Tuesday, October 9, 2018


Picture above entitled "Draw the Circle Wide" depicts a diverse group holding hands and there is an intentional break in the circle to keep it unbound and allow all to enter.


Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

October 7, 2018

Hebrews 1:1-4;2:5-12; Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16

Recently I attended a strategic planning session for the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank board. The facilitator helpfully defined “vision,” “mission,” and “strategy” this way. Vision is the world we want to see. Or in our case, as a faith community, it is the vision we understand God wants to see. Mission is a description of our role in bringing about that vision. Strategy is the broad outline of ways in which we exercise or implement our role in the vision. In our case at Vashon United Methodist Church, I think our welcoming statement comes very close to a “vision” – with a little bit of mission thrown in. Read it with me.
“Considering the extravagant love God lavishes on us all, we at Vashon United Methodist Church extend our welcome to people of all ages, races, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, family structures, economic situations, and faith histories. Our desire is to be known for mutual respect, understanding, and inclusion. We follow Jesus, who offered radical hospitality to the lonely, hurting, hungry, and homeless. Come, explore this great love of God with us, and work beside us to transform the world.”
Do you see how this describes a vision? All are included in God’s love. Since there’s nothing we can do about that, the implication of our vision is that we want to be certain all understand and accept that. God’s love for all does not come about because of our action. But conveying the message that God loves all is our work, along with others who also know this truth, in order that all come to know it. “Mutual respect, understanding, and inclusion” require us to strive for understanding of the other as well as to assist the other in understanding us. Our vision is of a community that collectively follows in Jesus’ way of forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice. Our vision is one in which we actively seek and collaborate with partners in our vision.
Our mission, should we decide to accept it, is “inviting all to share in the Christian journey.” It’s simple on the surface, but I think it has profound implications for us for the world we live in. Since it was crafted more than a decade before our welcoming statement was adopted, I doubt that it was understood at the time to describe our part to play in that vision on inclusion. But that mission may indeed be what lead us to understand our vision. This congregation has been on quite a journey – perhaps without a comprehensive map. And yet it has found a way through the wilderness. Indeed the “all” in “inviting all to share in the Christian journey” may have been the beacon that lit the way.
Having found our way thus far, we are now at a crossroads. As we noted two weeks ago in our open after-worship meeting, we are working from a deficit budget and currently are in the red for the year. In this already anxious time, financial insecurity heaps on more anxiety. It doesn’t help to pretend it will go away. In fact, as followers of Jesus, who showed us that the end is not the end, and that surprising new life lies beyond the loss of what we hold most dear, we can face this adversity as a gift – an opportunity to reevaluate the strategies we employ to fulfill our mission. Perhaps about three years ago, the leadership of this congregation arrived at a way of categorizing our strategies – “Grow, Tell, Go.” They are not strategies in and of themselves, but they hint at the ways in which we hope to engage in our mission. Indeed, if we could in some significant ways grow, tell, and go, we would sail through the crossroads. For now, though, we may be at the proverbial Vashon four-way stop.
“You go.”
“No, you go!”
Who goes first?
The Gospel text is very clear about who goes first. The passage from Mark today is part of the longest teaching sequence in that Gospel. It begins and ends with the admonition that the last shall be first in 9:35 and 10:31 – like bookmarks around this teaching – signifying the core of Jesus’ teaching according to Mark. Its essence is that the work of Christ is to bring the outer circle, the marginalized and forgotten, into the middle. It addresses the status of the “greatest and least, outsiders and insiders, aggressors and victims, males and females, children and adults, and rich and poor,” writes biblical scholar Ched Myers. He continues, “This is not offered as a mystical paradox. It represents a concrete ethic that begins, following Jesus’ Jubilary logic, with the situation of the “least” in each of these social relationships.”[i]
Who goes first?
In the Kindom of God, the children do, who are – especially in the context in which the Gospel was written – the last. Children were, and sometimes still are, little more than property. Today, we could well use the welfare of children as the primary measure of our fulfilment of the Gospel imperatives – of our adherence to Jesus’ way. When it comes time to make a difficult or consequential decision, we ought to say, “Is it good for the children – all children?” Nelson Mandela said “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Mandela was perhaps riffing on Gandhi’s earlier statement that “The true measure in any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” I often think that Gandhi was a better follower of Jesus’ way than most self-proclaimed Christians, and even he was not perfect in his use of power – especially in the treatment of women who were drawn into his mesmerizing presence.
The treatment of the most vulnerable is exactly the central point of this longest teaching passage of Mark. In each case, it is the individual or the party or the group that has been most excluded that Jesus chooses to include first in the “all” of the kindom of God that is already and not yet. The children are emblematic of the powerless, innocent, and vulnerable. If we are to enter the kindom of God, we too must become powerless, innocent, and vulnerable. Only God can make us innocent. But we can distribute power in myriad ways, and we can, knowing that we are joined together in the Body of Christ, choose to become vulnerable for the benefit of those who have no choice.
I’ve been reminded that even children are not always innocent. They are brutally honest until they are taught to lie. They are prodigally generous until they learn that what they have to offer is unappreciated. Many sermons on this text paint a saccharine sweet picture of children. But children in Jesus’ time, as in most of the world today, do not resemble the depictions of children in Norman Rockwell paintings. Still, the concrete ethic of full inclusion of the least does not rule out the metaphorical use of “child” in the text. In fact, the word that is translated “child” in Mark – more broadly includes “lesser one” or “slave” or even “descendant.” Early disciples of Jesus called themselves by this term as a way of indicating their subordination to their master. It implies humility and openness to the teaching of the master. And that is the attitude that Jesus calls upon if we would follow him – if we would enter the kindom. For “all” to be included, we must take up less room.
Are there any who are not included in our “all?” Of course there are. And mostly, we narrow our “all” unintentionally. We do not include persons who are blind, and our efforts at including those who are losing their hearing or mobility are incomplete. We do not include speakers of Spanish. Our style of worship requires some degree of familiarity to be comfortable. We expect people to sit quietly and sing loudly. You get the idea: our “all” is not really “all.” I have been speaking of our “all” – the degree to which we draw the circle of inclusion. But there is another “all” to consider. It is the all that is described in the passage from Hebrews. It is the degree to which God draws the circle of inclusion. It is a very wide circle. The Christology presented in Hebrews is dizzyingly high. All of humanity is drawn up into God’s “all” in Jesus Christ. Listen to Hebrews again:
“Who are we that you should be mindful of us? We are mere mortals, and yet you care for us! You have made us little less than the angels and crowned us with glory and honor.”
It reiterates Psalm 8, which itself places all of humanity in the company of angels.
Beloved, as we continue in the coming weeks to explore the meaning and direction of our mission statement, and prepare to decide how we will fund it for the coming year, remember this. As God has drawn all humanity into the kindom of God’s glory through Jesus Christ, so may we draw all into our ministry. Listen to these lyrics from the original version of “Draw the Circle Wide” by Gordon Light and Mark Miller.
Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still.
Let this be our song: no one stands alone.
Standing side by side, draw the circle, draw the circle wide...
God the still-point of the circle
Round you all creation turns
Nothing lost but held forever
in your gracious arms
Let our hearts touch far horizons
So encompass great and small
Let our loving know no borders
Faithful to God's call
Let the dreams we dream be larger
Than we've ever dreamed before
Let the dream of Christ be in us
O Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still.
Let this be our song: no one stands alone.
Open every door!

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