Sermons Author: The Very Rev. Dominic Barrington

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So what on earth is going on?

April 03, 2022

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

So what on earth is going on?

Back in 2014, when I applied to be Dean of this wonderful cathedral, I had the first of many  learning experiences about the differences between the Church of England and the Episcopal Church. If I have sometimes expressed opinions about the things which I believe the C of E does better than the Episcopal Church, let me say unequivocally that on this side of the Atlantic, the process of recruiting a new priest to a parish is undertaken far more thoroughly than in England, and I think that brings huge benefits to the life of the church.

But that meant that at the point I felt a real call to pursue the prospect of coming here, I had to put in some serious work to get far more ducks in a row than I would ever have to have done in England. Not only did I have to rewrite, and indeed, ‘translate’ what I have now learned to call my resumé, but I had to fill out a vast and complex on-line form for the national church, in which I had to talk up pretty much everything I had achieved since the day I was ordained.

Now, I did think I was well suited to the position. But even I didn’t quite have the nerve to write a covering letter to the Search Committee which said, “If anyone else has reason to be confident…I have more!” Although I’m pretty self-assured, I’m not quite in the same league as the man some people used to know as Saul, and we more commonly think of as Paul, who was able to boast so proudly that he was: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

And yet…. And yet something very strange is going on. For, as we read on, we discover that Paul’s resumé is, in fact not something he either cares about or values. It’s not a ‘gain’ but a ‘loss’. “More than that…” he says about all these wonderful attributes and achievements, “More than that…I regard them as rubbish.” Suddenly we discover that, at least as far as Paul is concerned, although he has the most extraordinary CV – the equivalent of which would delight any search committee seeking to find a new rector, dean or bishop – as far as Paul is concerned, it is all (to translate the Greek more accurately, although rather mildly), it is all dung.

And so I ask again, what on earth is going on?

Paul was a highly educated, very intelligent, uber-competent individual. Gain or loss, his intellectual ability and achievements are enormous, and he is, quite simply, one of the most widely read and influential authors in the history of the western world. One thing he was not is stupid… which, of course, makes him an interesting contrast to an ostrich!

For our perception of an ostrich is that it is a beast which is about as dumb as it gets. The author we commonly think of as ‘second Isaiah’ would have believed the very common, age-old myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand to avoid predators. You can google the scientific truth about this if you are really interested, but the perception that would have been shared by the prophet was that ostriches were dumb – really really dumb.

And if ostriches were dumb, jackals were both dangerous and repugnant. Dangerous because they are cunning and skilled hunters of small prey; repugnant because their more common source of food is picking over the rotting carcasses left behind by other, larger predators. That, in the mind of the prophet, would, I think, have been their most noteworthy attribute. When you look at the purity laws around cleanliness and corpses, you can see that jackals are an icon or stereotype of a creature best shunned and avoided – for their feeding habits make them defiled.

And yet, the ultra-stupid ostrich, and the ultra-repugnant jackal are going to become part of the community that honors the one God. And if that is not remarkable enough in itself, they are going to do so in a whole new setting – a desert that – incredibly - has been irrigated. None of this makes sense. The deserts of Africa and even Judea are arid. The wilderness is a place of danger both because of its climate and its livestock, and the prophet knows this very clearly.

And so we have to ask again, what on earth is going on?

But the trouble with asking that question is that it makes us sound just a little like Judas Iscariot. While the writer of the fourth gospel gives us a helpful editorial comment so that we understand Judas’ real motives, it certainly appears that he, also, wants to know just what is going on in the moving but distinctly curious scene we just heard read as our gospel story.

It’s a story we know well, isn’t it? A woman anoints Jesus at a dinner party. We’ve heard that before, haven’t we? Well, curiously enough, we have. It’s not often that the fourth gospel has clear echoes or repeats from the other three gospels, but when it comes to anointing, it most certainly does.

For you will find in Mark a dinner party set in Bethany where a woman anoints Jesus with expensive nard. And at this gathering, there is grumbling about the waste, and we find Jesus remarking that ‘you always have the poor with you’. Matthew, whose literary dependence on Mark is very clear, tells the same story, and does so at the same point in the gospel narrative.

For Mark and Matthew, the story of Jesus being anointed happens in Holy Week. Jesus has already made his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, and the plot to kill Jesus has been decisively laid by the chief priests and scribes. For Mark and Matthew the setting is not the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, but ‘the house of Simon the leper’. And Jesus is anointed – rather obviously, perhaps even conventionally, on his head.

