When the Advocate comes

Whether you are a long-time member or seeking a deeper connection with God, progressive, theologically-grounded teaching can be encouraging. St. James clergy and renowned guest preachers speak to issues of faith and public life that both challenge preconceived notions and call to action.

For daily reflections on the Gospel readings, our #SermonOfTheDay Series, follow St. James Cathedral's YouTube channel. Sunday Sermons are posted on this page the Monday following their premiere. 

Most Recent Sermons

May 24, 2021

When the Advocate comes, she will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement.

Anyone here want to get $50? Free money, really, if you’d like it - or almost free…

The slight problem is that you’ll have to go down to Tampa, and I guess the cost of that would outweigh the $50 that is on offer if you simply turn up for an interview for a position at the local branches of McDonald’s there. But Blake Casper, who owns a franchise covering about 60 of the fast food restaurants, is a pretty desperate man at the moment - the $50 gift for simply attending an interview has not propelled many potential employees through his door. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he’s now considering raising his hourly rate in a slightly more meaningful attempt to keep his drive-thrus moving.

According to the New York Times, ‘the idea that the United States suffers from a labor shortage is fast becoming conventional wisdom,’ - but, according to the paper’s Pulitzer-prize winning columnist David Leonhardt, ‘the labor shortage is more myth than reality’.

When the Advocate comes, she will prove the world wrong…

Now, I’m no economist, but Mr Leonhardt’s column from this past Thursday felt persuasive to my very amateur eyes. His argument, simply put, is that corporate profits have risen significantly in the US in recent decades, but that wages are historically low. Apparently, “as a share of gross domestic product, worker compensation is lower than at any point in the second half of the 20th century.” The result of this in part explains the perception of labor shortages, but, so Leonhardt argues - and as Mr Casper in Tampa has discovered - the answer is simple: ‘Pay more’.

The article concludes, “That so many are complaining about the situation is not a sign that something is wrong with the American economy. It is a sign that corporate executives have grown so accustomed to a low-wage economy that many believe anything else is unnatural.”

I tell you all this not because I want to make the pulpit a platform for a particular economic theory, nor because I want to promote the idea that you or I might go and work in a branch of McDonalds, even in the sultry climate of Florida, but because I was fascinated to see Mr Leonhardt set out to ‘prove the world wrong’.

As I say, I’m no economist, and I am quoting and not asserting the points made in Leonhardt’s article. But he got my attention on Thursday morning, because - whether he realizes it or not - what he is attempting to do is something a little akin to what Jesus is speaking about in the gospel reading we just heard, from the rather lengthy speech with which the Fourth Gospel closes the scene of the Last Supper.

For Jesus is concerned about sin, righteousness and judgement - and about the fact that the world needs to be proved wrong about its assumptions. “About sin,” he says, “because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

Now, as I just mentioned, Jesus is giving this speech at the Last Supper, only a few hours before his arrest, trial and execution - something which, for the author of the Fourth Gospel, is the fulfilment of his saving work on earth. In the famous, cosmic opening of this gospel, we are told that in Jesus the ‘true light’ came into the world - but that ‘the world did not know him’. And the result of this blindness and ignorance is the crucifixion.

But St John is clear that the crucifixion is not an ignominious failure, it is the ultimate moment of divine triumph. And because of that, the world is proved wrong in its assumptions. The events which are about to come to pass in the gospel narrative are not the execution of a rabble-rousing, egotistical, seditious common criminal. Instead they mark the completion and perfection of all that God has done and can do for God’s world and God’s children. And thus it is that ‘the world’ is so ultimately and completely wrong about sin, about righteousness, and about judgement.

After all, it’s very easy to make mistakes - it is very easy to fall into the trap of false assumptions. Take what’s been going on in Palestine and Israel recently. Like all decently minded people, we rejoice and give thanks for the ceasefire that came into effect the other day - but now we get to hear the worldly rhetoric that comes with it. Thus it was that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, claimed that the military bombardment of Gaza in which almost 250 people died was ‘an exceptional success’ in which the IDF had ‘exacted a heavy price from Hamas’.

But, curiously, Hamas also claim that the sorry events we have all watched on our news screens was a success. One of their spokesmen asserted that “Israel has withdrawn…and did not obtain any of its objectives…” and another commentator in Gaza added that, “Hamas has inflicted a heavy blow…” 

But they are, of course, both wrong. They are wrong about sin, they are wrong about righteousness, and they are wrong about judgement. Nobody won anything in the awful round of violence that has dominated the last two weeks of life in Palestine and Israel. Around 260 folk lost their lives, and huge amounts of infrastructure has been destroyed. When you factor into this the political overtones and motives of the conflict, which add a level of corruption and cynicism to both sides, it only becomes all the more clear why it is that, to quote Jesus, ‘the ruler’ - or in this case, rulers - ‘of this world has been condemned’.

