Centered Set

The following is audio and text from the teaching given by Leah on September 27, 2015.  Feel free to listen online, download, or read.  This teaching is the second in our fall series, "Sailing the Blue Ocean."

We’re gonna start today with a video, or at least the first part of one.  Check it out: (watch through 3:09).

 So interesting, huh?  Maggie has tattoos and she’s terrified to let her parents know, and she’s been hiding them for twelve years.  Why?  Because her parents are conservative Christians and she is confident that they would not be cool with tattoos.  Maggie says her parents think people with tattoos are “low lifes”.  But even though Maggie’s sure her parents would be really upset to know that Maggie herself has 17 tattoos, she wants to finally tell them because her secret has kept her parents at a distance.  And despite the fear of judgement, Maggie says “I still want to have this really intimate relationship with them.”

Well, I’m starting with this video today because I think it represents what many of us fear or have experienced to be true: that religion divides people.  I mean here we have three people, all of which apparently have faith in the same God, all of which are in the same family, but because of a religious belief about tattoos, there’s separation.  Maggie is not as close to her Mom and Dad as she wants to be.  And she believes that’s the case because of her parents religious beliefs.

Now we’re in part two of a six part teaching series I’m calling, “Sailing the Blue Ocean”.  This series is looking at the six distinctives behind this new network of churches we are a part of.  And I think this story is relevant because a core part of the mission of Blue Ocean is to create safe spaces for folks to connect with the living Jesus, particularly in places where that’s not always the norm.  But off the bat, focusing on that introduces a real question that I think we need to address up front: is connecting to Jesus going to shut down relationships with the rest of the non-Jesus following world?  We live in a very multicultural place so it seems relevant to ask if it’s possible to cultivate a genuine relationship with Jesus without experiencing the division that Maggie and her parents experienced?  In a world as segmented as ours, what would that even look like?

Well, these questions are at the heart of our second Blue Ocean distinctive, which we’ll look at in a bit. First, by way of reminder, two weeks ago we started with our first distinctive, exploring the central truth that our primary framework is “Solus Jesus” or Jesus Alone.  This is gonna be a core mark of a Blue Ocean Church, as we’re naming it - that the ultimate authority lands with the living Jesus alone.

So we have this first distinctive which names the framework we’re operating under, and our other distinctives give texture and body to that.  The other five help us know more how Solus Jesus might actually work, and this includes today’s focus. Distinctive number two: Our primary metaphor is centered set.  

We’re talking about metaphor.  What do we mean by metaphor?  One helpful definition Google gives for it is “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract”.  That’s exactly what today’s distinctive is about.  “Solus Jesus” can feel very abstract, very hard to understand concretely, right?  So perhaps a symbol system might make it a little more concrete.  And in our case, this symbol system comes to us initially from mathematics.

There’s a category of mathematics known as set theory that deal with how information is grouped together.  Now one of the models that set theory employs for creating groups is called a “bounded set”.  It’s a clear grouping with clear boundaries, represented most easily by a circle. 

bounded-set pic.jpg

OK, so before you freak you out, let me assure you: we’re not gonna get too far into the mathematical weeds here.  For our purposes the thing about these circles is that you’re either inside of them or you’re outside of them. And you’re inside the circle based on shared characteristics.  For instance, I’m a woman. If you’re a man, I’m sorry. You’re outside of my female circle.  Only the women in the room are in my circle. I live in the East Bay.  If you’re from San Francisco, sorry, that’s another circle. I’m in my 30s. I'm white. I'm heterosexual. Those could further define my circle. And so on and so on until logically the circle could go further and further down until it to just included me. Bounded set. 

But there’s another model of grouping that’s also of interest to us, and that is a second kind of set. In this set, there are no circles, but there’s a dot, a really big dot, right in the middle of the set. This dot represents whatever holds the set together.  Now another difference in this picture is that everything here is in motion.  So we have the big dot, and we have say lots of other dots that represent all kinds of people, and we’re no longer looking at who is inside or outside of a certain category.  Rather, we’re looking at motion and relationship.  Where are all of these dots moving, and specifically, how are they moving in relation to our center dot? So the center of the set could be anything that holds people together.  It could be (Slide #22) Bernie Sanders.  It could be Donald Trump.  It could be Cal football; whatever a group is centered around. We call this a “centered set.” 

