Sermons Author: The Very Rev. Dominic Barrington

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.

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To this end we always pray for you

October 30, 2022

To this end we always pray for you... that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

And there and then, today, something changed for Zacchaeus. The start wasn’t promising. The crowds were enormous, and Zacchaeus was both short in physical stature, and, in the eyes of his neighbors, pretty short in moral stature. There was only one reason a tax collector was rich, and it had nothing to do with the wages paid to them by the Roman occupiers. Zacchaeus was a fraudster – and defrauded his neighbors, who will have held him in very low esteem.

So the chances of him getting to join in the excitement on that day in Jericho, the chances of him getting even to see the sensational man who was about to pass by – the chances of this being a good day – were slim in the extreme. For who was ever going to make room for Zacchaeus, of all despised people – who would ever make room for him to get even a tiny piece of the action? Everyone else doubtless was cheering and rejoicing that Jesus was coming to town, but for Zacchaeus, it was not going to be a good day – that much was pretty certain.

And actually, it wasn’t!

For this is not a time to indulge the rather British art of understatement. It ended up not being a good day – it ended up being an extraordinary day. For the question proved not to be ‘will Zacchaeus get to see Jesus?’ – the question turned out to be ‘will Jesus get to see Zacchaeus?’. And the answer was rather more than just a simple ‘yes’! “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

So let me ask you now the real question this wonderful story raises for us: what happened next?

Today, Jesus comes to the house of Zacchaeus, confounding the watching crowd and amazing Zacchaeus himself – but what happened the next day, let alone the day after that.

That’s also the kind of question with which a man of considerably greater fame than Zacchaeus wrestled with constantly. The question of what tomorrow would bring seems to me to have been uppermost in the mind of Isaiah ben Amoz, slightly more than 700 years before either Zacchaeus or Jesus were born.

This great man, whose name is attached to one of the longest books of the Bible, this great man was worried – worried, because his nation was, as we sometimes say, going to hell in a handcart. The rulers were corrupt and immoral, and this was weakening the nation – weakening it both in terms of its soul, but also in terms of its strength. For Isaiah could see that a threat was brewing from Assyria, and that Judah and Jerusalem would face great tribulation – and the only way to avoid this was to get their act together in the eyes of the one God.

Isaiah ben Amoz had a long life, and prophesied possibly in the reigns of four kings of Judah. He understood his vocation to be to hold the nation, and especially the king to account. His words are often hard words spoken against Jerusalem and its leaders, but also always holding out the possibility of hope – always yearning for repentance:

Come now, let us argue it out, he tells his flock, reminding them that God does not want condemnation but forgiveness: though your sins are scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool...

This is a man pursuing a God-given vocation not just to talk about today, but to help his flock look to a tomorrow which might be better than the doay. And, indeed, so inspirational was the long ministry of Isaiah ben Amoz, that in later generations, his teaching was still so relevant that other prophets added to his work at later critical points in the history of the people of Israel.

So that long, 66-chapter book of prophecy is the work not just of the man himself, but of the shadowy figures often called Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah. And, as you do not need me to remind you, several hundred years later, Jesus of Nazareth, no less, makes it clear that he stands firmly in the Isaianic lineage, deliberately identifying himself with the ‘suffering servant’ figure from Second Isaiah. Truly, the prophet knew that the living out of his vocation was no easy task or quick fix, and he looked past today and into – and well beyond - tomorrow.

Which is also what we find when we open the letter we know as Second Thessalonians. A fact that is blindingly obvious, by the very fact we know it as the second letter to this Christian community, who have already been blessed by Paul sending them the letter we call First Thessalonians!

Now Second Thessalonians is surrounded by complexity. The first letter to this community is undoubtedly by Paul himself, and is almost certainly the oldest document in the New Testament, way older than any of the four gospels. But scholars are pretty much equally divided as to whether the second letter came hard on the heels of the first, also from Paul’s pen, or whether it is a much later document from someone who saw himself as representing Paul’s legacy.

But whoever the author, the vision is clear. Today may be important, but tomorrow is even more important, which is why this Pauline author encourages his precious flock by saying To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will ...fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you...

Paul, let alone those who came after him and aspired to write in his name – Paul knew that to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ and thus to change people’s lives was not a matter of a quick fix, but of sustained ministry, pastoring and preaching.

All of which should tell us that the life of faith, and especially the life lived as a disciple of Jesus, is something about the long-term – a concept that does not always sit easily in contemporary life in the west.

