Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

How Large Is Your Circle? A Sermon

How Large Is Your Circle?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 2, 2010

Sojourner Truth: Ain't I A Woman?

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35


Much of the New Testament reflects obsession over who can be part of the new community and who cannot. Was this new messianic movement primarily Jewish or not? Should new converts become Jewish or could Pagans get the Jesus mojo without becoming Jews first? From the other side, the question from the Pagan point of view is whether or not "God" had rejected the Jews.

I find these questions tedious. Perhaps from an historical point of view ancient religious superstitions and ethnic prejudices have some interest. They really haven't held interest for me. Must we continue to dredge up these old arguments, Jew vs. Christian?

We can throw Islam into the mix too. Debate within some Presbyterian circles is whether or not Muslims worship the same god as Christians. What is the question again? Are we asking something along the lines of whether or not Zeus and Jupiter are the same? The question for most of us is rather silly on the surface, but the subtext is more serious.

If I can convince myself and others like me that my religious beliefs are true and superior to yours, that helps to keep you out of my circle. If you are infidel, apostate, heretic, lost, or unbeliever, I may not be as passionate as I could be otherwise in defending your rights. It might even justify treating you as an enemy. One could make a case that the history of religion is the history of people finding an excuse to exclude.

I am all for inter-faith dialogue. But it will go a lot smoother without the "faith" part. If you sincerely believe because your holy book tells you that women should cover their heads in church or wear burqas when they go shopping, you don't get a pass for that.

You can believe it, fine. But if you want to bring your conviction to a public forum, if you want to convince someone else of your truth, you will have to do better than say, "My holy book says so." You will have to convince people of your truth on its own merit.

In today's reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus is supposed to have said:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Who is "one another?" We would likely say, "Well everyone!"

Sure we should love all people, regardless of religion, nationality, politics, race, gender, sexual orientation. Like our church mission statement we should treat with compassion and justice not just kin (even though we battle biology on that one), not just those who are "like us" but all people. We extend that love to all our relations including our non-human relations. We would add that "love" is not merely sentiment, but consists of compassionate justice and advocacy for their well-being.

How do you love six billion people, let alone non-human relations? We do this through politics. We put it in terms of human rights and a just distribution and access to Earth's gifts. We certainly are a long way from making this love a reality and we are certainly blinded by our shortsightedness and fear. But we we know that to love one another involves hard work toward the goal of healthy food, clean water, shelter, freedom, and equality, for all people alive today and for seven generations after us. Love obviously means caring for our home and all our relations who share this home.

For the author of the Gospel of John, to "love one another" was more narrowly focused. It is about the group having love for each other within the group. The author by putting these words and others on the lips of Jesus wanted to communicate that this group needed to stick together, to sacrifice for one another, to have compassion for one another. To love within the circle. That is good as far as it goes. The challenge even to the scripture itself is to expand that circle.
How large is your circle?
In Acts Peter has a vision of what were to him religiously "unclean" animals being lowered on a sheet. He hears the voice of God telling him to eat.
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter takes this vision to mean not only that ritual taboos on food no longer apply, but that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile either. According to the text in which Peter is speaking:
This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
This is a pivotal story regarding the expansion of the Jesus message to Gentiles.
The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
We tend to like this story as it is about expanding the circle. Contemporary Jews might not appreciate this story, however. They wouldn't see observing kosher food laws the same as rejecting people.

This story has been used to advocate for sexual and gender justice in the church. I have used this story myself in that way. According to this reading, Peter's vision means that heterosexuals in the church need to change their minds in regards to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. We straight folks need to say, like Peter:
The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
And yet, I have to say, I am losing patience with the church. Even this reading is still a heterosexist reading.
…make [no] distinction between "them" and "us."
Well, of course. And we shouldn't need a Bible verse to tell "us" that. I am frustrated that the church and society are still excluding people and denying basic rights over arcane arguments based on superstition and prejudice. But it is what it is.

