Cozy, predictable circles of care, are a good thing.
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Our twins developed a circle of best friends when they were in grade 3. Twenty three years later, that group still stays in regular contact, and when they get together at Christmas when everyone’s back in the city, it’s like they were never apart. Their shared history and acceptance of one another’s transitions through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood is a beautiful, important source of support.
Within communities of faith, the journeys we walk together, griefs shared, kindnesses extended, differences resolved, can nurture some deep, amazing connections that grow fuller and richer with time. Some of these are predictable – people with similar backgrounds, similar interests, arrived at Ralph Connor at about the same time – but others just happen, as we recognize and tend the light of Christ shining in each other’s lives, especially in those times that the light might be flickering or dimming a bit. I celebrate the circles of care that I see in this gathering of faith.
Jesus gathered around him a tight circle of care – twelve disciples from varied backgrounds, plus additional women and men who travelled with the group and/or regularly hosted them with food and shelter. I’m not sure that I’d call the group “cozy” with some of the act first, think later characters in the group, but I don’t think the message of Jesus would have had any possibility of getting traction with other people unless there was that inner circle to keep coming back to.
This sense of a solid base, a safe core, a circle of love, is so important to our lives, and I don’t want anything I say from here on in this sermon to diminish that. But I do want to look at the pattern of Jesus as we seek to shape our lives, and find ways to exert Christ’s caring love within this community of faith, and beyond these walls.
As a local person who had grown up a few miles from the Sea of Galilee, in the high-country town of Nazareth, Jesus would have been totally familiar with the way local people saw the world. Loyalties to one’s family would have been strong, as would animosity with long-standing rivals. And anyone within the community who was outside the norms – those with chronic illness, those living in chronic poverty – would have had very clear social sanctions against them, to underline that they were not within the circle of care.
Rather than just leaving that be, Jesus pushed people to understand that love is the heart of God, and love doesn’t judge. Jesus, in the local communities, challenged people to start viewing their neighbours differently. He knew that there was long-standing animosity between people, and said, “love your neighbour, love even your enemies.” He knew that the poor and those who made their living in undesirable ways were judged and excluded, so he made sure that he dined with them. His first push, was against a social system that was entirely made up of close-knit, predictable circles based upon who was “in” and who was “out.”
If the only thing that Jesus did, was to push people to question these basic definers of life, that would have been a great life accomplishment… and he may even have lived to a ripe old age. But God’s love was bigger than that.
So Jesus considered a bigger picture. He had pushed people to look at how they related to their neighbours, to seek reconciliation and expand the range of the love of God within their Jewish communities. But there were people out there, who EVERYBODY disliked, distrusted, hated: the Samaritans. So Jesus reached out to a Samaritan woman at a well, crossing ethnic and religious and gender-based social conventions. He told a story about prestigious people who walked right by a wounded traveler and a Samaritan who stopped to help. He walked through Samaritan lands rather than skirting them like any sensible person would do, and sent missionaries throughout those lands to let them know that God’s love was for them as well.
Not content to just tidy up relations between neighbours of the same faith and ethnicity, Jesus pushed the circle out, to include Samaritans and with them foreigners & people of other religions, and to start thinking about the barriers separating women and men in a different way.
That would be far enough to push, correct? No. In the religious community that Jesus grew up in, there were clear hierarchies of who was understood to be most acceptable to God. There was the Temple at Jerusalem and the Priests and Levites responsible for the specific actions of worship and sacrifice that could happen only there. There were members of the great Sanhedrin, or governing council, many of whom were learned, aristocratic members of the Sadducees. There were the Pharisees, whose power was more noticeable in the synagogues in all parts of the land, devoted to both the Hebrew Scripture as written but also developing the Mishnah, the writing down of Jewish oral traditions.
Jesus stepped into that system and, well, stepped all over that system. Repeatedly we hear of him in conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees and in the end, the Sanhedrin condemn him to death. If we view that from a dualistic, good guys vs bad guys perspective, we assume that the message is that Pharisees and Sadducees and Chief Priests were horrible people, but that wasn’t Jesus’ message. What Jesus was trying to push, is that the status that we humans ascribe means nothing to God. Leaders are to be respected, yes, but everyone in a position of power needed to understand that God loved EVERYONE, not just those who were public and powerful and puffed-up. Jesus preached of a new realm, where the first would be last and the last would be first. And this thought, offered in contrast to the power structures of his day, is both an amazing legacy for us as 21st century Christians, and the thing that got Jesus killed. He had pushed the circle outwards just a bit too far.
