Open the Circle

Year B, Fifteenth after Pentecost: James 2:1-10
By Hugh Farquhar

When I was responsible for a time with children at Sunday worship, I sometimes taught them a song called “Open the Circle” by Jack Miffleton. (It’s like a no fail fudge recipe; it always works!) Some children stand in a circle with hands joined, and some stand outside the circle. Those in the circle sing:

Open the circle for (child’s name), welcome, welcome in!
Open the circle for (child’s name), she’s a very good friend.
And there’s always room for one more friend.
Open the circle for (child’s name), she’s a very good friend.

The circle breaks and is joined by the child whose name has just been called in the song. This is repeated until the circle is complete. Then I engage the children in conversation about how it feels to be excluded and how it feels to be included.

We use the symbol of a circle often in the secular world. We speak of “our family circle,” “a circle of friends,.” and of people being at home “in certain circles.” So, it shouldn’t sound strange for us to think of the church as a circle, the circle of those who celebrate God’s presence, live with respect in creation, love and serve others, seek justice, and resist evil, and aspire to be followers of the Way.

But the symbol of a circle can just as easily represent a tight-knit, exclusive in-group as it can an open and welcoming one.

A circle has no opening. In the children’s song and game, the circle acts as a barrier to those who are not yet in it. Two people’s hands need to unclasp for another person to join the circle. That involves certain attitudes and actions. We must want other people to join the circle and we need to make it possible for them to do so. This means that the people who form the circle wield a lot of power because they can decide among themselves who they will let in and who they will not.

James lived at a time when there were many exclusive circles, and this section of his letter has to do with the practice of showing partiality in the church community.

In this segment he cited an example. An obviously affluent person had come to church, and everyone cow-towed, extended a warm welcome and said, “Have a seat here please.”

A destitute looking person had come to church, and there was no welcome, and someone snippily told them to “stand over there.” “Listen, my beloved sisters and brothers,” wrote James, “you have made distinctions among yourselves.” For James, partiality, for whatever reason, shown by those who formed the circle toward those who stood outside it, did not reflect the teaching, example, and loving spirit of Jesus.

In the Gospels, Jesus was a radical circle-breaker. He reached out beyond established human-made boundaries to open the circle. He taught that God’s love isn’t something to be owned and parceled out as we see fit. God’s love is free and open to all who sincerely want to accept it, whether we like it or not.

September is a good time for us to think about hospitality in the church. Many people are returning from a summer hiatus in church attendance. New people are showing up, testing the waters to see if they will find a welcoming environment.

That’s how God is really glorified! Not just by our hymns, our prayers, our rituals, but by the way we welcome each other, and especially the way we welcome those outside our circle and help them to know that there’s always room for one more friend.

Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, N.B. and teaches Biblical Studies in the Diploma in Theological Studies at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, N.S.

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