Preached on Sunday, 02.09..2018
By the Rev. Dr. Norman Shanks
A few days ago I was talking with a friend about the Edinburgh Festival. He had been to see the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot; and he said that while he had enjoyed it a lot, he had come away rather bemused and bewildered, saying to himself ‘What’s it all about?’ ‘What’s it all about?’ you may well be asking too about that rather strange and enigmatic reading from St Marks’ gospel. Some of you may remember that phrase also from the movie Alfie, starring Michael Caine made over 50 years ago now – and, along with that, to help promote the film there was a popular song, sung by Burt Bacharach: what’s it all about? The writer Julian Baggini, in a recent book with that title, told the story of how a taxi driver once had the philosopher Bertrand Russell in the back of his cab. Since Russell had a great reputation, the cabby asked him “What’s it all about?” Russell, however, could not answer. Baggini goes on to say – No surprise there, you might think. For isn’t the meaning of life the most profound and elusive mystery of them all, unknown to even the greatest minds? Surely anyone who tells you they have the answer is joking, mad or simply mistaken. And then he says, a little ambitiously perhaps, I hope not, because I think I could answer the cabby’s question. It would need to be a reasonably long journey to give the full explanation, but I could give the outline in the time it takes to get from Charing Cross to King’s Cross. The only sense we can make of the idea that life has meaning is that there are some reasons to live rather than to die, and those reasons are to be found in the living of life itself.
That comes perhaps from a humanist rather than a faith perspective but it is very close to the main thrust and message of the two Bible readings we have just heard. The Gospel reading comes from a passage that has been much commented on by Biblical scholars: it is now generally believed that the 7th chapter of St Mark’s Gospel is a collection of a number of separate sayings attributed to Jesus, creatively crafted into the account of an encounter between some of the Jewish elders and Jesus. We see here Jesus’s spin on the traditional Jewish purity code, the rules for table-fellowship, what one could and could not eat, the rituals around cleanliness. And as so often, what Jesus said and did challenged the limitations of the law, offered a way beyond and outside tradition, a more human and fulfilling way – because he saw that the rituals, rules and traditions had become less than helpful to human flourishing: because they were exclusive, in practice the preserve and privilege of the rich and powerful, a barrier and stumbling-block to the creation of God’s kingdom, the new community of generosity, fairness, hope and love.
And of course there’s a challenge to us too: how open are we to change, to looking and going beyond tradition, outside the safe familiar place, to embrace risk, beyond our comfort zone? When, in the Gospel passage, we hear Jesus talking about the defiling potential of what goes into and what comes out of us he is not talking about food and bodily processes – although in an age of food fads, dietary concerns, all the reports we hear about what is good and bad for us – organic produce, sugar, salt, polyunsaturated fats, alcohol or whatever, there may be a relevant message around that too. Here Jesus, as so often elsewhere, is affirming the importance of our actions: we see this in so many of the parables – the sheep and the goats and the Good Samaritan story, for example – the significance, as St John’s Gospel puts it, of ‘doing the truth’.
This is the message too of the passage from the letter of James – about the importance of being ‘doers of the word’ or, as The Message version puts it, make sure that you ‘act on what you hear’. Faith without works, religion that is not lived out in every part of our lives lacks authenticity and integrity; it is mere hot air, empty and lifeless. The Christian way entails a holistic approach to life that marries words and action, hearing and doing. We are called to be tangible signs of God’s work in the world. Professor Willie Barclay, of blessed memory, put it like this – there is no commoner mistake than to identify goodness with certain so-called religious acts. Church-going, Bible-reading, careful financial giving, even timetabled prayer do not make a person good. The fundamental question is how is a person’s heart towards God and his fellow human beings…True religion can never be the product of one’s mind. It must always come not from one’s ingenious discoveries but from the simple listening to and accepting the voice of God.
At the same time there may be a danger here: both in what Professor Barclay says and in the Gospel emphasis on what lies within our hearts, there may be a temptation towards piety for its own sake, towards looking inwards and giving priority to what may be described as our inner life, some might say our spirituality, at the expense of what we choose and decide to do, the kind of people we choose and decide to be, what our priorities are day by day. And of course the answer to this danger or dilemma is that, as so often, it is a case not of ‘either/or’ but of ‘both/and’ – of striking a balance, achieving harmony between our inner motivation and our outward actions, so that our thoughts, values and our deeds are all of a piece, inextricably bound together. ‘Real religion’ has to do with commitment, faithfulness, engagement, wholeness, connectedness.
This weekend marks the start of what has been designated by the world-wide churches as Creation Time’ which started in the Orthodox Church in 1989 and has been supported by a growing number of churches of all denominations as a time, running from 1 September to the feast of St Francis on 4 October, for prayer and strengthened commitment for the protection of creation and the promotion of sustainable lifestyles that may help halt or even reverse the process of climate change that we are experiencing as a result of the policies of big business and governments and the way that people live their lives in today’s world.
Here is one way of expressing our faith through action, not only reflecting the integrity of our commitment but also recognising the integrity of creation – the extent to which ‘we are bound up in the bundle of life’, as the famous prayer puts it, bound up not only with the well-being of our neighbours, both close at hand and far away, but also with the future well-being of the natural world, the created order. The climate change and global warming that the world is experiencing – for which there is indisputable and overwhelming scientific evidence, notwithstanding the doubts and denials of a few remaining sceptics – is driven by the developed world’s love affair with a consumer-based, fossil fuel-driven lifestyle. It was encouraging to read in this month’s Life and Work that in July the Church of England General Synod decided to withdraw its investments from fossil-fuel companies that have not by 2023 met the provisions of the international Paris Agreement on climate change. It is regrettable that this year’s Church of Scotland General Assembly failed to support a similar proposal put forward by its own Church and Society Council – choosing instead the much weaker option of continuing ‘engagement’ (whatever that means in practice) with the companies concerned. There comes a time – a Kairos moment – when a stronger approach than this is necessary.
So we are asked and challenged by Christian Aid, as was announced recently through the weekly notices, to support their current campaign on climate change. There are many ways to do this – for instance, wherever possible, to buy or insist on Fairtrade products, to take public transport, to switch to a green energy provider, or to write to and lobby politicians. In particular, although the Scottish Government has made considerable progress in tackling climate change and claims that Scotland will be one of the first countries to achieve net zero emissions, the recently-published draft legislation does not set a date for achieving this. So Christian Aid are suggesting that we ask our MSPs to push for a stronger climate change bill; and we can do this by filling in a simple form on the Christian Aid Scotland website.
This is just one immediate way, alongside many others, in which we can live out our faith.
When the values we cherish and the ideals we pay lip service to do not have action to support them, things fall apart – disintegrate; the wholeness and connectedness of all things breaks down. Shortly we shall share communion together – the word ‘communion’ in its Latin derivation is close to the word ‘connectedness’: ‘communion’ is about being made one with, being together with one another; ‘connectedness’ is about being bound together with. In communion, in sharing the bread of life and the wine of compassion, we are not only remembering (literally putting the parts together again) – in the face of the dismembering, the disintegration, the brokenness of our world; also we are committing ourselves once more, trusting as always in God’s grace, to playing a part in the building of God’s kingdom, in the shaping of God’s new community of hope and the fulfilment of God’s loving purpose for this wonderful world to which we belong. Amen