Sermon preached on the third Sunday of Lent (11 March 2012) by The Reverend Dominic Barrington, Rector, St Peter and St Paul, Kettering

Today at the Cathedral View More
7:30am Morning Prayer
8:00am Eucharist
8:30am Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Choral Evensong

Sermon preached on the third Sunday of Lent (11 March 2012) by The Reverend Dominic Barrington, Rector, St Peter and St Paul, Kettering

The Reverend Dominic Barrington looks at Christian mission and Christian ministry, believing: 'I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.'

As you may well be aware, this great cathedral church, amongst its many and varied ministries, created and hosts the St Paul’s Institute – a body which exists, so its website tell us, to foster an informed Christian response to the most urgent ethical spiritual issues of our times: financial integrity, economic theory, and the meaning of the common good.

Thus blessed by lectures and articles from some of the country’s most wise and learned economists, financiers and theologians, it is, perhaps, rash of me to try and compete – but I am going to do so anyway, by asking if those of you gathered here for Sunday evensong on this Third Sunday of Lent happen to know the difference between capitalism and communism? Under capitalism, man exploits man – but under communism, it’s the other way round.

There has, of course, been much talk of capitalism and the exploitation that it brings around this hallowed building in recent months, and not particularly because of the remarkable work of the Institute. For the words ‘corporate greed’ ring through the speeches and banners of protests across the globe. After huge bail-outs and in the face of unemployment, privatization and austerity, we still see profits for the rich on the increase.

And I am sure that, like those who joined the Occupy movement, whose words I was just quoting, we, too, would like to see A future free from austerity, growing inequality, unemployment, tax injustice and a political elite who ignores its citizens.

In the film Miss Congeniality, when a rather clumsy and awkward American cop played by Sandra Bullock has to go undercover to take part in a Miss World context, the grinning and fawning presenter of the final of the show asks each of the glamorous but seemingly vacuous beauties What is the one most important thing our society needs?, Without a moment’s hesitation, each competitor grins inanely and replies World Peace. Bullock, however, in a typical moment of mental clumsiness, forgets her undercover status and blurts out her own reply:

That would be harsher punishment for parole violators, Stan, and five seconds of shocked silence grip the proceedings, until she comes to her senses, and adds, in the nick of time, and World Peace, of course!

Because we all want world peace. And we all want a cure for cancer. And, like the leaders of Occupy London we all want A futurewhich is free from austerity, growing inequality, unemployment, tax injustice and a political elite who ignores its citizens.

That being said, of course, it’s probably true to say the Israelites of whom we heard in our first reading would have had a different take on tax injustice and on unemployment. For they were simply slaves – slaves to an increasingly harsh and demanding Pharaoh; slaves who paid no tax for they received no wages. And, in truth, they would probably have welcomed a little unemployment, for their enslavement was total, and the writer of this strand of Exodus shows us clearly in today’s portion of the book exactly how these slaves are treated simply for wanting to be allowed a little bit time off – not to put their feet up, but simply to worship their God.

But even these mistreated Israelites, I guess, would recognize that they were victims – and, let’s be frank, even bigger economic victims than most people in Britain today. Certainly, they were victims of growing inequality, and a political elite that ignores its citizens. You are lazy – said Pharaoh - lazy…Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.

In truth, there is nothing new under the sun. It is not difficult to translate those harsh words of Pharaoh, set a good 3000 years in the past, into our own age as we read the newspapers, surf the web, or listen to the Today programme, and learn of workers, particularly in the public sector, attempting to keep the supply of bricks going, as the straw is increasingly taken out of their hands. And it might gladden the hearts of some of those who, until recently, were camped outside, for it to be said quite categorically from this pulpit, just in case it might not have been said before, that Jesus was not a capitalist.

For Jesus was certainly not a capitalist, and there is no shortage of parables and other words of his which should echo loudly around the Pharoahs of today, whether in the Square Mile, Wall Street, the Kremlin, or anywhere else.

But, before we rush back outside with our banners and tents, let us remember that simple lesson of Economics 101: under capitalism, man exploits man – but under communism, it’s the other way round.

For, although the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles show the disciples living an admirably common financial life together, we should be quite clear: Jesus was not a communist. Indeed, Jesus was not an economist or a politician, and Jesus had remarkably little interest in economic theory, I suspect. In essence, Jesus believed that God had a total, 100% claim on his creation, and Jesus preached of the coming of a kingdom where this could be lived out.

To great rejoicing and acclaim, this week brought the announcement that David Ison is to be the new Dean of this great cathedral, and it was with joy that I read on its website the words of Canon Hampel, who said The Chapter and the whole cathedral community, with David at the helm, will continue to make St Paul’s a focus for Christian ministry and speak… speak of the many things that matter to people across London and beyond…

For Christian ministry and Christian mission is, indeed, made up of many things, because many things matter to people – not just the shortage of straw with which to make bricks, crippling though that can be. And if there was ever someone who understood this over-arching truth, it was the man in whose honour this church is dedicated and named, Saint Paul.

And Saint Paul is happy to make clear what an impressive character he was. He was someone who ticked all the right boxes. Educated, zealous, active and blameless. He could have championed just about any cause he chose – he could have stood shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed and enslaved Israelites. He could have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Occupiers. And, indeed, he was capable at times of making bad choices – which is why, at first, to use his own words of admission, he was a persecutor of the church.

But God helped him see a bigger picture – God helped him to see the ultimate prize, a prize even bigger than world peace, a prize bigger than a cure for cancer, a prize bigger even than the aims and hopes of the Occupy movement. And so this uniquely important saint, this saint whose patronage, and I believe whose spirit is in the very DNA of this great building, Saint Paul can say, so disarmingly:

Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that…I regard everything as loss…. I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Trees sometimes stop us seeing the wood. All of us, as individuals, and in our various communities can find that our interests become our obsessions. All of us can make claims and boasts, whether about economic theory, wealth or injustice. But the louder any boast is made – any boast, that is, except one – the louder any boast is made, the more it can become loss, not profit, because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus.

With motives that were, I am sure, admirably well intended, the Occupy Movement tried to super-impose its own boast on this Cathedral Church for several months. And it has, without doubt, been good for us and for the wider world to be reminded – and reminded in a very public manner - that in every age, there are people struggling to make bricks without straw. But this cathedral, like every church in Christendom, possesses a bigger boast that brings an even wider mission, to demonstrate to the world the surpassing value of Christ Jesus [our] Lord, set against which all else is rubbish.

As we welcome the news of Dean Ison’s appointment, and look to a new chapter in the remarkable history of this building so privileged to be named after Saint Paul, let us be encouraged in our Lenten resolve, to ensure that we allow nothing to super-impose itself on to the use of our own time, talents, money and speech. For then, like Saint Paul, we can resolve to live lives which speak to the world around us of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.