Tiptoeing into the Gospel of Mark, preached by Ken Pennings on March 5, 2017

One of our companions on our Lenten journey is the Gospel of Mark. Hopefully we can go for coffee with Mark’s Gospel, get comfortable in each other’s presence, and perhaps become good friends.

Spending time with Mark’s Gospel may be easier for some of us than others. After all, it is one of the books of THE BIBLE – beloved by some; but ignored, even despised by others.

Even in this congregation, people’s views of the Bible are quite diverse.

Many of us have a high regard for the Bible. We cherish its ancient wisdom, its beautiful prose & poetry, its inspiration and mystery. We see it as a means of God’s grace in our lives.

Others of us are indifferent or apathetic about the Bible, skeptical toward its teachings. Some see the Bible as a dangerous book full of religious dogma used for centuries to oppress people. Some might affirm that the Bible was a valuable book of stories and moral teachings for ancient peoples, but wonder about its relevance for today.

So when we announced our Lenten focus on the Gospel of Mark, your varying responses were really no surprise. Some were thrilled and ran right out to buy commentaries for supplemental reading. You folks are ready to dive right in!

Others were a bit nervous and skeptical, and needed a bit of reassurance that you could bring your questions, doubts, and disbelief into such a setting as a Home Group. You folks may be tiptoeing your way into reading & discussing the Bible. You’re testing the waters, wading in a bit, before getting all wet.

Wherever you are in your journey with the Bible, you’re safe with us!

Just be glad we didn’t suggest Leviticus for our Lenten focus!

Shall we now dive (or perhaps tiptoe) into the Gospel?

Though we don’t know that Mark was the actual author of the Gospel attributed to him, we recognize from his work that he was an early Christian teacher who was a masterful interpreter of the story of Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel is imaginative literature based on historical memories; a simple, succinct, unadorned, yet vivid account of Jesus’ ministry, emphasizing more what Jesus did than what he said. Mark moves quickly from one episode in Jesus’ life and ministry to another, often using the adverb “immediately.”

What fascinates me most about Mark is what fascinates me with the Bible as a whole. It seems to me that Mark is offering an alternative to the commonly held religious beliefs and practices of the day. This happens a lot in Scripture.

An alternative wisdom may challenge the dominant wisdom tradition. For instance, Ecclesiastes subverts the message of Proverbs. Ruth subverts the message of Ezra & Nehemiah. Competing voices are heard throughout the whole Bible, and a place is given all of them in the canon of Scripture.

The rabbis recognized competing, even contradictory texts of Scripture, and sought to hold all of these texts in tension with each other.

The Bible is not a seamless whole. It is a collection of texts, and sometimes whole books, in dialogue with each other.

This morning’s text (Mark 7:14-23) which I’ll read again from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, is an example of a text in obvious tension with older texts: Jesus called the crowd together again and said, “Listen now, all of you—take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life; it’s what you vomit—that’s the real pollution.” When he was back home after being with the crowd, his disciples said, “We don’t get it. Put it in plain language.” Jesus said, “Are you being willfully stupid? Don’t you see that what you swallow can’t contaminate you? It doesn’t enter your heart but your stomach, works its way through the intestines, and is finally flushed.” (That took care of dietary quibbling; Jesus was saying that all foods are fit to eat.) He went on: “It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.”

Every good Jew living in the first century would have been familiar with the requirements of the law regarding what to eat and what not to eat, what to wear and what not to wear, what to touch and what not to touch. Not all good Jews, however, agreed on how these purity codes were to be understood.

Mark’s Jesus confronts the notion that holiness is all about keeping ourselves separate from other people based on diet, clothing, haircuts, etc. and argues that holiness is all about generosity, neighborliness, and concern for the other. True defilement, or what Peterson calls pollution, comes from selfish hearts, or selfish people determined to have and do whatever they want without regard for or at the expense of others.

In Walter Brueggemann’s book The Word that Redescribes the World, he traces the deep and defining tension in ancient Israel and the early church about holiness as separated purity (which often led to a smugness about being God’s chosen people) and holiness as transformative engagement (which is more about gratitude for God’s grace, forgiveness and blessing so to bring God’s grace, forgiveness and blessing to the whole world) (pg. 193). Brueggemann cites text after text which would suggest that holiness is all about “separated purity;” then cites alternative texts defining holiness as “transformative engagement” with the other.

Brueggemann writes: In Hebrew Bible, “Leviticus and Numbers trace out a life for the community that envisions every phase of life free from the seduction and threat of otherness, thus yielding pure, holy separation enacted in sacrifices, priests, and liturgical practices as well as purity in the more mundane daily matters of food and sex” (Brueggemann, pg. 181).

“You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials (Lev. 19:19).”

In these older disciplines of holiness, defilements were thought to be material contaminations. But here in Mark, according to Brueggemann, the notion of defilement is powerfully redefined. Holiness, according to Mark’s Gospel, is clearly about “transformative engagement.”

Brueggemann sees in a number of other NT passages “the practice of otherness,” which is not about rigid rules of contamination, but about the simple, obvious, daily practices of respect and enhancement that mark the neighbor into well-being (pg. 191).

I just love that – “the practice of otherness.”

Brueggemann notices a shift from “holiness as separation to holiness as relational engagement” as a characteristic of the early church. “The momentum is on the side of recharacterized holiness” that is pluralistic and open to the other, but retains a God-given peculiarity (pg. 188).

“Engagement (with the other) is accomplished through daily, concrete, neighborly practices of self-giving generosity, respect, and affirmation. The church “releases into the world a counter-force for healing, counter to all the exploitation of alienating sexuality, oppressive economics, and dissembling utterance. Not by magical Christological formula, but by a daily counter-ethic the baptismal community matters to the life of the world” (pg. 192).

It seems to me that the church has nothing to give the world when it is so like the world in its fears, its hates, and its brutality. But when the church operates out of being loved and forgiven by God, it comes to the other from a place of mutuality and respect.

These are troubling times for many of us socially and politically, very troubling times for so-called illegal immigrants, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people and the poor. These times call for RESISTANCE to policies, procedures, falsehoods, and behaviors, but not to the people themselves.

Mark warns us against the pollution of un-neighborliness even in distressing times like these.

Our holiness as the people of God is not about separating ourselves from people with whom we disagree, or from those who are different from us. It’s more about looking at their own humanity, suffering, and brokenness with compassion.

Conclusion:

By the power of God’s spirit, in these days of discord, may we be holy. May we practice relational transformative engagement with those different from us. May we listen deeply to them and try to understand why they feel compelled to do the things they do. This is the “Practice of Pluralism,” the “Practice of Otherness.”