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Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity

18th Jul 2021


Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Trinity Year B

Herod feared John , knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. 

Mark 6. 20.

 

At significance points in history the people who have made a lasting difference have been those who have challenged the vice-like grip of tyrants and the empires of will and force. We may name the English saints Thomas à Becket and Thomas More, who both challenged the naked authority of their sovereigns, Henry II and Henry VIII. Then there have been three figures in the twentieth century, who like John the Baptist have proclaimed their message of radical peace from a place of deep conscience and from prison : Mahatma Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela. Their  names will live for ever because of the way in which as single persons with singular consciences and single voices, minds and hearts, they managed to challenge the vast powers ranged against them.  They managed in their own push for human freedom despite beatings and torture and to win through. They helped the masses to acknowledge greater and abiding truths. Like lions, they held out for the greater dignity of us all humankind against the power of the oppressor.

It seems at first strange that we should include John the Baptist among these modern prophets, but he shares with them, or rather I should say they share with him, the vision of a world transformed in the likeness of its Maker. In our first reading from Amos, we learn that Amos is called to the status of prophet from his own job as a herdsman and ‘dresser of sycamore trees’. God raises before Amos a builder’s plumb line before a wall. God, holding the said plumb line, was aware that something was wrong with the society and that it was, as my Cornish father would have put it ‘out of truth’. Little Amos is called to put it right, and how might Ghandi, Bonhoeffer and Mandela have felt themselves to be so ‘little’ in relation to the titanic struggles to which they were severally bound. But they responded, as did Amos to a deeper call to a more profound response in the longing for a better world. 

In today’s Gospel reading, setting out the drama leading to the beheading of John the Baptist, we know that John has been outspoken about King Herod concerning the latter’s marriage to his own sister-in-law, Herodias. John dares to declare openly that this marriage is invalid under the Jewish law. At first it is not Herod but Herodias who wants to have John killed. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. She feels degraded. She knows, as we do, that Herod has an acknowledged respect for the Baptist, knowing him to be ‘righteous and holy’. The ‘dance of death’ that she stages is the one in which she knows her husband’s weaknesses through and through. Her daughter’s dance  elicits a promise from the King that he will grant her anything she wants, even up to half his kingdom. He little expects her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. We see the contrast between John’s message of repentance and its call for a set of values which are truthful and morally binding with Herod’s lasciviousness and foolishness. John’s is a costly discipleship of faith and trust and self-sacrifice, Herod’s is attracted to these values and influences, but he is easily seduced. He follows too much ‘the devices and desires’ of his own heart, which have become warped with power its misuse. His mind is essentially a wayward one and his real person is grievously split. 

This Gospel reading is a satisfying tale which concerns the ‘goodies and the baddies’ of the Gospel story, but its real meaning hits home when we come to consider the abiding worth, the depth and the integrity of God’s Word set against what St Paul was to call ‘the powers and principalities and rulers of this present darkness”. Paul’s appeal to the faithful was simply to their desire for the truth of things which had revealed itself for him in Jesus Christ. That same appeal to desire that same moral truthfulness is still vastly important.

In our own time, it is not too difficult to name those aspects of our common culture which are spiritually deadening and which do not give live or offer us that true freedom for which John and then the Saviour Jesus Christ lived and died for. People are wandering around our town and cities as we say ‘on empty’ without actually realising it. However, they, like Herod recognise, perhaps vaguely that there does exist a body of spiritual and actual truth, but it is not recognised as residing in the Church or in Jesus Christ. Instead it is acknowledged in ways which seem sound but which are in fact diffuse. John’s testimony is the one which ultimately convinces because of its grounding in reality.

I once spent a week on conference in Liverpool and we were at Anfield Stadium to watch the World Cup football match. The Club Chaplain gave a very inspiring talk in which we denied the oft quoted Bill Shankley who once said that football was more important than religion. John Lennon once said that the Beatles were becoming more popular than Jesus. Both men in their time had even now have immense pulling power and the admiration and the even the adulation of the masses. Lennon may have come closer to the truth when he penned the song ‘All you Need is Love’. But neither provides us with either the whole story or the complete picture. Herod’s partial recognition of who John the Baptist really was gives evidence to the fact of a deeper resonance, a more profound meaning. It is that without God we are nothing. And yet God is no tyrant and urges us to come to know Him from the point of view of our desire for the deeper truth which underlies our existence. Not this word desire, and not indoctrination.

The story of Herod and John the Baptist and the dance of Herodias’ daughter is a tragedy but a necessary one. For in it, the true nature of things is being established and revealed for all posterity. Paul reminds us in Ephesians that “with all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time”. Ephesians 1. 10. God is to be for the faithful ever in our ears and in our eyes, as the manifest presence. It is God who gives life and hope. God’s presence and love is the perpetual challenge to that temptation for us to become that which we are most emphatically not.

When I was in Liverpool I got on a bus that I thought would lead me back to the Hope University Campus. After a long while I went to the driver who with great emphasis told me “You’ve got on the wrong bus1” You have to go back and change – at Penny Lane”. I left the bus full of the joys of Spring and scouse bewonderment.

Oh, Penny Lane -  like the words of God in scripture. Living words for real life. May you be always in our ears and in our eyes.

 

Penny lane is in my ears and in my eyes

There beneath the blue suburban skies

I sit, and meanwhile back

Penny lane is in my ears and in my eyes

There beneath the blue suburban skies

Penny Lane