Sermons Author: The Very Rev. Dominic Barrington
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September 19, 2021
When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
So let me ask you a question: “What do you love?”
But before we consider the answer you might make, let me share a memory, dating back some eighteen years or so. Alison and I had just moved to Kettering – a market town in the English county of Northamptonshire, some eighty miles north of London, where, in the spring of 2003, I was called to be rector of its historic parish church.
Kettering is probably not a place you would describe as ‘cosmopolitan’. For many Brits, it is a place through which you pass on the train, en route between London in the south and cities such as Leicester, Nottingham or Sheffield. Both the town as a whole, and its oldest parish, had not seen a great deal of significant change for a number of decades when we arrived there almost twenty years ago.
So, for instance, in the church the high altar was placed resolutely against the wall, and it was the back of the priest and not his face that the congregation would see as he presided over the services every Sunday. The liturgical language was, without fail, what over here we would call Rite One. This was a place in which God had never ever been addressed as ‘you’ rather than ‘thou’, even in liturgies aimed principally at children.
And as you may suspect, my use of male pronouns was deliberate. Back in 2003, the parish had in place a legal resolution prohibiting the appointment of a woman as rector (a development that my predecessors had regarded as the nearest thing to an abomination). You would also be correct in imagining that it was not a place, at that point, that had ever had – or ever wanted or thought it necessary to have – a discussion about the role of gay people in the life of the church, let alone in ordained ministry.
All in all, it would be fair to say that I inherited a parish that, in many ways, was quite old-fashioned. But the people were, in the main, great-hearted and offered us a very warm welcome. And the service in which the diocesan bishop installed me as rector was a moving and beautiful liturgy – and, as is customary on such occasions, a good many local dignitaries were each given half a minute or so to offer me a formal welcome.
And it was those words of welcome which came flooding back to me as I wrote this sermon, as I recalled how the mayor, and various aldermen, and a number of other civic and local leaders all offered their warmest wishes with an almost identical turn of phrase, that referred to “you… and your good lady wife”.
I’m not sure how that phrase plays in American English in Chicago in 2021, but in the context I have just described, it was a well-meaning but very old-fashioned way of referring to Alison – and it was uttered with implicit and profound expectations that she would know her place as the rector’s wife, and fulfil her duties impeccably. The question in many minds, on that spring evening nearly twenty years ago was not the one I asked just now, but it was probably the one which opened our scriptural readings this morning: “A capable wife who can find?”
For this was a context in which the expectations of the ‘Rector of Kettering’ (as my predecessors had rather grandly styled themselves) were that he would be ‘known in the city gates’, and that it would be vital for him to be supported by that most precious of beings – ‘a capable wife’.
All of which shows very clearly how place and time, how context, impact our reading of the Bible. For I am no longer in small-town England, and I now work in a national church which ordained its first woman bishop five years before the Church of England ordained its first woman priest. And I live in a city which did not blink in electing a black lesbian as its mayor. In such a context, you may find yourself drawn to agree with one of my colleagues, who – as we proof-read the bulletins in our staff meeting last Tuesday – expressed some concern about why we were being made to hear these seemingly archaic verses from the book of Proverbs.
For this passage can feel a particularly blunt reminder of the patriarchal culture in which the books of the Bible were brought to birth, and it can raise questions of genuine concern about whether such words have any relevance in the world in which we live today. Can it really be a good thing to legitimize these seemingly outdated words by reading them out loud and calling them ‘the Word of the Lord’?
Of course, we should take note that the words we heard translated as a ‘capable wife’ – the Hebrew phrase eshet Chayil – are also often rendered as ‘woman of valor’. With this in mind, perhaps we should still welcome a ‘word of the Lord’ that, in a world which is still male-dominated, serves to remind us of the vital role of leading women in our society.
Thus, for instance, a senior male Jewish judge wrote a moving tribute to the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, motivated by his recognition that she was – without doubt – a ‘woman of valor’. Closer to home, I have no doubt that in Bishop-Elect Paula Clark, whose leadership we hope and pray will be our blessing before too many more months have passed, and in our new Assisting Bishop Chilton Knudsen, we will see more examples of women of valor whose abilities and virtues bear comparison with the extraordinary woman about whom we just heard.
