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Third Sunday of Advent: If you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it – Dean Dominic Barrington

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Title: “If you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.”

Preacher: Dean Dominic Barrington 

Date: Third Sunday of Advent 2022 11.12.22 4.00pm

Help! I need help! The good people are all gone…everyone lies to [their] neighbours; they say one thing and mean anothereveryone loves what is wrong.

Pick a headline – any headline – and you will see what I mean. If you have – or if you had – plans to visit family or friends around Christmas by train, you’ll know just what I’m talking about. The government has offered a new deal bringing ‘job security and a fair pay rise’, says its spokesman; but Mr Lynch claims that Downing Street ‘has torpedoed the talks’.

Or take another topic in the news at present… I woke up yesterday morning to find John Kerry on the Today programme talking with what you might call diplomatically measured concern about the British government’s green light for the proposed new mine in Cumbria. A subject around which there was enough equivocation to cause the Speaker of the House of Commons to suspend business earlier this past week.

Clearly, everyone lies to his neighbours.

And there was the interesting question or implicit claim by President Putin, when challenged a few days ago about his policy of attacking Ukraine’s energy structure, to which he said, “Yes, we do that. But who started it?”

Manifestly, everyone loves what is wrong…

Glance at any newspaper or current affairs website, and – no matter what your own political perspective might be – there’s a lot of bad news about. Whether you are pro-government or pro-union in your sympathies, the almost unprecedented level of industrial unrest in this country is not good news.

And world news is not much better. Quite aside of the horrors of what continues to happen in Ukraine, we see disturbing behaviour in Iran and China, and too many other countries.

Frankly, all who are wicked will keep on strutting, while everyone praises their shameless deeds. And all the while it just gets darker. Which might be why the message was sent, “if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.”

Well – do we? We are at that time of year when I and my clergy colleagues are standing up, night by night, to greet hundreds of people who flock to this building – which is itself a physical ‘word of exhortation’ – flock here for various carol services. And in two minutes, we have to share good news…

Vicky, or Maggie, or Michael, or Catriona, or I  – we have to tell people the good news that this centuries old building does, in fact, possess toilets, and they are in the aisle just over there. We have to tell people the good news that we know how to look after them in the event of a major incident, and that we can evacuate this building safely, efficiently and quickly if we need to do so. We have to tell them the good news that we take the safety and dignity of everyone – and especially of children and vulnerable adults – very seriously, which is why we ask people not to take photos or videos of our services.

But – as we do that – we also have to try and find the briefest way of reminding those who have come through these great doors of even greater Good News, because this building was built to be a reminder in stone and glass of God’s ultimate Good News for a dark world, and if people come here and not notice something, no matter how tangential or small, about this, then we have failed in our mission.

And it’s not always easy – especially when the world feels such a very dark place. It’s not always easy knowing how you can do this, especially when everyone loves what is wrong or when everyone lies to [their] neighbours or when the wicked keep on strutting – which, of course, are phrases from a slightly more modern version of Psalm 12, which we heard sung at the start of this service.

Because there are times – really rather a lot of them at the moment – when we might find ourselves crying out “Help me, Lord, for there is not one godly man [or woman] left…”

So perhaps I should tell you about Paul – Paul, and his friend Barnabas – about whom we heard in the second lesson. They’ve just rocked up in Antioch on quite a challenging mission trip. Scroll up just a few verses to the start of that chapter of Acts, and you’ll find Paul has had to confront someone whom he has called a ‘son of the devil’ and an ‘enemy of all righteousness’. And yet, when asked to give a ‘word of exhortation for the people’, he still remains capable of talking about Good News.

But – actually – this evening I’d rather tell you about someone else – about someone I met yesterday morning here in the centre of York – about someone else who really knows what it means to give a word of exhortation to the people. And, indeed, because York is really quite a small city, I’m sure some of you will know her…

Her name is Laura, and she attends services here at the Minster with some regularity, although it was not at a service that I met her. Laura has studied law, and could be earning an impressive corporate salary as a solicitor – but she isn’t. She’s worked in the charity and safeguarding area, where she most certainly could have continued to have a regular desk job with a predictable salary – but she doesn’t any longer.

You may have come across her in the remarkable deli-cum-restaurant she owns less than five minutes from the west door, The Larder Club . I can tell you first hand that the coffee and chocolate brownies she serves are superb, and the rest of the grub looked pretty good as well. But if I was simply going to plug nice cafés in this lovely city, we all know there’d be a long list.

But the Larder Club reflects not just a passion for great food and coffee. The Larder Club is a remarkable social enterprise supporting the rehabilitation of women offenders who have suffered abuse and/or mental health issues. A social enterprise rooted out of Laura’s experiences in getting to know the inmates and the governor of HMP Askham Grange, and realizing that there was a group of people who had been immersed in bad news, both as victims and perpetrators – a group of people whose lives could most definitely be changed by access to Good News – access to training, placements and possible employment.

Of course, when people like Laura go down a road like this, it is often a vulnerable and unpredictable road that lacks the safety and security that other job possibilities might have offered her. And, as I discovered from the Reverend Richard Coles, who is also a huge fan of Laura and her ministry, rising high street rents mean that the Larder Club may not see the dawn of 2023, which would be a great tragedy not just for its customers but for the vulnerable people whose rehabilitation it has championed.

The risk, of course, makes Laura’s story all the more powerful, and it was hearing that story that made an already excellent brownie and cappuccino taste even better. And it was a reminder to me that one person – just one person – can make a difference and show the world Good News.

Because that’s really what it’s all about. Whoever wrote Psalm 12 could see the bad news all around, but nevertheless remained confident that the Lord ‘will help every one from him that swelleth against him’. But God can’t do it on his own. God calls us to work in partnership – which is why God has gathered us here this evening for Choral Evensong.

And so it is that the question that was put to Paul is now being put to us – “if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” And if you need a bit of time to work out what your ‘word of exhortation might be’, you could do worse than pop into the Larder Club for a coffee, and, like me, be inspired how Laura answered that call, just like Paul, Barnabas, and the rest of the people of God before her. Amen.

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