Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity 2021

Do we do any better than the Pharisees when it comes to hearing the ethical imperative?

The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor

Sunday, 29th August 2021 at 11.15 AM

Do you remember those heady days in the first months of 2020 when we thought washing our hands would be enough? Many of us became truly Pharisaic in our commitment to the full twenty seconds—singing Happy Birthday twice—hopeful that it would protect us from the defiling, possibly deadly virus that was by then already beginning to circulate.

Then we had to stop shaking hands, hugging, kissing, or getting anywhere near anyone we didn’t live with. We were told to view one another as a potential threat—even the air they breathed could defile us.

Many of us became very good at guarding our own personal purity, but even the greatest hermits among us had to acknowledge that it was really no way to live.

There is a danger of being glib when talking about ‘lessons we should learn from the pandemic’, and there is a danger that once the public enquiry has happened (not for some time yet) we might be tempted to wipe our hands of the whole sorry business. We are still trying to get our lives back, thank you very much.

Boringly, experts remind us that the pandemic is not over, and there could be more unpleasant surprises in store, but it has already unearthed some pretty unpleasant truths about what kind of world we are prepared to put up with.

I suspect many of us duck our heads slightly guiltily at the World Health Organisation’s assessment that to give ourselves booster vaccines at this stage is frankly unjust when so many are waiting for their first jab. It is astonishing how little international cooperation or coordination has been sought for what continues to be a global challenge. There will be national enquiries, but who will carry out the global enquiry, to ask whether leaving it all to national governments has really worked, both in public health or in economic terms? Now, lest there be any misunderstanding, I am very grateful for the rapid vaccination roll-out in this country, and the reassurance it gives us, but I can’t help wondering whether it is motivated more by a desire for national advantage, rather than to help the world emerge from this ongoing trauma. Global Britain, pure and distinct from other nations, sniffing a vaccination dividend, perhaps?

It is from within, from the human heart (Jesus said), that evil intentions come: avarice, wickedness, pride, folly— (to name but a few). All these evil things come from within—Jesus said—and they defile a person. And what can be said of the heart of a person, might it not also be true of the heart of a nation?

We may not be quite like the Pharisees, focussed on a finnicky religious purity code, but do we do any better than them when it comes to hearing the ethical imperative that echoes through today’s scriptures?

Moses, in Deuteronomy is appealing to the Israelites, perhaps even threatening them, that if they are to flourish in the land God has given them, then they need to follow his statutes and ordinances very diligently. It is what they do in the land that counts.

Be doers of the word—thunders St James. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this (he explains): to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

But the most serious stain, the deepest defilement, Jesus says, doesn’t come from the world. It comes from within. It’s the selfish stuff that makes us behave as if only we matter—just me, or my family, or my race, or my nation. It defiles not just us, but others. Arguably it defiles a whole world, a whole ecosystem; even the very climate.

As a culture we may not be like the Pharisees, fussing over the cleaning of pots and kettles (we can hear the scorn in St Mark’s explanatory gloss), but are we not similarly focussed on ourselves, our own purity? What Jesus seems to have been criticising in the Pharisees was the busy focus on their own purity to the exclusion of others; those considered impure, who were thereby excluded, and deemed unworthy of concern. As if on cue, immediately after this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, a gentile Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus asking for healing for her daughter. Jesus initially rejects her (mirroring what might be expected of him), but then commends her tenacity and heals her daughter.

Purity, whether it is merely about protecting ourselves from a virus, or, more importantly, cultivating a right relationship with God, purity is not wrong, but it cannot be at the expense of others; it cannot abrogate our responsibility to do right by them; it is not an ethical free pass. This is part of what Jesus seems to be saying.

But surely, in our largely post-religious culture, we have done away with purity cults altogether? Since we are less distracted with our duties to any god, we have more time to focus on our neighbour? So, our secular-minded friends might contend. But taking God out of the equation (if such a thing were possible—which it isn’t), taking God out of the equation simply means that when we make the inevitable inward turn (inevitable for creatures conscious of themselves), when we look within and are confronted with the puzzling and questionable person that we find, if we no longer ask the question ‘How can I be pure before God’, that question just becomes ‘How can I be true to myself?’ And that is a purity cult no less distracting than self-centred religiosity. It is the mantra in schools, in advertising; it is the mystical quest, the holy grail of self-realisation. Be true to yourself.

But we cannot be true to ourselves, we cannot make a pure version of ourselves, because our self is a puzzling, shifting, incomplete thing, and the moment we try to disassociate it from other people, or from the world; as soon as we try to capture or control or define it as a thing in itself, (caught in a mirror, as it were), it hardens into a caricature, or an idol that has to be defended; to keep it pure, it must be protected from the defilement of others.

So, Jesus warns us that it is not so much from outside, but from within, from the heart, from the idolised self, or indeed the idolised race or nation, that evil intentions come—and it is these that defile not just us, but a whole world.

The pandemic showed us that handwashing was not enough, and that a neurotic concern for our own purity was, and is, no way to live. We might be able to defend ourselves against a virus, to some degree, but we cannot keep ourselves pure from the stuff that really defiles—the stuff that goes on in our hearts; what happens when we try to possess ourselves, even ‘be true to ourselves.’ The truth is that the self is a gift that is always being given—always being received, never a possession. To be true to ourselves is to acknowledge that we are incomplete, a story being told, and part of a complicated and connected story of a cosmos, a whole creation.

And what is true for ourselves is surely true of nations. We are part of one global story. If not the gospel, then surely the pandemic should convince us of that; and if we are to be ‘doers of the word’, if we are to fulfil our ethical call in the pandemic, in Afghanistan, in the response to climate change, then we need the help of grace to get us beyond the purity-cults of self or nation.

A true self, a true nation, is something received not possessed or aggressively promoted. It is made pure only through the purity of the one who gives it, and who gives himself to forgive and heal all its defilement—and so to him be all honour and glory, dominion and might, now and in all eternity.