A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, May 6, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Acts 8:26-40 and 1 John 4:16b-21
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            We are all pretty good at drawing circles.  For the most part, we draw them free hand, sometimes even unaware we’re doing it.  Some of the circles we draw make sense.  People inside this circle are my family.  People inside this circle are in my neighborhood.  Some circles are drawn out of necessity.  There is a corporate need to for a church to organize itself – to define who can and cannot vote – and thus circles are drawn.  Some circles are arbitrary (or at least they seem that way).  Look at the boundaries congressional districts.  And some circles are drawn to be purposefully exclusionary.  A family circle may be redrawn to disown the child.  I’ve experienced a ministerial association redrawing its circle to exclude me and my church.

Think about the circles you draw – at home, at work, at school, at church, in your neighborhood.  Who do you draw inside your circles and who do you leave outside your circles?  Don’t worry; I’m not going to call for public confession.  But I do what you to think about the circles you draw, and who is drawn in and who is drawn out.

The church is famous for being one of the best organizations in our culture at drawing exclusionary circles.  I’m talking about who’s getting into heaven circles, and the who’s “good” enough to get into the church circles.  So many Christians think the mind of God is so clear that obviously God won’t be welcoming “them” so we shouldn’t either.  And that is just so not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our lesson from Acts tells the wonderful story about the Apostle Philip and an unnamed Ethiopian.  It’s a story that illustrates my point.

An Ethiopian rides down the road.  He’s been in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage.  He’s an Ethiopian, so there are two possibilities:  either he’s a Gentile who is curious about religion, or he’s a Jewish convert.  If he is the former, a Gentile, it is interesting that Philip gives him the time of day, let alone that Philip leads him in a theological discussion.  If he’s the latter, a Jewish convert, then it would have been discovered that he was a eunuch when he was circumcised.  This fact is important because eunuchs were a sexual minority in Judaism.  Like women as a whole, eunuchs were not permitted to enter “the Israelite assembly,”[1] there were sections of the Temple where they were not permitted to go.

And yet, after being schooled by Philip in the story of Jesus and what it means to be a follower, the Ethiopian asks that he be baptized into this community of disciples.  “Why can’t I be baptized?” he asks.  Philip could have said, “I have two reasons, one of which applies.”  Either you’re not a Jew and Jesus’ disciples are Jews, or you’re not a whole Jew, and we can’t let sexual minorities be part of the Jesus movement.

But Philip doesn’t give either of these reasons as to why the Ethiopian should be excluded.  They stop the chariot and Philip baptized this surprising convert on the spot.  The circle that Philip drew was wider than the circle conventional wisdom, tradition, and understanding would have advised.

When I think about the circles we draw and the possibilities of drawing them wider, I cannot help but think of the 4-line Edwin Markham poem:

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Probably the most intense time in our lives of being drawn inside or outside of circles comes during our teen years.  Teens drawing circles that draw in some and draw out others is, to an extent, a natural response to the adolescent task of figuring out who you are.  I’m going to be this and not that.  I’m going to belong here and not there.  And in order for here to be a “not that” and a “not there,” circles get drawn.  This is reinforced by star systems that seem to dominate the junior high and high school social structures, particularly the athletic and academic achievement star systems.  More and more, kids are pushed to become specialists in one sport or one activity, doing it all year round to attain the highest level of excellence.  This leaves on the outside the kid with average abilities who just wants to take part.

I think there were two things that helped me get through junior and senior high school:  Denial – I ignored the fact that I’d been drawn outside by some group by drawing them outside just as quickly – and my church youth group.  Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.  It wasn’t quite like that.  It was a big group with cliques, but I knew that I belonged.

That’s one of the things that I love about our youth group here at Niles and that I love about the outdoor ministries of our Conference (and I assume of our Region).  The youth and kids are so accepting of each other.  Generally speaking, I don’t think these kids would all sit next to each other in the lunchroom.  Yet, at youth group and at camp, they welcome each other, they draw circles wide enough to accept each other.

What is it that causes us in some situations to draw circles of exclusion and in other situation to draw circles of inclusion?  I suspect that fear, more than anything else, it the prime motivator to the drawing of exclusive circles.  And fear can be so crippling to the sharing of the Good News.  As I talked about in the Easter sermon, Mark’s whole gospel leads to a question:  Are you going to let fear keep you from sharing the good news?

But think about how frequently we hear the admonition to not be afraid in the scriptures.  At the time of Jesus’ birth, Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds in the fields all are told, “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid” was part of Jesus’ invitation to Peter to be a follower, and the same words rang out over a storm when the disciples became fearful and an overly brave Peter stepped out to walk on water.  “Jesus regularly reminded his followers not to fear their enemies or the uncertainties that lay ahead.  He invited three trembling disciples at his Transfiguration to discard their fear, and said to the ruler Jairus at his daughter’s healing, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’

“[Nonetheless,] after Jesus’ crucifixion, fear ran rampant among his followers.  According to John’s gospel, Joseph of Arimathea, owner of the tomb, asked Pilate for Jesus’ body ‘secretly, for fear of the Jews [meaning the Jewish elite].’  Nicodemus came with spices to help prepare the body for burial, but only under the safe cover of night.  And the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, who had abandoned, and in Peter’s case even denied, their Lord, remained hidden behind closed doors.

“Even the authorities who had put him to death were fearful.  Great care was taken to securely seal the tomb.  And when the news reached the chief priests that Jesus had risen, they devised a coverup, offering money to the tomb guards to spread the story that Jesus’ disciples had come and stolen his body.”[2]

Fear similarly runs through the stories of our lives.  Fear is such a potent force, it is one of the three basic tools advertisers use to manufacture demand to sell us stuff we don’t need (the other two are fantasies and lies).[3]  And watch how fear gets used by the candidates and the super PACs as the political season gets going in earnest.

So how do we “Do not be afraid”?  Amazingly, the antidote to fear is not bravery.  The antidote to fear is not strength.  The antidote to fear is love.  The author of the first epistle of John is right:  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

And love is exactly what Jesus calls us to.  In the two great commandments, Jesus called his followers to love God and their fellow human beings.  And the inseparable unity of the two commandments is echoed in today’s epistle reading – though with a negative spin:  “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

The love that Jesus calls us to – the love of neighbor that is inseparable from the love of God – is not a warm, mushy feeling; it’s action.  What Jesus wants is that we love others as he has loved us by washing our feet, by healing our wounds, by unconditionally accepting us and loving us.

Jesus wants us to love everyone in that same way.

Yep, them, too.

Now, I don’t know who that “them” is for you, but Jesus wants you to love them, too.  And I don’t really want to have to do the work to recognize who the “them” is for me, but Jesus wants me to do that work so I can love them, too.  And if we’re struggling, in our imperfect way, to do just that, we have nothing to fear.  If we are giving it our best shot, we can relax.

You see, the youth have figured something out (perhaps unconsciously) that when they make themselves at home in Jesus’ love, they can get past the fears that draw people out.  When we make ourselves at home in Jesus’ love, that love and we can have the wit to win and draw circles that bring people in.


[1] Deuteronomy 23:1

[3] See The Story of Stuff for more on this at http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-stuff/.