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‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink’ – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Jesus cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’

Date: 18 May 2024, The Installation of Revd Canon James Milne, Canon Precentor at York Minster

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

 

Jesus cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believe in me drink.’

Almost forty years ago, the south transept of this great cathedral church was struck by lightning, causing the third major fire to impact the Minster since its completion in the 14th Century. Three days previously, the then Archbishop of York had presided over the consecration of the Revd Professor David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham.

Professor Jenkins was not, as you may know, an appointment of which everyone approved. Some claimed that he was not a real Christian… that he had heterodox views… even, so some said, that he was a heretic. And amongst his rather strait-laced opponents, perhaps inevitably, there were those who claimed that the lightning strike and subsequent terrible fire were proof of God’s anger at Jenkins’ consecration.

I’ve never really understood this… but, then again, I don’t really believe in a god who behaves more like a character from a Marvel movie, throwing around lightning bolts and starting firestorms just because he was in a bad mood about something. But – if I did believe in such a deity – I’d be troubled by the idea their sense of timing was so poor that the lightning bolt of wrath arrived three days late, rather than striking the cathedral roof at the very moment the archbishop’s hands were descending on Dr Jenkins’ head!

But for all that, the link between God and fire can be a hard one to break, even if, over the years, it has sometimes been expressed very inappropriately and simplistically.

And Jesus cried out, ‘let the one who believes in me drink’…

The Israelite people put fire at the heart of their worship, and they did so chiefly to appease God. Every single day of the year, at the Temple in Jerusalem, an animal would be offered to God in carefully controlled flames on the altar of the Temple by the priest. A holy person carefully lit a holy fire to assuage and pacify a God perceived as fearsome, and locked away in complex rituals. And, moreover, after the flames had consumed this poor animal, the ritual would conclude with a jar of wine being poured over the altar by the same – very holy – temple priest.

Day by day by day… except during the festival. For during the festival of booths, of which we have heard tell in both our readings this afternoon – a festival that falls near the end of the long, hot and very dry middle eastern summer – during this festival, which was in part a celebration of harvest, the priest would carefully fill a jar with water from the nearby pools of Siloam, bring it to the Temple, and alongside the jar of wine, it would be carefully poured over the altar in this precise and controlled liturgy.

And thus we see how fire and water were the stuff of the proper and appropriate worship of the one God. Offered with necessary care and control in the most holy of places, and performed by the most holy of people.

All of which, I dare say, makes this afternoon’s liturgy seem rather uneventful – no fire and water are required to admit a new member to the College of Canons of the Cathedral and Metropolitical of St Peter in York. But nevertheless, you will, I hope, recognise that this service is being offered with what you might call ‘care and control’, be it the world-class singing from our Choir, whose members rehearse day by day by day; or whether it is the well-crafted liturgy that remains one of the glories of Thomas Cranmer’s liturgical genius; or whether it is the perfectly wrought processions, with everyone in their appointed place and order.

And all of this done, on this particular afternoon, to allow us to welcome our new Canon Precentor, James Milne. And James, of course, is no stranger to well-crafted liturgy and to musical excellence. As you will know or will have noted from the order of service, in his role at St Paul’s, James was responsible for two major royal services, marking both the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and then her death in September of 2022. James, I know, needs no persuading about the importance of ‘care and control’ in the liturgies of the Church of England as established by law!

But, as our new Precentor – our new ‘first singer’ – James has an even more important duty than crafting intricate and wonderful liturgies. Beyond this vital task for which York Minster, and our many sister cathedrals around this country are well known… beyond this vital task lies another task yet more vital, in which, as our new Precentor, James comes to share…. To share with me, with the other members of the clergy team, with Archbishop Stephen, and with the entire Body of Christ in this city, diocese and province.

And that task is not to be careful with either fire or water – which is what Jesus is talking about in that snippet of John 7 that we hear read on this, the eve of Pentecost. For Jesus is in Jerusalem at the climax of the great festival of booths. He has witnessed the care and control of the burnt offerings immolated in the Temple, and has witnessed the preparations for the high priest to douse the smouldering remains with a single, special jar of water, on each of the seven days of this festival. Precious, living water from the pools of Siloam, carried with great care to the holiest of holies, used in this sacred ritual by the temple priest alone, behind closed doors, so that the sacred nature of this ritual is not polluted by the pesterings of the general public.

And Jesus can bear it no more. As the ‘great day’ of the festival dawns, and the rituals of organised religion are executed with care and control, Jesus recognises that something was missing. Something infectious, joyous, carefree and loving was lacking – and he could bear it no longer. And thus he cries out ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink…’

But this drink  – the drink of the living Word of God – this drink is not portion-controlled under the careful authority of the Temple priests. This is abundant water offered abundantly.

But it comes with a catch…And the catch is that if you drink of that water, you don’t get to keep it – you end up having to share it even more abundantly. For, as Jesus goes on to say, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Not just one jar to pacify or please God – rivers of water. And more than that – be very clear that ‘heart’ is a tame and dubious translation of the Greek. Jesus is talking about the believer’s belly. This is both visceral, and it is personal. Jesus is talking about living water rising up from the foundation – physical, emotional and spiritual – of who we are, or – at least – who God has created and called us to be. And that changes things.

Just as fire – the real fire of God – also changes things. And if you don’t know what I mean, I beg you to come back tomorrow morning as we hear again the story of Pentecost, and how tongues of fire transform the erstwhile hapless disciples into confident evangelists who transform the world with Good News, so that it spreads – like wildfire – across the face of the world… even to York on the 18th of May, Two Thousand and Twenty-Four.

David Jenkins was most certainly not the cause of a divine firebolt of anger that saw our south transept burn some forty years ago. He was – in my opinion and that of many others – he was an inspirational bishop, deeply orthodox, and who knew, and often said, “You can’t keep a good God down.” Indeed, at times he would amplify this and say, “Even the church…. Can’t keep a good God down”.

James – God has called you to come among us as our ‘first singer’, and in that role, to be responsible for our careful and controlled liturgies. But – as our ‘first singer’ – I pray strongly that not only will you help us maintain the excellence of our liturgical and musical tradition, but that you will also play your part in ensuring that the dazzling flame of Pentecost, and the unquenchable living water which should flow from our hearts, our bellies, our mouths and our very lives, that these precious gifts and manifestations of the living God will never be absent from the ministry of this cathedral church as it serves its city, its diocese, its province, and its world. For it is true, as Bishop Jenkins said, that you really cannot keep a good God down – so let’s celebrate that in spiritual fire and water now and always.

Amen.

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‘If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us’ – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.

Date: 28 April 2024, The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

 

If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.

Outside the south door of this great cathedral is a statue commemorating arguably the most important person ever to have resided in this city – the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. Proclaimed as such in 306, right here, possibly on the spot where this pulpit stands, this ‘great’ ruler was responsible for the decriminalization of Christianity, and the start of a journey that would lead to it being adopted as the official state religion of the empire.

The consequences of what is sometimes called the Constantinian shift were felt throughout the history of the Church of God. Given that the great emperor’s rule began here in York, it is, perhaps, fitting to observe that the most pronounced impact of Constantine’s radical change of direction can be seen in the life of the Church of England. For there are only two countries in the world where senior religious leaders (in our case, bishops) sit, by virtue of their office, in the state’s legislature (the other such country being Iran). And atop the structure that has 26 Church of England bishops thus ennobled in the House of Lords, the Supreme Governor of our church, of course, is the monarch.

Now, I am a fan of establishment, for it is clear to me that the English church has received many missional benefits from the links that it brings. But it is also clear to me that these benefits have not been without a cost factor, for a church that is established is not, usually, a nimble church; a church that is, by definition, at ease with the powers which govern and rule does not always relate so easily to those lower in the social or political order; a church which finds itself alongside those who have the power to persecute is not always a church that is readily able to stand alongside those who are being persecuted.

In short, whether you use the term in the particular legal definition that pertains to the Church of England, or whether you simply speak of any church that is large, or rich, or ‘well established’, you may not find a church that can quickly, easily, or meaningfully tell one of its leaders to Get up and go…to the road that goes down…to Gaza – to the road which, perhaps even more today than 2000 years ago, is so very truly a wilderness road.

Philip, of course, was a member of a very pre-Constantinian church – a church which understood very clearly the consequences and impact of persecution, which is where the curtain rises for us this morning in the Acts of the Apostles. For Saul (who is still a chapter away from his life-changing journey to Damascus), Saul has been busy

‘ravaging’ the church, causing its frightened members to be ‘scattered’ around the entire region.

And thus it is that Philip, who had originally been chosen, if not ordained, by the apostles to offer pastoral service by feeding those in need, Philip finds himself recommissioned to a brand new ministry of preaching and teaching, and having to do so on the very fringes of society, on that most awful place, the wilderness road that leads to Gaza.

And there he – and thus we – encounter a child of God who is not merely passing through a geographical and political wilderness, but also a profound spiritual wilderness. For there is much to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch that while not stated explicitly in Luke’s text, shouts to us from the margins of the page, in the hope that we hear and understand what you might call the full story.

Now the eunuch was probably what is usually termed a ‘God-fearer’. A gentile by birth, but one who had come to believe in the Jewish faith, but who had not taken the necessary steps formally to convert to Judaism – steps which, for an adult man living before the benefits of either anesthesia or antiseptics, bore very real risks of pain, and serious illness.

And, we should note, we come across this God-fearing and unusual man, not on his journey towards Jerusalem and the Temple, but on his return home. Something had drawn him, called him, to the very heart of ‘established’ Jewish religion, but his call has been not been fulfilling – it has not even been nurturing. For although something has caught his eye in the pages of scripture, nobody has bothered or cared to help him understand it, as he makes clear when he answers Philip’s question by saying, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

And it is not surprising he needs guiding, for he is reading one of the most counter-cultural passages of the Hebrew scriptures – he is reading the poignant and unsettling account of that shadowy figure often called ‘the Suffering Servant’ – the figure at the heart of the writing of Second Isaiah that was so uniquely meaningful to Jesus, and to Jesus’ self-understanding of his own vocation. A passage which speaks of God as persecuted, of God being denied justice, of God being unjustly killed. In other words, a passage which speaks of God in a manner about as far removed as it is possible to be from anything to do with the authority or security normally conferred by ‘establishment’.

