Expanding the Circle

Expanding the Circle

May 14, 2023 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

Some years ago I went to a Western Steer restaurant for lunch about this time of year. I don’t believe Western Steer made it to Indiana? They were like Golden Corrals. Well there was a poster at the entrance advertising that they were going to start serving breakfast and had a special for Mother’s Day. It said, “Free breakfast for all mothers accompanied by their families.” I suppose the moms did actually have to earn the breakfast by going with their families, but oh well. I also noticed an asterisk by this statement. At the bottom in small print it said, “One mother per family.”

I loved that. No piling on grandmas and great grandmas and aunts. Just one mother per family. What I loved about it is the idea suggested by that sign, that we might have more than one mother. That motherhood is too big a job for one person. Parenting is too big a job for two people. We all need multiple people in our lives to pour into us, help us, look out for us.

How many of you can think of multiple mothers you have had in your life?

Just a few years back my dad and I were sitting by a fire one night and in a rare moment of vulnerability my dad shared about his childhood. He was born during the Great Depression. His mother was divorced and had two boys to raise, but she was out of work. She was friends with an African American woman named Lily. Lily, too, was out of work, but my mother knew someone at the Liggett-Myer Cigarette factory who gave her a job on the assembly line working 12-14 hour shifts. She went to Lily and said, “I got a job, but I cant manage alone. Let’s do this together. If you will look after the boys and help with things in the house, I’ll share what I make so we can both make ends meet.” And that’s what they did.

My dad saw Lily more in those days than his own mom. My dad didn’t have the easiest relationship with his mother. She was a hard, demanding woman. As he recalled his childhood and relationship with Lily that night, his eyes teared up and he said, “She was a mother to me.”

Some things came together for me that night. I grew up around a fair amount of racism, and if I had a prejudice it was against red necks. I couldn’t stand racist attitudes, and I recalled why. I remembered my dad saying, “You aren’t any better than any other person. You always remember that. You need everyone’s help.” I discovered where that came from. My dad had another mother in his life who enlarged what it meant to be family.

We are in a 3-part sermon series on neighboring, making the word neighbor into a verb. We are looking at lessons from The Parable of the Good Samaritan to help us think about what it means to be good neighbors. Today we consider what it means to enlarge our families, to widen the circles of our relationships.

Now, this is Mother’s Day, but in the United Methodist Church today is also celebrated as The Festival of the Christian Home. I suppose that was started to recognize that not everyone celebrates Mother’s Day the same. Its hard for people who didn’t have good relationships with their mothers.

--Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother was cruel to her, making fun of her as a little girl, calling her “granny.”

--Drew Barrymore does not have much relationship with her mom. She once said, “It’s the hardest subject in my life. We just can’t be in relationship with each other.”

--Nancy Reagan was an anxious mother and could be harsh and difficult with the kids. Perhaps its more understandable when you know she had been abandoned by her own mother.

Not everyone celebrates Mother’s Day the same, but what we do share in common is a yearning, a desire for a circle of relationships where we know we are loved, safe, and accepted.

Let’s start with this idea: we all need circles of support in our lives. Tight knit circles are important, but circles of relationship seldom stay the same size. They either expand or shrink. And when our circles shrink, circles can become too tight for our own good.

We see this in the Good Samaritan story. The question that prompted Jesus to tell it came from a theologian who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” I pointed out last week how rabbinic tradition had answered the question: your neighbor is your fellow Israelite. You don’t have to make everyone your responsibility. Only those who are like you.

So Jesus answers the question by telling a story of someone who models what it means to be a neighbor; someone no Israelite would have considered a neighbor, a Samaritan. The reason is the racial hatred that existed between Jews and Samaritans. You have to go all the way back to 2 Kings chapter 17 to understand the history. Samaria was the capital city of Israel and after it was captured by the nation of Assyria, the inhabitants were sent away to live in other nations, and people from those lands were brought in to inhabit Samaria. So the residents of Samaria were a mixed race of people. They learned Judaism over time and thus were Jewish in faith but not race. So native Jews looked down on them. By Jesus’ time Samaria became a region and years of discriminatory treatment brought retaliation from Samaritans.

Listen to some of the ways they treated each other:

--Jews shared nothing in common with Samaritans. They may have even had signs over drinking wells and restrooms that said, “Israelites Only!”

--Priests from both groups taught that it was sinful to have any contact with the other.

--There were constant provocations like defiling each other’s temples and places of worship.

This went on for centuries and what Jesus saw in his time were people drawing circles tight to know who was in and who was out. And once you need a circle to keep people out, your circle will only gets smaller.

For instance, I could say my comfortable circle is people who speak English. It’s easy to communicate and have relationship with a shared language. But, of course, there’s a lot of diversity just in English speakers, so I might say my more comfortable circle is English speaking Americans. But as we know, there’s a lot of division in America, so I might draw it closer and say, since I’m from North Carolina, that I am most comfortable with English speaking North Carolinians, which I know sounds like a contradiction, but if I say that, I still have a problem. Because as anyone from North Carolina knows, you can’t leave it at that. You still have to make a choice but you can’t get along with everyone in North Carolina, so I my circle becomes English speaking North Carolinian Duke fans!

When we find security in shrinking circles, eventually our circle gets to one.

Its like an old expression that comes from Cornwall, England. Two farmers who’ve been friends all their lives are together. One says to the other, “Sometimes I think the whole world is strange except for thee and me, and sometimes I’m not so sure about thee!”

