Gordon Light wrote a song that goes like this:
Draw the circle, draw the circle wide. No one stands alone, we’ll stand side by side. 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.
I just learned about this song from another clergy friend of mine who referred me to a YouTube video of various congregations singing “Draw the circle wide”. And what impressed me most about some of the groups that I saw singing this piece of music was how diverse they were. People from all age groups, ethnic backgrounds, genders and abilities. And that’s just the diversity we can see. What we can’t see of course is their sexual orientation, their theology, their economic status. Singing “Draw the circle wide” was important in these groups because the circle had been drawn wide enough for them.
We are now eleven years removed from the events of September 11, 2001. I can remember working in Student Affairs at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos when I saw the planes crash into the buildings in New York. It was a time of fear and great anxiety. But what has stayed with me has not been the images of exploding and collapsing buildings, but the young people on the campus at SWT who gathered together that night for a vigil of peace and healing. They had contacted ministers, rabbis, imams as well as other religious leaders to lead our community in prayer and reflection. They had drawn the circle wide.
Sometimes I wonder how good a job we’ve done as Christians in keeping that circle wide. When the Muslims protested in Egypt, many Christians there kept the circle wide. Christians who support the Palestinians in their struggles are keeping the circle wide. Open and affirming congregations are keeping the circle wide for their LGBT brothers and sisters. But as the song says “draw it wider still”.
The gospel reading from Mark is about the need to draw the circle wide. The Syrophoenician woman demands healing for her daughter, yet she is a Gentile. She doesn’t belong in the circle. But there she is, serving as a prophetic voice that God’s healing power, the Kingdom of God, is meant for everyone. Not just for the few. The deaf and mute man is also a prophetic reminder that God desires intimacy with us. Here Jesus is sticking his fingers in a man’s ears and spits on his tongue, very intimate things to do. But it’s not just a human doing these actions to another human…it’s God incarnate, God among us and with us, getting up close and personal with a man who is a Gentile. Someone who doesn’t belong in the circle.
These two stories in Mark serve to remind us that the power of faith knows no religiously or socially demarcated boundaries. God’s mission to heal, love and forgive us goes beyond these boundaries. In the first century the circle didn’t include the poor, infirm, orphaned, mentally ill, alien or women. And yet in Mark, here is a woman and an infirm man joining the circle. Who is being left out of the circle today? Who has not been welcomed to experience the healing love and forgiveness of God’s grace? God is always welcoming, but it is our insecurities which have created the rules about who’s in and who’s out.
Theologian Mitzi Minor said, “…there are no external barriers between God and any human being: not race, class, ethnicity, gender, age or physical condition. Consequently, there should be no such barriers between human beings”.
This is what is being called to our attention in the reading from James as well. As the author of the letter stated, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’”. To not love your neighbor, to not welcome others—regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, age, class, physical condition, or spiritual tradition—is to create barriers, to keep the circle small and closed.
Theologian Amy Howe wrote, “Once we acknowledge that there are no walls separating us, love and mercy flow unfettered, and all people are deemed equally valuable”. When there are no walls separating us, love and mercy flow. The circle is made wider still. No one stands alone.
Sometimes, we feel like we’ve been left outside the circle. Sometimes, we’re the ones trying to keep the circle small and closed. But today my prayer is that when we open ourselves up to drawing the circle wide, standing side by side, we can all experience the creative and powerful force that is God’s love, healing and forgiving grace.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.