St. Michael’s Church
Pastor Joe Britton
Widening the Circle
“Ought not this woman be set free from her bondage on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13)
Some of you have heard me tell the story that when I was a parish priest in the old Blue-blood parish of St. Paul’s, Dedham, Massachusetts, I used to tease my parishioners there (many of whom could trace their roots to the Mayflower), that had the Pilgrims by some miracle been blown off course and miraculously landed in Santa Fe, New Mexico—not only would they have found a town of European origins already more than a decade old, but they could have gone to mass at their local parish church (not, of course, that they would necessarily have wanted to do that!).
That fact—that the European settlement of North America really began in the desert Southwest and not in New England—never sat very well with my parishioners, who had a pretty strong investment in the idea that their ancestors were here first.
Nor did the fact that the original European settlement of North America was made by Spanish Roman Catholics, and not Anglo Puritans.
Their discomfort reminds me of a question posed by Lee Maracle, a Canadian First Nations author, in her book, Ravensong: “Where do you begin telling someone their world is not the only one?”[*]
Or, perhaps put another way, where do you begin encouraging someone to widen the circle of their own awareness of imagination, or as the young Hamlet puts it to Horatio, to imagine that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.
We seem to be living in a time when we are all being forced to confront the fact that the world is much more complicated, and much more varied, than we ever imagined.
As immigrants cross borders near and far; as the web opens every place on earth to our scrutiny and comment; as commerce floods the world with products of every imaginable origin—we are confronted on a daily basis with the challenge to widen the circle of our understanding of different ways of doing things, and our acceptance of different ways of behaving.
And of course, we have seen the predictable resistance to such radical change erupting in our country in aggressive and sometimes even violent ways throughout this election cycle. We have talked about that here already on previous Sundays, and I don’t want to dwell on that topic again today.
But what I do want to do is think about the kind of change we are confronting in a more spiritual way.
In today’s gospel, we hear of Jesus angering the powers that be by his challenging the accepted norms of social behavior. The story is familiar, because it is repeated so often throughout the gospels: Jesus is constantly pushing the people whom he encounters to widen the circle, to imagine who or what might be included in their way of looking at things that might transform the way they related to other people.
In this case, there is a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years, pitifully bent over and unable even to stand up straight. Jesus has the temerity to heal her on the Sabbath, the day when no work is to be done, at which the leader of the synagogue takes umbrage. Pushing back at the leader’s anger, however, Jesus reminds him that even on the Sabbath, he takes care of the needs of the ox and donkey in his stable. And if for the animals—then why not this poor woman?
“Widen the circle of your care and concern,” he seems to say, “to include not just the beasts, but also your fellow human being.”
Now, if you think about it, this widening of the circle of our sense of responsibility and relationship is something that each of us must in the course of our lives, if we are to move from the complete self-centeredness of an infant (for whom life is nothing more than having one’s needs met), to the willingness and ability to reach out sacrificially to meet the needs of others? Our emotional life—if it is healthy and growing—is a constant trajectory along the path of widening the circle of our consciousness, our commitments, our care, and our concern.
But more than that, God’s way of dealing with us is also continually to be calling us into a wider circle of consciousness and concern. Many of the great stories of the Hebrew scripture revolve around that call to wider vision: Abraham called our of the Land of Ur to become the father of nations; the Israelites called out of slavery in Egypt to become God’s people; the prophets called out of their obscurity to give presence to God’s voice.
So perhaps that’s why the stories of Jesus also so often revolve around that very issue of widening the circle—it is he who makes mostly clearly known to us what God is encouraging us to be and to become.
This past week, my wife and I sent our son off to college. Every parent knows the experience of having one’s experience opened to new things by what our children choose to do (sometimes for good, and sometimes not). I, for example, would never have thought of taking up flying as a passion, a vocation, and a career—but that’s what our son has chosen to do. (And as a result, I have learned a lot more about the realities of aviation than I wish I knew!) The challenge of parenting, of course, is to make room for such adventuresome-ness, encouraging it while also guiding it, yet also not choking it off by failing to widen the circle of one’s own appreciation.
So all this is to say, that at the very core of what it means to be human, there is a need continually to widen the circle of what we know and who we are, as we respond also to the growth of others.But there is a deeper core to this imperative as well, which is that if we are to come to know God in our life, then our mind must be continually expanding to take in the reality of who God is. We are created finitely, yet with the charge of relating to God’s infinite love. We are like small clay vessels, trying to contain the entire sea. Although we can never fully succeed, then, at fully knowing God, nevertheless only a continually expanding heart and mind can adequately respond to the fullness of God’s love.
That expansiveness of heart and mind is the invitation given by God the creator in our origins, it is the challenge taught by God the son in his earthly ministry, and it is the encouragement given by God the Holy Spirit in the promptings which life gives us every day toward opening ourselves to the new, the unexpected, the unexplained.
The anger and resentment toward other people that we see around us, therefore, is not just an economic and political issue, despite what we read in the newspaper. It is also a spiritual issue—a disinclination to grow and mature with the openness of heart and mind to which God calls us.
Lee Maracle asked, “Where do you begin telling someone their world is not the only one?” Well, as Christians, we might begin with the nature of God’s own being, infinitely complex and diverse as it is. And when we have that thought firmly in mind, then we might expand that awareness to the world of God’s own creation, where we should also expect there to be a diversity of languages and peoples and nations that will defy our comprehension—but which will nevertheless require the widening of the circle of our consciousness if we are to respond to it meaningfully.
So we are led to the question of who needs to be included next in my own circle of understanding and concern? Is it my child, or spouse? Is it a Muslim neighbor, or colleague? Is it perhaps the immigrants who are hidden among us? Or perhaps, is it even myself?
© Joseph Britton, 2016
[*] Lee Maracle, Ravensong, quoted in Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 99.