Sermons Author: The Very Rev. Dominic Barrington
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January 17, 2021
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
“Shout if you love Jesus!”
Well - that worked well! Perhaps I shouldn’t have tried it in an empty cathedral! I wonder if we Episcopalians are naturally the type that would have shouted, even if these empty pews were full! It maybe the case that members of other Christian churches respond better to such an instruction…
“Shout if you love Jesus,” yelled the man. And, according to the news report, the largely unmasked crowd around him cheered loudly. Now, even if you are not cheering at your computers and phones as I preach right now, I hope you do love Jesus.
But the man’s next words may evoke a different reaction from you: “Shout if you love Trump!”, he yelled. And, according to the news report I read, the crowd cheered louder. Thus responded the participants of the ‘Jericho March’, who had gathered in the nation’s capital the Wednesday before last, according to an article published in The Atlantic, which explained that, “Just as God instructed Joshua to march around Jericho seven times with priests blowing trumpets, Christians gathered in D.C., blowing shofars, the ram’s horn typically used in Jewish worship, to banish the “darkness of election fraud” and ensure that “the walls of corruption crumble.”
While the website of Jericho March now posts a clear message attacking all forms of violence (not I believe a statement made before the now infamous events that took place that day), The Atlantic is far from the only news outlet suggesting that some of the rioters from January 6th were right-wing Christians, “believing they were marching under Jesus’s banner to implement God’s will to keep Trump in the White House”. Of course, “the Word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread”. And “you will see
greater things than these” said Jesus.
If you are members of St James, and thus get our weekly enews, you will have had the chance by now to see a response to all this from another Christian who was in Washington DC on Wednesday January 6th . This Christian was in DC not because she had flown in from another part of the United States with any kind of mission to address ‘election fraud’. This Christian was in DC because, for just a short while longer, it is both her home and her place of work.
I have not had the chance to discuss politics with the Reverend Canon Paula Clark, but I feel pretty secure in asserting that she did not join in the Jericho March, or any of the other protest marches that culminated in those terrible scenes of violence and insurrection and the deaths of six beloved children of God. And one reason I dare claim to have at least some insight into the views of the woman who will, God willing and the people (and other bishops and diocesan standing committees) consenting, become our next bishop in April, is that she preached a very powerful sermon in the National Cathedral last Sunday. If you have had the opportunity to watch or listen to Canon Clark’s profound words, you will have heard her pray and reflect on the question that we know “who and whose we are”.
The sermon, of course, was set in the context not just of the political disturbance that took place in Washington, but in the even more significant context of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River at the hands of John. A moment, which, as Canon Clark helped us understand, was a time when Jesus came to understand more fully ‘who and whose’ he was - and an example to his followers who constitute the Body of Christ, brought into being in the waters of Christian baptism, that we should constantly, seek to be reminded and to remember ‘who and whose we are’.
When Jesus was baptized, of course, all four of the gospel writers tell us that the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. That must have seemed pretty extraordinary to the bystanders. But you - said Jesus - you will see greater things than these… you will see the heaven opened…Jesus was clear ‘who and whose’ he was, and at the hands of John the Baptist at the Jordan River, this was deeply and profoundly affirmed for him. And it triggered three years, so we traditionally believe, of an extraordinary ministry that set out to make the world a better place - that set out to show the world greater things than it had ever previously seen and understood. But to do that, Jesus could not simply act on his own.
And thus, this morning, we hear of Philip and the wonderfully guileless Nathanael join Andrew and Simon Peter, as the first recruits into what would eventually become a vast army of followers of Jesus. An army of followers called to show the world greater things - and army of followers called to make the world more Christ-like, more God-like - an army of followers called to remember, constantly, ‘who and whose they are’. But it isn’t always easy to work out that ‘who and whose’ question. The young Samuel, about whom we heard in our first reading, thinks at first that the answer to this question might be his ‘boss’, Eli. Eli was the high priest at the shrine at Shiloh, which was the focus of Israelite religion before David conquered Jerusalem and the temple was built under his son Solomon.
It was, of course, a time when the ‘word of the Lord was rare’, and when ‘visions were not widespread’, and that, perhaps, is why Samuel and Eli do not initially get what’s going on; that is, perhaps, why God has to try three times to get through to Samuel. But, on the third time of asking, God does get through to Samuel. Eli, the high priest, works out that it is the Lord calling out, and Samuel obediently goes to listen. And - as it were - Samuel, like Nathanael, is told that he, too, is going to see ‘greater things’ than those he is currently experiencing. But - just as it will prove to be for the disciples of Jesus - things are going to get worse before they get better. Because God’s call is so often a call to make the country or the world great - truly and properly great - and that is usually something that is both
complex and costly.