But there is a problem with a circle of one, it means we have no one to help us when we are in need. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one because…if they fall, one will lift up the other, but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” (4:9-10)

At some point or another we all will be the victim in Jesus’ parable. We all will be beaten up by life. And if we allowed our circles to get too small, we won’t have anyone to help us unless we’re lucky enough to have someone come along with lives with an enlarging circle mentality.

Our former pastor Carver McGriff turns 99 this September. He was a part of the Normandy Invasion. He tells how he had never been around Mexican Americans until going into the army and there were three in his unit. He didn’t care for them. They were different. They spoke Spanish when they were together and he didn’t like them. I’m sure they probably felt too.

But what changed Carver’s heart was getting wounded in battle. Bullets were flying. Bombs going off. And who risked their lives to run out to save Carver’s life? Those three Mexican Americans. Carver was the victim and they were his Good Samaritans. Carver was ashamed by his own prejudice and was grateful these guys didn’t have the same feeling he did.

Jesus intentionally uses someone he knew his listeners would have despised to make that the point that none of us can afford to despise anyone. If we don’t live with an expanding circle philosophy, our circles will shrink. We will allow our world to shrink, and we can’t afford that. The greater the forces that separate people the more proactive we must be in drawing people in.

Some years ago Edwin Markham wrote a poem called Outwitted. In it is this line:

He drew a circle that shut me out; heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win, and we drew a circle that took him in!

We live in a world with too many people drawing circles that shut people out and we need the church to draw circles that take people in.

Think for a moment about why Jesus told a story with a Samaritan as the hero. He was picking at the sorest spot of his society at the time. It was like Jesus was saying with this story, let’s be honest, we have a problem in our nation, and it is racism. It exists. It is real. It was like Jesus was saying that if we aren’t clear there is a sickness we won’t know that we need a cure.

We still need that cure today.

The cure is so simple it almost sounds simplistic. The cure is simply to practice compassion. Draw people in. Just live everyday with an attitude that says, “how can I expand my circle today?”

Let me tell you about one family in our church who lives this way, The Harveys. Their daughter Allison is a young adult here at St. Luke’s. Several years ago she went on a mission trip to Haiti and got to know a boy named Jerry. She got to know him and they became friends. Several years later they hosted Jerry and his cousin and actually brought them to church on Easter Sunday that year.

But this isn’t unusual. They have become close with exchange students, maintaining relationships with those persons and their families, looking for opportunities to expand their circle to others. When asked why they do this, what motivates them to enlarge their circle they said it’s a couple things: curiosity and vulnerability. They know that as close as they are as a family, they become better by opening up to others. Getting to know people with different world views has actually made their own family tighter.

Circles don’t stay the same size, they either grow or shrink. But the more they enlarge the stronger they become.

What does it look like for you to practice the art of widening your circle? How can you get to know others different from you? Is their someone in your workplace you can be intentional about getting to know? Someone at the soccer field or even in our church?

This isn’t just a nice thing to do. This is how God brings hope to the world.

Consider this: the Hebrew word for compassion comes from the root word that means womb. Compassion relates to birthing. Practicing compassion means to give life, which is another way of saying we participate in God’s power to give a future to people. God uses compassion to shape the future.

So let me relate that back to Mother’s Day. Being a mom, particularly a young mom, has a lot of stress to it. And it’s not always work that fills you with joy. And you have to keep a perspective on how God uses all the daily, little, dirty tasks of mothering to shape a life for the future. But mom’s need circles. A young mom can be so consumer with pacifiers and changing diapers, or older moms know the worries that never end. We can’t afford to limit one mom per family. We need support systems because the job is too important. Young lives are being shaped for the future. The world of tomorrow depends on the help we give moms today to raise children who will widen their circles, who will practice compassion and live the example of the Good Samaritan. Not the average Samaritan, and certainly not a vengeful Samaritan, but Good Samaritans.

Compassion is a life-giving word, and its what God uses to give a future to our world.

Let me close with this. I was very honored recently to be asked by my colleague and friend, Ken Carter, to write an endorsement for his new book, Unrelenting Grace. Ken is the recent bishop of the Florida Conference and now bishop of Western North Carolina, where we served as colleagues in ministry. He tells a story I didn’t know, about how he came to be a Methodist.

His parents divorced when he was in middle school. He said they were good people doing the best they could, but the marriage ended. Shortly after some women from the church they attended told his mother they thought it might be best if they find another church. Ken writes, “Consider that on the pew where we sat my grandparents’ name was printed on a little plaque. And on the stained glass to our left their names were also remembered.” His family had tithed and served in the church, but now they were spiritually homeless, and in a deep-South, Bible-belt culture it was awkward.

Then a teacher, sort of a modern day Samaritan, invited his family to their Methodist Church. He said it didn’t have beautiful music or a vibrant youth ministry. He couldn’t remember one sermon preached there. But he said this: “It did have what we most needed. It was a church of people with enough love to share with a new family, a somewhat broken and chaotic family. And that is how I became a United Methodist.” (p32)

Ken not only became a bishop in the church, he became the president of our Council of Bishops from 2018-2020 during the most challenging divided time in our denomination’s history, and he has been a voice of reason and hope seeking to hold our denomination together with a vision of being a church that welcomes everyone.

And to think that happened because someone showed his family compassion when they were hurting.