You’ve probably noticed that the country to which Alison, Benedict, Linus and I are returning tonight has been going through prime ministers as if they were falling out of fashion. On Tuesday Rishi Sunak accept the King’s invitation to form a government, and in his first public speech afterwards, he noted that his predecessor had made some mistakes, and said that he had been appointed to fix them.

One of the Church of England’s finest preachers, Sam Wells, who preached here in 2019, was reflecting on Mr Sunak’s desire to ‘fix’ things in a particularly profound three-minute talk he gave on the BBC on Thursday. He was making the point that, “Not everything is as easily fixed as a child’s toy.... not all brokenness is simply mended...”

For, as Sam continued, “The God Christians see in Jesus is not a simplistic fixer but one who deeply shares our human predicament...” because God deals in “reconciliation, healing and even resurrection... [and] reducing these processes to a simple sudden fix can sometimes make things worse rather than better....”

This profound insight explains at least two things of relevance this morning. The first is that it explains why it is that we should rightly ask what happened in the ‘tomorrow’ of this morning’s gospel narrative – a point to which we will return shortly.

And the second is that it explains why church leadership is best performed not by a priest who just jets in to perform some kind of liturgical magic at the altar – as in a kind of sacramental quick fix – and disappears straight out of the door once the service is over.

Which is why, when things work well, clergy ‘come and stay’ – they make their home amongst the people to whom they are called, and – just like the prophet from whom we heard this morning, and just like Paul – spend some considerable time amongst and within that part of the Body of Christ to which they have the privilege of serving.

I’m not sure, as you reflect on the past seven years, whether most of you would necessarily say that pastoral work was the area in which I was most skilled or accomplished. Christian leadership comes in many forms, and we do not all excel in all of them. But I am enough of a pastor to know that most pastoral care is anything but a quick fix, and demands ongoing prayer and presence – just as Paul spent time building up the fledgling churches which he founded, and just as Isaiah preached and prophesied in his community over not just years but decades.

So what of Zacchaeus? “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

There is no doubt that in that moment, something changed. But was this just the type of ‘quick fix’, about which Sam Wells rightly warns us to be so wary? Today Jesus will stay at his house, but what of tomorrow....?

We can, of course, only surmise about Zacchaeus. His place in the gospel narrative ends at chapter nineteen, verse ten, and the rest is speculation. But, speaking as part of a family that has had to move too many possessions across the Atlantic, and work out what to do with the things we could not take with us, I can assure you that when Zacchaeus speaks of giving half of his possessions to the poor, let alone paying back those whom he has defrauded, that didn’t happen overnight. For that gesture to be serious, meaningful, and honestly and genuinely delivered, his promises will have taken a while to play out. So we see, perhaps, even in this brief story, the sense of what tomorrow and the next day will bring for this child of Abraham who was lost until Jesus found him in the sycamore tree.

But what of Jesus? Is this where my argument and Sam’s Thought for the day fall to pieces? For Jesus’ tomorrow has been to move on and leave Zacchaeus behind. Was Jesus’ visit to Jericho just a quick fix after all? What was Jesus’ tomorrow. 

To answer this perfectly valid question, we must look at the context of the story of Zacchaeus with clarity and accuracy. We are at the start of the 19th chapter of Luke, when we find Jesus ‘passing through’ Jericho, and, in fact, Jesus has been ‘passing’ for quite a long time, according to Luke. For Luke, uniquely among the four gospels, stresses and elongates Jesus final journey across about ten chapters of material. Way back in chapter nine, Luke tells us that, ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go on to Jerusalem...’

And this morning, Jesus has almost completed the journey. Because, ‘tomorrow’, for Jesus, is nothing less than Palm Sunday. Indeed, as Luke has Jesus tell us during this long, hard journey: “today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”

Sam Wells ended his talk by explaining, “Ultimately God doesn’t see our world as a problem to be fixed but a mystery to be entered and comprehended from the inside.” And God, in Jesus, understands that entering the mystery is neither quick, or a fix – it is slow and it is costly, which is what makes it the greatest gift the world has ever seen or known.

I must be on my way... says Jesus, for I have to go to Jerusalem, to do what I have been called to do. Zacchaeus, says Jesus, I must stay at your house today.

Except it isn’t what Jesus actually says. I could not preach my last sermon as your dean without referring you back to the original Greek, and to the little word dei, which our translators have rendered as ‘I must’. But that’s not what Jesus actually said, and nor, I believe, is it what Jesus meant.