Because the Israel of Eli’s era is anything but great, and the situation around Eli himself is anything but great. Read around portion of First Samuel we just heard and you’ll discover that the goings on at Shiloh are a mess. Eli’s sons are an immoral, lazy disgrace, and in God’s eyes, Eli is to blame for having done nothing appropriate to rein them in. And as a result, God tells Samuel that he’s about to do something ‘that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle’. And so it proves, for in the following verses, Eli and his sons see their punishment come, and 30,000 soldiers of Israel perish in battle against the Philistines, and the Ark of the Covenant will be captured.
The problem, of course, is that with the clear exception of Samuel himself, pretty much everyone else in this story is failing to see clearly ‘who and whose they are’ - everyone else is doing a pretty poor job of listening while the Lord speaks. But Samuel is the exception, and he becomes renowned as a prophet, and comes to occupy a truly pivotal role in the history of the Israelites. For Samuel is the last of the so-called ‘judges’ - temporary, tribal leaders of the Israelites chosen by God to provide religious, moral and ethical leadership designed to make sure that nobody forgets ‘who and whose’ they are. The problem that Samuel faces, however, is that the Israelites think they know better. They don’t want this rather informal style of political leadership. They want to make Israel great, and they plead and they shout to be allowed to have kings. They think that leadership of this kind will really make the country great - and thus it falls to Samuel to help Israel undergo this transition, for better or worse…
For Samuel goes makes it plain that he sees the demand for a king as downright evil, and his last words to the Israelites are words of warning: “Only fear the Lord, and serve him faithfully with all your heart; for consider what great things he has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.” In other words, as our new bishop made so clear, don’t forget ‘who and whose’ you really are - and make sure your behavior shows you know this.
The other evening, Alison and I were watching the 2017 movie Marshall in which Chadwick Boseman played anyoung Thurgood Marshall. It introduces us to Marshall when he has just become Chief Counsel for the NAACP, and he goes to Connecticut to defend a black man accused of rape in a trial where a biased and bigoted judge refuses him permission to speak in the courtroom, and thus he can only act as a silent advisor to a nervous local attorney, Sam Friedman - who has only ever worked on civil cases around insurance law and never participated in a criminal trial in his life.
The Connecticut of the early 1940s is not portrayed as a place that is very appealing - certainly not for the people of color who had the misfortune to live through the prejudicial treatment that was an everyday part of their lives. The trial is an uphill battle for the silenced Thurgood Marshall and his bewildered legal partner, who is so manifestly out of his depth. It feels like a situation where the odds are stacked against them, but Marshall is clear that both the defendant whom they represent, and the wider world are going to be shown greater things than the immoral and biased situation that is so hampering their attempts to obtain justice. And thus, despite the odds, the interests of their client prevail in the trial, and in one of the closing scenes, the movie depicts a poignant final conversation between the two attorneys, when Marshall tells his new friend (who has only just discovered how much more being a trial lawyer beats doing insurance work!) “I need an army of lawyers just like you, Sam. Lawyers who don’t even know they want to make a difference…
but who with just a bit of training can be just as capable as me….”
His colleague-turned-friend asks him what he will do until he has such an army - “will you just travel around this country on a crusade, putting out fires?” And the reply comes, “It’s not really fires I’m after Sam - it’s fire itself.”
Thurgood Marshall became a judge - a very great judge - and he was also, without doubt, what we might call a prophet - a prophet to this nation at a time when not everyone would listen to the voice of those whose skin was not white. It was a time when significant parts of American society and leadership had most certainly forgotten ‘who and whose’ it was meant to be. A time when for so many people the ‘word of the Lord’ felt rare. A time when people - and especially, perhaps, the people of color - needed desperately to ‘see greater things than these’.
For all his sins and the sins of his sons, Eli gave the young Samuel some very good advice: “if [the Lord] calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” How different it would have been if Eli had told Samuel to say, “Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking.”
