A Circle, Not a Pyramid (Ken Pennings) 2.24.19

Jesus leads his disciples away from the pyramids of empire into the circle of God’s kin-dom of love.

Audio version of A Circle, Not a Pyramid

Luke 6:27-38 (The Message)

Dr. Larry Engel is a professor of religious studies at Edgewood College, Madison. He is also the pastor of a Lutheran Church in Richland Center, WI. Larry had a young male student in his class on Christian Ethics who had rejected Christianity and angrily spoke out against the Church for its exclusivism, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, rigidity, and enslavement to doctrine at the expense of the poor. Larry listened earnestly to Bill’s rant, agreed that there is a lot to be angry about, and presented a very different picture of a church that might truly be living by the values and vision of Jesus of Nazareth. Eventually, Bill’s heart was captivated and his mind convinced by the values of the kin-dom of God.

The church that Larry pastors is called “Five Points,” a small rural Norwegian family church that has about 40-50 people in worship each Sunday. About five minutes into the service one Sunday, the door opened and in walked Bill and five other students from the class. There was a young bisexual woman with purple hair and a nose ring whose experience of church had been difficult, an Egyptian woman with a Coptic Church background who had left conservative Christianity when she moved to the states, a divorced life coach entrepreneur, a tax accountant who was spiritual but not religious, and a liberal Lutheran woman who was the only active church goer. Walking up the aisle, smiling and waving at Larry, the group situated themselves in a pew in the middle of the church.

Larry introduced the group to the congregation and then Bill stood and said, “We are Larry’s Religious Studies class from Edgewood College. Larry introduced us to a Jesus we never knew and to a very different way of being church. We wanted to say thanks and surprise him with a visit, so we caravanned from Madison. Sorry we were late.”

After the service, the church members invited the 6 students to a pancake breakfast at the local American Legion. The eyes of the church and legion members danced with wonderment at the flair and style of these young colorful seekers of the truth!

Jesus of Nazareth had a clear vision for the restructuring and renewal of society according to the values of the kin-dom of God. That vision is as compelling and transformative for 6 college students living in the 21st c. as it was for people in the first century.

My partner John teaches religious studies at Edgewood College also. Whenever he introduces his students to the vision and values of Jesus, he draws a pyramid and a circle on the blackboard.

John asks, “How is the universe organized and structured, like a circle or a pyramid? Like a circle, of course. We think of the globe of the earth, the moon, the planets, the stars. We think of the ever-expanding circle of the universe. We think of the circle of life in which all things co-exist in balance and harmony.”

But then John asks, “How is human society organized and structured, like a circle or a pyramid? Like a pyramid, of course. We think of hierarchy, chain of command, and a pecking order, don’t we? We think of emperors, kings, governors, generals, millionaires, CEOs, even religious officials on the top of the pyramid with everyone else underneath. Those with the power, prestige, status, and wealth are in charge.”

Then John shares with his students such passages as Luke 6 which is all about humans relating to one another with selfless compassion, inclusivity, generosity, kindness, forgiveness and service. “So according to Jesus, how is the kin-dom of God organized and structured, like a circle or a pyramid?”

At the end of the semester, John asks his students to write about what they learned and what mattered most to them as a result of taking the class. Inevitably, the students write about the pyramid and the circle. They enter the class assuming that life as they know it will always be organized by the people on top calling the shots for those on the bottom. They leave the class understanding that they have an option to challenge such a construct, dismantle the pyramid, and reconstruct society according to the values of the kin-dom of God.

In our closing song, we’ll sing, “Draw the welcome circle wider. Gather friends and strangers in. Formed of holy breath and stardust, born of God, we all are kin.”

I’m thinking most of us chose to be identified with the Christian movement precisely because of passages like Luke 6. We want to be part of a movement where people aspire to live a life of love! Oh yes, we will fall far short of love’s high standard, but hopefully we will get back up and try again.

