Strive first for the Kingdom of God – Very Revd Dean Dominic Barrington
Sermon Preached on Saturday 12 November 2022 during Evensong and Installation of the Very Reverend Dominic Barrington as 77th Dean of York
Preacher: Very Revd Dean Dominic Barrington
Title: Strive first for the Kingdom of God
Date: 12/11/22 3pm
Five or six years ago, when my elder son Benedict was around nine or ten, and he and his younger brother Linus were too young to walk to school on their own, Alison and I would accompany them on the fifteen-minute journey through our neighbourhood in Chicago. Benedict had realized that polite, intelligent conversation was a sign of maturity and adulthood, something good to which he aspired – but he hadn’t fully learned how to make this happen easily. And so, pretty much every morning, he’d turn to his mother or me as we left the house, and, with youthful eagerness demand, “So, Mum… so Dad, what do you want to talk about?”
Not being a great morning person, and having usually had only the one cup of coffee at that point in the day, it was often quite hard to find an answer that would satisfy him, and my usual response was to turn the question around by 180 degrees, and say, “So, Benedict – what do you want to talk about?” Good conversation is vital to healthy relationships, is vital to a flourishing society, is vital to the life of prayer, and of mission and ministry. But we have to know what we should be talking about.
Benedict would have got on well with the prophet Isaiah, from whom we heard just now. For he knew exactly what he wanted to talk about, and it did not always make for comfortable listening.
The world as he knew it was not in a good place. The neighbouring states were behaving foolishly and making very unwise political and military decisions. The regional super-power of Assyria was growing ever the more threatening and demanding, and the kingdom of Judah, in which Isaiah lived, was led by a king who was both stupid and evil, whose choices were predicated on bad decisions – on godless decisions – which the prophet could see would end in disaster. “So, Isaiah,” said God – “what do you want to talk about?”
And Isaiah’s response was to get people to focus on, to strive, for what Jesus would call the ‘kingdom of God’. The section of prophecy that was our first reading is the culmination of three chapters in which Isaiah is critiquing the fact that King Ahaz would rather trust a foreign king of highly dubious intentions that trust in the one God. And although the prophet could see that eventually all would be put right, he was crystal clear that in the short term, things were going to get worse – seriously worse.
We often read from Isaiah in Advent and Christmas, let alone hear some of these passages set to music by Handel in Messiah. But we should not forget that while Christians hear a great pre-echo of the coming of the Christ in his words, Isaiah’s own vocation was not trying to predict the long-term future. That is not, in this context, what prophetic means at all. Isaiah, and the other Hebrew prophets, their vocation was to talk about the present, and ask – no, demand – that people (and especially those in authority) paid heed to what God was calling God’s people to do in the world.
Of course, the great prophet wasn’t the only person who had something to say just now. “So, Jesus,” says God – “what do you want to talk about?”
And this afternoon, we find Jesus in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, talking to us about how best we can seek out and serve the kingdom of God. Just as Isaiah was challenging the king, the religious leaders, and the peoples of Judah and Jerusalem – challenging them about their priorities, their choices and their behaviour, so Jesus is challenging the crowds who have begun to follow him – challenging them about just the same issues: priorities, choices, behaviour. Asking the crowds if they know what they should be talking about.
Telling them that it isn’t good enough to be talking about earthly treasures; telling them that talking about self-interest just does not cut it with God. Telling them that the only conversation worth having is talking about – and helping build – God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.
At this relatively early point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ audience is a local, rural audience from the communities dotted around the Sea of Galilee. But, as the gospel narrative makes plain, striving for the kingdom of God would lead Jesus into conflict with religious and secular leadership, until, on an ugly hillside outside a city wall, he ends up arms outstretched, dying on a wooden cross.
Dying, because he would not compromise in proclaiming the Good News of a love uniquely strong and uniquely universal. Dying, because he would not – could not – stop striving for the kingdom of God.
And here we are, 2000 years later, sitting in this breathtaking building, enjoying the pomp and circumstance, the tradition, the history, the legality which is deemed necessary to make a new dean. But I hope, in amongst all this ‘stuff’ – I hope that none of this is distracting us from the fact that God is saying to you and to me this afternoon just what God said to Isaiah and to Jesus: “So – what do you want to talk about?”
