk. Billy liked being the center of attention. That's why he created all those clubs, like the Girl Haters Club and the Backyard Bowling Club. On this Saturday everyone was doing their own thing and kinda ignoring Billy, so he decided to create a new club. He went over, picked up a piece of chalk and drew a circle on the sidewalk. Then, he yelled to all his friends, "Everybody who wants to be in my Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Club better jump into this circle right now, or you won't be in it!" The boys dropped what they were doing and scrambled to get inside the chalk circle. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as they tried to scrunch themselves into Billy’s circle.

One thing Billy didn't realize was he had drawn his circle too small. As he peeked through the tight circle of boys, Billy could see his best friend Chris was left out. Chris was a bit smaller than the others, so he got pushed aside in the rush. Billy couldn't leave Chris out of the club. Besides, he really wanted all the boys from his block in the circle. It's just that he drew his circle too small. And now look what happened. What was he going to do?

With a big grunt Billy pushed his way out of the circle and told them, "Everybody stay right there!" He went past Chris, whose head was hanging down to his knees. He bent down and grabbed a piece of chalk, and went back to the circle. From the line of the first circle, Billy traced another line over and around the still body of Chris drawing him into a larger circle. Chris now had a smile as bright as the Saturday sun.  The other boys were relieved as they moved into this bigger circle. The first one was just too tight. Pretty soon the little game was over and the boys were all playing basketball together and running over the top of Billy's oblong circle as if it were never there.

We tend to draw circles that mark who's in and who's out. It's a part of human nature. Circle-drawing helps us identify who we are. Boundaries and circles mark our identities and define our primary relationships. We cannot survive in the world without some sense of identity. In that sense circle-drawing can be a good thing.  We draw a circle around our nation. "We are Americans." We draw circles around our race. "We are White." We draw a circle around our sexuality. "We are heterosexual." We draw a circle our wallets. "We are middle-class." Circles let us know who we are and to what groups we belong.  Circles help us to distinguish who's in and who's out, who we include and who we exclude. Circle-drawing has been practiced by cultures throughout the ages. And often circle drawing is a helpful way of clarifying our identity.

The ancient Mediterranean culture of the Bible is no exception to circle drawing. In the society of Jesus' day marking in-groups and out-groups was important. The circles were much tighter then, the lines much thicker, and less permeable. Circles divided Jews from Gentiles, Judeans from Galileans, clans and families from one another, pure from impure, sinners from righteous, followers of one Rabbi from those of another. Loyalty to those in your circle was a serious responsibility, not to be taken lightly.

From behind this cultural curtain steps John, the Circle-Drawer. John walks up to Jesus and says, "Rabbi, we saw this guy casting demons out of people. He was using your name to do it. We couldn't have him doing that in your name. He wasn't following us. So, we put a halt to that heretical nonsense." In other words, that exorcist wasn't "legitimate." The way John put it the problem was not because he wasn't following Jesus, but because he wasn't following the disciples. He wasn't part of their in-group; their inner circle. And, you know, it's critical to know who's in and who's out. Boundaries and circles can be a good thing unless they are not permeable, have no place for entry or exit for others, or cannot expand or be redrawn. John saw the circle of Jesus and his followers as a rather tight circle with little room for those who did not fit their circle’s protocol.

The history of the church follows in the heritage of John, the Circle-drawer. Just let your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages and what do you find? An endless list of circles; denominations and divisions in the one Body of Christ: Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Episcopalians, Methodists, African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Mennonites, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, Amish, Nazarene, Four Square Gospel, Full Gospel, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, Church of God, Church of Christ, Church of God in Christ, United Church of Christ, and more varieties of Baptists than Heinz has pickles! We need denominations to help us define who's a part of our group, who's with us and who isn't. But, then we draw even smaller and tighter circles. There are not just Methodists, but particular kinds of Methodists. There are not simply Mennonites, but particular brands of more liberal or conservative Mennonites. And sometimes these circles become exclusive clubs. Folks, the church has had a bad case of John's temperament. We need to ever more clearly define who's in and who's out, who's for us and who's against us to such a degree that our circles can become nooses.

Could it be our tight circle drawing makes us feel like we're in control? No one likes to feel like things are chaotic and out of control. Circles, boundaries, and group identity markers help us gain a sense of control.  By drawing circles we control who's in and who's out. Without circles to identify where we belong? We would be confused about our identity. We need to know who the “liberals” are and who the "conservatives" are, who the gays and who the straights are, and who the Democrats and the Republicans are. Circles help us keep from being identified with "them" over there. Some of us delight in putting people in labeled boxes, or identifiable circles. But that doesn’t always work. I don’t think it works for me. Am I a liberal? Well, yes, and no. Am I a Mennonite? Of course, but not in some ways. Am I a minister? Seems obvious, but in many ways I don’t fit well in those circles. You see, some of us don’t always fit so neatly into the circles other want to fit us in. Fitting ourselves or others into certain circles may make us or our group feel more secure. It can even make us feel like we're in control of things.

Our circle drawing can also become a means of trying to control others by monopolizing power, material goods, and even God's Spirit. In other words, we define those people outside our circle as illegitimate, illegal, unauthorized, unofficial, and even un-godly. That's what happened in the story of Moses when the Spirit fell not only on the elders around the tent, but also upon Eldad and Medad, who prophesied along with the best of them out in the camp.  In a tone of voice very similar to John's, Joshua said to Moses, "Stop them! They aren't legitimate prophets. They are not within the circle. They don't have our official stamp of approval."

