Sermon for Sunday 29 August 2021
Trinity 13 High Mass Fr Michael Bowie
A nice easy Gospel. Jesus lambasts mindless Pharisees for being focused on externals and champions true religion, which we know is High Mass at All Saints Margaret St, so unlike the miserable liturgies of those nasty legalists. Excellent: on with the Mendelssohn.
What we hear in the gospel is frequently the outcome of an argument of which we don’t know the beginning, history reported by the winners.
We usually hear one of two sermons about the Pharisees. Most often it’s the one I’ve already suggested: hidebound legalists, opposed to the true religion of the heart and a personal relationship with God; the stock caricature of you and me by many Christians.
A second sermon is in defence of the Pharisees, often heard from pulpits like this, delivered by preachers who are worried by the first caricature and who earnestly point that the Pharisees weren’t all bad; they were conscientious religious people (subtext, like us) and we should give them a break. Both these sermons are statements of the blindingly obvious and both miss the point of the gospel by a country mile because they indulge the all-too-human game of blame shifting and buck-passing, which sets us complacently apart and atomizes the church.
I wonder if you know Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver. The eponymous driver, Travis Bickle, a former US marine played by Robert de Niro, is isolated and alone, unable to relate to others. He makes clumsy romantic advances to an uptown girl, Betsy, and is rejected; he encounters a child prostitute, Iris, and her pimp, Sport, and fails in his attempt to save Iris and get her back to her family. In lonely despair at the decaying New York he can’t understand, he blames everything on the promising New York presidential nominee (for whose campaign Betsy works) and decides on a suicide mission to assassinate him and make the point to his fellow citizens. Failing in his clumsy attempt at assassination he goes back to the brothel and kills the pimp, the brothel-owner and Iris’s client. He tries to kill himself but he’s run out of ammunition and the scene ends with three police officers training guns on him and blood everywhere. The camera pans above the street outside; this is the obvious denouement of the story. But, as with today’s Gospel, there’s more. Counter-intuitively we discover that Travis has recovered in hospital and is hailed as a local hero for cleaning up the streets; Iris is returned to her parents and Travis goes back to taxi-driving. His last fare in the film is driving Betsy back to her upmarket Brownstone house on the upper East Side; there’s no romantic relationship but he’s regained his life.
Taxi Driver depicts an atomized and fragmenting society through the eyes of an isolated loner, which Scorsese later revealed was very much how he felt at the time. He and the producers doubted many people would see it, but there was a surprise ending there as well. The portrayal of disconnection and loneliness and the protagonist’s violent crack-up under the weight of it resonated so powerfully with critics and audiences alike that it was extremely popular, won awards and is now regarded as a classic.
When Citizens UK surveyed central London churches and voluntary organizations two years ago the two issues which repeatedly emerged around here were homelessness and loneliness. Cities foment both: the constructive response is not denial or removal but engagement.
As Travis prepares this crazed plan to “wash all this scum off the streets”, he frames a question over and over again with which to confront his perceived tormentors, a line that has become a movie meme: ‘you talkin’ to me?’ His cry from the heart is that no one is, really, ‘talking to him’. His mistake, in lonely isolation, is to shift all the blame to those around him and violently to lash out at them; but he is redeemed by his neighbours and fellow-citizens who set him right and allow him a second chance.
Jesus never tells us to blame other people. In talking to the Pharisees he is talking to us. He’s always talking to me. That’s the point of this encounter. And Travis Bickle’s cry, ‘are you talkin’ to me’ should doubly resonate for us.
First, most obviously, because I must assume that every piece of criticism voiced by Jesus in the gospel needs to be appropriated by me in self-examination, not in condemning other people.
Second, to turn it around, because the people who are not worshipping with us this morning don’t think we are talking to them. The only way those outside will think we have something to say to them is if we and the whole church are thoughtfully self-critical, if our behaviour does not produce credible accusations of hypocritical moralizing, if we are, like Jesus, transparent in our love and generosity.
The point of the Pharisees in today’s gospel is not that they are pharisees, nor even that they are finicky about ritual purity. It is that they are neither listening, nor credibly talking, to anyone but themselves. Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: the Pharisee is described as ‘praying to himself.’ He is an island of complacent self-congratulation, even in prayer.
Today the Pharisees (but it could be anyone) are accused of using human traditions (which they happened to raise to a high status, so it could be anything we similarly over-emphasize), to avoid keeping the commands of God. We are all capable of being Pharisees about something, while being in every other respect the obviously rational and right-thinking mature Christians we recognized in the mirror this morning.
Jesus knows that most Pharisees would agree with his criticism. But he reminds them (and us) that it is wrong to use peripheral rules, however well-argued, to invalidate the large and loving commands of God. That is an overarching precept of the gospe; it is those precepts we need to look for. It’s the side of any argument to look for.
I greatly value the liturgical worship of our tradition: the reverent offering of Mass in general and High Mass and Benediction and their music in particular. Jesus, talking to me, says: do you do all this to share my good news with others, or is it your displacement activity?
And S James says to us today, ‘be doers of the word and not hearers only’; to which, standing here, I must immediately add, ‘not preachers only’. Next Sunday S James reminds us that faith without works is dead; not a theological error, not a disputed point of biblical exegesis, but dead. That is the gospel of Jesus, who always preferred passion for justice and enacted love to anaemic self-righteousness.
James also wrote to us this morning about live faith:
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
The extraordinary thing about the Christian faith, which is so much bigger than the mirage of a ‘plain meaning of scripture’, is that some Jews, such as Paul himself, were able to overcome lifelong religious taboos and rules and comfort-zones to act in faith, faith that Jesus had given them this freedom. GIVEN. James gets to the heart of it there: generosity, giving, grace. Our challenge is whether we believe this and act on it, or do we fall for our inner Pharisee?