And Luke - Luke also tells a story of Jesus being anointed, although Luke’s story is rather different. For a start, Luke sets his story far earlier in the unfolding gospel narrative, when Jesus is still in the Galilee. And the person doing the anointing is, so we are told, a sinful woman, whose tears fall on Jesus’ feet, and which she then dries with her hair, before anointing his feet.

John, clearly, has clearly caught wind of both the Mark and Matthew story, and the Lucan story, but either he can’t remember exactly what the details were, or he is deliberately and tantalizingly rewriting the narratives to confuse and bewilder us – to say to us, perhaps, that something very strange is taking place – to warn us, perhaps, that we should be perceiving what the prophet called ‘a new thing’...

For it is hard to reconcile what Mary is doing with ointment that she was keeping for the day of Jesus’ burial, if, in fact, she is pouring it on him while he is alive and healthy. And it is hard to work out why she would anoint Jesus’ feet – only to wipe them clean immediately. And, to be purely practical about this, if you were going to wipe clean an unguent, oleaginous substance of this kind – no matter that you had only just poured it out – it is very hard to imagine a less effective tool to help you in this task than hair – even if you are lucky enough to have some.

It is no wonder, perhaps, that New Testament scholars are pretty much unified in asking what on earth is going on? John’s curious, eclectic, partial reworking of these differing traditions from Mark and Luke is tantalizing and opaque. Perhaps the inconsistent and illogical details are just poor sub-editing - but I would rather give John the benefit of the doubt.

For John has given us a story that is deeply evocative. That throw-away line that ‘the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’ should be a hint to us that what is taking place is, somehow, an enormous and abundant sign (to use a term beloved of John) – a sign that should open our eyes to the bigger picture, and which should demand of us that question I’ve been asking and asking: what on earth is going on?

One hint lies, I think, in John’s unique claim about the timing of this story. For Mark and Matthew – the two evangelists who tie Jesus’ anointing to his death and burial – this story happens during Holy Week, probably the day before the Last Supper. But John has taken us just a few days further back in the narrative, so that we find ourselves Six days before the Passover.

For John, this anointing of Jesus happens on the day before what we now call Palm Sunday. Jesus is anointed with precious oil on the eve of the day in which the crowds will ecstatically claim him as being the King of Israel. And we should remember that from the Hebrew Scriptures right up to modern-day Britain, anointing is not just a form of preparation for burial, anointing was, and still is, a way to proclaim and acknowledge royalty.

And when John recounts the Palm Sunday narrative, just a few verses on from where we are this morning, unlike the synoptic writers, he explains that “his disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.” So perhaps it is no wonder that we do not fully understand all that John brings us in this strange, this topsy-turvy, this mystical story – this story of God’s glory present in Jesus but sometimes so hard to perceive.

Perhaps it is no wonder we have to ask, what on earth is going on?

As I think you all know, I am blessed, privileged and enormously grateful to be taking a short break from my ministry amongst you. After this service, I will be starting a period of sabbatical leave, and will be returning to the cathedral in the second half of August.

I think you are also now aware that Lisa’s wonderful husband Alan is one of the candidates on the slate for the election of the next bishop of the diocese of Virginia. Depending on what happens on the day of that election – which is set for Saturday 4th June – Lisa’s time amongst us could be drawing to a close.

But I very much hope that such news about the possibility of clergy coming and going does not leave any of you asking what on earth is going on? For a church is so very much bigger than any or all of its clergy, and the mission and ministry to which we are called by virtue of our baptism rises or falls not because of bishops, priests or deacons, but because – and only because – of the shared commitment to living out the gospel to which we are all called, both individually and collectively.

And if we are faithful to this call – this uniquely great and wonderful call – then we must strive to find an answer when the world around us collectively wrings its hands or shakes its head, and demands to know ‘what on earth is going on?’. What on earth is going on with this evil, senseless war in Ukraine? What on earth is going on that so many people – mainly of color – die each week on the streets of Chicago? What on earth is going on in our lives, when we face sorrow, or anxiety, or even the proximity of death?

For the world seems to exist too easily in ignorance of the loving and redemptive purposes of the one God, and it is the call of the Church to be able to work out and to tell others just what it is that really is going on – going on in this extraordinary, ‘upside-down’ manner that has permeated all three of our readings this morning.

And if we need some help in working it out – if we need some help in knowing and explaining to the world (and maybe even to ourselves) what God is up to, and therefore what the Church should be up to, let me turn to the extraordinary man who wrote the hymn we just sung.

