Widening the circle of care means letting go of our expectations that others act and think like us. Because we naturally believe that the way we think and act is right, and some other way is weird, and maybe just plain wrong. That person we don’t relate to? Their experience is not our experience. Their rules for acceptable behavior may be a little different from our rules. Their story about how the world works is different from ours. Does that threaten us? Diminish us? Only if we think we need to be right, and our perspective of reality is reality.
(Photo: "Eyes of the Dreamer" by JR, painted on a giant picnic table bridging the U.S.-Mexico border.)
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
March 18, 2018
Widening the Circle
Mark 7:24-29 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus doesn’t preach much. He only tells a couple of parables. Instead, he shows us the gospel by his actions. This brief story of a foreign woman asking Jesus to heal her daughter is Mark’s parable of the Good Samaritan, his answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. He needed rest. Peace and quiet. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus has divine power, and he has human limitations. So imagine his dismay when a foreign woman tracks him down, and asks him to do one more healing. In Mark’s gospel, healing is real work for Jesus. It tires him out. But what he says to that woman is outrageous. It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. This was long before fur children and dog bakeries and dog spas. This was one ugly insult. No dog whistles here. Jesus called this woman a dog, a nonperson.
I suspect that like most people, Jesus had learned as he grew up which kinds of people were to be respected– and which kinds of people were outside his circle of care. Those who raised us never had to say these things out loud for us to learn them. We may not even realize our biases. The news we read, the entertainment we choose, how we treat the people who serve us, where we give our money…these things show who is deserving of respect and who is not. Sometimes it’s overt bigotry, and sometimes we just don’t see people.
And then Jesus sees her, really sees her. Because he is good at that. And so he widens his circle of care in the most practical of ways. He heals her daughter. According to Mark, this was when Jesus learned to love his neighbor– that neighbor that he had been taught to not see as fully human. We can all be thankful for that, because this is the first time that Jesus widened his circle beyond his fellow Jews, and here we are, not Jewish and relying on Jesus to guide us in relationship with God.
If you need your Jesus to be perfect, you will tell this story a different way. You will explain away or minimize this awful slur, dog– the commentaries are embarrassing that way. I’m telling the story this morning, and I see Jesus being human. Perhaps this was the first non-Jew who had ever asked him for help. Perhaps he felt the wrongness of the word he had grown up hearing as soon as it left his mouth. That’s happened to me before. And then he really looked at this woman, and in her eyes realized the limits of his thinking. Jesus was able to learn, and to make amends by his actions. Now that’s divine.
Who are we not seeing? The photo on the front of your bulletin is a bit eerie, but it seemed to fit. It’s entitled, “Eyes of the Dreamer.” It is a giant table painted by an artist named JR, that was set up for a picnic that spanned a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. This was how they widened their circle of care, and invited us to see our immigrant neighbor.
The eyes are Mayra’s. Mayra arrived in California at age seven. She has a master’s degree from San Francisco State, and works in public health. She has no route to citizenship. She relies on the DACA program, deferred action for childhood arrivals, to live in California, and she and people like her are living in fear right now that they may be imprisoned or deported.
And there are so many other neighbors who, if they were truly seen by the powers that be, would be treated differently. When I thought of which neighbors to tell you about this morning, I got confused. So many are being demonized, or stigmatized, or just not seen. And because of our guest Elizabeth Hansburg, I have to add another category of neighbor: our neighbors who are priced out, or impoverished, by the insanely expensive real estate and rental markets of Orange County.
But maybe as we get in the habit of widening our circle, neighbors will see each other and work together for common causes. I know Elizabeth is working to bring together climate activists, and fair wage advocates, into the conversation for more housing, to work together for the good of all.
Our hearts are not big enough to love all God’s children. But we can show basic respect to all. And we can stretch our hearts a little wider. That means not only feelings, but actions. Your action in supporting this church allows thousands of neighbors each day to drive down Imperial Highway and see a message of inclusion or inspiration or ethical challenge on our signboard. An alternative voice to the churches that exclude. Just this week our church office received a message on the phone, and one on social media, telling us with great passion, how much our messages mean to them.
What we can do for our neighbor is limited. And if you feel guilty about that, welcome to the club. If Jesus had limitations, it’s no surprise that we do too. But when we look into the eyes of our neighbor, really see across the walls that divide us, that connection will empower us to make a difference.
I’ve heard from some of you how much you enjoyed meeting the Ahmadiyya Muslims from the Chino Mosque. I have met them as well. They think and do some things that I’m not comfortable with. Still, their amazing hospitality and food makes it hard to take offense. Isn’t it wonderful when you find such gracious and interesting neighbors, who start to become real people instead of stereotypes? I thank God for their ministry to us.
Widening the circle of care means letting go of our expectations that others act and think like us. Because we naturally believe that the way we think and act is right, and some other way is weird, and maybe just plain wrong. That person we don’t relate to? Their experience is not our experience. Their rules for acceptable behavior may be a little different from our rules. Their story about how the world works is different from ours. Does that threaten us? Diminish us? Only if we think we need to be right, and our perspective of reality is reality. “It’s not so bad. What are you complaining about?” (In some settings that could be a working definition of “white fragility,” but the attitude is universal.)
How do you get over needing to be right? The best way I know to do that is to really listen to somebody who sees things very differently from you. Learn from them what life is like from a different perspective, with a different set of rules. Maybe our perspective will change. Maybe that’s what learning is.
And then comes the hard part. Can we widen the circle to include people who exclude? Is that even possible? I think it is, and it’s worth the attempt, if you’ve got the stomach for it. Where did that foreign woman find the wisdom and forbearance to speak the way she did to Jesus? Clearly God’s wisdom and compassion were at work in her before Jesus ever met her.
If we want to be skilled at inviting someone else to widen their circle of care, we are probably going to have to show them that same kind of gentleness and respect she showed Jesus. Which is hard when someone is not showing us respect. But it is gospel. No guarantee we’ll be heard. “Love your enemies.” Which does not mean feel kind and warm feelings toward them. It means treat them the way we want to be treated!
Stay tuned for Compassionate Communication classes later this Spring. This is one way I have learned to put Jesus’ teaching on loving neighbor into practice.
God is ever creating, the world is ever-changing, and if we are not willing to learn, we are going to be wrong. If we’re sure we’re right, we’re probably wrong. Thankfully, God’s circle is very wide indeed. There’s room for everyone, even us. Thank you, God.