So we have these two kind of sets side by side but they reveal different paradigms, don’t they?  Another way of thinking of it is imagining two different groups of animals: one is a pen of sheep or cows, some sort of livestock, and there’s a fence around them keeping them in.  This is a bounded set of animals. But another picture is a group of wild animals gathering around a watering hole.  They are all drawn to the same place by a common source, the water.  They’re together because of a shared connection to the water source, not because they are fenced in.

So why am I talking about math concepts and animals?  Well, we’re talking about them because the practice of faith is generally a social activity that happens among groups of people as they try to connect to God.  And as this happens we can fall into social patterns that may or not be helpful in the endeavor.  So often times, the practice of faith can feel like a very concrete, bounded-set experience.  Now on the one hand, you could say there’s nothing wrong with that.  I’m not trying to deny the existence or even importance of bounded sets.  We all have them, we have cultures.  We have preferences.  We have things we like and dislike and people we’re more and less comfortable with. The problem becomes when those cultural markers get in the way of people connecting to Jesus. Because generally people don’t want to switch bounded set.  We like our bounded sets, and it’s usually not a fun process to leave yours behind and join someone else’s.  But I think, perhaps without realizing it, that’s exactly what faith communities expect people to do.

Say you have a bounded set, a church culture, that feels really great.  We’ll call it “Midwestern Baptists”.  And you think, "my neighbor would love this.  It would be so good for them."  

And you tell your neighbor, “Come, join my bounded set.  It’ll be great.  You won’t have to change a thing, and you get Jesus, which is totally awesome, so please come to my church”.  But your neighbor isn’t a Midwestern Baptist, they are a Palestinian Muslim.  So it’s a false promise, right?  They won’t have to change a thing?  Actually, they’re gonna have to change quite a lot.  Not only is their understanding of God gonna change, but to fit in in your bounded set, they’re gonna need to change the way they dress, maybe what they eat, how men and women relate to one another, like almost everything would have to change.  And that seems a very high bar for entry.  Is that what it means to connect with Jesus?  Is that what he expects?

So what would a more centered-set version of faith in Jesus look like?  Well, we’d go back to our dots all over the page. But in this case, Jesus would be the center dot and the question we’d be asking is “are folks pointing their arrow, at any given moment, towards or away from him”?  Now this can yield some surprising conclusions.  For instance, imagine as the pastor in the room, I’ve been doing the following-Jesus thing for a while, so my dot is actually fairly close to the center.  But right at this moment, I’ve been having a bad week.  The kids have been frustrating, I’ve had a fight with Jason, or I’m generally in an emotional funk, I’ve kinda stopped putting in any energy to pray, so maybe my arrow is actually starting to veer a bit.  My trajectory is beginning to shift.

Meanwhile, imagine another dot that is miles away on the page; far from Jesus.  This person hasn’t been to church in decades, doesn’t know anything really about the Bible, but they have an experience that makes them feel profoundly connected, however far away they are, to the living Jesus, and they have turned their arrow and are starting to head straight to him.  By this metric, that person, though they are way further away from Jesus than me, they’re presently doing better than I am, because the thing that counts is not a static category, like this person “is Christian” or not, it’s a relationship.  And in this moment, this person is relating to Jesus and I’m not.

Now I may have things working in my favor.  My proximity to the center probably helps.  Maybe there’s some gravitational pull there.  I’m close enough that when I recognize I’m drifting, it’s not too hard to recalibrate and get back on course.  And I have other dots around me who help me do that recalibration, right?  I’m moving toward the center with others around me, and they help me not veer too far off course.  But ultimately, in a centered-set framework, my end goal is not to get and stay inside some bounded social group.  It’s to grow closer and closer to the person of Jesus.  To move my dot further and further in toward the center.

So is this metaphor of centered-set faith in Jesus just an interesting idea?  Just a fun post-modern kinda paradigm? Or does it actually reflect something close to what Jesus was really about?  Maybe it would make sense for us to look at a story from the life of Jesus to get a sense of where he might land in all of this.

This story comes to us from John 10.  Jesus has just performed an amazing miracle, healing a man born blind, but the Pharisees, the really religious Jews of Jesus day, are mad at him.  Jesus healed this blind man on a Sabbath, a big no-no in their book.  And Jesus also seems to be implying that by refusing to acknowledge the works of God that Jesus is doing, these pharisees have a blindness of their own.  In the midst of that conversation, Jesus then says this:     

“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

 7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 

18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

19 The Jews who heard these words were again divided. 20 Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?”

21 But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

So this, I think, is a particularly interesting text to think about in regards to bounded and centered set, and that’s specifically what we’re gonna focus on right now. Jesus is using a metaphor himself, right?  He’s pointing to sheep and shepherds in this case, to get at something more abstract about how people relate to him.   