But actually – and with the very greatest of respect to RBJ, let alone our new episcopal colleagues – I believe the stakes go somewhat higher. Before the pandemic, Alison and I were privileged to be invited to share a shabbat meal at the home of a rabbi who works in downtown Chicago, and I was surprised to discover that the weekly liturgy that heralds the arrival of the Jewish sabbath includes the reading of these verses about the ‘capable wife’ or the ‘woman of valor’.
I asked the rabbi about this custom. To my shame, I think I was expecting a rather trite reply about the role of a Jewish wife – a sort of liturgical encapsulation of ‘your good lady wife’ for Orthodox Jews. But I was gently put in my place when he explained that this famous passage helped Jews to welcome the feminine presence of God to their home. For, as the rabbi reminded me, the attributes of the one God are both masculine and feminine, and neither should be ignored – rather, both should be welcomed into one’s home and one’s life.
Furthermore, he explained, the original Hebrew of this remarkable passage that forms the climax of the book of Proverbs is an acrostic – each verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. In other words, it almost certainly functioned as something liturgical or catechetical – it was a text that all in the community were encouraged to learn, to recite, to live by – women and men alike.
Thus it is that in this early example of what is usually called Wisdom literature, as the climax of some thirty chapters of wise advice about how life should be lived, aimed – inevitably – at an audience of men, our attention is suddenly and unexpectedly drawn to a woman - a woman of such remarkable abilities and graces that we see in her nothing less than a feminine personification of the divine.
And so I ask you again, “what do you love?” But before we come to answer that question, we must address the other side of the coin, and acknowledge with some shame how we who are the church have so often failed to live up the example of the ‘woman of valor’ – how we have missed our vocation to emulate the divine in the way in which we live our lives. For that is the hard truth of which we are painfully reminded by our two readings from the New Testament this morning.
Throughout Mark’s gospel, his depiction of the disciples cannot be said to be complimentary. Their almost constant failure to grasp even the most basic essentials of Jesus’ teaching permeates the entire gospel narrative, and this morning’s passage shows the Twelve as little more than grumpy and embarrassed teenagers caught out after an utterly inappropriate argument about greatness and importance.
And as it starts, so it continues – for the community – the Christian community to whom the letter of James is written - written only a very few decades after Jesus’ earthly life – this Christian community is a very long way from exhibiting anything approaching valor. For this letter is a loud rebuke to selfishness, to greed, and to a marked lack of good works. The contrast with our first reading is pronounced:
“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” demands the author we know as James. But he could just as well have said, “why do you not open your hand to the poor and needy – why can you not open your mouth with wisdom and teach kindness with your tongue?”. For if the woman of valor can do all that and more, why on earth can we who claim to follow Jesus, the ultimate personification of the divine, not do likewise?
But it was like that from the very beginning, as the gospel reminded us. Before ever the term ‘Christian’ passed anyone’s lips, the first exponents of this new faith were simply called ‘followers of the way’ – but this morning we find the disciples are despoiling ‘the way’ – edging God out by putting their individual egos in the way of Jesus’ mission. And when Jesus demands to know what has been going on, they lapse into the sullen and embarrassed silence that is a particular gift of young men.
This was not what Jesus wanted of them, and it was not what Jesus wanted for them. For Jesus wanted them and needed them to be the best versions of themselves that they possibly could be, for – strange to say - he needed them, truly, to become nothing less than what the great and the good of my former parish would have called his ‘good lady wife’. For these men in whom Jesus believed so much were to become the foundations of what you and I now call ‘the church’, and, as our well-known opening hymn reminded us, from heaven ‘he came and sought her to be his holy bride’.
Which means that for the Christian, the Church of God must, surely, be the real woman of valor – which means that those virtues and attributes from Proverbs 31 deserve to shine as the example for every single one of us, male and female, young and old, gay or straight, irrespective of any and every label, definition, or category with which we so often bind our fellow siblings in God.
And so let me ask again, “what do you love?” The question has been going round in my mind for some days – for which I unreservedly blame my dear colleague Stephen, who recently suggested that Alison and I should watch what he claimed was the best program ever about choir training – despite it having nothing at all to do with music! He was speaking, of course, about the remarkable hit series Ted Lasso, which tells the story of a US university football coach rather improbably plucked from Kansas to work with a professional London soccer team.
In one of many heart-warming scenes, Lasso is being interviewed by a cynical sports journalist from a national paper, who is clearly bewildered by the American’s way of doing things. Believing that Coach Lasso will tip his team into a major losing streak, the journalist accuses him of being irresponsible – to which the undeterrable Lasso simply asks, “What do you love?”
