October 1, 2000

"Draw the Circle Wide"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
World Communion Sunday

Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.

Scripture: James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-41

When I used to teach in a high school alternative education program, we'd sometimes play games together. I remember that one of the students' favorite games was "annihilation." I'm not sure whether they liked the name of the game or actually playing the game better. Here's how it's played: You take a length of rope and make a huge circle. All the players get in the circle, and while remaining on their knees, they put as many people out of the circle as they can. Once people are out, if they can convince two or more people to tag them, they can come back in the circle. The challenge is to get close enough to edge of the circle to touch someone on the outside, without being thrown out yourself. It's a pretty fast paced game.

Believe it or not, this game is close to the reality of life. While we might not think of it in terms of a game, we give a lot of effort to drawing the circle and determining who can be in and who can be out. From the time that we are school age, we have a pretty good idea of who is "in" and who is "out" of our circles. Some kids are included in activities, picked first, encircled by friends, while others seem to stand on the edges or are pushed there by the ridicule of their peers. In adulthood we begin to choose whom we will consider in our circle and who we will exclude. People who have mutual interests and lifestyles are drawn into the same circle. Similar hobbies, children of the same age, specific interests can draw people together. Circles of belonging are formed by those who share the same political ideologies, social values, or moral commitments. And we form circles of belonging in our churches based on styles of worship, response to the Holy Spirit moving in our lives, and how our Christian commitment is reflected in our living.

And there are some who draw very small circles in their lives. The exclude people who are not like them, different culturally or ethnically. Without knowing individuals, they dismiss entire nations and races of people; they exclude on the basis of age or gender. And in all of these circles, there is a danger, just like the game of "annihilation." If one gets too close to the edge and reaches out to someone who is not in the circle, if one dares to draw them in, they risk being excluded themselves.

Rev. Wilma Johnson accepted the call to be the pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in Detroit in 1999. She is the first woman to serve a Baptist congregation of over 1,000 members in the Detroit area. There is a Baptist Ministerial Association in Metro Detroit and last fall a few of its members invited Pastor Johnson to join them. It has been an all male organization since its beginning, but a few members reached out of the circle to draw this new pastor in. Their invitation was met with great resistance. After a lengthy and heated debate the majority voted to accept her. A few pastors were so upset by the vote, that they left the association to form their own group, thus weakening their combined ministry to the people of Detroit.

Jesus made a habit of welcoming people into the circle of faith, the reign of God. He ate with, listened to and taught tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. His behavior alienated him from the religious leaders of his time because they had established very firm rules for who was "in" and who was "out," for who was religiously pure and who was not.

In Mark 9, the gospel writer tells us of Jesus' decision to head toward Jerusalem and certain death. Along the way, Jesus' disciples try to clarify the very human question about who is included in the circle of believers. They mention to Jesus that they have seen a man who is not a follower, but is casting out demons in Jesus' name. In those days it was thought that many illnesses and chronic conditions were caused by demon possessions. People made their living as professional exorcists, and Jewish exorcists were in particular demand by both Jews and Gentiles. It is understandable that an exorcist who had seen the name of Jesus work in one case would try it out himself. This is how the disciples handled it. They told the man to cut it out. "You're not part of us, stop acting like you are." I'm sure they felt pretty proud as they told Jesus what action they'd taken.

But Jesus' reply must have stunned them. "Don't stop the man. If he's doing miracles in my name, he won't speak bad of me. Whoever is not against us is for us." Suddenly, the circle of Jesus' followers was widened even to include those who were coming to faith. Whether they use Jesus' name without understanding its power or simply offer a cup of water to one who is a Christian, they are welcome into God's kingdom.

Our circle of kindness, compassion and inclusion is wide because Jesus makes it so. In the letter to James, believers are exhorted to pray for those who suffer, celebrate with the joyous, and be ready to welcome and teach those who wander from the truth (James 5:13, 19-20). There is no excuse for exclusion.

Around the world today Christians worship in churches, chapels and cathedrals. And together all of us share the bread and cup, given to us by Jesus Christ, one bread, one body. Worship services will led in surprising places, open fields, store fronts, converted shopping malls and movie theaters, the land fills of Rio de Janeiro, a converted school bus in Chicago. Prayers will rise from those who are safe and secure and those who have known the terror of war, famine and epidemic disease. The most privileged in the world and most forgotten and marginalized will share this meal together, all crying, "God is good!" This is the circle drawn by the church of Jesus Christ, its boundaries far reaching and wide. It is the circle established by the suffering and death of our King, who calls into question the boundary making of this world, who call us to draw our circle wide.

As I described the game of annihilation, you may have wondered, "How does the game inside this giant circle end?" There are two ways. In one case, everyone stands together outside the circle, with one "winner" at the center, all alone. It is what is bound to happen when people play for their own personal victory, and it is not a satisfying end to the game. In the other case, players team up to make sure that no one stays out of the circle for very long, everyone is included. Players end the game breathless and joyful that they have been part of the play all along.

In your time of prayer and reflection this week, consider the circle you have drawn. Who is in? Who is out? And whose hand, by the grace of God, can you take, literally or figuratively? Who will you welcome into the circle of Christian love?

Hare, Douglas. Westminster Bible Companion: Mark. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. Perkins, Pheme. Commentary on Mark. The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume VIII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999