Bill Vanstone was an English priest who could have pursued a professorial career in any of the world’s great theology faculties, but who, instead, served as a parish priest, working for over twenty years in a tough, working-class parish in northern England, until he suffered a major heart attack.

It was during his recuperation that he produced what many consider to be one of the greatest theological works published in Britain in the last century - Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense – the title of which comes from this morning’s gradual hymn, written as a ‘final word’ to this extraordinary book. Vanstone, I believe, knew exactly what on earth was going on, and lived out his belief in the extraordinary nature of God’s love in a demanding and challenging location. A few pages before the book’s ending, he says:

The love of God is no controlled unfolding of a predetermined purpose according to an assured programme 

Rather, he tells us,

That upon which all being depends is love expended in self-giving…without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, spent: love…on the brink of failure…yet ever finding new strength to redeem tragedy…and restore again the possibility of triumph.

But – as Mr Spock might have helpfully said – “it’s triumph, Jim – but not as we know it.” And therein lies the challenge. For the author of the fourth gospel understood what it meant for God to be glorified – he knew that God’s glory would be something new springing forth, and in his gospel he begs us to perceive it.

For the triumph of love of which Vanstone spoke so powerfully is only possible when we come to understand that in Jesus God was doing a ‘new thing’ – that God continues to do a ‘new thing’, and – as God turns the world on its head to proclaim a triumphant love – God will always be doing a ‘new thing’... a ‘new thing’ that is, indeed, ‘springing forth’, if only we can perceive it and, having perceived it, share it.

For that is the job of us who are baptized and called to be the Church of God. And if you find the task a little daunting or difficult – if you feel a bit lost for words or if you wonder where and how to start – then do as Canon Vanstone did for us in that last hymn. Simply point to God’s greatest moment of triumph, when the world was most fully turned on its head, and all its conventional values discarded for ever. Simply point to Christ on the cross, and echo Vanstone’s words, as you say to a world that so desperately needs to understand the true nature of God’s love:

Here is God: no monarch he, throned in easy state to reign;

Here is God, whose arms of love aching, spent, the world sustain.


Our citizenship is in heaven

March 13, 2022

Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior…

This morning it is, I think, impossible for us not to be conscious of the indiscriminate evil of a powerful tyrant. Self-indulgent, despotic, vulgar, compulsive, corrupt – a man whose deeds have caused fear and misery on a vast scale. A man whose deeds are so callous that some have openly wondered if the real motivation underlying them is simply a personal penchant for cruelty, rather than any more rational or quasi-rational excuse.

And like any tyrant, we find ourselves thinking of a person whose relationship to truth is, shall we say, severely strained. This is a tyrant happy to make outrageous claims based entirely on fantasy as a so-called justification for his own horrendous actions. Claims that another group of people were making it impossible for the tyrant and his regime to feel safe, and which thus demanded urgent and violent action. A claim which had a very particular impact on one significant minority who were sought out, persecuted, tortured, and murdered.

A minority, one of whose most notable leaders penned words which we heard read just now – the apostle Paul, writing to the church which he had founded in the Greek city of Philippi. Writing words that came, very probably, from a dark and dank cell in the Mamertine prison, into which he may well have been thrust in the persecutions that followed the great fire in Rome in the early sixties of the Common Era. Persecutions invoked by that megalomaniac tyrant, the Emperor Nero.

Philippians is overshadowed by Paul’s realization of the possibility that he might imminently be about to die. The very fact that he writes from jail is, itself, a big clue – for incarceration was not, in this time and place, a punishment in its own right. People were not sent to jail for a number of months or years as a court-imposed punishment of a kind we recognize from modern society. In the era of the New Testament, prison simply existed as a holding-space, either before someone was put on trial – or before they were executed.

And so, in the first chapter of this short letter, Paul says

“…by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”

And, in the passage we heard just now, we hear, perhaps, Paul’s view of the depraved emperor Nero, as he speaks of those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ. I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears.”

Whether or not Nero was at the forefront of Paul’s mind as he penned those words, he is quite clear of the root of their sinfulness: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly…their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 

And Nero is not, of course, the only person this morning that we might describe as being self-indulgent, despotic, vulgar, compulsive, or corrupt. For Jesus has just been told, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” The name Herod, for Christians, conjures up more than one anti-hero. We first come across Herod the Great, who, according to Matthew, orders the massacre of the young children in Bethlehem in response to his encounter with the rather un-wise ‘wise men’, whose pit-stop in Jerusalem causes fear, rage and terror in the wake of Jesus’ birth.