Now, the story starts with what actually looks like a pretty bounded set kind of image, right?  There’s a sheep pen.  Back in the day of Jesus, villages often had a sheep pens with high walls to keep the local sheep at night. So this is where Jesus’ little story starts: in this bounded set of the sheep pen.

But it doesn’t stay there, does it?  Because the story isn’t about sheep hanging out in a pen, it’s ultimately about sheep following a shepherd.  The shepherd comes and he leads the sheep out of the pen.  You could say he leads them out of their bounded set.  And he takes them to the open places where they can graze and have, as he says, “life to the full”.  

Another interesting facet of this story is what Jesus says in verse 16. “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”   So Jesus is leading his little flock out of the sheep pen, and then he unites them with flocks from somewhere else.  Like he’s taking groups from multiple bounded sets and creating a new grouping, one flock that is not penned in but is centered around himself, the good shepherd.

What’s the difference between being in the pen and following the shepherd?  In both parts of the story we get a sense that the sheep are vulnerable.  They’re experiencing attacks.  In the sheep pen, they have walls to keep them safe, to keep them in the bounds and to keep the robbers out.  But ultimately these walls are not totally effective, are they?  Because though there’s only one real entrance, at the gate, apparently some motivated folks are able to climb in another way, and now the thieves and robbers are inside the pen. 

When Jesus leads his sheep out into open pasture, they’re still vulnerable.  Logically, it would seem they’re even more vulnerable, because there are no high walls around them to keep the bad guys out.  But instead, we get a sense that actually the sheep are even more secure.  Why?  Because they’re following a shepherd who is putting himself forward to keep the sheep safe.  They’re connected to a shepherd who is protecting them and this shepherd is more effective than any wall could be.  Jesus says he loves his sheep so much that he will do anything to protect them, even give his own life.

So in this story, we see Jesus leading his sheep out of their pen, uniting them with other sheep from other pens, and protecting them in ways that are superior to the protection the pen could provide.  And there’s one more thing I want to tease out.  You could argue that perhaps Jesus is creating his own new bounded set.  Maybe it’s bigger than the pen but it is still a bounded set.  There are those who are his sheep and presumably those who aren’t.  There are those who enter through the gate and those who don’t.  Isn’t that as bounded as it gets?

And this is, in my mind, the most important point.  Jesus does seem to be talking about a concrete group, I will grant that, but that group is defined in what way?  It’s defined not statically but relationally.  These beings are not Jesus’ sheep because they were born into a particular flock.  They are Jesus’ sheep because they know his voice.  They are Jesus sheep because when he calls them by name, they respond.  They are Jesus sheep because they are following him.  They want to connect with the living Jesus.  These are solus Jesus kinda sheep.  

Jesus says he is both the gate and the shepherd.  He is the one who brings people through the gate into his flock, and he is the one who leads them into abundant life.  The only metric for being a part of Jesus’s flock seems to be, are you connected to Jesus, the good shepherd?  I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty centered-set to me.

I came to faith in Jesus when I was a student in a theatre program at a secular university.  It was through a series of crazy happenings that left me unable to deny that something real was happening, despite the fact that it was happening in a very unlikely setting.  So I started following Jesus, but I quickly found that to do so, I had to get used to inhabiting two separate worlds that had little to do with each other.  I had theatre friends and I had Christian friends but the two rarely mixed.

You see, in my theatre world the vast majority of the students and faculty were not people of faith.  I was weird to many of them for being into Jesus.  But despite that quirk, this was still my world.  I loved theatre, I loved performing, I knew the cultural language, it was my language.  But when I encountered Jesus in a real way, I had experienced something profound and healing.  I experienced a kind of acceptance that I had been longing for for years, but that the applause of an audience never quite fulfilled.  And though I was grateful for the discovery, I still loved my theatre world and felt at home there.  In fact, I longed to share with my other theatre friends that kind of acceptance and affirmation of self that I’d discovered.  I longed for them too to experience themselves not only as artists but as beautiful works of art crafted by a loving creator.

But the cultural climates of my church and Christian fellowship were very different from my theatre world.  They were two different kinds of bounded sets.  The Christians didn’t usually smoke pot.  But there were other things too.  The Christians didn’t dress the same or talk seriously about Shakespeare and Sondheim, they didn’t maintain the same odd hours.  They weren’t gay, or at least they weren’t out and proud.  In the Christian space, I was one of the only artists, and I was very aware of it.  I was drawn there because I sensed Jesus there, but it was real that there was a large cultural disconnect between my two worlds and it was hard for me to imagine others comfortably moving from one to another.  I didn’t know how to invite my other theatre friends into that world.  It was uncomfortable enough at times for me.