I am happy to be in a room of people today who are not silent about this and are active agents of change. We are asking ourselves and others:
How large is your circle?
The best way to enlarge one's circle is to meet people. I think the real irony and the real plot of the story in Acts is not that Peter and later, Paul, and the other disciples had some great message to give to people. The real irony of this story is that they were confronted by others. One of my seminary professors said that this book should be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit as opposed to the Acts of the Apostles. Spirit is the main character in Acts.

We can debate what Spirit is, but what Spirit does is to expand circles of awareness. This is no less with Peter and Paul and the supposed evangelists as it was with all the characters we come across in this document. All are confronted and transformed by Spirit and brought into relationship by Spirit.

The Book of Acts is a celebration of Path Four in the creation-centered spiritual tradition. It is the way of compassion and justice-making. It is the via transformativa. In this path each of us is a prophet.

A prophet does not predict the future. A prophet is not some super holy person. A prophet interferes. This is what Matthew Fox writes about the prophet in Original Blessing:
But what does it mean to be a prophet? Who is a prophet? A prophet is one who carries on the Dabhar, that is the creative energy or word of God, when it has been stimied or stifled by injustice or laziness or too much belief in the immortality of what already is. The prophet in each of us is our social consciousness, our heartfelt concern about the loved ones of God who suffer needlessly. P. 260
I love that line
"too much belief in the immortality of what already is."
There is nothing immortal about prejudice or superstition.
There is nothing immortal about military regimes, or multi-national corporations, or banks that are too big to fail.
There is nothing immortal about our fossil fuel addiction, and of all the addictions it spawns.
There is nothing immortal about a way of life that consigns the top few percent of the pyramid to wastefulness and the bottom super majority to poverty.


The prophet expands the circle of awareness. The prophet through heartfelt concern, through love, through compassion for those who are hurting interferes with injustice.

Fox again:
The prophet falls in love with creation and especially with the little ones, the anawim, of creation (Path I); she then experiences the bottomless depths of pain that wrench at the beauty and dignity of have and have-nots alike (Path II); from the nothingness experience she recreates, working from the best that both left brain and right brain can offer (Path III); yearning for a New Creation, she launches her creativity in the direction of healing by way of compassion, celebration, and social justice (Path IV). In this manner she interferes with pessimism, cynicism, and despair, and channels moral outrage to rebirth. P. 264.
Last night I finished reading Bill McKibben's latest book, Eaarth. He spells Earth with an extra "a." He does so to make the point that we live on a different planet from the one upon which we built civilization. This new Eaarth with an extra "a" is a planet we have created due to our 200 year fossil-fuel experiment. He makes the case that global warming is irreversible and that we are now experiencing its effects. To survive on this new planet with receding glaciers, rising sea levels, increasing acidity in our oceans and peaking resources, we are going to have to live in a very different way.

We will have to expand our circle of awareness.

It is easy to look at our situation and to be filled with that what Matt Fox says we must interfere: pessimism, cynicism, and despair. Even as we may feel those things, even as they are part of our experience of pain and anguish we must interfere, or perhaps in the spirit of the Bible book of Acts, we must allow Spirit to interfere through us and in us. We must channel that moral outrage to rebirth.

I was heartened by McKibben's book. He pulls no punches in the first half about our current situation. In the second half of his book he interferes with the pessimism, cynicism, and despair that can naturally arise from an honest assessment of our situation. He interferes by pointing to places where green shoots are already appearing in the cracks of our crumbling civilization. He points to people who are challenging old immortalities of things that supposedly cannot be done such as feeding ourselves without relying on agri-business.

At the beginning of this sermon I said that one could make a case that the history of religion is the history of people finding an excuse to exclude. However, there is also a creation-centered spirituality in all of our traditions that interferes with that exclusion. It is a minority tradition to be sure.

It is based on expanding our circle. It is about expanding our circle of compassion. It is expanding the circle until there is no “them and us” but only us. It is expanding our circle of awareness so that our concerns are not quaint and narrow but global. We are one species related to every other.

All creation is in the circle.
All creation is the circle.
Earth is our home.
Including the new Eaarth that we spell with two "a's."
Apart from Earth no one lives.
By the power of Spirit that interferes with all of our fears and insecurities and points us toward justice and compassion, all might live.
How large is your circle?
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