“Shout if you love Jesus” the man said. Well - maybe that’s not the best approach. Maybe the word of the Lord was rare in the days of Samuel because people were just shouting too loud to hear it. Maybe the visions were there all the time, but nobody bothered to look for them, because they were looking for things to fan the flames of their own self interest.
Nathanael was guileless, but also hapless. He and all the disciples had to undergo a major learning curve to become effective followers of Jesus. They had to learn the hard truth that in God’s service, we often need to nstop talking and start listening. Things got hard and difficult for the disciples - but they also got to see and to do ‘greater things’. And on the day of Pentecost that fire arrived, and danced on their heads, bringing the Church of God to birth, and creating an army - not of lawyers, but of people who nevertheless went out to change the world, because they knew, for sure, ‘who and whose’ they were. An army of God’s people on fire with the Holy Spirit who went on to critique kings, rulers, presidents and any and everyone else. There has been a lot of shouting, a lot of very ugly behavior, a lot of talk about what it might mean to make this country or this world ‘great’. And I’m afraid that on the part of some religious leaders, to my mind we have heard too much of the “Listen, Lord, your servant is speaking” approach. As these United States live through a transition of political power set in a context truly unprecedented, we need to remember ever the more clearly ‘who and whose’ we are, and we need to stop shouting and start listening ever more closely to the word of God.
And if we do, then in partnership with Paula, called to be our next bishop, and in partnership with everyone who hears God calling in the night and is brave enough to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”, then we can truly follow Jesus and show the world ‘greater things than these’. And, I promise, it won’t ever get any better than that. Amen.
December 27, 2020
The Feast of St. John, Apostle & Evangelist
December 24, 2020
Christmas Eve - Midnight Mass
All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God
In 1958 the Federal Government signed a lease with the people of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. The lease was for 200 acres of land to be set aside for scientific research, on which was built the Kitt Peak Observatory - the proud home of what its website claims to be ‘the largest and most diverse collection of research telescopes in any one place in the world’.
The Reverend Lucy Winkett, rector of another church dedicated to St James - the famous one on Piccadilly in the heart of London, mentioned the observatory’s lease in a brief but fascinating talk on the BBC earlier this week. Unsurprisingly, the language of the Tohono O’odham people contained no word for ‘astronomer’, and so when the lease was drawn up, the scientists who were to come and occupy Kitt Peak were described as being ‘the people with long eyes’.
And long eyes have been much in demand in recent days, as, for the first time in around 800 years, the two largest planets of our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, came into a conjunction during the hours of darkness on December 21 st , the winter solstice. Particularly with this astronomical rarity falling so close to Christmas, it was inevitable that there would be talk of this being a reoccurrence of the ‘star of wonder’, which, so St Matthew tells us, led the wise men to find the infant Jesus in Bethlehem.
However, as you may well recall, Monday evening in Chicago saw considerable cloud cover, and around here nobody had eyes that were long enough to behold this remarkable spectacle. To add to the disappointment, astronomers were quick to remind us that the next time such a conjunction happens, none of us will still be around to see it. The light shone - but, in this instance, the darkness overcame it with remarkable ease. Iconic, perhaps, of 2020.
But perhaps we should not be too disappointed that here in Chicago we missed the conjunction. For a start it is based on appearances that are - in truth - rather deceptive. Being ‘conjoined’ is a turn of phrase that usually implies a physical proximity one might call intimate. But in the case of Saturn and Jupiter the other day, we should note that, in reality, however it looked in the sky, they were actually around 456M miles apart. By way of context that’s getting on for 2000 times the distance between the earth and the moon. You need really long eyes to be able to see that far.
But never mind the physical distance. The magi’s eyes were not necessarily as long as they should have been and they lacked the ability to see some things which were pretty much in front of their noses. For when we read about the consequences of what was revealed in the light of the ‘star of wonder’ which appeared to the magi, we begin to realize that it cast light on an awful lot of bad news.
For a start, the ‘men’ - whom we traditionally call ‘wise’ - these confused and confusing wanderers arrive in Jerusalem. It’s only about eight miles north of Bethlehem, and it was, of course, the obvious place to seek someone of royal prominence. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that the star might really be pointing them to the ‘little town’ down the road.
So the Magi arrive in Jerusalem and start asking questions. Which is rather unfortunate, to put it mildly, for it provokes the puppet-king Herod into a murderous rage that leads to the slaughter of countless babies, while the Holy Family only just manage to flee as refugees and end up for some years in exile in Egypt.