In my faith communities I learned language for this kind of disconnect.  We talked often about “the world”, verses “the church”.  I began to sense that you were “called” to one or the other.  As I was getting ready to graduate, folks began to ask me if I’d consider full-time ministry.  I’d always been involved in leading things from the moment I started showing up in ministry contexts, so it was a fair question.  But when I thought about vocation, one of the reasons I didn’t see that as a fit was because I didn’t want to be limited to inhabiting that church side of life.  I didn’t want to live in that church bounded set.  My heart was still with my theatre friends.  So I said, “No, I’m for the world, not the church”, and I started a band, I donned my pink hair and leather pants and I began gigging throughout the “worldly” rock clubs of Chicago.

It was several years later that I felt Jesus challenge my paradigm.  I was still gigging, as well as working a day job and serving in several leadership capacities as a lay leader in my local church.  And then I got serious pneumonia and was bedridden for six weeks.  Several weeks in, I began to notice that it wasn’t my gigging and it wasn’t my day job that I really missed.  It was actually my ministry involvement, which was confusing to me, so I started praying about it.

“Jesus, why do I miss ministry more than anything else?” I found myself asking.

The answer I heard from Jesus surprised me. I feel like he said, “Because that’s what you were made for.”

“But I thought I was made for the world, not the church,” I responded.

“Why do you think it has to be one or the other?” Jesus answered.  At that moment I realized what Jesus was saying was totally right.  I had been making a false choice.  I finally understood that ”Church” and “world” were never meant to be separate entities. Jesus was looking for people to bring his church into the world; not to reinforce the boundaries between them

 I believe that at it’s heart, this is what the gospel is about.  The good news of Jesus is that Jesus has come to break down the bounded sets that keep us from one another and keep us from God.  We looked at one provocative little passage today, but ultimately it is the grand narrative that is woven throughout the whole Bible that convinces me that Jesus intended us to live a centered-set kind of faith, a faith that is centered on relationship. 

When I look at the Bible I see a story about God creating humanity to share in the beauty of intimate relationship.  But humanity creates a bounded set, the people wall themselves off, keeping God at arm’s length and trying to become powerful in their own little grouping.  Yet God doesn’t give up on them.  God is longing for restored relationship with humanity, so God enters into their bounded-set world, their tribalistic culture, and he becomes a player in their world by meeting them where they’re at, by calling forth one tribe for himself.  He starts by becoming the God of a bounded-set named Israel.  It’s a first move.  But then comes Jesus, the bounded-set breaker.

Jesus shattered the bounded set between heaven and earth when he was born a human with skin and bones.  Jesus shattered the bounded set between rich and poor when he was born not in a palace, but in a stable.  Jesus shattered the bounded set between religious and non-religious when he hung with prostitutes and lepers and he called fishermen and tax collectors to build his church.  He shattered the bounded set between the “righteous” and the outlaws when he was executed between two common criminals.  Jesus shattered the bounded set between the living and the dead when he rose and ushered in the dawn of a new, redeemed creation.  He shattered the bounded set between men and women when he rose and appeared first to the women.  Jesus shattered the bounded set between Jews and the rest of the world when he sent his Holy Spirit to fall equally on Jews and Gentiles.  Jesus shattered the bounded sets between all of us when he said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” Jesus came to be centered-set. 

So if this is true, if Jesus is inviting us into life to the full if we pursue him in a centered set kinda way, what does it mean practically?  Well, I think there’s a lot that we could actually talk about on that front, more than we have time for today, and I look forward to the fun discussions we’re gonna have next week and in weeks to come.  But I do want to end with a few quick takeaways, as well as a first step in working a centered set faith, should you want to do that.

The first takeaway is this: Centered-set faith is not about joining a particular group, it’s about embarking on a journey toward Jesus.  This is not a static thing, it’s a life long process.  There’s no list I can hand you that says, do these five things and you’re good to go; you’re safe.  Centered set recognizes that at the heart of Jesus-centered faith is relationship and that relationship is a journey we will walk for a lifetime.          