A passage, therefore, which might suggest to this Ethiopian ‘stranger’ that the God whom the Israelites worship in Jerusalem might yet have something to offer those

who are in some way or other ‘outcast’.

For this man is an outsider. His skin color would have stood out in the crowds in Jerusalem. And while his unusual physical condition would, one assumes, not have been obvious to the naked eye, if he had had the naivety to be honest about who and what he was, the priests of the Temple would have lost no time in telling him that he absolutely was outcast – he was to be excluded from the assembly, as is stated with total clarity in the first verse of Deuteronomy 23. And it is to bring the Good News of God’s love to this particular outcast that Philip finds himself sent.

Indeed, when you look at the subtlety of the Greek which Luke uses, Philip is not merely told to ‘get up’ and go off towards Gaza. The angel is using what you might call resurrection language of raising or being raised. Philip is told to ‘be raised’ so that he, in turn, might ‘raise up’ a beloved child of God in whose face the religious establishment has just slammed the door very firmly shut.

And thus, duly raised up and empowered by the angel, Philip raises up the eunuch, baptizing him into the death of Christ, and thus into the inclusive new life of resurrection that is offered to every child of God, and which has power to change us and through us, to change the world.

At which point, of course, Luke abandons his initial language that told us the Ethiopian was ‘returning home’ (that is to say, having to assume his old spiritual and emotional identity). As a result of Philip’s angelic and inclusive ministry, we are, instead, told that the eunuch goes on his ‘way’, and, in doing so, becomes a follower of the way, which is how Luke initially speaks of the Christian faith – he goes on his way, and does so no longer confused and down-hearted, but ‘rejoicing’.

In December, at the request of the leaders of the Christian Unions of our two local universities, I invited the Reverend Rico Tice, a prominent evangelical who was for many years on the clergy of All Souls, Langham Place, to preach in this very pulpit for the CU carol service.

I was saddened – but possibly not surprised – to learn only yesterday that Mr Tice has just left or split from the Church of England because of what he calls its ‘onward trajectory’ in affirming same-sex relationships, and, more specifically, about its approval of a small collection of prayers which –  although they do not constitute any kind of stand-alone rite akin to a blessing of such a relationship – he deems to be “a clear, pervasive denial of the Christian’s need to repent of each and every sin they commit.”

While I wish Mr Tice well, and have no desire to enter any kind of tit-for-tat argument with him, his words simply make me hope that he and others who share his views will not find themselves committing the sin of exclusion. For if we are to speak of ‘a clear, pervasive denial’ of the ‘need to repent’, then let us be absolutely clear that over many centuries, the Church of God has failed to repent of the ways it has excluded and damaged not just the people whose sexuality has been deemed inappropriate or unacceptable, but many others whom the ‘establishment’ has deliberately or accidentally made to feel outcast on account of their colour, their enslavement, their disabilities, their gender, and probably many other characteristics.

The youthful but profound poet Jay Hulme, whose work is on sale in our very own bookshop, and who is, himself, a committed member of the Church of England, serving as churchwarden of a parish in the East Midlands, reminds his readers of the breadth of God’s love in a reconsideration of the Beatitudes in which, amongst other things, he rightfully asserts:

Blessed are the outcasts; the ostracised, the outsiders…

Blessed are the hated; for they are not worthy of hate…

Blessed are the closeted; God sees you shine anyway.

Blessed are the queers; who love creation enough to live the truth of it,

despite a world that tells them they cannot.

And blessed are those who believe themselves unworthy of blessing;

what inconceivable wonders you hold.[1]

I pray that the doors of this vast, seemingly immoveable and very well ‘established’ cathedral will never fail to be open to offer God’s blessing to all who approach them – especially to those who feel that, for whatever reason, their face or their lifestyle might not ‘fit’ our expectations or deserve our welcome. Because, as St John wrote so very clearly – wrote without any attempt to limit, to narrow, or to exclude, If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. Amen.

[1] Beatitudes for a Queerer Church from The Backwater Sermons, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2021

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Bread of Heaven, feed me now and evermore. Amen. – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Bread of Heaven, feed me now and evermore. Amen.

Date: 21 April 2024, The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

 

Bread of Heaven, feed me now and evermore. Amen.

Whatever next? What on earth is going to happen next?

That’s the question running through this evening. And, I’m afraid, it’s being asked by people who have not quite understood the call of God in their lives – being asked by people who have not quite got what it means to be followers of the one God.

Take the Israelites, about whom we were hearing in our first reading. They had their minds set on pretty much one thing – something on which their minds had been set for years and years. They wanted to escape from Egypt, and from the oppressive, vindictive cruelty of Pharaoh and his regime. They wanted God – their God – to liberate them.

And do you know what? He did! You can read all about it in the second book of the Hebrew scriptures – a small passage of which was our first lesson tonight. God acts in the events of what we have come to call the Exodus. After a succession of plagues, culminating in the utterly horrific slaughter of the first-born, when God passes over the homes of the Israelites, Pharaoh seems to have had enough, and the Israelites are freed. Free, at last. Told to get up and go, taking their flocks and their herds with them, they get their liberation.

But what’s going to happen next? What on earth is going to happen next?

Because, of course, the Israelites rapidly have to refocus, and learn that just because they follow a God who is compassionate – a God who cares about their unjust exploitation by the Egyptians – a God who is prepared to intervene – just because God is on their side… it doesn’t mean life is going to be nice and easy.

Indeed, if the first lesson had been permitted to start one verse earlier in Exodus 16, you’d have heard them moaning full on: If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.

So did they want to follow a God of liberation, and escape from the heavy task of making bricks without straw and being an enslaved people of no ‘worth’ or status – or did they just want a full stomach?

And it’s not just the Israelites who are discovering that following faithfully doesn’t guarantee you an easy life. That’s also what is going on in that very strange book we call the Revelation to John from which we have just heard.

Revelation, in essence, is a coded message of encouragement to some of the first Christian communities to experience persecution by the Romans. Christians who might have thought that, what with Jesus overcoming death and rising in glory, the only necessary battle that needed winning had, indeed, been won – and won even more gloriously than the liberation won by the Israelites so many centuries in their past.

But, instead, they find themselves asking, Whatever next? What on earth is going to happen next?

Now the irony is that for the first hearers of this book we find so strange and complex, its meaning would not have been obscure. The images and names were clear references to situations they could easily have identified and understood. But disguised, of course, so that this scroll of ‘propaganda’ that was so critical of the ruling authorities, could not be understood at face value if it were to fall into the wrong hands. But – to the intended audience for whom it was written – this coded language would have been clearly understood.

But with the passing of the ages, we have been left with a document that, tragically, has fed some of the most bizarre, far-fetched, and sometimes downright dangerous expressions of Christianity that the world has seen.

So we don’t now know who Antipas, the faithful witness was. We don’t know exactly what the Nicolaitans taught. We don’t have a precise understanding of the reference to ‘hidden manna’, let alone a clear vision of how to understand the white stone and the new name. And if you think any of the images in those five verses was remotely challenging, try reading the rest of the book, where it gets way more fantastical and hard to interpret in any detail.

None of it is clear in any detail, but it doesn’t need to be, for the big picture of this most precious last book of our Scriptures, the big picture really is not unclear, despite the language and the imagery.

The first point we should notice in this letter to the church in Pergamum, even if we do not understand the references in it, this letter calls its hearers to be faithful to Jesus, even (and perhaps especially) when that means acting against the predominant culture. And given that the author is describing this once great city as being where Satan’s throne is, it’s not hard to believe the culture ought to challenge the values we associate of the followers of Jesus.

In his excellent sermon here at our morning Eucharist, while speaking of what he alluded to as being the ‘corporate personality and identity’ of a worshipping community, the Bishop of Whitby said, ‘we can either be swept along with the current, or bring good influence to bear.’ The church in Pergamum is being told, very clearly, that real Christians should not be ‘swept along with the current’.

And thus it is also clear, that just as for the Israelites escaping their cruel enslavement in Egypt, while the ultimate victory over death has indeed been won by the risen Christ, following in his footsteps will be costly. Read on through the weird and wonderful Revelation, and while you will not understand all the symbolism and imagery, you’ll certainly pick up the key plot of major conflict and battle that has to be endured before the final joy of that new era at which the Lamb is at the centre of a new Jerusalem in which there will be no more mourning, crying, pain or even death.

But the most important point that we should pick up, even from this most obscure of New Testament readings, is that – while it will not be easy to follow God’s call into the liberation of the Exodus or of the Resurrection – God will neither desert those who follow, nor will he fail to sustain them.

The escaping Israelites, moaning minnies though they are, they’re being given bread from heaven. Admittedly, in true Star Trek fashion, it’s ‘bread, but not as we know it, Jim’ – but it is bread from heaven, nonetheless. And with images too obscure for us properly to understand, ‘hidden manna’ and white stones with secret names, they are there to sustain the persecuted Christians being encouraged by the strange writings of this apocalyptic revelation.

All of which reminds us, quite simply, that when we hit those moments, even in the relatively safety and security of York in 2024, when we hit those moments when we find ourselves asking, “whatever next?”, we should remember that God does not promise God’s disciples an easy life. God calls us to be in the world and not of it, and that’s not always going to rest easy with the Pharoahs and the Roman emperors of our own age when we remember the challenge of not just being ‘swept along with the current’.

But an easy life can be over-rated. At least, an easy life is over-rated compared to a life lived in the confidence of God’s enduring presence walking with us through the wildernesses in which we sometimes find ourselves. For God does not leave his beloved alone, even when God calls us to follow him to the very verge of Jordan, promising that he will, indeed, feed us on the Bread of Heaven both now, and evermore. Amen.

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‘O that they would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness’ – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: O that they would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness, and declare the wonders that he doeth.

Date: 20 April 2024

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

 

O that they would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness, and declare the wonders that he doeth.

In the name of…

You’ll know, I’m sure, the story of the very capable gardener who bought a run-down cottage in one of those picturesque villages that regularly feature on the front covers of magazines that expound the delights of rural living. The building was structurally sound but the property had been unoccupied for some years since the previous owner had died, and it exuded an air of shabbiness, matched by the overgrown and unkempt condition of the garden.

The new owner put his back into the very necessary work of restoration with energy and enthusiasm, and after a few months, there had been a huge transition. With a mown lawn, existing plants trimmed back and many new plants in place, the garden had been transformed into a place of nigh-on perfection and utter beauty.