But this morning, as we focus on the adult Jesus, we speak, of course, of Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, most famous, at least to Christians, for his immoral and incestuous marriage to Herodias, which led to the cowardly, craven execution of John the Baptist, and who, according to Luke, is also involved in Jesus’ own trial.

And at this point in Luke’s narrative, as Jesus is making a deliberate and rather protracted journey towards Jerusalem, we encounter some Pharisees warning Jesus that Herod is out to get him. As Jesus has visibly inherited the prophetic or homiletic mantle from John, and as he has been active chiefly in the Galilee, Antipas would most certainly have been aware of Jesus’ ministry and teachings, and – misunderstanding the nature of Jesus’ sense of vocation or messiahship – would very likely have seen him as a threat to the stability of his rule.

For it is sadly inherent that despots and dictators need to find contrived reasons to justify deeds that become increasingly unbalanced and evil. That is why, of course, if we jump to a consideration of the events of our own time, we find President Putin making the claim that Russia could not feel “safe, develop and exist” because of the threat it was under from Ukraine. That is why there was such an urgent need to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine, to prevent an apparent genocide from taking place there.

This past Wednesday, the BBC had a ten-minute interview with a young Russian politician called Maria Butina. Her name may be familiar, for she lived in the US a few years ago, until she was arrested and convicted for acting as a Russian agent ‘without prior notification to the Attorney General’, and spent fourteen months in a federal jail before being deported back to Russia, where she was elected to the lower house of the Russian parliament. A member of the United Russia party, which is enthusiastically pro-Putin, Butina is a strong and vocal supporter of the Russian president, and shares both his view of the situation regarding Ukraine, and his challenging approach to what you and I would call ‘the truth’.

Thus, in this extraordinary interview with a BBC journalist who had only, days before, escaped from Kyiv, she explained that President Zelensky was most definitely a Nazi. When it was pointed out to her that, being the Jewish grandson of someone who had fought against Hitler as a member of the Red Army, he was ‘a bit of an unlikely Nazi’, she was undeterred in her views, and explained that Nazis were people who killed and murdered civilians because of their race.

Her response to the inevitable follow-up question that such a definition must – surely – mean that Vladimir Putin was, in fact, a Nazi, evoked the clear, simple statement of apparent fact that “Russian troops are not bombing civilians.” When pressed about the veracity of this claim in the light of the vast amount of evidence in the western media that would suggest otherwise, she was crystal clear: “The Russian Army does not bomb civilian population. Absolutely not. We just don’t do it. Russian troops do not bomb civilian population.”

To which the best response, I think, are the words from that prison cell: many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears…

There are advantages in coming from a small island nation. Great Britain has, of course, the huge natural advantage of being an island, and with the great support of a powerful friend and ally, we were able to resist invasion during the dark years of the Second World War. That is not to say that the English have always behaved honorably with regard to our neighbors – there are reasons why the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish have historic reasons to dislike the English – but the borders of Great Britain have not been the subject of the kind of change and volatility that has dominated the history of central and eastern Europe.

It is undoubtedly true that Russia, along with Belarus and Ukraine, finds its historic and cultural roots in Kyivan Rus, reinforced by the Christianization that found its climax in the so-called ‘Baptism of Rus’ in 988. And at different times in the last thousand years or so, different rulers and political powers have exercised different kinds of governance over these troubled lands. None of which, of course, remotely justifies the evil behavior of President Putin, his supporters, and his armed forces.

Indeed, what it should remind us of are the horrors and terrors that come at the hands of those who live as enemies of the cross of Christ – those whose mind are set on earthly things. Which, sadly, all too often includes those who invest inappropriately in the ownership or sovereignty of land and who desire to oppress or harm people on account of their race, ethnicity or any of the other differences that cause to regard some of God’s children as being ‘other’.

For in our first reading, we find an elderly and bemused Abram being told by the Lord that he is being given a vast land to ‘possess’ – To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates. Thus was born the concept of what is sometimes called Eretz Israel – ‘greater Israel’, as distinct to the political boundaries of the modern state founded in 1948 and internationally recognized around the ‘Green Line’. The only slight problem was that in Abram’s time, as the Lord makes very clear the land in question already belonged to some other people. In our bulletins that reading ended with a nice simple period after the word Euphrates.

