Drawing the circle wide

Sermon for 27 September

As we listen for the Word of God,
let us pray:
God our joy,
save us from tunnel vision
and scarred hearts;
grant us the singleness of purpose
and the generosity of spirit
which belong to your kingdom;
this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 9.38-50

You can divide the world into two groups of people: those who believe you can divide the world into two group of people, and those who don’t.

The disciples belonged to the first group. Jesus belongs to the second.

There’s a little piece of verse called Outwitted, by the American poet Edwin Markham, who died in 1940. It says,

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.

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

The disciples were trying to draw a line, a boundary. Someone was casting out demons in the name of Jesus, but he wasn’t part of their group. They were incensed. He wasn’t doing it the way they did it. He didn’t have the proper credentials. He wasn’t part of their franchise! And—worst of all!—he was successful, while the disciples were failures.

The disciples took their case to Jesus. He’d understand, after all he’d chosen them to be his disciples. He’d set this riffraff straight.

No, he wouldn’t. His attitude is simple.

Don’t stop him… Whoever is not against us is for us.

I think this would have put the disciples’ noses right out of joint. They were expecting quick, decisive action from the Master. They wanted Jesus to give this other bloke the flick, but instead they were given a lesson in inclusion. They had drawn a line in the sand, a circle that just included them, but Jesus drew a much wider circle:

But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

The story is told that during the Second World War some soldiers serving in France wanted to bury a friend and fellow soldier who had been killed. Being in a foreign country, they wanted to ensure their fallen comrade had a proper burial. They found a well-kept cemetery with a low dry stone wall around it, a picturesque little Catholic church and a peaceful outlook. This was just the place to bury their friend. But when they approached the priest, he answered that because their friend wasn’t a baptised Catholic he couldn’t be buried in the cemetery.

Sensing the soldiers’ disappointment, the priest showed them a spot just outside the cemetery where they could bury their friend. Reluctantly, they did so.

The next day the soldiers returned to pay their final respects to their fallen friend. They looked around outside the dry stone wall of the cemetery, but they couldn’t find the grave. ‘Surely we can’t be mistaken,’ they said. ‘It was right here!’ Confused, they approached the priest who took them to a spot inside the cemetery walls.

‘Last night I couldn’t sleep,’ said the old priest. ‘I was troubled that your friend had to be buried outside the cemetery, so I got up and I moved the wall.’

But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

In the Uniting Church, we’re pretty good at recognising that God works in all sorts of ways, through all sorts of people. In the words of the Basis of Union, we believe

The Uniting Church in Australia lives and works within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

In other words, we are part, and only a part, of the whole Body of Christ.

It can be easier to draw a circle to include people who are at a distance from us than it is to include those we come across all the time. It reminds me of the T-shirt in the old Charlie Brown cartoon, which said:

I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand!

Sometimes within the life of the Church, groups of people can hold one another at arm’s length. We can draw a circle around ourselves, to shut the others out.

We don’t like the music some other people want. Let’s draw a circle to keep them out. We don’t like it that others believe the bible literally. Or that they don’t believe it literally. Let’s draw a circle to keep them out.

The issues can be anything, really. In the end, there are some people we just don’t agree with and we don’t see why we should listen to them.

Perhaps we too may need to hear the words of Jesus: ‘Whoever is not against us is for us.’ Might we not draw a circle as wide as possible to include one another? For the disciples, the person they were suspicious of was someone outside their group. Often in churches today, such people are also on the inside.

The spiritual task here is to learn not to say ‘us’ and ‘them’ about other people inside the fellowship. In Australian author Tim Winton’s words, we need to say ‘us and us and us’ about one another. Then, and only then, can we truly understand the way of Jesus.

Whoever is not against us is for us.

The words of Jesus about Gehenna underscore just how crucial this is. Gehenna was the Jerusalem town rubbish dump, where rubbish was burnt to a crisp. Jesus isn’t giving us teaching about our eternal destiny here. The body part he is talking about that needs to be ‘cut off’ is not a part of our physical body, but part of the body of the Church.

This picture of the town dump describes the serious consequences of failing to include others that were operating in the church at the time of St Mark—it seems that people who didn’t include were in danger of being excluded. We don’t behave that way here, but this passage is showing that how we respond to the word of Jesus remains a serious matter.

At the end of this very strange passage, Jesus talks about salt. Salt was of great importance in the ancient world; it was the way food was preserved and kept fresh. It was even used as currency in places such as Ethiopia.

So Jesus says,

Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

What does that mean? Isn’t salt always salty? Isn’t it always sodium chloride, NaCl? The problem back in century one was that salt often got mixed up with all sorts of impurities, and these impurities affected the taste. It just wasn’t salty anymore.

Jesus is saying, Don’t let all sorts of impurities take root in you. Don’t lose your flavour. Jesus concludes,

Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

‘Be at peace with one another.’ In the context of this passage, the desire to exclude those who are different from us in any way is one of those impurities that stops us being the salt of the earth.

It’s funny isn’t it, because we usually associate being pure with separating ourselves from people who aren’t like us. That’s the natural human way. But God’s way is quite different. Since ‘whoever is not against us is for us’, we need to include rather than exclude, to unite rather than separate. John Wesley once preached a sermon called ‘Catholic Spirit’. Since ’catholic’ means ‘universal’ or ‘all-embracing’, we can call his sermon ‘All-embracing Spirit’. Wesley recognised that we may think differently on a number of things, but he asked these questions:

Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.

John Wesley lived in hope that God’s people might find it in their hearts to love alike. It’s part of being a church family—at its best, a family loves alike even when its members don’t think alike.

We are receiving IM into the family of the church by baptism soon. It becomes our responsibility to play our part in teaching him and forming him into being

  • a person who will see that whoever is not against us is for us;
  • a person who will not divide the world into opposing groups, but see ‘us and us and us’ wherever he looks;
  • a person who would even move cemetery walls to include those who are excluded;
  • a person who will act in the way described in Edwin Markham’s little poem:

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.

That’s what we ask for IM; it’s also what we ask of one another, and of ourselves.

1 Comment

Filed under RCL, sermon

One response to “Drawing the circle wide

  1. Pingback: Drawing the circle wide « Getting There… 2 steps forward, 1 back | Design Graphics

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