“I hope it’s writing,” says Lasso, “because you do it really well…. But for me,” he explains, “it’s coaching. I love coaching.
And if the journalist was bewildered already, it only gets worse, as Lasso looks him in the eye and says, “For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It is about helping these young fellows to be the best versions of themselves on and off the field. And it ain’t always easy. But neither is growing up without someone believing in you.”
Jesus believed in Peter, James, John, Andrew and the rest of them, and his deep desire was that they – like every child of God – should be the best version of themselves it was possible to be. In the language of the Church we call that ‘vocation’ – and in the life of the Church, with great penitence, we realize how often we fail to live out that a holy vocation – just as we saw in those two New Testament readings.
My former parish was rather lost in time when it called me as its rector back in 2003. But in many ways they showed me what it meant to live like the ‘woman of valor’ and avoid the conflicts and disputes that so marred the community to which James wrote that letter. Within one year not only had the altar been moved away from the east wall, but they had welcomed both an openly gay male priest, and a woman priest as associate clergy. And they did so with unanimous resolutions of the vestry, and they did so in gentleness and love – and, by doing so, made me a far better version of myself and a far better priest than I deserve to me. My friends in Chicago, you owe them much, for they coached me well.
And so the answer to my question, perhaps, is that you and I should love to be coached. To be coached by God to be the best version of yourself. Because – incredibly – God believes in you and me, and God created us to live out this vocation. And if we do this right – if allow ourselves to be coached by Jesus, and by the ‘woman of valor’ – if we who are ‘church’ live as God in Jesus would have us do – then we will live into the proper understanding of nothing less than sainthood – the people ‘who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew’.
For whether doctor, queen, shepherdess, soldier, or even priest – whether living out lives in school, or lanes, or at sea, or in trains or shops, or even at tea, let alone in church – the call to emulate and live as the ‘woman of valor’ is a call for every child of the one God, and gender has nothing whatsoever to do with it.
Which means, of course, that there’s not any reason – no, not the least – why you and even I shouldn’t be one too. Amen.
August 29, 2021
If you are a reader of the New York Times, you may well be familiar with the story of Mikey, which it published this past Thursday. Mikey is a well-educated 34-year old family man – happily married and with a six-year old son. He studied hard at high school, focusing on language skills, and despite growing up in a turbulent time that distracted many less attentive kids, he did really well academically, and at the suggestion of one of his teachers, he became an interpreter – an interpreter working for the US forces in Afghanistan.
The hideous circumstances that have been unfolding these past two weeks have put folk like Mikey into the forefront of the news, and reading his story him was an education for me. Naively, I had rather assumed that Mikey and his colleagues had had a relatively cushy existence. I had imagined them sitting at desks, reading documents in Pashto and Dari (which I believe are the two main languages of that country), or listening into radio transmissions, and giving their western employers accurate translations.
I could hardly have been more wrong! As I learned from Thursday’s article, “Military interpreters are among the most vulnerable of Afghan allies. The nature of their work required that they accompany military personnel in the battlefield... If residents of the areas where they worked were hostile to Americans, the interpreters could be easily identified for the Taliban.”
On one occasion Mikey helped his unit avoid both an ambush, and a group of insurgents burying explosive devices directly in its path. One soldier with whom he worked regularly called him “our lifeline” and simply said, “It was because of him that we returned home alive after deployments.”
You have been, I am sure, as well aware of the heart-rending scenes of chaos and violence at Kabul airport as I was these last two weeks. But it was poignant to learn that Mikey was not simply one of many who suddenly realized that they had to flee at almost no notice. Mikey applied for his visa to come to this country – whose soldiers he had protected at great risk to his own life – back in 2012. He was granted an interview in 2018, and was then told that all he needed for the visa to be approved was a routine medical. But it never happened, and his emails to the State Department went without an answer for over two years.
Fleeing the Taliban the day after the fall of Kabul, Mikey’s wife and young son both got shot – luckily, not fatally – and he spent anxious days in hiding, ever more fearful of what would befall them all. Luckily, despite the two-plus years of no response from any official part of the US government, he had a special friend, in the person of Sgt. First Class Joseph Torres from Texas, who had encountered Mikey when he served in the Special Forces on some of the most dangerous missions of all the missions undertaken in Afghanistan.