Because there’s just as much to talk about as there was when Isaiah and when Jesus were preaching. In the country from which I have just returned from living for seven years, many worry that democracy itself is under genuine threat, and that violence is becoming the normative way to engage in political debate. For most of this year, Ukraine has been despoiled by an evil and senseless war. The imminent World Cup is set to take place in a gulf state mired in human rights abuses. Israel has just returned to power the scandal-ridden Netanyahu whose re-election has only been made possible by an alliance with a party of unashamed racist and supremacist values.
In our own country, we have just lived through a period of unique political instability set in the context of significant inflation, a recession which might be the most severe on record, and rampant industrial unrest, even in sectors not normally given to strikes and the like. And even here, in this very country of North Yorkshire, food banks have, apparently, seen a 58% rise in demand this year, and nearly 16,000 children are thought to be living in poverty as we approach Christmas.
All of which suggests to me – and, I hope, to you – all of which suggests that there’s quite a bit more striving still to do if we are going to get anywhere near the Kingdom of God.
But, as Isaiah and as Jesus both knew very clearly, ultimately the news is Good News, because, ultimately, God has no other kind of news to offer the world. And that’s because the God whom we are gathered here to worship is not a God who wants to offer a superficial ‘quick fix’ to the challenges and problems which confront us, and which confronted Isaiah and which confronted Jesus.
As Sam Wells said in a recent Thought for the Day, “The God Christians see in Jesus is not a simplistic fixer but one who deeply shares our human predicament…”
Or, as Bill Vanstone said in the greatest hymn to be written last century, this is the God whose love is revealed in ‘nails and thorns’ – the God, ‘whose arms of love aching, spent, the world sustain’.
The great joy of becoming the 77th Dean of York is that I – and you – all of us – we have this great building on our side. York Minster has already been talking to the world about this God for hundreds of years and it will continue to do so for many hundreds more. This building is probably more eloquent than you or I can ever be about the God in whose honour and to whose praise it was built. But it needs us – it needs you and me – to work in partnership with it, if it is to talk properly and fully about the Kingdom of God to the many overlapping communities that it and that we are called to serve.
They tell me that now I’ve arrived – now – incredibly – that I am your Dean, they tell me that many people will want to come and talk to me about all sorts of things. About money, about buildings, about tourism, about church politics, about the service times on a Sunday morning, and doubtless about a whole host of other things that I am yet to discover.
And I guess that we can talk about all that. But let’s make sure – let’s make really really sure – that none of that gets in the way of what God is hoping that we will talk about. So, let’s strive first for the kingdom of God. And then – and actually, it will only be then – that all these other things will be given to us as well. Amen.
Lost Causes? – The Reverend Canon Peter Moger (Precentor)
The Reverend Canon Peter Moger (Precentor/Acting Dean)
Sunday 28 October 2018 10am Sung Eucharist
(St Jude) 
In the name of the living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
A few years ago, Heather and I were taking a short break on the island of Iona off the West Coast of Scotland. It’s a favourite place of ours, as those who came on the pilgrimage earlier this year will know. On this occasion we were walking to the south of the island along one of the beaches. It was a windy day and the wind was blowing sand into our faces. Heather got some sand in her eye and took out her contact lens to clean it. Along came another gust of wind and – you’ve guessed it – the lens was gone. There we were, miles from anywhere with no replacement lens, and no glasses either! And so we started to search.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried looking for a contact lens on a beach – don’t! It’s one of the most frustrating things imaginable. 45 minutes later, we were still looking. It seemed a totally lost cause. And so we prayed to St Jude, who is the patron saint of lost causes. And in a few minutes, we found the missing lens, sitting innocently on the sand.
Today is the feast of St Simon and St Jude. They were among the 12 Apostles called by Jesus and are named in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Simon was known as Simon the Zealot – presumably because he belonged to a resistance movement of the time which opposed the Roman occupying forces. Jude (or Judas) is described by Luke as ‘son of James’ – though the Letter of Jude calls him the ‘brother of James’. It’s likely that Jude is the same person as Thaddaeus. Simon and Jude are celebrated together, on the same day, because there’s a tradition that they both evangelised in Mesopotamia.
Because Jude’s name is similar to that of Judas Iscariot – who betrayed Jesus – Christians tended not to pray through him. It seems likely that he then became a sort of ‘last resort’ when all else had failed. Hence, Jude became known as the patron saint of lost causes.