We want to orchestrate the movement of the Spirit, become power-brokers of the divine, and have a monopoly on grace. When we seek to draw our Christian circles too tight we're really trying to control God's wild Spirit. In essence we're saying: "This is our show, God. We'll say what your work is and what it isn't, what's legitimate and what isn't. We'll define who's in and who's out, who's for us and who's against us. And by the way, God, you know those charismatics? I have a hard time identifying with them. They’re a bunch of emotional kooks. What they call "the movement of the Spirit" is just getting themselves all worked up into a lather. It's staged. No matter how much they lift their hands in the air and say the name of "Jeeeeeeeezus!" that's not your Spirit. Since they're not one of us, they ought to stop that nonsense."  Can't you hear the circles being drawn? Oh, if only God would pour the Spirit out on all people!  Who can control the wind? Who can monopolize God's power? Who can encompass the perimeter of the Spirit? We may try. Probably because we need to feel like we're in control.

That's about the time Jesus comes along and blows our circles wide open. He perforates, breaks open, erases, and redraws our airtight circles. When John wanted to stop the maverick exorcist, Jesus said, "Don't stop the guy. Nobody whose liberatin' people in my name is gonna say bad things about me. You know what. This is the gospel truth. Anyone who isn't against us is for us." Wow! Kabloom! Jesus blows wide open our in-group/out-group mentality. He throws into question our circle drawing that seeks to identify who's for us and who's against us. Jesus is being extremely tolerant. His circle is open. Dare we call him "liberal?"  No. That would just draw a tight circle around him.

Jesus refuses to live within the cramped circles and impenetrable barriers we erect. He contests the practice of confining God's liberating, healing, and transforming action to a particular group, gender, religious institution, or political perspective. What? Do you mean that God is not a Republican or a Democrat? Jesus challenges his followers to see God's reign outside their own constricted spheres. We see Jesus' open circle in his conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well, his healing of the servant of a Roman centurion (Israel's oppressors), his dining with tax-collectors and sinners, his welcoming of children, his touching lepers, his defying the hoops drawn around race, gender, age, occupation, and the "pure." Jesus redraws our circles when he raises questions like: Who are my friends? Who are my enemies? Who are my brothers and sisters, and mother? Who's greatest in the kingdom of God? Who's first and who's last? Who is my neighbor? I hear the inclusive spirit of Jesus playing in the words of this poem, a favorite of John Oyer I hear :

He drew a circle that

shut me out---

heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,

but love and I had the wit to win

we drew a circle that took him in

We draw circles that keep people out. Then, Jesus comes along and redraws our compressed circles. Jesus’s love draws circles that include people.

That's probably because Jesus knew God works outside our narrow circles. God is bigger than our tiny circles. We can't draw a circle big enough to contain God. God needs a lot of space to work! That's because God is boundless. God can't be squeezed into our closed circles of time, space, knowledge, and language. God transcends all human categories. God bursts out of our confined circles. We worship an infinite God who cannot be carried around in our pockets, in our heads, in our Bibles, in our denominations, or even within our Christian faith. God is alive and active outside our confined human categories and classifications, boxes and boundaries. The Spirit of God is healing, liberating, transforming, and recreating people outside our circles. God's presence and liberating acts are unbounded by our human circles.

The work of our unlimited God cannot be confined to our particular in-group. As a matter of fact, if our circles are too narrow, we may exclude God. Once a sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry into a small church. He took his woes to God. "They won't let me in their circle, God, because I am a sinner." "What are you complaining about?" said God. "They won't let me in either!" I've wondered whether the Father, in the story of the prodigal son, ran to meet his wayward child with arms formed in an open circle. We cannot contain God's love and action within the narrow constraints of our closed circles.

The church needs to have her eyes forever looking outside her circles, for those who have been excluded and left out of her circles. Even more so, we need to keep our hearts peeled for the Christ outside our circles present in the thirsty, hungry, naked, imprisoned, forgotten and forsaken. We need to keep our hearts peeled for the Spirit outside our circles working miracles among those not in our in-group. We need to keep our hearts peeled for the God outside our circles dancing on the edges of eternity!

We watched earlier a slideshow of a Bridging Cultures beach trip. Bridging Cultures is a good example of the church drawing its circle ever wider to include others normally outside our circles of association. For God is outside our circles drawing us into more expansive circles. Where can we begin to draw our circle wider to be more inclusive of others?

I woke up in bed one morning with an unusual word stuck like a splinter in my morning mind: perichoresis; a rather odd word. I don't know how it got there. I dug it out and looked it up. It's a Greek word whose root denotes continued circular movement, like that of a spinning wheel. A related word is perichoreuo, which means to "dance in a ring or circle." The word perichoresis was used in the early centuries of the Eastern Church to describe the intertwining, encircling movement of the persons of the Trinity. This word stirs up a wonderful image in my imagination. It's a mystic vision of the new heaven and new earth that is to come; an undivided community, a united humanity; a time when all human circles have faded into the boundless circle of God.

             Imagine God as a divine Circle Dancer,

            a heavenly whirling dervish,

            who has been extending a hand to the world

            throughout the ages

            to lead all creation in a celestial folk dance in the round.

            God is inviting us all to join the circle dance.

            We're being called to twist and twirl,

            to follow the lead of God's light feet,

            turning and turning and ever turning in a never ending,

            inclusive circle of God's joyful, life-giving movement

            across the floor of time.

            Oh, to be caught up in the Spirit's swing and swirl

            until all dividing circles disappear

            and we fall  dizzy

            into the encircling embrace of God! Hallelujah!