And this last Monday, Sergeant Torres texted Mikey: “We are going to get you out” – which, thanks to the determined efforts of Torres and about twenty of his friends and former colleagues, is exactly what happened. And thus, on Mikey’s son’s sixth birthday last Tuesday, the family flew to a new life of safety and freedom.
And hearing the news that Mikey was airborne, Torres – described by a fellow soldier as a man who never cries – apparently broke down in sobs, and shouted out, “I love you, man”.
Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills…Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows... My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…
There is no doubt that the story of Mikey, and the bonds of affection that tied him to Sergeant Torres and many others alongside whom he served in the dangerous terrain of Afghanistan is a story forged in what Winston Churchill so famously summed up as “blood, toil, tears and sweat”. Whatever your views about the wider issues around the military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, the twenty-year story of Mikey’s work in his home country and his last-minute escape from the Taliban is a story full of emotion and energy – a story, properly speaking, of what we might call passion. And that makes it a pertinent story to hear alongside that remarkable pair of readings from the Bible.
For religion does not always forge a healthy relationship with the world of blood, toil, tears and sweat. In many different eras what you might regard as ‘orthodox’ Christianity has been threatened by advocates of what is usually called dualism – the idea that there is a divide between the physical world and the spiritual world. The eras of so-called Gnostic religion in the early centuries of the church, and the medieval heresy of the Cathars are two prominent examples of those who advocated such a division, and propounded belief systems based around what they believed to be the inherently corrupt nature of anything not purely spiritual.
Inevitably, physical intimacy was almost always targeted as being the most inappropriate, if not evil, instance of sinful behavior, and in almost all dualist sects, celibacy was promoted as the only good lifestyle, and even monogamous marital intimacy was regarded as being a falling short of an ideal. You will realize that it is possible to find carefully chosen verses from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that can act as proof texts for such an outlook – for it is possible to justify almost any point of view if you pick just one or two Biblical verses out of context.
But, of course, such a belief is a mockery of Christianity, which has at the very heart of our faith, the belief in a God who becomes incarnate – and such dualism is also a mockery of any proper interpretation of Judaism or Islam. And that is why it is such a remarkable and wonderful thing that in the Hebrew Scriptures, sandwiched between what is usually called the Wisdom literature and the prophetic books, and a mere eight chapters in length, we have the so-called Song of Solomon, from which we heard just a few select verses as our first reading this morning.
Its author was either wise or cheeky in attributing this extraordinary Hebrew poetry to King Solomon, for if he or she had not done so, there is no way this document would ever have made it into the canonical scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. But though it is impossible to date the book accurately, there is no doubt that its composition happened many centuries after Solomon actually lived.
Over the centuries many rabbis have claimed that these eight remarkable chapters are really about the relationship between God and Israel, and many Christian writers have claimed that they are about the relationship between Christ and the Church. But, while such insights might help us understand more fully God’s love for God’s world, manifestly this was not the principal intention of the author. The Song of Songs is – very evidently – a love song which celebrates human physical love in all its wonder and glory. And that, in its turn, reminds us of how passion, when allowed to bring out the best in us, can be the instigator of wonderful and heroic deeds of selfless love and glory.
Sadly, when passion goes wrong and is abused and misused, the end results can become self-serving, sinful, and – to use the language we hear in this morning’s gospel reading, a source of defilement. That is what is being addressed in that heavily edited extract from the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel – you will have noticed, I hope, that we were not permitted by the compilers of our lectionary cycle to hear, and thus to understand, the full argument taking place between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. If you glance at the citation on page eight in the bulletin, you will see how heavily filleted the text that you heard Anna read actually was.
Now, it has been several weeks since we last heard from Mark’s unfolding account of the Good News, so let me just remind you of the context of that passage. By the start of chapter seven, Jesus has made quite a name for himself and acquired an ever-growing reputation. In addition to several miraculous healings, he has fed the Five Thousand and walked on water. And as a result, word about Jesus has spread - spread all the way down to the GHQ of the Jewish people in Jerusalem.
And so, as Jesus returns from the ‘other side’ of the Sea of Galilee (that is to say from gentile territory), he finds some rather difficult visitors – upright and authoritative religious leaders from Jerusalem, full of concern that the tradition they represent is being abused and ignored by Jesus and his followers. Now, in our COVID-ridden era, a dispute about washing hands probably sounds like a pressing and valid concern, and perhaps you found yourself feeling in agreement with the concerns being expressed to Jesus.