One sunny summer’s morning, the new owner was sitting on a well-positioned bench in the garden, enjoying a cup of coffee and surveying all that had been achieved, when the vicar of the parish walked past, and stuck his head over the garden gate.

“Gracious,” said the vicar, “your garden is looking wonderful now. It is so heartening to see what man and God can do when they work together.”

“Well,” came the swift reply, “I’m not so sure God had much to do with it, vicar… After all when he had it to himself, it looked awful!”

This afternoon, of course, our thoughts are focused not on what happens on the land, but what happens at sea – and that can be a much more intimidating business, as much of what we have heard in today’s service has reminded us. The beloved hymn we have just sung, complete with its special lifeboat verse, speaks of the ‘angry tumult’, of ‘wild confusion’ and of the ‘foaming deep’ – scary images of chaos and danger, not scenes of comfort or beauty.

And that famous hymn echoes words penned well over 2000 years before its author was born, from that portion of Psalm 107 that was read to us. For the psalmist also knew of the dangers of the ‘stormy wind’ and the waves it could produce. What is slightly more unnerving, is that the psalmist also speaks of the role of God in the dangers that are found on the high seas.

Now, at first, this seems quite straight-forward. Many people across the ages have looked at the vastness of nature and felt the presence of God. But this psalm goes beyond the ‘awe and wonder’ approach to the natural world, for its author is happy to attribute to God direct involvement in creating both storm and calm – for, we are told, it is at His word that the stormy wind ariseth.

Let’s be honest: the nature of God as portrayed in those eight verses is really rather fickle. This god snaps his fingers and a storm flares up, causing those at sea to ‘reel to and fro’ until they are ‘at their wits’ end’, and then – if asked nicely enough –  the same god ‘maketh the storm to cease’. If you are just beginning to wonder whether this god sounds suspiciously like the playground bully you tried to avoid when you were at school, you are not – in my opinion – very far wrong.

Which means we might have to do just a little bit of work to understand why it is we should therefore praise the Lord for his goodness, because it’s a pretty narrow definition of goodness that understands it as simply being the relief which comes when a bully stops tormenting you. And, indeed, I would feel really rather nervous about attempting to honour the selfless work of the 5600 crew volunteers, and the 3700 shore crew volunteers, in a building like this, if all they were really doing was trying to rescue seafarers unfortunate enough to have been picked on by a callous or angry god who was just having a bit of heartless fun at their expense.

But there is a reason that the collection of writings we refer to as the Bible is a rather weighty tome. For the Hebrew and Christian scriptures cover over a thousand years of reflection on the nature of God and how God interacts with the world and with humanity, and, as you would both hope and expect, the understanding of the nature of God and of how the world ‘works’ matures substantially over these centuries. And, of course, for those of us who are Christians, it comes to its fullest revelation in the story and person of Jesus.

For the hard but undeniable truth is that the fallen world in which we live is challenging and dangerous – both in terms of horrors committed by corrupt, greedy and violent human beings, and also in terms of what we usually call natural disasters. And the real Good News of the Bible is that God is not some moody and immature supernatural being who turns storms or earthquakes or droughts or famines on or off depending on whether he got out of bed on the right side or not. The Good News that we are gathered to celebrate this very afternoon is that God cares about us – cares about us so much that he allows himself to be born into this world, becoming just as vulnerable as you or I, to show the world that when disaster and death occur – which, inevitably, they do – they do not have the final word.

And the God whose love inspired the building of this vast and wondrous cathedral – the God whose journey traces its steps from a humble crib in Bethlehem to a cross atop a skull-shaped rock in Jerusalem – the God who encounters danger and death (without which there can be no resurrection) – the God who is so intimately involved with the totality of human experience that he knows fear and pain and death… this God endures all this, as St John puts it in a famous passage in the fourth gospel, so that the world might be saved through him.

Not some of the world. Not the people who vote Tory or the people who vote Labour. Not the people who hold this passport or that passport. Not the people whose skin is this colour or that colour. Quite simply, God rolls up God’s sleeves, God walks the roads that we walk, and God sails the seas that we sail, and endures the dangers we endure, because God loves – loves without judgement or discrimination – and in the economy of God, even though there are storms and tempests a plenty, in the great economy of God, love wins.

Which is – to my mind – what is modelled in the remarkable work of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. For when a lifeboat crew goes out to save frightened humans on a capsizing vessel, those volunteers don’t demand to know why the people were stupid enough to get into trouble in the first place. They don’t check people’s documents or bank balances or voting records before offering them the hope of rescue. They don’t cross examine those who are in need to make sure they are ‘worth’ saving. Without judgement, they just get out there, into scenarios that I suspect those of us unused to nautical life would find utterly terrifying, they just get out there to offer unconditional assistance to those in great need.

So when the psalmist suggests that we should therefore praise the Lord for his goodness and declare the wonders that he doeth, I hope that we can see the big picture – the enormous picture of a divine love that intervenes in the world not by flicking some heavenly on/off switch that controls the waves, but – so much more wonderfully and importantly – by unconditionally walking alongside the world both in its joys and its fears, and by showing the world that terror and disaster and even death do not have the last word.

“It’s so heartening to see what men and women and God can do when they work together,” said the vicar to the gardener.  And what we celebrate today in the glorious bicentennial of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a glorious example of how we can emulate God’s getting alongside God’s children to love them unconditionally – for that is what has been happening around Britain’s coastline these last 200 years, day by day by day as the storms come down and the waves arise and hearts fail in terror. That is the point when countless petrified seafarers have discovered that they are not alone and that someone they don’t even know is risking their life for them.

Long, long may it continue, and may we all say O that they would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness, and declare the wonders that he doeth.

 

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“And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home”

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Date: 10 March 2024, The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday

 

“And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home”

Last week, I was in Houston, Texas, attending the annual gathering of a body called the Episcopal Parish Network, which brings together leaders of American parishes, to share ideas, and address the challenges of mission and ministry in the 21st Century.

The opening event of the conference was a panel discussion between five prominent church leaders. These included the CEO of the American church’s most significant retreat and conference centre; my own former colleague, now my successor at the cathedral in Chicago; the rectors of two major parishes, one in Manhattan and the other in Atlanta; and – bringing an English perspective to the proceedings – my opposite number in the southern province, the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Reverend David Monteith.

Their task was to share experiences of leadership in the face of change and disruption, and each of these five shared a particular challenge facing the institution of which they are at the head. The Dean of Canterbury shocked the room into silence with his opening sentence: “If things stay as they are, then the simple truth is that Canterbury Cathedral will close in three years’ time.” The CEO of the Kanuga conference centre spoke of the vast decline in bookings and revenue from its principal source of revenue, as the church has moved away from in-person events. We heard of a parish diminishing a once vast endowment by running deficit budgets for almost sixty years; of the challenges of managing substantial real estate while trying to fund ministry in a racially divided city; and of a diocese foisting a land-deal on a cathedral that would deliberately devastate the mission of a vibrant and growing church community.

What bound these five eyebrow-raising stories together was not just the challenges of maintaining mission and ministry in such trying circumstances, but the constant voices of onlookers – including onlookers within the Church of God – talking of despair and failure. Voices pointing out that – on both sides of the Atlantic – church attendance is plummeting, economies are not doing well, there is no money to be had, donors are disillusioned… Best just to give up and accept reality.

And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home…

For if things are not going well, it’s wise, it’s sensible, it’s practical to be realistic. No point in getting your hopes up. No point in indulging in wishful thinking. If the end is nigh, then all you can do is make the best of a bad deal. Which – apparently – is what we find Jesus doing, as he makes the last decisions of his life.

The Fourth Gospel recounts how the leaders of the Jews had demanded of Pilate that Jesus be crucified. Jesus has been led to – of all awful, horrible places – Golgotha: The Place of the Skull. And there he has been crucified – the centrepiece of a triptych of victims of brutal Roman rule. His clothes have been given away; his tunic has been the subject of a dice game; it seems that there’s nothing left to do except for him to die.

But, so Saint John tells us, “standing near the cross”, in a very small, and mainly female clutch of those who were faithful to the very end, Jesus sees his mother, and that curious, anonymous, shadowy figure that the evangelist calls ‘the disciple whom he loved’.

And so it is – at what, seemingly, is the end of all things – there is no wishful thinking. No unrealistic hopes of some glorious future that cannot possibly take place. All that there is time for is one last bit of practical action – sorting out someone to look after his dear old mum. “Woman,” says Jesus, “here is your son,” and to the disciple, “here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home…

Except he didn’t.

Well, I suppose he might have done… but I’m not sure it is what Jesus was really telling him to do… because… because it isn’t actually what Jesus said.

What Jesus actually says, in John’s original Greek, is that from that hour, the disciples takes Jesus mother eis ta idia – which is to say, ‘into his own…’. The evangelist does not use the word for home, or for house, or for care, or for anything else. And – even if the result of Jesus’ final command was that Mary goes to stay with the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ – this is about something bigger than simply a change of domicile or address.

Because today is not – in the first instance – about our biological mothers. It is about an almost mystical vision of the calling of the Church of God. For Mothering Sunday finds its roots in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he talks about ‘the Jerusalem above’ (in contrast to the earthly city), of which he says, in a curious turn of phrase, ‘and she is our mother’. And the thing that you need to know about today is that, until the liturgical revisions of the 1970s and onwards, Galatians chapter four was read, year by year by year, from at least the middle ages until very recently on the Fourth Sunday of Lent – and that is why today is known as Mothering Sunday. Open your BCPs, and you will find that passage as the epistle reading – it was read, here in this cathedral, at our 8am service this very day.

And from this rather curious Pauline text sprung an appreciation of mother church (including of course, the mother church of a diocese, such as this beloved building), and, only in a very secondary sense, an appreciation of the mothers of families. So, when we speak of Mothering Sunday, we speak first of the call of ‘mother church’ – of the call of the baptized community which is the church of God, and its vocation to ‘mother’ those whom it is called to serve. Which is why it is so important to understand the significance of Jesus’ final words to his own mother and to the Beloved Disciple that are our gospel reading today.