Well, it certainly worked for us in the case of the contact lens. But is there really such a thing as a lost cause?
Some Christians have a tendency to say – if something doesn’t quite work out the way we thought it should – ‘ah, it’s all part of God’s plan.’ I often feel this is one of the worst of religious platitudes. Most of us will have had situations in our lives when things haven’t necessarily gone the way we were hoping (or expecting), and on looking back, we can sometimes see how, over time, something else happened which in the end proved to be a better option. Hindsight is a great thing. But did God really plan it like that? Are our lives mapped out to the nth degree, and is our job as faithful Christians really to try and stick absolutely to God’s plan – whatever that might be – making sure we don’t put a foot wrong?
I recently watched again the film About Time in which Tim, a young man, learns that he has the ability to travel back in time, and therefore to re-live episodes in his life – changing his past so as to improve his own future and that of others. The plot centres around his relationship with Mary, and by continually re-visiting encounters from the past, he is able to engineer events so that they end up together. It’s great entertainment – but it does beg a number of questions:
‘Is there really a single right path?’
‘If we ‘go wrong’ – can we put things right, or are we a lost cause?
And what, if anything, does God have to do with it?
If we look at the Bible, we see two strands of thinking there. On the one hand is the omniscience of God. God is presented as all-seeing and all-knowing. The writer of Psalm 139 muses:
O Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You mark out my journeys and my resting place
and are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether. (Ps 139.1-3)
Jeremiah speaks of God’s plans to those who had been taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jeremiah 29.11)
On the other hand, is the metaphor of walking with God. This uses imagery such as paths and ways. The Psalmist prays:
Make me to know your ways, O Lord,
and teach me your paths. (Ps 25.3)
The early Christians spoke of their new-found faith as ‘the Way’. When Paul (or Saul) was still a persecutor of Christians, he
went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9.2)
Later in Acts, Luke records that the Roman governor Felix was ‘rather well informed about the Way’ (24.22). This resonates well with the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah reassures the people of God by saying:
When you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ (30.21)
So, on the one hand, an all-knowing God with a plan; and on the other a God with whom we walk in a personal relationship.
So does God have a plan for you and for me? The danger of swallowing this wholesale is that we can easily be convinced that if we depart from it, everything becomes a lost cause, and ultimately we become a lost cause. And so we can be driven either to excessive caution or bleak despair; or we simply adopt an attitude of resignation in which everything must happen because it’s God’s will.
One of the central beliefs of Christian faith is that God has given human beings free will. That sometimes means that while we might know exactly what we ought to do – how we ought to behave – we don’t. Hence the heartfelt cry of the BCP confession:
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.
But our free will is a gift from God – it is what distinguishes us as human beings, and is one of the marks of humanity that derives from the fact that we bear the image of God. God expects us to use our free will: to think about our actions, but above all, to continue walking with God. God has, not a plan for us, but a purpose – and that purpose is that we keep on walking in the Way. As we walk, we hope and we pray that we will stick close to God, as in Psalm 119:
Blessed are those that are undefiled in the way :
and walk in the law of the Lord. (Ps 119.1)
Some of the time, we’re good at this. We keep in step with God; we’re aware of his being with us at all times. At other times we’re not: we’re more like the proverbial sheep who have gone astray – each to our own way (Isa 53.6).
But when we go our own way, and stray from the Way, all is not lost – we are never a lost cause. God is still there, because Jesus – through whom we know God – is himself the Way.
The final chapters of the Gospel of John include some of the profoundest teaching about the closeness of this relationship. Jesus talks to the disciples about being the vine, and them the branches, with God the Father as the vine-dresser ensuring that there is good fruit. These are reassuring words for all of us. They speak of us being ‘rooted, grafted and built’ into the vine. We are to ‘abide in him’ as he abides in us.
St Jude himself asked Jesus a question:
‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us….,?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14.22-23)
Earlier I quoted from Psalm 139. The Roman Catholic priest and hymnwriter Brian Foley re-worked that Psalm as a hymn. I leave us with his words:
There is no moment of my life,
No place where I may go,
No action which God does not see,
No thought he does not know.
Before I speak, my words are known,
And all that I decide,
To come or go: God knows my choice,
And makes himself my guide.