All are in God’s circle
Recently a teacher was explaining how even preschool kids know who is in and who is out. They know who they want in their block-building circle and who they don’t. Ideas of inclusion and exclusion form early. As adults, we often know too clearly who is in and who is out. We know who is right and who is wrong, whose biblical interpretation is correct and whose is faulty. We know who we want in our block-building circle and who should sit on the sidelines.
Jesus’ own hometown held assumptions about who was special. The people of Nazareth were descendants of Abraham. They were in God’s chosen community-building circle. Then Jesus shows up and tampers with their categories and their notions of exceptionalism (Luke 4:16-30).
Jesus uses their scriptures in an unsettling way. He picks out the story of Elijah, who during a famine goes to a widow in the Phoenician city of Zarephath instead of one of the many widows in Israel. Jesus reminds them that God works outside expected categories. Retelling this foreign-widow story was probably as welcome as telling Americans they are no more deserving than undocumented refugees.
Jesus then points to Naaman, the commander of the army in Aram (present-day Syria). Elisha heals Naaman’s leprosy (2 Kings 5). Naaman is the enemy, comparable to an ISIS leader. The Aramaeans capture an Israeli girl who serves Naaman’s wife. Imagine someone kidnapping your daughter and then God healing the person who took her. What about vengeance? What about Israel’s chosen status? Ideas of who is special begin to crumble.
Jesus reminds the people of Nazareth they aren’t God’s exclusive focus. God’s mercy reaches beyond narrow circles. God’s compassion reaches every race, class, gender and nationality. God wants everyone welcome in the block-building, community-forming circle.
We live in a diverse society and a wide-ranging Mennonite church. We are still learning how to build community-forming circles without becoming self-centered and exclusive. We are still tempted to put people outside our circle in order to keep our in-group status. Exclusion can happen in preschools, in our privileged society and even in our churches.
Do our church budgets include the widow at Zarephath and the mother whose husband ICE deported? Does our compassion include Naaman, the Syrian and those foreigners we fear? When we think of God’s love and mercy, do we extend it into unexpected places, even to churches we see as misreading Scripture?
Elitism causes us to close borders and church doors. We think we know who belongs in and who gets left out. Elitism allows Flint, Mich., residents to drink bad water. Elitism deports those without certain papers. Elitism closes our ears to certain voices within the church.
We all like to be special, to be in the chosen circle. There is nothing wrong with belonging in a community where love, memory and habits connect us. The problem comes when belonging excludes others, when we forget God works among outsiders.
Can we build Jesus-centered communities without becoming exclusionary snobs? Can we have a strong sense of identity without rejecting others? Are we ready to have our block-building venture include odd shapes that come from including those on the margins?
Jesus reminds us that good things happen in unexpected places. God moves in Zarephath, in Syria, in Flint, in Ferguson, in Denver, in Lancaster and even among those we discredit.
How would it change us if we expected to see God working in unusual places?
Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.
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