Which brings us back to this curious, and really very broad turn of phrase penned by the evangelist, when he records that the disciple simply takes Jesus’ mother ‘into his own…’

For in this final instruction given just before Jesus will speak of his work being finished, complete, and made perfect, Jesus has not, in a moment of morbid defeat, asked his best pal to be kind to his mum. As the culmination of his own mission in the world to which he was sent, the Living Word of God has looked into the for-ever sized future and with these dying words called into being and described the proper vocation and mission of his Church. For ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, properly, should be us – the Church, and in these deceptively simple words, we, the Church, are being given our calling to embrace the pain of the world, to take it into ourselves, so that we can show the world the true, vast, sacrificial love of God contained in the Good News of the Word Made Flesh that is the subject of the Gospel of John.

And that is wonderful… but it comes with a price – the price that is inherent in any worthwhile vocation – the price of heavy responsibility. For if we – whether it is the ‘we’ that is this Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York, or if it is the ‘we’ of the Church of England, or if it is simply the ‘we’ that is the whole Church of God – if we are to show ourselves worthy of being beloved by God like the shadowy disciple whom Jesus loved… if we are to take people ‘into our own’, then we first have to make sure that our own ‘house’ or our own ‘church’ is speaking of the things that are beloved by God. We have to make sure that the church is properly living out its vocation – its vocation given to it by Jesus as he hung, dying, on the cross.

And that is what the five, inspiring and brave church leaders whom I heard speak last week were saying. For each, in their own way and in their own context, was reminding us that neither financial pressures, or sinful behaviour, or diminishing membership, or overspent endowments, or divisions and rows over sexuality or gender, or anything else must get in the way of the Church of God being faithful to her vocation to serve the world. And each of those five were clear that it is precisely in dedicated, confident, and faithful service that the Church of God will flourish, and even grow.

Because God is not a God who gives up. God does not believe that death has the last word. God calls the Church to reimagine its mission and ministry in every generation, not to ‘think small’, but constantly to find new ways to think big in embracing the call to be the ‘mother church’ that represents that ‘Jerusalem which is above’, and remind the world that God’s love is the one thing that, even when it hangs, dying on the cross, will never fail us.

Amen.

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And Jesus was transfigured before them – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: And Jesus was transfigured before them.

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Date: 11 February 2024, Sunday next before Lent

Readings: 2 Kings 2.1-12; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9

 

What do a world expert in the science of spintronics, the designer of a machine to make envelopes, an epidemiologist, a journalist turned museum manager, a biochemist and administrator, and a pair of comedy writers have in common? I have two answers to the question. And I’ll give you the less important one now: this past week, they were the seven recipients of honorary degrees at the graduation ceremonies of the University of York.

Without wishing to diminish the undoubted honour paid to these remarkable people by the university, and distinguished though all seven of them are, their new doctorates are, nevertheless, not the most important thing that they share in common – a fact with which Professor Charlie Jeffrey, the Vice-Chancellor of the University, would, I hope, agree.

For, at a dinner to celebrate these honorary doctors, the VC gave an impactful speech in which he reminded his audience about the core purpose of the University of York, which, when it was founded sixty years ago, identified its vocation to take a lead in ‘ameliorating human life and conditions’ through research, teaching, widening access, and seeing its members (whether student or staff) as ‘citizens of the world’, ‘regardless of class, creed or race’.

Or, as Professor Jeffrey succinctly rephrased it for this age which thrives on soundbites, ‘the University of York exists for public good’.

And Jesus…was transfigured before them.

Some 1900 or so years before the founding of York University, Peter, James and John had a remarkable experience ‘up a high mountain’. An experience that came at a turning point in their relationship with Jesus – an experience that came to throw some much-needed light into an atmosphere of darkening gloom.

For just under a week before this morning’s dramatic story unfolds, Jesus has taken his disciples to Caesarea Philippi – a city mired in the demands of loyalty to what you might call human things, not divine things: named to proclaim the godlike nature of the Roman emperor, and built on top of a shrine to the pagan god Pan. In this, very specifically chosen location, Jesus had demanded to know who they believed him to be. A question to which Peter gives the clear and strong answer that Jesus is the Messiah. So far, so good…

But Jesus muddies the waters and darkens the mood, by immediately explaining that the nature of this messiah-ship means that he must ‘undergo great suffering’ and be killed – the first of three predictions of his passion and death interspersed through the second half of Mark’s gospel. And – as you doubtless recall – Peter’s horrified response to this is to ‘rebuke’ Jesus – only to have Jesus ‘out-rebuke’ him back, denouncing him in front of the other disciples as being ‘Satan’, and telling him that his mind is set ‘not on divine things but human things’.

And, to stress the point yet further, Jesus shocks and embarrasses his disciples by calling a vast crowd to gather round, so that he can explain as clearly as possible that those who wish to follow him must do so by taking up their cross, and being ready to ‘lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel’. ‘For,’ Jesus demands, ‘what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’

That is the context, the backdrop, without which you cannot really understand what was going on when Jesus led Peter, James and John up that mountain, and was transfigured before them.

And the question – the real question – is what exactly was is it that the three disciples saw atop the mountain.

For as we recite the Creed in just a few minutes time, we will rehearse our belief that Jesus, the Christ, is fully divine (‘true God from true God’) – and also that he is fully human (‘was incarnate…and was made man’). And this morning there will be many preachers talking about how, in this moment when Jesus was transfigured before them, the three disciples are given a pure and unadulterated glimpse of Jesus’ divinity, bursting through the gloom and the darkness of imminent suffering and death. A glimpse, if you like, of post-resurrection divinity, given to refocus their attention, and encourage them to journey to Jerusalem and to Good Friday.

But that’s just not good enough. If this mountain-top moment is, as it were, when the chocolate coating of Jesus’ humanity is somehow melted away to reveal the divine, luscious caramel filling inside, then we have got something wrong.

Rather – surely – in this transfigured moment, as the voice of the Father proclaims Jesus to be the beloved Son, we are seeing the glory of what humanity was created to be. It is too easy just to talk about the glory of divinity as Jesus shines with unique brightness on the holy mountain. It is too easy, as it were, to say it is just God being God. But, in Jesus, in the act of Incarnation and with all that Incarnation offers and demands, in Jesus we understand God not just being God, but God being human – fully and properly human.

And, in the Transfiguration, Jesus wants the disciples to understand not just the true glory to which human beings are called, but what the implications of that glory really are.

That is why Jesus has been trying to explain to his followers that not only is he the Messiah… but that the nature of being the Messiah… the anointed one… the Christ… is a self-sacrificial one. A Messiah that exists not for his own good but for the good of the world to which he has been sent. A Messiah, as Professor Jeffrey might succinctly put it, who ‘exists for public good’. A Messiah who understands and who demonstrates what it truly means to ‘lose one’s life for the sake of the gospel’ and to set your mind ‘not on human things but divine things’.

Peter had failed to understand this. And not just Peter, for Jesus’ ‘Get behind me Satan’ rebuke is a public one uttered in front of all the disciples. And it is a rebuke to us – to you and to me – for the many times we set our own minds on human things, rather than on divine things.

Which is why, having explained to all those gathered around him that it will profit them nothing – absolutely nothing at all – ‘to gain the whole world and forfeit their life’, Jesus is transfigured by God the Father. Transfigured so that those who follow him can see just how glorious humanity can be when minds are genuinely lifted above ‘human things’ and set, selflessly, on divine things.

The selfless call to focus on what Jesus calls ‘divine things’ and which the Vice-Chancellor calls the ‘public good’ is, to quote the VC, “a moral compass in good times – and less good times”. And there, inevitably, is the rub. For this call comes, as both Jesus and the VC make clear, at a cost.

Reflecting that “We are now firmly in the latter kind of times,” due, as Professor Jeffrey explained, to ‘the mix of a failed funding system and higher inflation’ we learned that the university (and not just our local university but many others in the country) receives ‘less than 80 pence in funding for every pound [spent] on teaching home students and doing publicly funded research.’

“In other words,” he concluded, “ameliorating human life and conditions is now a deficit making activity!”

As the leader of another major institution in this historic city, I share the Vice-Chancellor’s reflection and lament that we currently find ourselves in ‘less good times’, and that is why it was so good to hear him celebrate not just the seven outstanding honorary graduates, but the DNA-level core purpose explanation that the institution which he leads ‘exists for public good’ – just as, so I fervently believe, does this institution and the entire Church of God.

And in the Church of God, we have known for some while that serving the public good is costly. For if we regard ‘taking up one’s cross’ and ‘losing one’s life’ as being ‘deficit making’ (something with which I think most people would agree) then that cost – as we see so clearly this morning – is at the very heart of the gospel. But it is at the heart of the gospel because this ‘deficit making’ is the only path that leads to true glory.

I am sure that the ‘magnificent seven’ (if I may call them that) looked glorious in their doctoral robes last week. But the fact that they received honorary degrees is a fact of less importance than the simple recognition that what they really have in common is – as the University of York recognized in them – they have each manifested through their life and work a clear commitment to the ‘public good’.

And today, not just in York, but across God’s world, as we live through what many of us feel are ‘less good times’, when ‘public good’ is inadequately funded, and suffering and death are all to visible across the world, even – and especially – now, we get to behold Jesus in transfigured garments even more brilliant than doctoral robes.

And as we gaze on this ‘kingly brightness’, never forget that it is not just Jesus, it is all of us who are called to change ‘from glory to glory’, so that, ‘mirrored here’, our lives might tell of God’s self-sacrificial story of serving the ‘public good’.

Archbishop Stephen tells the story of a vicar preaching on the well-known text in which Jesus says “I am the vine and you are the branches, abide in my love.”  As the sermon progresses, the vicar exhorts the congregation to invite Jesus into their lives, so that they might fully become who and what God is calling us to be in Christ.

At the end of the service, a little boy comes up to the vicar, saying he is very confused and wanting to ask a question – which the vicar duly encourages. “Well,” says the child, “God is so very big, and I am so very small. If I invited Jesus to come and live in my heart… if I invited Jesus to transform my life…. He’s so big, and I’m so small… if he came and lived in my heart, wouldn’t he burst out all over the place?”

“Yes,” said the vicar, “that’s how it works.” Amen.

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“Then Simeon blessed them” – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Then Simeon blessed them…

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Date: 2 February 2024, Candlemas

 

Then Simeon blessed them…

Last night I attended a political Q&A session with one of the candidates standing to be mayor of York and North Yorkshire. The first question addressed to the candidate was from Archbishop Stephen, who spoke of an encounter he had had with the mother of a child of primary school age in one of the most deprived parts of this diocese.

