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Making Circles

Mark 10: 35-45


This morning I would like to visually show you what the No.1 problem of the church is today. I will need a little help from some volunteers.

Five or six people volunteer (some pre-identified.)

“Join hands and form a circle.”

“Is that the only kind of circle you can make?”

With help a whole new kind of circle becomes possible. (Outward-facing)

What are you looking at this time compared to the first time?

Now make another kind of circle. Please stand sideways with a shoulder to the center of the circle. Now your vision looks many ways. You can see the person across from you, in front of you and view those outside the circle too. This is a “Movement Circle,” people ready to go somewhere together who can to look in and out and even up and down at the same time.

Thanks and be seated again.

Creating a Movement Circle that ‘looking in every direction is not such a radical idea, or is it? From the time we were kids, we were taught that circles faced in: circle games of all kinds. Our inability to conceive of different kinds of circles means we are like the disciples when Jesus tried to communicate to them a key concept of his ministry and they were locked into their belief patterns that could not grow.

James’ and John’s questions about heavenly seating arrangements, absurd and naïve as they sound, demonstrate of making the same mistake many people do today when it comes to understanding impacting society.

Jesus had another message in mind. It was one of “servant-hood,” suffering, even slavery and death for the sake of others —  a very different “circle” for the disciples to try to wrap their minds around. Jesus preached that it was only through saving others, focusing on the powerless, the hopeless, and the insignificant, that a disciple could be called “great.”

The disciples wanted to fashion circles or ways one does ministry — that only faced inward. There is some logic to this since Jesus has already predicted his death that they wanted to “hole up” with him, soaking us every minute for themselves? But Jesus denies them that comfort. He stresses moving out, for the disciples to leave that comfort of his presence where he could do all the miracles and tell all the parable and heal all the sick. It was now their turn. His urgency perhaps indicates that he wanted to mentor them in the process for his final days on earth.

Facing outward would puts them face-to-face with the frightening possibilities of rejection, abuse, failure, even death. But that was what Jesus had taught them to do: to give up your life to save it; that the first should be last and the last first. Familiar words, but not ones easily lived then or now.

“Jesus did not teach upward mobility. Jesus taught outward mobility.” In fact, Jesus warned about the downside of upward mobility. The church is not in this world to serve and save itself.

We know that there are many churches/congregations whose only goal is to survive, to keep safe and to form circles that look in. When you look across the landscape of churches in the UCC in the United States today many are struggling for survival. More are not.

Why should a church “just keep going” even if it’s not “going” anywhere? Churches must face the world with its message. “The difference between an inward-circle faith and an outward-circle faith is the difference between “Churchianity” and “Christianity.” Cultural Christianity is dying, but Christianity is not.

The Rev. Dr. Ben Guess, Executive Minister of the UCC gave the keynote address at yesterday’s CT Conference Annual Meeting. While we may see our churches struggling and numbers of members in decline, this will never be the measurement of success of the United Church of Christ. It will be measured in service: the lives we have helped.

He shared the fact that 20 new churches affiliated with the UCC. Among that number are traditional churches like the one right here. But there are also very different churches: former Baptist churches and even Pentecostal churches; ethnic churches such as Native American and Korean. All of which add to the beauty, joy and complexity of who we are as a denomination. They stretch from Philadelphia to Texas to Virginia to Washington state.

Dr. Guess said to remember that numbers are not what the spirit requires. People are joining churches today for different reasons that they did 10 years ago or 20 years ago. People are joining churches to add personal meaning in their lives and for a desire to make an impact in this world. Organizations like Heifer Project and Habitat for Humanity are thriving because people want to hold a hammer rather than sit in a pew at 10AM on a Sunday morning.

Jesus counseled that those who try to save their lives will lose them. So if we look outside the familiar circle of our own situation at BBCC to give ourselves to others, it will be there we will be able affirm our mission and find personal healing, wholeness and health, if what Dr. Guess said was right.

BBCC must build upon its already existing outward seeking nature. We have what it takes: Old and young; affluent and those living with limited means; educated and those with more limited education; married, single; African American, Caucasian and blends of other ethnic groups; and those for whom life is rewarding and those for whom it is difficult.

We all need the wonderful and amazing, kaleidoscopic, Technicolor love of Jesus Christ in their lives. All can dispense it on Christ’s behalf because his Spirit is embodied in each of us.

So why are we still fussing over what it means to be a disciple like James and John and who’s going to sit in what chair in heaven after we die? Let’s join hands and create a living, moving circle?

Yes there is an urgency. I repeat, an urgency. We live in a world where there are hurting people who do not know Jesus. There are hopeless people who desperately need healing in their lives. God calls BBCC to form circles that face outward as well to keep the inward enriching ties. But let’s keep our hands joined so that we can find courage for what we do and magnify God’s presence among us.

William Barclay, New Testament scholar, tells a story about Jesus after he ascended to heaven having a conversation with the angel Gabriel. Gabriel asked the Lord if everyone on earth knew what he had done for them and how he had suffered for them.

Jesus replied, “No, only a few people in Palestine know.” Gabriel asked, “So what have you done to make sure the message gets out?” Jesus answered, “I have asked Peter and James and John and a few others to make it their life’s work to tell others about me, beginning in Jerusalem and passing it along until everyone in the world knows.”

Gabriel tried not to be disrespectful or laugh in Jesus’ face, but said, “Lord, you know how people are! What if they get tired? What if they get discouraged? What if they forget important parts of your teaching? What if years from now the movement dies out for lack of a witness? What other plans have you made?”

Jesus looked down through the clouds on to the earth and said simply,

“I have no other plans.”

Jesus is still counting on us today be those who proclaim the good news and to offer healing to those who are hurting. This is why our personal commitment to this vital work we do is required. Jesus is counting on us.

We are called to make circles that that connect one another; empower one another and reach far beyond any one of us could do one our own.  God has said, “behold I make all things new. Let us say yes to his creation.

May God bless us all.  Amen


The Rev. Michael J. Ader

October 21, 2012