This little word is not really about ‘I must’ – because it is not really about I or me at all. It is actually an impersonal word, better translated as ‘it is necessary’. And often, for the gospel writers in particular, it brings a sense of inevitability that speaks of what some might call ‘the plan of God’ and others might call ‘vocation’. The only reason that Jesus must go to Jerusalem is that it is his God-given vocation – and for one so uniquely attuned to God’s call and God’s will, that simply means that it is inevitable.

And similarly, as he makes his inexorable, long journey throughout Luke’s narrative, it is necessary that salvation must be brought to this lost child, and thus that Jesus must stay at the house of Zacchaeus.

For that is the outworking of a God who has never done the quick fix, and whose transformational love is as profound as it is unexpected: ‘we strain to glimpse your mercy seat’, we sang in our opening hymn, ‘and find you kneeling at our feet.’

And when people are fed and feet are washed, we find God’s self-giving love evident in an even more paradoxically glorious way. When Stephen so graciously told me that he wanted to write a hymn tune to mark the time the four of us have spent at St James, it was clear to me what text I wanted him to set. I have preached before about the extraordinary legacy of the English priest Bill Vanstone, who wrote the words of our offertory hymn, and I could not take my leave of you without us singing it one last time:

Drained is love in making full; bound in setting others free; poor in making many rich; weak in giving power to be.

Therefore he who thee reveals hangs, O Father, on that tree helpless; and the nails and thorns tell of what thy love must be.

Thou art God, no monarch thou, throned in easy state to reign; thou art God, whose arms of love aching, spent, the world sustain.

Jesus’ tomorrow could only be a cross-shaped tomorrow – not a ‘fix’, but a gift  - a gift moulded by a love that so uniquely costly and deep, that it was both the fount of all creation before the world even began, and which has brought the world life in its fullest abundance.

A life more than a little glimpsed by the lengthy, committed preaching of Isaiah, as he continuously exhorts the rulers and peoples of Jerusalem to turn their hearts and minds to God.

A life made real and visible in the fledgling Christian communities of the New Testament including the one in which Paul rejoiced in his beloved Thessalonika.

And a life entered into by four rather bewildered Brits who, some seven years ago, rolled up at that bit of the Body of Christ that is St James Cathedral, Chicago. A life which has transformed us, humbled us, sustained us and nurtured us. And, indeed, a life which, extraordinarily, has moulded me into a Christian priest and leader deemed – apparently – to be capable and worthy of leading the mission and ministry of York Minster for the coming years.

My dear, beloved people of St James. The four of us have learned from you great grace, great encouragement and great love, and our memories of St James will be a blessing and a joy throughout the rest of our lives. We came and we stayed in your house – literally! – for a beautiful seven years. But the time has come that your tomorrow and our tomorrow will be separate, as we journey ever onwards in the love of God.

But the God who hung upon that cross to transform the world is not a God limited by time or by geography, for Christ has bound us together for the long haul of eternity. And whether in Chicago, or whether in York, we can continue to be disciples of Jesus, and do what we can.... do what is necessary to ‘offer all that faith can do while love is making all things new.’

And be assured, that just as it was said to the Thessalonians, your four fond Barringtons also will ‘always give thanks to God for you... [and] to this end we [will] always pray for that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him.’ Amen.

The Standard of Sound Teaching

October 02, 2022

The Bigger Picture

September 24, 2022

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.

In the last sixteen days, vast numbers of people have felt that the world they knew has been turned upside down and stood on its head. Such a reaction has been plain to see in Great Britain, and has not been lacking elsewhere in the world. International news coverage has shown scenes of considerable grief in the other realms and territories in which the British monarch is the head of state, and also in the countries of the Commonwealth, of which the late Queen was head throughout her reign.

Even here, in the United States, the grief at her death has been palpable – something that is all the more remarkable when you consider that the foundational document of the US describes her eighth predecessor, King George III, as being a ‘tyrant’ who was ‘unfit to be the ruler of a free people’.

Since the Queen’s seemingly rather sudden but peaceful death on September 8th, much has been said – indeed much has been preached – about this remarkable woman whose long life of devoted service set an example to the whole world. From the astonishing phenomenon of the vast queue of mourners snaking along the river Thames, to breathtaking pageantry of the funeral services last Monday, our screens have been full of images that acknowledge the impact that Elizabeth II’s life and reign had on the world.

I am not, therefore, in the few minutes available to me now, going to attempt to reiterate what many many others have said about her, or quote from the thousands of anecdotes about her grace, her wisdom, her sense of humor, or any other aspects of her personality. Like me, you’ve probably read, heard or watched those who had real knowledge of and insights into her life, and in this age of the internet, all of that will doubtless remain easily accessible for decades to come.