She had described to the archbishop how her child goes to school with an empty lunchbox. Arriving early, breakfast is provided by the school, and in the middle of the day, her child, along with 90% of the other students, gets a free school meal. And at the end of the day food is laid out on several trestle tables, so that her child and many others can pack their empty lunchbox with provisions that will become their supper.

“I’m not going to ask you what you would do to fix this grinding poverty,” said the archbishop, “but what I want to ask you”, he said to the aspiring mayor, “is what would you say to the mother of this child – who has given up all hope in politicians, and cannot be bothered to vote for anyone any more.”

The answer that was offered was broadly about the steps thought necessary to build infrastructure in the region that would enable greater economic growth, the result of which would trickle down to those living in such poverty. And, depending on your political and economic opinions, that might be something important to achieve. But it was not a proper answer to the archbishop’s question… and it was certainly not an answer that relates to the characters we have encountered in our gospel reading on this great feast we call Candlemas.

Poverty is not a new phenomenon, and, although you may not have noticed it, it is a backdrop to the story we have just heard. For Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were required to bring a sacrifice as set out in the Law, of two turtledoves or pigeons. But that’s only a half-truth. If you go and check what the Law of Moses actually say (which is clearly set out in Leviticus 12) the sacrifice is meant to be one pigeon, and one lamb. But if she cannot afford a sheep, it says, she shall take two turtledoves or pigeons.

And so, carrying, as it were, an empty lunchbox, Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem to fulfil a religious requirement to allow Mary to be declared ritually clean after childbirth – and, in so doing, they encounter a pair of devout, religious old people. Anna, so we are told, simply never leaves the Temple. If we were to translate the story into our own setting, she would be the pensioner who is always at Morning Prayer and at Evensong – doing her religious duty, and probably being regarded as a bit ‘strange’.

And Simeon – ‘righteous and devout’ – he is also, probably, someone who is searching for meaning through his religious observances. And his actions and words – clearly – come over as strange and unexpected, at least as far as Mary and Joseph are concerned. But, eccentric, ‘cracked’, obsessive, whatever one might make of Anna and Simeon, they had the ability to see what was going on. Because, through the grace of God, suddenly they both knew, with astonishing clarity, that something unique and wonderful had happened. Somehow, on this day of all days, as they fulfilled what they believed their own religious, and rather obsessive calling was, they finally saw something different.

The distinguished church musician and composer Sarah MacDonald, who works in Cambridge and Ely, and whose music is regularly in the repertoire of our own wonderful choir, wrote an article in December, reflecting on the monotony that church musicians – and, let me say, clergy – can find during Advent, which brings the inevitable requirement of participating in carol services day after day after day after day. Her moving and illuminating article concluded with her saying:

[Something] that is crucial to remember, particularly for those…currently in the middle of multiple repetitions of far-too-early carol services, is that for many in the congregation…this may be the only celebration of the nativity that they experience this year. It may be the 14th time that we conduct, play, or sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” but for someone in the pews it could the one “And our eyes at last shall see him” moment that we all long for throughout the year, regardless of the liturgical season.

Anna and Simeon were no strangers to multiple repetitions of religious ritual. They had probably gone well beyond the 14th iteration of such things. But Candlemas is the story, literally, of that ‘one “And our eyes at last shall see him” moment,’ which, as Sarah MacDonald so poignantly wrote, is something “that we all long for throughout the year…” if not throughout our life.

And that in itself is a beautiful story, and one which we commemorate in this beautiful, candlelit liturgy. But the story does not end with Anna or Simeon. The story goes back to the empty lunchbox. Because Anna, having had her revelation, goes on to ‘speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’. And Simeon, of course, speaks first to God, and then he speaks to Mary. Simeon answers Archbishop Stephen’s question 2000 years before he asked it, and he answers it properly.

Because, as Luke tells us, “Simeon blessed them”… Simeon passes on the Good News, he does not keep it to himself, and he gives Mary an answer to the question that the Archbishop of York was asking last night – an answer that spoke directly to the needs that Mary was going to face, rather than being an aspirational political soundbite. Because Simeon blessed them.

And what is a blessing? Why is it that in our liturgy tonight and at so many services, do we conclude with a blessing? Quite simply, it is an assurance that God is with us. And that is what Simeon and Anna understood in the most profound, ‘Emmanuel’ way possible – that God, in that vulnerable baby, was literally and incarnationally with us.

And that’s not a magic wand or a lucky charm. Simeon is prophetically very clear about that, warning Mary that a sword will pierce her soul, which – indeed – it will on Good Friday, as she watches her son die a criminal’s ugly death. And the sword will linger around her soul at other challenging and painful moments during Jesus’ life, as the narrative of the gospels makes abundantly clear. This ‘blessing’ does not wipe out the challenges and the pains of real life for Mary – and nor does it wipe them out for you or for me, or for that mother facing the horrors of a breadline existence who spoke with Archbishop Stephen.

But that’s OK. It’s not God’s job to alleviate poverty, just as it was not God’s job to address the Roman occupiers’ attempts at a criminal justice system. That’s our task. The blessing of the Incarnation, which we have celebrated these forty days since Christmas, the blessing that Simeon and Anna recognised is that, while we live in a world of imperfection and injustice, God walks this world with us, understands – first-hand – our pain, and shows us that pain and death do not get the last word, and that Good Friday will be followed by Easter Day.

And if, by some chance, you’d never noticed this before – whether you are a first-time visitor to church, or whether, like some clergy, church musicians, and elderly figures in the gospels – if you’d not realised the full nature of God’s blessing, then I hope that, in the full spirit of Christmastide, tonight, indeed, will be that ‘one “And our eyes at last shall see him moment”’ for which, as Sarah MacDonald so rightly said, we all long. Amen.

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Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Readings: 1 Samuel 3. 1–20; 1 Corinthians 14. 12–20

Date: 28 January 2024, The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany – Septuagesima (BCP)

Shortly before the voters in Iowa took to the polls, a political video appeared on YouTube and has been widely circulated. Showing photos of Donald Trump from throughout his life, a lofty voice proclaims that, “On June 14th, 1946, God looked down on his planned paradise and said I need a caretaker… so God gave us Trump.”

Whether or not Mr Trump proves to be victorious in the election this coming November, there is no doubt, that despite his multiple marriages, his complex relationship with what most of us would call ‘truth’, and allegations of behaviour which would appear to be far from standards championed in the pages of the Bible, Trump is beloved of American fundamentalist Christians, whose significance as part of the US electorate cannot be understated.

While British politics has tended not to make messianic claims for its leaders, that does not mean that fundamentalism, if not of a religious kind, is entirely absent from our own political system. Some would argue that it was a particular kind of economic fundamentalism that brought about the notoriety and the downfall of the remarkably brief administration of Liz Truss.

And even if political life in Britain is not touched by the kind of religious extremism and fundamentalism that is pervasive in the United States, our church life certainly is, as is manifest around the evermore increasingly divisive debates around human sexuality, and whether or not any kind of prayers can be uttered in the buildings of the Church of England for those who are in same-sex partnerships.

But the hard truth is that the current debates and divisions in the church are not, really, about human sexuality. While that may be the presenting issue, at the heart of this deep and acrimonious division is what St Paul, in our second reading, calls ‘the power to interpret’, and about the manner in which we understand the authority of sacred Scripture.

For in that reading we just heard, Paul is concerned about a deep division in the Corinthian community around the question of authority within the church, as manifested in the ‘spiritual gift’ of speaking in tongues.

Now this is a charism or a blessing which has never been part of my own spiritual tradition, and it is not one to which I am very drawn. But I fully recognise that for some people it is a valuable and beautiful part of their prayer life. But in Corinth, those who possessed this gift were using it as a basis to claim a particular authority in the church community in a manner which could not be sustain any intellectual challenge or discussion, and which was therefore being destructive to the life of the church. Which is why, as the great apostle says with some force, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others… than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

And, in a manner analogous to the situation in the Corinthian church, many centuries before Jesus of Nazareth, the early chapters of 1 Samuel also show us the need to allow an intellectually and spiritually honest approach to encountering God to triumph.

For the young Samuel has a night-time encounter with the word of the Lord. God shares with him his deep unhappiness with the corruption of the temple over which Eli and his two sons have presided. But with the coming of Samuel, who, unlike his guardian’s family, is possessed of intellectual honesty in his faith, God announces that he intends to act – to act in a manner which will build up the people of God and not diminish them.

In short, our readings this evening alert us to the dangers created by those whose claims of authority, especially religious authority, are based on fundamentalisms that cannot be subject to challenge by what Paul calls ‘the mind’ as well by ‘the spirit’. And those dangers are increasingly visible across the face of the world.

Professor James Walters, the Director of the Faith Centre at the London School of Economics, wrote an article earlier this month about the place of religion in the current conflict in the Middle East. He says:

What I have seen on numerous trips to Israel and Palestine is an intensification of powerful religious imaginaries that are simply not understood or taken seriously in the West. Liberals talk about a two-state solution…The Right talks about terrorism in terms reminiscent of the disastrous post-9/11 interventions…the Left has adopted a lens of racism and colonialism that continually fails to encompass the complexities of what is happening.

[But, asks Professor Walters], who will talk about religion? Who will open a Bible and discover that land and statehood are not purely secular concepts but embedded in Judeo-Christian history? Who will read of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey in the Qur’an and learn of Jerusalem’s profound significance to the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims? Who will actually pay attention to what people on the ground are saying about God and the promises they believe God has made to them? These will be the people who break through this miserable, hate-fuelled conflict that no side is able to win.

The state of God’s world and the state of God’s church demand a religious literacy and integrity that is sadly lacking, both within and beyond the confines of the Church of God. The desire for what Paul called ‘spiritual gifts’ – and, more importantly, the perceived authority which those who possess such gifts so often claim – this desire can bring with it the danger of division, of distrust, of dehumanization, and of downright hatred and violence.

Eli, the keeper of God’s temple in Shiloh, for all his failings, was gracious enough to advise the young Samuel that when he heard God calling in the night, he should reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’. Both in many stories in the pages of the Bible, let alone in the centuries of history that have succeeded it, we find the opposite sentiment, as people make unfounded claims of authority that say, in essence, ‘Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking’.

