Pentecost 14B, 2012
Mark 7:1-8

A Liturgy is also available


During my theological student days in Melbourne (Australia) in the late 1960s
I was introduced to the thinking of
German theologian, Ernst Kasemann.

In the only book I now have by Kasemann, Jesus means freedom
published way back in 1969, he tells this story.
The scene is a parish in Amsterdam, Holland,
where people felt themselves strictly bound
to obey God’s commandments,
and therefore, the keep the Sabbath holy.

The place was so threatened by wind and waves
that the dyke had to be strengthened on Sunday
if the inhabitants were to survive.

The police notified the pastor,
who now found himself in a religious difficulty.

Should he call out the people of the parish
and set them to do the necessary work,
if that meant profaning the Sabbath?

Should he, on the contrary, abandon them to destruction
in order to honour the Sabbath?

He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him,
and he summoned the Church Council to consult and decide.

The discussion went as one might suppose:
We live to carry out God’s will.
God... can always perform a miracle with the wind and the waves.
Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death.

The pastor tried one last argument:
Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment
and declare the Sabbath was made for people,
not people for the Sabbath?

Thereupon a venerable old man stood up:
I have always been troubled, pastor, by something
that I have never ventured to say publicly.

Now I must say it.  I have always had the feeling
that our Lord Jesus was a bit of a liberal.


Having completed a long and complicated tour
through some of the sermon-stories of John,
this morning the lectionary returns to the stories
of the earlier storyteller we call Mark.

And this particular story,
with all its different layers and subsequent interpretations,
raises this important question:
How do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’?

The vehicle our storyteller Mark uses, is a supposed encounter
between Jesus, some pharisees, and his own disciples,
over the entrenched purity laws
and the traditions which encased them.

Even though many scholars now agree such a debate, if it happened at all,
probably took place among branches of early christianity itself
- between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles -
long after Jesus’ death.

Through the tradition of purity laws and the symbolic action of ritual washing,
Mark appears to show a liberal or progressive Jesus, claiming
such Torah provisions and associated inherited traditions, 
must be set aside.

Because, I reckon, Mark knows such inherited religious traditions
- this debate is not about health issues or hygiene - 
must be re-imagined and rethought in new situations.

Because, I reckon, Mark knows such inherited religious traditions
can create enormous ‘power’ tensions
between those who seek to include,
and those who seek to exclude.

And as such, I reckon, Mark captures Jesus’ priorities, correctly.
Even some so-called ‘biblical injunctions’ should be disregarded
because they can pollute the human heart
and destroy social relationships.

Biblical traditions never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring!

So by focusing on attitudes of the heart 
and resultant behaviour, storyteller Mark 
invites his hearers and his readers
to begin reimagining and rethinking.


Now without being too pointed about it that certainly has a very current ring to it.
Let me briefly mention two issues which are before us today:
• the debate surrounding a sustainable ecological environment, and
• the call by some for the criminalising of women who get abortions, in the name of ‘pro-life’.

(i)  On a sustainable ecological environment.

While many feel such a debate is new, it really in quite old.
In a famous 40 year old article the author suggested that 
traditional Christianity's attack on so-called pagan religion 
effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning.

Indeed, Christianity replaced the belief
- the ‘sacred’ is in rivers and trees - with the doctrine
- God is a disembodied spirit whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth.

He wrote:
“By destroying pagan (religions), Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” (White 1967)

The impact of such teaching has
(i) tended to empty the biosphere of any sense of God's presence in natural things, and
(ii) blunted our ability to experience co-belonging with other life forms.

Simply put I suggest, we have forgotten Planet Earth is alive,
filled with creativity - ‘God’ - and worthy of our respect.

And if we want to continue to live on this beautiful yet fragile planet,
we will have to take the findings of modern science far more seriously.
We must think and feel that we are part of and at one with
the whole holy system we call the global ecosystem.

To quote Sallie McFague, we need to become "super, natural christians".

(ii)  The call for the criminalising of women who get abortions, in the name of ‘pro-life’.

Well, let me say I reckon it is appropriate to be pro-life.
Indeed, in my Funeral Service I have these words as part of the liturgy:
We have come together believing that all human life is valuable.
Because a human life is sacred
in its being born,
in its living,
and also in its dying…

But to be pro-life also means to be willing to
pay for all the social structures and services needed
to support, nourish and honour human life.

Services and support which others call for, under the banner ‘pro-choice’.
And these include:
sex education,
pre-natal care,
post-natal care,
universal health care,
day care,
parenting classes, and
honesty in advertising these services.

Without such as these, changing existing laws or one’s party policies,
is little more than acting vindictively.
It certainly isn’t pro-life.
It’s anti-life.

Wrapped up in misleading ‘religious’ words, to boot!


How do we address issues which, if not addressed, will destroy us?
How do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’?

Perhaps we all need to hear again Edwin Markham’s simple religious poem:
He drew a circle that shut me out -
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him/her in!

Kasemann, E. Jesus Means Freedom. London. SCM, 1969.
White, L. 1967.  “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”.
McFague, S. Super, Natural Christians. How We Should Love Nature. Kindle edition, 2000.