As we dismantle the pyramid by drawing the circle wider, we need to continually ask ourselves:

  • How well do we love our enemies?
  • Do our enemies bring out the best in us or the worst?
  • When people provoke us, do we pray for them?
  • Do we return evil with good?
  • Do we really treat people in the way we’d like to be treated ourselves?
  • Do we genuinely love, help and give to everyone, or only to our family and friends?
  • When we extend ourselves openly and generously to others, are we secretly hoping for something in return?
  • Do we focus on the faults of others and criticize them? Or do we believe the best about them?

These questions are not only good for us as individuals, but for households, communities of faith, neighborhoods, cities, states, even nations.

It’s easy to identify ourselves “Christian.” It’s very difficult to live Christianly.

In fact, it’s impossible to live Christianly, which is why we desperately need the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to love the world through us!

…which is why we desperately need the community of believers to model for us this life of love, and train us in it.

…which is why we desperately need the advances of science which have helped us realize the danger of living exclusively by the impulses and reactions of our less-evolved reptilian part of the brain, and the wisdom of living by the more-evolved higher consciousness, which may be centered in the more-evolved frontal lobe of the neo cortex of the brain. Living by our higher consciousness enables that we think before we speak or act, that we choose to maintain a non-anxious presence and composure regardless of what happens to us.

We certainly know love when we see it, right? I saw extraordinary love in Bill Rewey, who was part of this community for most of his 91 years. Again and again, I witnessed a miracle of love every time I sat at the lunch table with Bill at OVER 55. Bill was always quite silent most of the meal, but he was listening to every word spoken. Then I’d catch the twinkle in his eye just before he drew a breath to speak. Always he would share a story that incorporated a piece of everyone else’s story…in that way, affirming every one else at the table, valuing their experience and wisdom. I’d think to myself, “What a gift you are to us, Bill Rewey!” When I’d thank him, he would shrug his shoulders as if to say, “It was nothing.”

Conversely, we certainly know hatred, rage and violence when we see it, right? Every week, I visit a young man who is in jail for an act of violence. I’m humbled to be included in his emotional and cognitive struggle to overcome evil with good. He easily gets riled up remembering the actions of the victim which provoked him to anger and violence in the first place. He gets extremely agitated thinking about the police officers who arrested him, the DA and Judge who recommended and set bail, the Public Defender who won’t return his calls. He’ll probably be in jail for a very long time and he’s full of rage about it. I see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. But he’s also in conversation with himself about all this. He’ll pause, reflect, then say, “You know I’m really just thinking about all this out loud. But I really don’t intend to do violence with anyone ever again.”

Working with this man is a constant and needed reminder to me that we’re all in this circle together, doing the best we can, living one day at a time, taking one step forward, and two steps back.

I see myself in my friend when he’s at his worst and when he’s at his best. I’m no different from him. Were I walking in his shoes, I would be sitting in jail, wrestling with my own demons, fixating on the inequities and the injustices of a broken society. Were he walking in my shoes, he would be preaching to all of you this morning, humbly acknowledging his own shortcomings, hoping for one more opportunity to visit his friend Ken in jail. Therefore, we don’t judge one another. We stand shoulder to shoulder with one another as equals, as ordinary weak people trying to grow stronger, trying to manage one day at a time.

I give Jesus a lot of credit. He knew his vision and values for a just and equitable society based on compassion, abundance and generosity would get him killed by the powers of empire. But he preached and lived his vision and values anyway! He preached the kin-dom of God, which is a circle of all Earth-Beings and Human-Beings sharing equally so that there is enough for every being to flourish. He condemned the pyramid of empire, where the wealthy and privileged elite on the top use their status and power to dominate and control those on the bottom and to destroy the planet.

As Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the land of the pyramids, into the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey, so Jesus leads his disciples away from the pyramids of empire into the circle of God’s kin-dom of love. Idealistic, yes! And many of us 2000 years after the time of Jesus live by that very same ideal!


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