Paul saw the dangers of this in the setting of the Corinthian church, but his words speak across cultures, ethnicities, faith communities, let alone across history. For we – the people of God – we are called to build up the church and not tear it apart. And that’s not because the Church of God has a value intrinsic to itself – it is because we who are the church, our vocation is to try and help build up the world, which is so good at tearing itself apart with fundamentalist ideologies, whether economic, political or religious.

And so, when it comes to matters of faith, let alone matters of politics, economics or any other global concern, do not let Paul’s plea be ignored when you open your Bible, your news website or paper, your bank statement, your school report, or anything else which impacts and relates to your life in God’s world and God’s church: Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. Amen.

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Matins attended by the Courts of Justice – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Matins attended by the Courts of Justice

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date: 8 October 2023,  The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity 

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;

break forth, O mountains, into singing!

For the Lord has comforted his people,

and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

 

On, or just before, 24 February, Cecilia Hardy was brutally stabbed just around the corner from Hungate, by the River Foss, about five minutes’ walk from this glorious cathedral church. A widow of limited means, she had what I think was probably the misfortune not to be killed outright, but spent two weeks on her deathbed almost certainly in considerable pain, before succumbing to her injuries in mid-March.

Such investigation of her death as took place, entirely conducted by men, concluded that the likely killer – one John Milner – had been acting in self-defence, although his immediate flight from the city might suggest that such a notion was not one on which the killer himself was relying. However, no record exists of his capture or of any subsequent trial that might suggest the late Ms Hardy ever received justice.

Lest you feel that I recount the sorry facts about this murder in order to score a point about the inadequacies of the legal system, I should assure those of you with any responsibility for the administration of justice in or around this great city of York that you are off the hook. Cecilia’s life was taken… in 1375.

That I am able to recount the sorry and unfinished tale of her murder is due to a remarkable and superbly produced website that has just been renovated and relaunched by the University of Cambridge. Entitled Medieval Murder Map, it features a selection of 14th Century coroners’ records from the cities of York, London and Oxford, and gives a fascinating if rather gory lens into the nature of life, death and justice, in an era when sheriffs were more than just ceremonial, the judiciary, as we know it, was only just beginning to evolve, and a professional police force was still nearly four centuries in the future.

And Jesus said, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Which, in truth, is how we know who might have killed Cecilia Hardy, even if we do not know what became of the murderer. For it was because of the jurors gathered together by the coroner, drawn – as was then the custom – from the four nearest parishes around this sudden death: St Mary in Layerthorpe, St Cuthbert in Peaseholme Green, and St Andrew and St John the Baptist both of the city of York – it was those medieval jurors who swore on their ‘sacred oath’ that it was John Milner had killed this poor widow.

In the 14th Century jurors were, inevitably, all men – something which, of course, is obviously not the case in our own era. But that being said, they were drawn from a proper cross-section of the community on which they were called to sit in judgement.

And what is equally, and in some ways even more important, is that the local community was not merely involved in delivering the verdicts of coroners’ courts of their day – more often than not, it was also the local community that was involved in the first response to the discovery of a crime, including attempts to apprehend those responsible, through what was known as raising a ‘hue and cry’.

The Murder Map website describes this process as ‘a combination of a 999 call, police sirens, and a collective hunt for the criminal’, and it was nothing short of a legal obligation laid on all of the king’s subjects (women as well as men) by Edward I some ninety years before Cecilia Hardy met her sorry end.

All of which reminds us that, although today, in the majesty of this vast and splendid cathedral, we are welcoming such important people as solicitors, barristers (both juniors and silks), magistrates, coroners, district, tribunal and circuit judges, High Court Judges, and Justices of Appeal – each and every one of them highly trained in legal matters, and almost all of them salaried professionals – despite the fact that today’s service acknowledges a most necessary reality that the administration of the law and the maintenance of peaceful society is now, rightly, in the hands of experts – all of this reminds us that the upholding of what was once called The King’s Peace is a matter for us all – a matter for all of God’s children, and, indeed, a matter for God himself – which is why the prophet demands of us to

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!

 For, says the prophet, the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones  – compassion even on the like of poor Cecilia Hardy, and on the victims of the crimes perpetrated in this city and region over the centuries.

Now the prophet in our first reading was addressing a rather bigger issue than the murder of one poor and probably abused woman. The prophet was addressing the lot of the entire community – the community which he understood as being ‘the people of God’ – the Israelite people of Judah and Jerusalem. And the Israelites had – collectively –suffered something which, from both a religious and a sociological or political perspective, was even worse than murder.

For in 587BC, the army of King Nebuchadnezzar had sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple (which, in modern-day terms was more like destroying Buckingham Palace or the White House than even destroying York Minster), and carried everyone of prominence into a cruel exile in Babylon. And while we look on with horror at the appalling violence in and around Gaza unfolding in these last 24 hours, the events of the Sixth Century before the birth of Jesus represented something of far greater significance than the recent uprising by Hamas.

 For the Temple was understood – literally – as God’s dwelling place on planet Earth, and with its destruction an entire, vast community of people was effectively destroyed, with everyone of importance scattered into an exile that would, with a modern lens, utterly breach the Fourth Geneva Convention’s demands about the resettlement of a resident population. And, most importantly, to the Israelites, it appeared that not only had justice utterly and completely collapsed, but that the covenant relationship with God on which any notion of justice could be conceived had been irreparably, totally and permanently rendered null and void.

But, eventually, help was at hand – and it came from a most unlikely source. Because any study of any period of history tells us that no nation remains a super-power for ever – and after some fifty years, the Persians, under the leadership of their King, Cyrus, crushed the Babylonians and became the dominant force across the Middle East. And King Cyrus – whom this Israelite prophet very remarkably calls God’s shepherd, gentile though he was – Cyrus allowed and even encouraged this displaced community to return home, to rebuild the Temple, and to become once again the people which God had called and created them to be. Which is why, in our first reading, we hear him shout out with such excitement:

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;

break forth, O mountains, into singing!

For the Lord has comforted his people,

and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

For to the prophet and his people, justice had been delivered – justice had been delivered to an entire people. And such is the scale of God’s justice, that it is newsworthy not just for the Israelites, but it is to serve as a ‘signal’ to all ‘the peoples’, and be a cause of joy that will make the very mountains break into song.

And then, some 600 years later, we find the bar of God’s justice raised ever higher, as Jesus sets out his vision for a renewed, God-centered community of people in the text we call the Sermon on the Mount. For we are told – in words that can seem really quite unsettling – we are told that what humans cover up will be uncovered; that secrets will be made known; that words uttered in darkness will be made light; that what is whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.

The words are startling, because there are many people here this morning, including both lawyers and clergy, who are expected to respect and keep a confidence. The act of sacramental confession, after all, would be nonsensical if a priest were to shout the sinful secrets imparted to him or her from the rooftops!

But Jesus shocks his hearers by reminding them that if our society, our communities, if all of God’s people lived a life fully inspired by and focused on the ways of God, we would not need secrets.

Not only would no court ever sit in camera again, but we would not need courts at all. And in the Christ-like world we sometimes call God’s Kingdom – that world for which we pray day by day in the most well-known prayer of all – when that world comes fully into being, there will no longer be an annual legal service. For if we all lived truly Christ-like lives, the North Eastern Circuit, with all His Majesty’s judges, magistrates and all the members of the legal profession would be joyously redundant.

But until that day dawns, as we mark the start of a new legal year, we must turn to God to pray for those gathered here in their various offices, and to thank God for their vocation and commitment – a vocation and commitment exercised as far as I can see in ever more hard-pressed and misunderstood circumstances which potentially undermine not just the professions represented here this morning, but which undermine the communities they are called to serve. For justice is not the preserve of those whose vocation it is to administer it – justice is at the very heart of the children of God.

And so each time we dare to use the words which Jesus gave us, each time we have the audacity to pray ‘thy kingdom come’, we must recognize that the justice which is The King’s Peace, and all that it takes to bring that to being and to maintain it – that justice is not merely the prerogative of our special guests gathered here this morning. It is a God-given calling that rests – and which has always rested – upon the shoulders of us all.

When poor Cecilia Hardy met her end, the community around her, let alone the Sherriff, let alone Edward III whose long reign was nearing its end when she died – the interwoven communities of York and of England knew that justice demanded the commitment and participation of everyone – and in the last 648 years, despite the professionalization of the legal system, that truth remains and endures.

So –  as we prayerfully cheer on those gathered here at the start of this new legal year, and if we truly believe that there must – always – be justice for Cecilia Hardy, her forebears and her successors, then we must all play our part in striving to bring unity to communities divided by the suspicion, envy and distrust that stem from secrets muttered in the dark; we must seek to bring the comfort and compassion of which the prophet spoke so movingly to all of God’s children.

For that, and nothing less, is what is needed if the heavens and the earth are truly ever to sing for joy. Amen.

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Sermon for the Installation of Timothy Goode – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: The Installation of Canon Revd Timothy Goode 

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean 

Date: 9 September 2023

But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation

About ten years ago, when I was a parish priest in Northamptonshire, our bishop organized a vast diocesan conference. To keep costs as low as possible, it was scheduled for December. The pressure of carol services and Christmas preparations make Advent one of the busiest – and most stressful – seasons for clergy, and I imagine that the conference centre charges were probably reduced to reflect this.

Racing around my rectory as I packed and got ready to be absent for three whole days and nights, I remembered that I needed to change my voicemail greeting. I had just purchased a new, all-singing, all-dancing phone, which I found absurdly hard to programme. It took me an infuriatingly long time to work out how to change my greeting message, and, with fast-rising blood pressure, I was just recording it when, with very unhelpful timing, the doorbell rang!

Uttering a loud, four-letter word, I slammed down the phone and went to the door to sign for a registered letter. Now – of course – I returned to my desk, and re-recorded the announcement that I was going to be away for a few days, using calm and appropriate language that did not reflect how I was actually feeling… and then I went off to the Hayes Conference Centre in Derbyshire – known to many, many Church of England clergy – where, to my delight, I enjoyed a surprisingly uplifting and engaging conference.

At least, I was enjoying myself until the last morning, when I received a text in capital letters from my organist, asking me what on earth I thought I’d done with my answering machine.