If there is one royal moment I want to share with you, it was one that took place in Sandringham in the winter of 2019, when Her Majesty attended – as she did every year – a meeting of her local Women’s Institute. And in some remarks which were only semi-public, spoke of the value of finding ‘common ground’, and the importance of ‘never losing sight of the bigger picture’, and of ‘respecting’ points of view with which one might disagree.

On the lips of anyone else, that might seem no more than a rather bland bit of quasi-parental advice about good behaviour. Commentators at the time were, I think, right to note that on the lips of someone dedicated to a life which had, of necessity, to rise above party politics, and set in the context of a country ever the more acrimoniously divided about the effects of Brexit and the seeming stalemate about the requisite legislation it required – the Queen’s comments were, perhaps, anything but bland, and, for those who had ears to hear, were a typically understated and politically neutral clarion call for the need to draw people, draw communities, draw society, maybe even draw nations together, and not delight in pulling them apart.

In an age of political extremism and fundamentalism that has seen the diminution of centrist politics and policies, and an ever more rancorous and aggressive sense of division not just between politicians but between families, communities, ethnicities, and even sovereign states (as witnessed most extremely and tragically in Ukraine), such words on the lips of a sovereign who acted as a kind of national and international glue to society possess considerable significance.

A significance that would not have been lost on St Paul, from whom we heard just now in that portion of his letter to the Romans read by His Majesty’s Consul-General. Paul is a woefully misunderstood and highly complicated character. Some snippets of texts attributed to him paint him as a misogynistic and conservative figure whose attitudes have nothing of relevance to offer modern-day society. It is my regret I don’t have time this morning to explain why I think such a view is utterly incorrect. But let me give you the background to this exert from Romans, which not only was a text deeply familiar to the late Queen, but which is also very relevant to her gentle words of advice from that visit to the Sandringham WI.

Romans is unique amongst Paul’s letters. The other ones were all to churches he had founded, and to people who knew him well, and were known by him. In this longest and greatest of his letters, he is writing to a complex group of Christians, to prepare them for a visit by him. These are not Christians who have met him, and if they know him, they know him only by reputation. And – most significantly – some of these Christians are Jews who have converted to Christ, and others are gentiles. That difference is a fault-line that demands much of Paul’s energy throughout his own extraordinary life – and it was a fault-line that created plenty of anger and division between those who thought that such things like dietary practices and circumcision were vital definitions of who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. And these divisions were just as angry and raw as anything we have seen over Brexit, or, in this country, over issues like ‘the big lie’ and the events of January 6, 2021.

Romans 14 is part of an eloquent appeal that Paul’s readers acquire what Her Majesty called a ‘bigger picture’, and that they learned to respect the point of view of those with whom they disagreed. God, so Paul reminds them, is God of everyone – God, not just of all the living, but of all the dead. That’s why, in Paul’s view – a view shared by our late Queen – passing judgement on one’s brother or sister is not just inappropriate but deeply damaging.

Talk of judgement can feel alien in a liberal church context such as this. It does not feel or sound contemporary, and it is certainly not my intention to suggest we should behave well simply to avoid eternal damnation. I’m not that kind of Christian, and neither was Her Majesty.

But my belief – and I think this would be true of Queen Elizabeth as well – is that an authentic faith is lived out in such a way that the values of the ancient prophecy from the book of Isaiah that calls people to be ‘oaks of righteousness’ are values which should inform the lives not just of those who use the label Christian, but of anyone seeking the best interests of community and society.

Our reading from Romans ends with the blunt remark that ‘each one of us will be held accountable’ – and nobody could doubt that Queen Elizabeth lived her life in a deeply accountable fashion, that modeled a commitment to serve all peoples whose lives she could touch, in an example that constantly sought to build society and not divide it.

If we are serious in giving thanks today for her life and her reign, let me finish by reminding you of one of Jesus’ most famous parables – that of the Good Samaritan. You will remember, I’m sure, how in this story so powerfully illustrative of behavior well pleasing to God, a pair of religious leaders from the ‘establishment’ walk past a wounded man, leaving him to suffer. Then comes the Samaritan – ethnically, culturally and religiously a despised alien – and it is he who models the generosity of behavior that Jesus champions. And the parable simply ends with Jesus saying, “Go – and do thou likewise”.

In thanksgiving for a life supremely well lived, let us not rejoice in all that Her Late Majesty was to each one of us and to so many millions who admired her across the world – let’s make sure that in our own humble contexts, we also strive to go and do likewise. Amen.