But if you look at the text again, you will rapidly realize that this is not a debate about hygiene. Jesus’ detractors are not suggesting that anybody actually has dirty hands. This is not about regular dirt and grime and best practices of kitchen hygiene – it is about defilement. It is about actions – or a lack of actions – that, for the scribes and Pharisees, places people on the wrong side of the Jewish Law, and thus on the wrong side of God.
But Jesus will have none if it. Jesus has a higher, deeper, fuller – and, indeed, simpler - understanding of what places humans on the wrong side of God, and it has nothing to do with cultic ritual – a fact that he makes plain to his accusers by calling them hypocrites. And, if we had been allowed to hear the first of the two missing paragraphs of text excised from today’s lectionary, we would hear Jesus proffer a powerful instance of pharisaical hypocrisy that, in effect, allowed his detractors and their followers to ignore the command honor their father and mother (as decreed in the Ten Commandments) but rather to defraud them and inappropriately line their own pockets.
And that, for Jesus, is what defilement is really about. It is when – in the instance he quotes – a passion for money leads to avarice and deceit – two of the twelve things he lists as instances of human behavior that is defiling.
Which is why Jesus calls his disciples – which is why Jesus calls you and me – which is why Jesus calls the world to a better way of life. That is why he he stands…gazing in at [us]… and says…: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…”
The military action and the sustained military presence by the US and other western countries in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed 9/11 is a complex and difficult subject, and not one that can be fully and appropriately analyzed in the pulpit of a church – and that is not my intention this morning. It is certainly the case that both in America and my native Britain there have been different political and moral voices about all that has transpired – and there will certainly have been errors of judgement and sinful behavior at times, because that is in the nature of all human endeavor.
It is also true that many American, British and other western personnel, both military and civilian have incurred great risk and sacrifice in the hope of helping the peoples of those countries build better and more stable lives – as have those who worked alongside them, such as Mikey. And there is no doubt that what has unfolded in recent days across Afghanistan has a deeply tragic dimension – especially for those less fortunate than Mikey, whose hopes of US or British visas will, for whatever reason, remain unfulfilled.
This morning we hear Jesus castigating those whom he sees as hypocrites – those who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from God, and who prefer human precepts to God’s teachings. This morning, Jesus is attacking any and all instances when self-interest gets in the way of our duty to love God, and to love our neighbor as we love ourself, and he is holding out clear examples of what happens when we defile ourselves through self-centered sinfulness that leaves our neighbor (whether near or far) lacking what we should be graciously giving to or doing for them.
Mikey felt betrayed and abandoned as the situation in his home country deteriorated. As the New York Times article makes clear, he and thousands like him felt ‘helpless and adrift’, and he is quoted as saying “After all my hard work and risking my life, now this is what happens to my family? They are leaving us to die here.” Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation in Afghanistan, Mikey certainly felt that those who had a duty to him had turned their back on him. I doubt that he is too familiar with the gospels, but if has encountered the passage from Mark we just heard, it might well have resonated rather clearly with him.
But Mikey was one of the lucky ones – and as one Twitter commentator on the New York Times article observed, his story is an uplifting one about ‘soldiers that didn’t give up on an Afghan interpreter when it mattered most.’
Which is why we are gathered here this morning. Staff Sergeant First Class Joseph Torres has undoubtedly been a hero for Mikey the interpreter – a friend and former colleague who evoked his passion, as he proudly shed tears and cries of love. But for all that, Sergeant Torres, like me and you, is also a fallible and fallen human who has to wrestle with his own sins that defile him.
But the story of Sergeant Torres and Mikey are a small reminder this past week of the one who really did not give up when it mattered most, and whose Passion for all the beloved children of God reaches out to us through eternity, with pierced hands and outstretched, agonized arms. The one who, even and especially when it matters most of all, never gives up – even on me and on you - but leaps upon mountains, bounds over hills, gazes through our windows, always calling to us: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…"
Away from all the defilement we create for ourselves that separates us from fully loving God and our neighbor – away and into the loving and passionate presence of the God who, as we just sung, shows us “love with every passion blending,” which, truly, brings us “pleasure that can never cloy… [so] thus provided, pardoned [and] guided, nothing can our peace destroy.” Amen.
July 25, 2021