However, if you open your Bible, you’ll find this a convenient piece of editing to spare modern day church readers having to carry on and say, “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” Ten separate tribes or peoples or communities.

And it’s not really worked out very well from then until today. Abraham’s immediate descendants don’t exactly behave very nicely, and the peoples of Ishmael and Isaac are not great buddies to this day. There is good reason why our gospel this morning finds Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”, and, when he finally arrives in the city, six chapters later, we will, of course, find him weeping over it, saying, “If you … had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace…” 

Sovereignty and territory, of course, are two of the most prominent examples of the ‘earthly things’ that prompts Paul’s bitter remarks about those who ‘live as enemies of the cross of Christ’, and both the Middle East and Eastern Europe possess histories which would only make Jesus weep again, and again, and again, and again… Weep over the bloodshed and enmity that have been seen in so many successive generations, and, indeed, weep over the way the descendants of Abraham have treated each other and all too often claimed religious justification for their actions.

In a fascinating and profound article published a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the author and medical historian Brandy Schillace offered a penetrating analysis of President Putin’s ultimate reason for his instigation of this evil and immoral war. “Putin’s war,” she writes, “is also a dance with death: his death.” Noting a pattern common to many such dictators, she goes on to explain:

Putin “lives in a world from which he is deeply disconnected. He is famously tech adverse, and his policies towards LGBTQ and most other progressive movements are backward and punitive. He is an alien in this world; he is also aging out of it. Vladimir Putin will die, and he doesn’t know when.”

“Fear of death has been with mankind all along,” Schillace writes, “but never have we been more in denial about it, more sheltered from it, more coddled by the suggestion of medical immortality … Vladimir Putin is the longest-serving politician presently in office — and has passed a resolution ensuring he can continue to keep “running” for president until at least 2036 (he would be 90)… It’s the longings of an old man for something he can no longer reach [by which she means his attempt to recreate the power and territory of the USSR into which Putin was born], and it’s the driving force of terror in the face of his own exsanguination.

It’s hard to speculate on how Putin will spend his last days,” she says, “but in his reckless declaration of war — and in recent days, his threat regarding nuclear strikes — we can see desperation. A magnum opus, a swan song, a bid at some lasting legacy, a desperate chase after retreating shades of youth: by whatever name, Putin’s war on Ukraine is evidence of his fear.”

And it is that fear, ultimately, which is, in theological terms, where we find the root of the many sins that the conflict in Ukraine presents. For Christians believe that in Jesus we have encountered 'the way, the truth, and the life’, but in the ideology for which Putin stands, and for which so many dictators have stood across too many centuries of warfare and cruelty, we see a ‘way’ that blatantly devalues life, and which manifestly tramples on truth – which is the stock in trade of those ‘who live as enemies of the cross of Christ’.

For allowing one’s actions to be so horribly perverted by the fear of death is simply not Christian, and shows an understanding of vocation that does not resonate with Christ – as Jesus himself makes clear in our gospel passage this morning, where the prospect of death in Jerusalem only spurs him on in pursuit of his vocation. And we might, perhaps, note that, in stark contrast to President Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky has made it clear that, as the leader of the people of Ukraine – as its democratically elected president – he does not have the right to fear the prospect of his death. His fear, he says, is the fear of not having a state – “you are asked where you are from, and you answer:” and the reply comes, “there is no such a country. I am afraid of this,” he says.

An example, perhaps, which leads us back to where we begun, to Paul, writing to the Philippians from his Roman prison cell, and the imminent prospect of his own death.

For – in sharp contrast to Vladimir Putin, at least when interpreted through Dr Schillace’s penetrating lens – Paul knew that he was called to speak great truths, not great lies, for by doing so ‘Christ will be exalted…whether by life or by death…For to me,” he wrote with confidence, “living is Christ and dying is gain.”

And that is the vocation and that is the truth for us who are children of the new covenant forged in the life and the death and the resurrection of Christ. It is a calling which lifts us higher than the national flags and passports we possess, for it lifts us to that place in which we, and all God’s children, find our true citizenship, where the cross of Christ towers over warfare, violence and hatred.

For Paul was right that for those who follow Jesus, our citizenship is in heaven. And it is from there, and only from there, that we can ever expect a Savior. And that is why, my brothers and sisters, that is why, and it is the only reason why, like Paul, and like his beloved Philippian church, truly, we can stand firm in the Lord. Amen.

The Second Time

March 06, 2022