Now this isn’t to say that some of the things that are traditionally held up as important to do aren’t still important.  Yes, actually, I think you’d do well to read the Bible if you want to get closer to Jesus.  You’d do well to get baptized, if you’ve never been baptized. Perhaps you’d do well to join a church, make a commitment to a particular body of people pursuing Jesus.  We have membership here at Haven for that very reason.  Because these are all concrete steps you can take toward Jesus that can yield real fruit in your life.  But these things are not qualifications for entry into God’s bounded set.  They are steps on the path toward Jesus.

Now a quick aside on this, some folks when they hear about centered-set for the first time, they immediately jump to holiness and sin.  “Isn’t this just a way to be soft on sin?  I mean, the Bible has some clear things to say about sin and it’s pretty bad.  That seems very black and white, bounded-set, doesn’t it?”

Interestingly enough, the word we translate as “sin” literally means “missing the mark”.  It’s a trajectory kind of word.  And the word we often hear in response to sin, “repent” means “recalibrate”.  It means literally, “turn again”. It means alter your direction to get back on course because you’re missing the mark.  So does centered set care about sin?  Of course, because centered set cares about trying to direct our arrows toward Jesus, and so we’d care about anything that would get us off course.  But we care about sin not because we’re serious about proving that we belong in the righteous club with the holy people.  We care about sin because we want to connect with the living Jesus and follow him with everything we can.  And we recognize it’s a journey we’re gonna be on our whole life.  We’re hopefully moving generally forward toward Jesus, we’re missing the mark again and again, and we’re graciously receiving Jesus’s call to recalibrate and keep going forward.  In centered set, we never get to the center in this life.  There’s always more to grow in with Jesus.

Takeaway number 2: centered-set faith in Jesus is a journey toward a dynamic center point.  It’s a journey toward a dynamic center point.  It’s a journey toward a being that is alive in ways beyond what we can understand and imagine.  This is not all on us.  You are not traveling your journey alone.  The shepherd calls each sheep by name.  Jesus is involved; just as we’re moving toward him he’s moving toward us, he’s drawing us forward.  It’s an interactive process.  When we veer off course he’s the one extending us grace and lovingly re-engaging, helping us recalibrate.  We can take confidence that this is what the gift of the Holy Spirit is about; the Holy Spirit is the substance that connects our dots to Jesus’ dot and helps us move in his direction even when other things are pulling our attention away.

Finally, takeaway # 3: in a centered set framework, faith community is about creating spaces for all to journey toward Jesus.  It’s not our job to figure out who is in or out, or what each person needs to change to be saved.  We let Jesus do the heavy lifting.  We simply get to create safe places for folks to encounter the living Jesus, and as he calls them by name, turn their arrows towards him. This means we might find ourselves surprised by the people Jesus brings into our midst.  We might be surprised by the steps Jesus calls them forward in.  Their paths might look very different than ours.  But that is to our benefit. Because the more we unite with the shepherd’s other sheep, the more we understand the shepherd himself. We recognize that we need these other sheep to help us find the shepherd.  So we welcome diversity, in all it’s messiness.  And we trust that we are being led by a good shepherd who knows each of by name, has our best interests at heart, and wants all of us to find abundant life as we move forward.

So what happened to Maggie and her parents?  Aren’t you curious?  Let’s find out (watch above video starting at 3:09). 

Beautiful, isn’t it?  Maggie was sure her parents would reject her because of their religious bounded set.  But it turns out Maggie had a bounded-set perspective of her own.  “I had been making all these assumptions,” she said, and those assumptions had led to distance.  What was the way out?  In the end, it was laying down the bounded-sets, embracing vulnerability, and taking steps forward to authentically know and be known that brought Maggie and her parents together.  And once they were there, they found that what united them was much more powerful than what divided them.  Perhaps this is Jesus’ invitation for all of us on our journeys, as well.

 So if this is something you’re intrigued by, embarking on a centered-set kind of journey with Jesus, I want to end by inviting you to begin speaking to Jesus, praying from wherever you’re at.  Maybe you feel relatively close and you prayer is “show me where I still have room to grow.  Show me where I might be getting a bit off course.” Maybe that piece about creating safe spaces resonated for you.  Perhaps your prayer is “Jesus, where are you inviting m to partner with that project?  How can I move closer to you by practically doing that?”  Or maybe you feellike you are a dot that is miles away from Jesus but you want to connect, then say that.  “Jesus, I feel miles away, I’m not even sure this is real, but if it is, I want to enter this kind of journey with you. Would you lead me forward in that?” Let’s take just a minute now to let you do that silently with Jesus, and then I’ll pray for all of us as we move into worship.