In our reading this morning from the book of Acts, the apostle Peter – the same impetuous disciple who played such a key role in Jesus’ inner circle of twelve – basically says no, Jesus hadn’t pushed the circle outwards too far, he simply would not let people believe that the power of love, and the God who is the source of love, were small. Jesus pushed the circle out to where God wants it to be. In one of his great on-the-spot sermons, Peter said “God shows no partiality” or in some translations, “God does not play favourites” and then outlined a full understanding of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, touching on the ways that Jesus kept pushing the circle outward. It is no small thing, that Peter said these words, not in a synagogue, but in the home of a Roman soldier, someone roundly regarded to be the enemy, in the city of Ceasarea Maritime, a state of the art city dedicated by Herod to Caesar. In the same way that Jesus backed up his words by going into uncomfortable places, Peter confirmed for generations of Christians to follow, that to follow Jesus is to say uncomfortable words of welcome and engage in uncomfortable actions of welcome. We need our cozy circles of care to support us in our words and actions, but love demands that we keep expanding the circle outwards.
God shows no partiality. God does not play favourites. Such important words to hear, and to hear in the fullness they were first spoken. If we here these words saying “nobody should get extra attention” we mis-hear them, for the Hebrew Scriptures always called for extra attention for the widow and the orphan and the refugee. No, the heart of what Peter was saying is that anyone or any system who thinks “God loves me more than you” is completely wrong. The people around Galilee were wrong if they thought that they were better than the rival family living next door. Our spiritual ancestors, the Jewish believers, were wrong if they thought they were better than the Samaritans. The Sadducees and Pharisees were wrong if they thought they were better than less educated people outside the religious power structure. Herod and Caesar and the armies of Rome were wrong if they thought their interests were more important than those of everyday citizens, and the early Christians were wrong if they thought the Romans were outside of God’s circle of care. And our society is wrong if we think that people of European ancestry, or males, or heterosexuals, or educated folks, or prosperous folks, or those with no physical challenges, or anyone bestowed with privilege, deserve to have an easier time in life, or a place of superiority in the eyes of God. Jesus clearly demonstrated that if God plays favourites at all, the ones to get special consideration are the poor, the reviled, the outcast, the enemy. Power as we know it, is turned upside down and love, as we know it, becomes wider than wide, in the realm of God.
Before wrapping up, I do have a quick story to tell, to illustrate how wide Jesus wants us to love. 3 ½ years ago I was in Houston, Texas, and was blessed to worship at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church. MCC’s are like Affirming congregations, but even clearer in having a core focus on LGBTQ inclusion and leadership. Rev. Vickey Gibbs was preaching that Sunday, and she told of the worship service they held about a month earlier, mere hours after the killing of 49 partiers at the Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. That Sunday, 49 candles had been set out on the dais in memory of those who had been killed… but Vickey knew that Jesus wanted one more candle lit. So she lit a candle, for the killer, who had himself been shot dead by the police. She knew that the pain was too raw to bring that 50th candle out into the sanctuary right away, but she kept lighting it Sunday after Sunday. The Sunday I was there, Vickey’s teammate Troy brought that candle into the sanctuary, and we remembered the words of Christ, who called us to push the circle of love so wide that we could even pray for our enemies: those who terrorize, those who murder, those whose lives will forever be defined by being the friend of, the parents of, the family of “that guy” who unleashed such unspeakable evil. Worshipping at Resurrection MCC in Houston, reminded me that the moment we figure that our welcome is wide enough, our table wide enough, our support and advocacy and inclusion thorough enough, Jesus looks us in the eye and lovingly motions us to go one step wider.
Jesus kept pushing the circle wider and wider. Peter took up that challenge and handed it to us. On this Sunday when all are welcome at Christ’s Table of love, may we embrace and be changed by the power of holy love, a gift of Christ’s saving, reconciling grace which goes deeper and further than we could ask or imagine. May this be so, Amen.
Gibbs, Rev. Vickey. July 10 2016 sermon, “Journey to Freedom – West Side Story” posted at https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/journey-to-freedom-west-side-story-rev-vickey-gibbs/id200465992?i=1000372437271
For further reading:
Carlson, Richard. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1966
Foster-Fulton, Sally. https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/61735/12_January_1st_Sunday_after_epiphany.pdf
McCallum, Jamie. https://blogs.baylor.edu/truettpulpit/2016/03/17/acts-1034-43/
Puckett, Bruce. http://www.aplainaccount.org/acts-1034-43-2/
Stokl, Jonathan. https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/priests-and-levites-in-the-first-century-ce
© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.