Drawing Inclusive Circles.

Posted: September 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 14B, 2012
Mark 7:1-8

Drawing Inclusive Circles.

German theologian, Ernst Kasemann.in his book, Jesus means freedom, published in 1969, tells this following story.

The scene is a parish in Amsterdam, Holland, when Calvinism had resulted in a high cultish response for people in their sense of duty. Duty came before everything and was the basis of morality. Duty was an obligation sustained by obedience. where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God’s commandments, and therefore, to keep the Sabbath holy. The story tells of a time when the place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dyke had to be strengthened and it was a Sunday. If the inhabitants were to survive they would have to repair the dyke on that Sunday or perish.

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 so 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 an important question: How do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’? How do we understand the meaning of inclusion and value diversity?

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. Many scholars now agree such a debate, if it happened at all, probably took place among branches of the early Christian movement 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. Why was this important for Mark? Maybe because, Mark knows about these inherited religious traditions and maybe this debate is not about health issues or hygiene at all. Maybe he is saying that this tradition needs to be re-imagined and rethought in new situations. Maybe Mark knows such inherited religious traditions can create enormous ‘power’ tensions between those who seek to include, and those who seek to exclude. This would make the inclusion claim less about all becoming the same or every extreme being acceptable and more about questioning and challenging the cultural, political and religious assumptions about who measures up and who doesn’t, in other words more about valuing the different as authentic in partnership as truth or not. Living the questions perhaps.

Maybe here Mark is capturing Jesus’ priorities, correctly. His radical inverting, alternatives even go as far as some so-called ‘biblical injunctions’ that should be disregarded because they can pollute the human heart and destroy social relationships. Maybe biblical traditions never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring. This immediately makes the simple inclusion, exclusion question far more complex. By focusing on attitudes of the heart and resultant behaviour, storyteller Mark invites his hearers and his readers to begin reimagining and rethinking the in or out question. We might remember here that only with modernity did the issue of diversity become something that is in tension with unity.

Briefly then, some of the ecological issues which are before us today are the debate surrounding a sustainable ecological environment, and the discussion around artificial intelligence and the discoveries within neuroscience. In one sense these are new discoveries and in another they have been around a long time just off the edge of our imagination. Like I said some weeks back more than 40years ago there was an article that suggested that traditional Christianity’s attack on so-called pagan religion, effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning. It was claimed that Christianity replaced the belief that the ‘sacred’ is in rivers and trees – with the doctrine – that God is a disembodied spirit whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth.

The author 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). Here lies the pollution of our oceans, lakes, rivers and streams by the introduction of chemicals, plastics and other pollutants that destroy the balance of evolution. Be careful here to note that I am not condemning the development of chemicals for enhanced production or even the development of genetic enhancement, but what I am suggesting is that when we make sweeping claims about what we don’t know we risk getting it horrible wrong. There is precedent for the extinction of a species and today’s environment would suggest a case for the extinction of that which we call human. It is claimed that we are now well into the sixth great extinction and while the previous five may not have shown a progression in severity ours is likely to become the most horrific and devastating extinction yet. And by devastating, I mean such that the evolution of the human will not be able to adapt quick enough. Simply, we have not yet accepted that 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 and do it urgently. Some who suggested that it may in fact be too late already might even have it right.

What is crucial is that we must think and feel that we are part of and at one with the whole holy system we call the global ecosystem if we are to continue. To quote Sallie McFague, we need to become “super, natural Christians”. I would suggest as I think Mark says; we need to take seriously the importance of belonging. To put the healing of our world before the need to exploit it.

So, how do we address issues which, if not addressed, will destroy us? How do we treat those who are ‘in’ our zone, our view of our responsibilities? And how do we treat those who are ‘out’ of it? 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!


What being inclusive means is taking seriously the need to belong and now I want to leave you with a video to consider in that regard.


Show video


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.


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