And one can be all the more sure that When the Advocate comes, she will prove the world wrong…

And if the Spirit will prove the world wrong, the big question for this morning, is where does that leave us…?

To mark the end of the Great Fifty Days of Eastertide and the empowerment that is given to us by the gift of the Holy Spirit, our liturgy has an unusual ending, as you may have noticed if you have looked ahead in your bulletins. For during these fifty days, we have been celebrating a victory that is so very much more truthful, so very much more genuine, so very much more real than anything currently being claimed in the middle east. And it fall to us, as our vocation, our calling, our ‘job’, to ensure that the world notices this victory.

For most victories are partisan events. Hamas claims victory at the expense of Israel. And Israel - at the same time - claims victory at the expense of Hamas. But the victory that we celebrate is

the victory ‘of our Lord Jesus Christ over the powers of sin and death’. And this makes our victory the one victory that comes at no expense for an ‘other side’ - this makes our victory the one victory that truly can make the world a better place with no hidden cost to another group of people.

And because of that victory, before we get sent out into the world, Lisa is going to call on us ‘to live out what [we] proclaim’, and, as part of that, she is going to ask us if we ‘dare to carry the light of Christ into the world’s dark places?’

But - for all the Good News of Christ’s victory - that command can still feel quite a challenge. Which is why Jesus is fully aware that we need help, and it is in that context that he is speaking of the Holy Spirit, or the Advocate in our gospel this morning.

For Jesus wants us to be martyrs for the sake of the Good News. And before you panic, the original meaning of the word is about someone who ‘bears witness’ - someone who will testify. And even if we are not called to face death for the sake of the gospel - although we most certainly should not forget that we have sisters and brothers in Christ for whom their proclamation of faith most certainly does place them in real peril - even if we are not called to face death because of our faith, sometimes it can be hard to testify.

Which is why we do not have to do so alone… which is why, on the great feast of Pentecost, we are privileged to celebrate the gift of an Advocate who will ‘guide us into all truth’, and empower us to participate in the mission and ministry of the gospel, and to call out and condemn the rulers of this world when they attempt to lead God’s children astray about sin, about righteousness and about judgement. That is why we are privileged to celebrate the fact that When the Advocate comes, she will prove the world wrong…

Two hours ago, at our 9am liturgy, I had the enormous joy of baptizing Yara - the beautiful baby daughter of Anna and her husband Shawn. But before Yara got anywhere close to the waters of the font, on her behalf, Anna and Shawn had to make a number of weighty commitments - including renouncing ‘the evil powers of this world’, and ‘all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God’. For that is what the Body of Christ - into which Yara was initiated - that is what the Body of Christ - that is what we - are called to do. And if we are remotely serious about it, that will sometimes absolutely mean that we are called to ‘prove the world wrong’.

Which takes us back to David Leonhardt’s article from Thursday’s New York Times, and the question of whether or not there is a labor shortage, and whether or not the best way to tackle this issue is simply to pay more.

My understanding of economic theory is a fairly basic one. I did take a class in economics when I did my Masters, but all I can remember is the explanation that under capitalism man exploits man - but under communism, it’s the other way round. Mr Leonhardt - and probably many of you - may understand the nuances of this complex subject way more than I do. I did find his argument persuasive, and it would certainly suit my own view of both politics and theology to see just a little more of the money that goes into the pockets of those in the boardroom go, instead, to the pockets of the work force. But that is not the answer to everything…

For there’s a very important job that is not, I’m afraid, going to get a pay rise any time soon. It won’t even attract a $50 bill just for turning up to an interview. It’s not that the pay is terrible - there just isn’t any.

And it’s not just the salary that’s a problem - there’s no vacation entitlement, no time off, and certainly no health benefits. And it might be because of this unappealing package that’s on offer that some say there really is a labor shortage in this particular market.

But for all that, we recruited a new member of the workforce this morning, when I said to baby Yara, Christ claims you for his own. Receive the sign of his cross. Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. And - incredibly - everyone else must have had some sympathy with this statement, for they all joined in, to tell her to Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.

And when I was out in Jerusalem last week, less than five minutes walk from the ground zero of the contested evictions, and the nightly sounds of anger and violence, I joined with our sister and brother Episcopalians both to celebrate the Ascension of Christ and proclaim his sovereignty over the world, and also to inaugurate a wonderful new ministry in the Church of God.

And as we celebrated and partied with the brand new Archbishop, even with the sounds of riots audible from just outside, nobody had any doubt whatsoever that this was one of those moments when we were proving the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement.

So let’s make sure that we get out there and keep testifying, for we have the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth squarely on our side. So, Mr Leonhardt, forget the salary, the health benefits and the vacation entitlement - somehow, it just doesn’t get any better than this! Amen.