Once you remove the tinsel and the gift wrap from the all too familiar pages of the Christmas story, I’m afraid it starts to have a very different feel. For Mary and Joseph and all their kith and kin lived under a severe and ungenerous military occupation. And what the Romans didn’t bother paying attention to, they left in the charge of Herod, whose immoral and egotistical vanities were legendary.
It was into a world as complex, as violent, and as unjust as this that God chose to be born. A world where a woman only a few hours away from the desperate and dangerous moment of childbirth is denied anywhere suitable to stay or sleep, and where her newborn baby is initially of interest only to the lowest of society’s low, before sparking the homicidal acts of a delusional despot. The nights might not have been as cloudy as they were in Chicago four days ago, but you needed pretty long eyes to be able to look at the news back then and to see anything good in it.
That’s the context in which the Word becomes flesh. That’s the context in which God takes human form and is born in the little town of Bethlehem. But those - those who have really long eyes start to understand rather more fully what it means to talk about light shining in darkness, and about the ‘salvation of our God’.
Acts of infanticide and genocide, sadly, are not restricted to the middle east of 2000 years ago. A few years ago I attended a large conference at which the keynote speaker was the founder of the worldwide anti-trafficking charity Oasis International - an English Baptist minister called Steve Chalke. He spoke to us of a visit he had made to Prague - specifically to the Pinkas Synagogue. The synagogue was built in the 16 th Century, but in more recent times has become a remarkable memorial to the Holocaust. For after the Second World War, two men spent four painstaking years inscribing on the walls the names and dates of all 77,297 Czech Jews who lost their lives when the forces of the Third Reich engulfed Europe. So the walls tell you, for instance, of Elsa Lutzova, who died aged 43; of Bernard Macner, who died aged 36; of Adela Maglicova, who died aged 63, and of so many many more. But, said Chalke, what he found truly extraordinary was the presence of names of children who died aged five, or four, or three, or even aged two years or less. Jewish children who died even at just the same age that Herod was slaughtering the Jewish boys who were Jesus’ contemporaries.Visibly overcome by emotion, Chalke paused for a moment - and then he shouted at us, “What made them do it?”
Of course, I thought he was talking about Hitler and his followers. I thought he was asking what could possibly motivate such evil deeds. But I’d misunderstood the question. “What made them do it?” he demanded …. “What made them carry on having babies at that point?” For, even by the mid 1930s it was easy to see the tide of horror that was about to wash over Europe, and by the end of that decade the War had already begun, with all its evil and devastation. So why did the Elsa Lutzovas and Bernard Macners, and the other Jews of Prague – who could see exactly what was going to befall them by that point – why did they carry on having babies?
“There is only one reason”, asserted our speaker, fighting back tears, “there is only one reason why you can possibly carry on having babies in such awful circumstances” – and that is that you know – that you know – that you have something … that is stronger, that is bigger, that is more important, and that will – ultimately – be more triumphant, than anything that the forces of this world can muster. “You can only”, he said, “You can only carry on having babies at that point, because you know you have something that makes a difference.”
And because seeing is believing, I need to tell you this evening, that you can only know this if you have truly long eyes. Long eyes like the prophet whose words we have just heard. Jerusalem and the Temple had been razed to the ground, and its people were in bitter exile in Babylon. But the prophet had very long eyes, and he called the ruins of that great city to break into song, because he knew that not just the Israelites, he knew that ‘all the ends of the earth’ would see ‘the salvation of our God’. And then there’s the evangelist. His eyes were even longer, for they looked back to the very Beginning, and they looked forward into the eternity of a light which no darkness could ever overcome.
COVID is not the only pandemic the world has known. Herod and Hitler not the only evil despots the world has known. And astronomers the world over know the disappointment of cloudy skies. The Jews of Prague had long eyes, and, even in a situation about as evil and awful as the world has ever known, they could still keep their eyes fixed on the one God. And they knew the one God truly made a difference, and they carried on having babies.
And tonight we go even one better, for tonight we remember again the one whose eyes are the longest of them all - the eyes of that one God who loved creation so much that God brought into the world the fullness of grace and truth. For even on cloudy days, Christmas is about a light so powerful it shines in darkness, and a God so generous and loving that this light will shine to the very ends of the earth, and will never be overcome.
And because of that love and generosity, even when you and I are very short-sighted - which is so often the human condition - we will still be able to see ‘the salvation of our God’. Amen.