For – in my haste and my stress, and my unfamiliarity with an overly complicated gadget – I had failed to hit the ‘save’ button, and rather than transmitting the calm, demure message that was my final attempt to master this technology, my abrupt, four-letter expletive had been greeting every caller to the Rectory since I had departed some 72 hours previously.

So be ye holy in all manner of conversation…

But, of course, not all four-letter words are bad. Not all four-letter words are harmful or destructive. There are times when the right four-letter word can change things for the better – indeed, there are times when a four-letter word can make for a truly ‘holy’ conversation – just as we heard tell in our second reading.

The scene, of course, is Easter morning. It’s the story of Jesus’ resurrection. But – slightly annoyingly – it is only one half of Saint John’s account of Easter morning. What we heard was the second half of a story – a story of which the first half really hadn’t gone that well…

‘Early on the first day of the week’, we are told, Mary comes to Jesus’ tomb – and she immediately knows that something is up, because the stone had been ‘removed from the tomb’. So she goes and gets Peter and John, telling them that Jesus’ body has been stolen, and she doesn’t know where it now is.

And, as you doubtless recall, the two apostles, the two leading figures of Jesus’ former company of friends and followers, these two men, who clearly understand themselves as being in some way ‘in charge’ – they go into the tomb. And we are told that at least one of them ‘saw and believed’ – saw and believed, even though, at that point, they didn’t understand the Hebrew Scriptures that pointed to this moment.

But what did they do? What did these two supposedly great leaders of God’s people do at this turning point in the history of God’s love for the world?

They went home. Perhaps they wanted their breakfast, or perhaps they just went back to bed. We don’t know – but they didn’t even bother to say anything to Mary. They just left.

But not Mary. That’s not good enough for Mary. Mary clearly knows that something ought to be said and done. She cannot leave the story – the story, so she thinks, of the dead Jesus – she cannot leave the story alone.

And it remains the story, so she thinks, of the dead Jesus, until… until, by the uttering of what has proved to be the most important four-letter word in the history of the world, until the risen and anything-but-dead Christ calls her by name – “Mary”, and, with that four-letter word, commissions her to go and have the ultimate ‘holy conversation’.

And thus, as she becomes the apostle to the apostles, it falls to Mary to announce to the disciples, and – through them – to announce even to us, ‘I have seen the Lord’. And that’s when it all really begins.

But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation

Throughout this service, we have been prodded by holy Scripture – prodded to have the right kind of conversations. Conversations which Peter, in that letter which formed the text for Wesley’s beloved anthem that we just heard, a letter written to some early Christians who needed real encouragement in the face of persecution – conversations which Peter calls ‘holy’. And something which is ‘holy’, of course, is simply something set apart for a divine purpose or function or use.

So in our first reading, at the foot of Sinai, God is having a holy conversation with Moses, to enable to Moses to have a holy conversation with the Israelites. God is setting Moses up for what, in our own time, Tim, we might call ‘congregational discipleship and nurture’. For God wants… God needs the people of Israel to be the ambassadors of a good news that they eventually will come to realize is of significance for all God’s children.

And, in the wake of the staggeringly hopeless failure by Peter and John to engage in any conversation at all about the most significant event to have happened since the very creation of the world, mirroring the events of Sinai so many centuries earlier, Jesus engages Mary in ‘holy conversation’. Starting with one, vital, life-changing four-letter word, Jesus commissions Mary to a ‘holy conversation’ that is going to awaken Peter and John and the other nine of them out of their apathy, and which is going to lead to the discipling and nurturing of… well, of the whole world.

Last November, at the end of my own service of installation here, Archbishop Stephen offered me and the Chapter (those of us with the ultimate responsibility for the life of this cathedral and metropolitical church) he offered us a charge. Acknowledging the vast amount of hurt and confusion there is in the world today, he told us – he mandated us  – to, ‘Keep the conversation going, so that we may talk about the things of God’.

As our new Canon for Congregational Discipleship and Nurture, Tim, I rejoice that you have come amongst us to help us in this task. For, in a place as vast, as complex, and as fast-moving as York Minster, you will find all too quickly, that what Saint Peter thought of as ‘holy conversation’ can sometimes be really quite elusive, set, as it must be, in the context of the all too necessary, but absolutely secondary, distractions of strategic reviews, and tourism and marketing plans, and architectural protocols, and finance spreadsheets, and everything else that is an unavoidable part of the management of a substantial institution such as this.

So, as the one specifically called to the discipleship and nurture of the people of God in this place, Tim, on behalf of us all, I beg you to keep us holy ‘in all manner of conversation’. And you can even use the odd four-letter word, if you need to! Amen.

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You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you… – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Date: 21 May 2023  4.00pm

 

On the Monday after Christmas in 2020, a Texan member of the House of Representatives called Louie Gohmert sued the then Vice-President of the United States in the District Court of East Texas. If his Wikipedia entry is correct, Gohmert has compared Barack Obama to Hitler, claimed that Hilary Clinton is ‘mentally challenged’, and asserted that homosexuality is validly compared to bestiality.

Described in a Texan newspaper as ‘a precursor to Donald Trump’s brand of populist, establishment-bucking conservatism that delights in offending progressives and makes no apologies for spreading misinformation’ Gohmert sought to persuade a federal judge that Mike Pence had the sole right to decide which electoral votes he would accept in the arcane process of the electoral college – the body which certifies the winner of a US presidential election.

Former congressman Gohmert, unsurprisingly, wanted Pence to be able to disregard votes from some states which had cast their lot for Joe Biden, and thus certify that Donald Trump had, in fact, won the 2020 US general election. According to the former Vice-President’s memoir, “So help me God”, published last November, Trump called Pence to demand that he put out a press statement in support of Gohmert’s legal challenge – a position that Pence did not want to adopt.

In the course of the phone call, Trump demanded of his Veep, “if it gives you…power, why would you oppose it?” And on the day that Pence’s autobiography was published, a political analyst at CNN seized on this question, stating:

If you had only one quote to understand Trump and how he views the world, that would be a pretty good one. The only thing that matters to Trump is power – and how to wield it. He views the world as a relentless fight for power and control. The winners are the people who seize power – no matter the cost. There is no “right” in Trump’s worldview. There’s only what you can do – and who can try to stop you.

For, as Jesus said, You will receive power […..] when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…

Which, when viewed from the Trumpian lens I have just described, must have been a bit bewildering for the eleven people whose names we heard read in our first lesson. That is, if you can even remember who it is that I am talking about.

I preached my first ever sermon during my first year of theological college, almost precisely thirty years ago. The gospel for the Sunday morning in question was Matthew’s account of Jesus calling The Twelve, and I made myself rather unpopular with my fellow students, by asking as many of them as I could if they could manage to name all twelve of the apostles. Not one of them could – and I wouldn’t mind betting that, if you refrain from looking at page seven of this morning’s order of service, you might struggle to give me all the names which were just read out. And that is partly because, if we are honest, many of them are remarkably obscure.

Even though the book from which that reading was taken is called the Acts of the Apostles, eight of the eleven names we just heard are literally not mentioned again in the entire book – that was their only appearance. From this point onwards, other than non-biblical pious (but historically suspect) tradition, we know nothing more at all of Andrew, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, or Judas son of James. And nor will we hear anything more of Matthias, on whom the lot will fall in eleven verses time, when he is elected to bring the number of apostolic leaders back to that symbolic twelve. Nine people whom, according to Jesus, ‘will receive power’, but who fade into immediate obscurity after Acts chapter one, verse thireen.

Even for the ring-leaders – those whose names who are not obscure – even for Peter, James and John, the working out of this ‘power’ is curious, to put it mildly. John dies in homeless exile on a small and insignificant Greek island, while the others, so we believe, are put to death because of their faith. And before they reach the point of martyrdom, much of Acts depicts years of constant clashing with leaders, governors and rulers, as Peter and then Paul are punished, beaten and imprisoned. Their actual martyrdoms are not described, but Acts ends with Paul under house arrest, imminently expecting a trial and a capital sentence.

And yet, promises Jesus, ‘you will receiver power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you’. But whatever kind of power Jesus means, it is certainly not the kind of power that is compatible with Mr Trump, and his now famous boast from the 2016 election campaign, when he said that he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody’ without losing any voters.

It is not the kind of power that unleashes a senseless and evil war on a neighbouring country that has now lasted 452 days. It is not the kind of power that probably attracts even more moderate and conventional political leaders to seek high office, and it is not the kind of power one expects to find being wielded in a board room of any profit-distributing company or organisation.

If you want an insight into how the story continues, the very next portion of scripture we heard, from 1 Peter, shows just how ‘powerful’ a group or groups of Christians are nearer the end of the first century, in what we would now call modern-day Turkey. The recipients of this letter traditionally ascribed to St Peter are experiencing a ‘fiery ordeal’, and being ‘reviled for the name of Christ’, and the author of the letter is reminding them that ‘your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering…’

It is, perhaps, enough to make you wonder what that community of believers, both apostles, the ‘certain women’, and Jesus’ brothers were praying for, in that ten-day period between the Ascension and the actual coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. And therefore, perhaps, this might be a wake-up call for us to work out what it is that we should be praying for – praying for at all times, and perhaps most particularly as we journey through these last days of Eastertide in the build-up to Pentecost.

That first reading from Acts gives us a clue in its opening that the apostles are not thinking along the right lines, when their final question – the last thing they ever get to say to Jesus – is a question about political power: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The fact that it is in his rebuke to this inappropriate question that Jesus talks about how they will receive power should give us the clue that Jesus means something really rather different.

But it is a difference the Church has always been so slow to understand. We would be far from honest if we failed to acknowledge how often throughout history the church has got it wrong. While, here in York, we celebrate Constantine’s accession as Roman emperor, there are some that feel that ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under that great emperor, the church’s love of power has been too cozy and too self-serving.

Major moments in history, such as the Crusades, or the slowness of the English Church to condemn slavery and push for its abolition, would suggest a love of secular power that has been unhealthy. But it is not just an historic problem. If you were listening to Radio Four earlier this very morning, you will have heard one person reflecting on the symbolism of the Coronation and the role of the Church, who said, “I did wonder if Charles III should have put the crown on Justin’s head, instead.”

If we want a clue to what Jesus means when he promises ‘power’ to his followers, we can find it in Luke’s very first use of the word, way back in the first chapter of his gospel, when the archangel Gabriel tells that frightened young woman that ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow you’.

For the result of that use of divine power is to turn Mary’s life upside down, not by making her rich or powerful – her life is turned upside down by becoming an unmarried pregnant woman, who gives birth in a stable, and who has to flee to Egypt for the safety of her baby – a baby, who when he grows up himself shows an utter lack of interest in riches or political power, and dies the death of a common criminal, deserted by all his friends.

And the power of God that will come up on the apostles on the Day of Pentecost shows itself at its best as they talk ever the more persuasively of a God of forgiveness, a God of new life, a God of love. Nothing in the power of the Holy Spirit will make them rich or famous. Nothing about the power that will come upon them will make them able to send armies into battle or will elections.

For despite the sickening coziness that exists between president Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, or the reliance of the American hard right on fundamentalist evangelicals, the power which Jesus promises is not power that a Putin or a Trump can recognize or understand. And it was, perhaps, not the power for which the apostles were praying during those ten days in they spent in the upper room, as they wondered what would happen next. For it is very true that we should be careful what we pray for.

But the power Jesus offered them and offers us is the only power that will, to quote a prayer from the end of this service, ‘help us to live the good news we proclaim’ – it is the only power that can ‘strengthen [us] to proclaim the word and works of God’.

And the amazing story of the Acts of the Apostles is that those hapless peasant fishermen and their mates, those first disciples who were so slow to learn, who got it wrong so often, who fled when their leader was arrested, and whose last words to him were still misplaced…

Hopeless though they were – and hopeless as we so often are – they discovered that when they spoke of God’s Word, of God’s works and of God’s love, they could change the world – as we can we. And it simply doesn’t get any better than that! Amen.

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Very truly, I tell you…. , The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  07 May 2023  11.00am

My Sunday newspaper has, I think, some twenty articles about yesterday’s Coronation. Because I read it online, I can’t tell you how many pages of print this represents, but it is a vast amount of what were once called ‘column inches’ about one single event. Now, I’m an Observer and Guardian reader, and therefore several of the articles were critical of the monarchy rather than in praise of it (which is not an outlook with which I happen to agree).

I suspect papers that are more ‘pro-establishment’ may well have devoted even more space to yesterday’s ‘big event’. And even if you are staunchly in favour of the royal family, you may have found the amount of press and media coverage of the Coronation just a little bit overwhelming.

If that is the case, you might prefer to turn your attention to our country’s long-running satirical magazine Private Eye, which dealt with the Coronation very succinctly on its recent front cover. Lacking its customary photo and humorous caption, in bold letters it simply asserted what it felt were the bare facts about what happened yesterday morning: Man in hat sits on chair.

And, in a ceremony which lasted almost two hours, if you were not paying close attention to the proceedings, you might well think that this was an accurate, albeit brief, description of what took place: man in hat sits on chair.

But the one who believes in me…will do greater works than these…

…which must have been a rather strange sentiment for the Christians who lived in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, in the latter part of the first century. For it was to these followers of Jesus, collectively referred to in the NRSV translation as ‘the exiles of the Dispersion’, that the so-called First Letter of Peter is addressed.

1 Peter is not an entirely straight-forward document, and there is a wide range of scholarly opinion about it, including whether or not it was actually written by Simon Peter himself. But what is not in doubt is that its recipients were outcasts. To quote from the passage we just heard, it could be said of them that they, ‘were not a people’.

These early followers of Jesus in what is now modern-day Turkey were (to use a different translation) ‘foreigners’ – foreigners in a strange land, or, at best, ‘resident aliens’. And – just as is the case in too many places across the world today – these people paid a heavy price for allowing their faith to dictate how they lived their daily lives. They were subject to discrimination and persecution and made to live on the margins of their society.

So, if the words of the Fourth Gospel had managed to reach this part of the Roman Empire by the time 1 Peter was written, the recipients might just have wondered how on earth they could do the works that Jesus did, let alone undertake ‘greater works than these’. For, surely, it is a remarkable statement that anyone – in any context or era at all – that anyone could do something greater than Jesus. Even for those who have good reason to be confident about they way they live their lives, the very notion reeks of arrogance. And, for these excluded and marginalized Christians of Asia Minor, the sentiment would, surely, be utterly bewildering.

But, as we heard read, this small and hard-pressed community who once ‘were not a people’, discover that, in fact something has happened and that ‘now [they] are God’s people’.

For the one who believes in me…will do greater works than these…

And that must also have been fairly bewildering for the first disciples of Jesus who heard those words uttered on the very lips of Jesus himself. Especially when you look at this passage in its proper context. For, despite this now being the fifth Sunday of Eastertide, our gospel reading takes us right back to the night of Maundy Thursday – it takes to no lesser a place than the Last Supper. And that is a curious context indeed to be suggesting that any of Jesus’ disciples could aspire to any kind of work or deed that might attract a label to do with greatness.

For just a few verses earlier, Judas Iscariot has gone out into the deep darkness of that night of nights to betray Jesus to the Jewish authorities. And, as if that was not bad enough, in response to Simon Peter’s claim that he would lay down his life for Jesus, his Lord and master has told him bluntly that, in fact, before the cock crows, ‘you will have denied me three times’.

But yet, for all that failure, for all that cowardice, for all that sinfulness and betrayal, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do [says Jesus] and, in fact, will do greater works than these…

How can this be? And – while we are asking some searching questions – was Private Eye correct? Was yesterday, for all its pomp and ceremony, was yesterday’s great event simply a case that a man in hat sits on a chair?

Those are not flippant questions, and nor are they irrelevant questions. For we have no business being in church this morning if we – who claim to be followers of Jesus – if we are not prepared to aspire to the seemingly impossible challenge of undertaking greater works than Jesus himself.

And in an age where not everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a monarchist, it is also neither flippant or irrelevant for us to work out why yesterday’s great liturgy is, in fact, more than just man in hat sits on a chair. Especially as the two questions share an answer that is rooted – deeply rooted – in the Scriptures that we have just heard read.

Speaking just over three hours before the start of the Coronation service, in the Thought for the Day slot on Radio Four, the Archbishop of Canterbury reminded those listening that the Coronation was designed to remind us of a three-way promise involving the King, involving God, and involving ‘the people’ – in other words, involving us.

He spoke of the burdens of expectation that we all carry, whatever our position in life, and of our need of each other – our need of being able to share the burdens that are laid upon us. For, said Archbishop Justin, it is then that ‘we open up the possibility that together we may do something much stronger, much bigger, and much more significant than we would ever do alone’. It is then, to speak the language of this morning’s gospel, that we might aspire to what Jesus calls ‘greater works’.

Which points us towards the heart of the much commented upon innovation in yesterday’s liturgy that saw the Archbishop of Canterbury offer everyone who wished to do so the opportunity to ‘pay true allegiance’ to King Charles.

In the wake of some sharply critical comments about this aspect of the service, Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, also reflected on the imminent Coronation a little earlier this past week, again in a Thought for the Day, making the point that pledging loyalty is somewhat counter-cultural in an age which sets so much value on personal autonomy.

He made the point that what was demanded of King Charles (and freely given by him) was a loyalty very much larger than anything being asked of us in return. “It’s going to be awesome,” he said, “to watch a person pledging himself wholly to the well-being of nation and commonwealth. He’s entrusting his future to people he doesn’t know amid events he can’t control.” Which, as Sam Wells explained, is a statement of faith – “of faith in something beyond our own integrity and autonomy.”

And that is the key both to the importance of yesterday’s Coronation, and also to understanding the call to do ‘greater works than these’. For, if we are to live out Jesus’ challenge, it is not something we can do as individuals, bound up simply in our own sense of autonomy. For the Christian, we are called to live as part of that great community we call the Body of Christ – of which those of us gathered here this morning are a small part – we are called to live as a community dependent on and sustained by God the Holy Trinity.

For, on the night before his death, Jesus explains that, in the wake of death and resurrection, he will go to the Father, who will send the Spirit on his disciples and bring to birth what we call the Church. And, empowered by the Spirit, and working as the Body of Christ, nothing will or can hinder the Good News – not betrayal, not denial, not desertion, not persecution. If we live out lives faithful to God in community, nothing should stop us doing these greater works to which Jesus encourages his followers.

We see this so very clearly in today’s readings. We see it in the story of Stephen the first martyr in our opening reading; we see it promised to the disciples in the gospel; and we hear it explained to the hard-pressed Christian communities of Asia Minor – people who felt of no account and were treated as such, but who were nevertheless called to be living stones of a spiritual community that could ‘proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness’. A community which has rediscovered that being bound together in service, they have become nothing less than being God’s people.

Which is why yesterday, of course, was about so much more than man in hat sits on chair. Whatever anyone’s views about hereditary monarchy, you would have to be stubborn in the extreme not to recognize that yesterday was a celebration of community, loyalty and service – the service of a King, the service of a myriad of overlapping communities that make up this nation and the Commonwealth, and the loving and loyal service of a God who shows us how to live for others principally through the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

That was the example which gave Jesus’ disciples the reason not to let their hearts be troubled; which gave Stephen the first martyr hope as he was stoned to death; which allowed  the dispersed, ‘alien’ Christians who received the first letter of Saint Peter to understand that they were not nobodys but God’s own people. And, as I hope was apparent yesterday, this was the example which, without any doubt, sits deep in the heart of King Charles III, calling him to a service and a loyalty that, despite all the trappings of sovereignty, sacrifices autonomy on the altar of loving service in community.

And so, this morning, we are challenged to take this example to our own hearts, and recognize our own membership of that chosen race… that royal priesthood… that holy nation and remember that we are God’s own people, called to proclaim light in the dark places of the world.

For there are just as many marginalized and persecuted peoples – Christians and plenty of others – as there were in first century Asia Minor when 1 Peter was written. And the victims of persecution and discrimination are the victims of those who chose to put personal autonomy in place of community. Which is why we should rejoice that whether you believe in hereditary monarch or not, the man in the hat sits on the chair to remind us not of his own autonomy and importance, but to point us to something far, far greater – something inseparable from the call of the God who loves us through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday into Easter and on to Pentecost.

And if we pledge our allegiance not just to king or community but to this loving and extraordinary God, then, without doubt, as Jesus said, we can and we will do ‘greater works than these’. Amen.

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