Sermon preached on the sixth Sunday after Trinity (15 July 2012) by The Reverend Andrew Hammond

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Sermon preached on the sixth Sunday after Trinity (15 July 2012) by The Reverend Andrew Hammond

'Daring to be Christian'. The Revd Andrew Hammond preaches his last sermon as Succentor of St Paul's before moving to his new ministry as Vicar of St Mary, Willesden.

Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29

Would you risk your life for the truth?

In the gospel reading we hear that famous (infamous!) story of the death of John the Baptist. Jesus’ death would be engineered by the Jewish authorities, the religious powers scandalised by his radical opening-out of their crabbed, closed world-view. Unlike Jesus, John the Baptist falls foul of temporal power, the tetrarch Herod.

There are similarities too, of course. Herod is as cruelly capable of executing someone as Pontius Pilate; neither is likely to have been much troubled by summary capital punishment. But neither is actually very keen to kill the man before him. Pilate finds no guilt in Jesus, and is somewhat fascinated by him; but the Jewish hierarchy have stoked up a mob who need to be placated. And Herod, even in the face of John’s fearless criticism of his adulterous acquisition of a wife, is intrigued by John’s courageous candour. But he is tricked by the wily dancing daughter, who we better know as Salome.

Herod gets to hear of someone else’s courageous candour after he has disposed of John – Jesus’ name had become known, as Mark puts it. It’s interesting that Mark interleaves this story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom, a retrospective story, between his account of the sending out of the Twelve by Jesus, and the story of their return, no doubt fizzing with their tales of casting out demons and curing the sick. What he hears about Jesus, and about what his close companions are doing, piques Herod’s interest again. He might, for all his immoral and cruel ways, still have been a man sensitive to the pull of a virtuous prophetic voice. Or he might just have been one of those bored princes idly titillated by the latest story of a wonder-worker or holy man. Such showmen abounded at the time. Or he might have been a more sinister, Stalin-like monster – able to hear the truth in the words of a real prophet, able to see the hand of God in the works of a young teacher from Galilee; but profoundly paranoid about any possible threat to his power and prestige.

Well, whatever Herod’s psychology, he was indeed hearing about a young teacher from Galilee whose words and acts were having a profound and startling effect. As Jesus himself described what he was doing to followers of John the Baptist who had earlier come from John in prison, ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.’ [Matt 11.4]. And his disciples were doing much of this too.

It’s quite likely that Mark, even in that shortest and most pithy of the gospels, artfully put the story of John’s death between the Twelve’s going and return for good reason. The link definitely suggests that Herod has become significantly alert to Jesus’ reputation because of what his disciples were now also doing in his name. And Mark’s readers, members of the young Church, immediately hear that those who might be most hostile to such missionary work can turn violently hostile, murderously so.

Two thousand years on, what do such stories of missionary courage and risking death mean to us? Do we just think of colonial expeditions into deepest Africa, and well-meaning men ending up in the pot? Missionary journeys in times past weren’t always like that caricature, of course, nothing like: but there have always been those who have been not so much courageous as just foolhardy, risking their lives because of ignorance and insensitivity. This didn’t end in the 19thcentury. If you want a devastating analysis of how this can still happen, read that remarkable novel ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by the American writer Barbara Kingsolver.

In the world of today we might define missionary courage quite simply as daring to be Christian– and daring to be known to be Christian.

There are parts of the world where to be known to be Christian is dangerous in itself. Take India. When I was in Mumbai last year I spent a day with the Jesuits looking at some of their work in the slums. One project trains teachers to run little classes for small children in a slum of about 12,000 people. But it’s best that none of those teachers is Christian, because they would be accused of attempting to convert – conversion is the bogey word, stoked up by paranoid but powerful Hindu nationalist extremists. I asked, as always, whether it would be OK to take photos, and they said – if you take photos out and about in the slum when you’re with us, there will people watching who will assume you’re an American evangelist planning to come back with a missionary campaign. They didn’t spell out the consequences.

Elsewhere in India it is much worse. In Orissa there is terrible violence against Christians – assault, murder, whole villages razed to the ground. And take Iraq, where Christians are now in daily danger at the hands of Muslim extremists – some of you may remember me reading from the words of a Dominican prioress there, in a sermon recently, recounting the horrors of their experience. Such is the legacy in that country of our former Leader, who now has the audacity to tour the world pontificating. He should be sat in sackcloth and ashes.

Here in the west we face not danger but just derision, scorn, indifference, cynical boredom… And in the face of that it can be pretty hard just to dare to be known to be Christian. Not dangerous for us, but sometimes a bit debilitating.

A crucial lesson in all of this, apart from just being properly aware of how things are, is that the missionary courage which we are invited to have – indeed, empowered to have by the Holy Spirit – that missionary courage is as much about what we do, how we are, as what we say. Remember the missionary journey of the Twelve, whose stories reached Herod – they were calling people to repentance, yes, but also healing people, healing their minds as well as their bodies. Their very lives radiated something of the truth and glory of the good news of Jesus Christ.

That’s how the Jesuits’ work In Mumbai is mission in itself – rescuing children from the dead-end of illiteracy. Or the nuns in Iraq, praying in community and helping the poor.

We have to find our own ways of being like them. Sometimes we can simply speak of what we believe, actually begin to talk of the good news. Often this is because of what we do and how we go about our daily lives. People are intrigued and want to know more – why do we try to be kind, why do we get angry about injustice, why do we spend Sunday morning in Church? And then we can begin to talk about what we know, what we believe.

This is my last sermon at St Paul’s, before I move on at the end of the month. Like most priests my sermons tend to swirl around the same few themes – it’s said a priest only really has three sermons. I tried to sum this up in my last school assembly the other day, so the choristers have heard it before! Amongst all the riches of our faith, I keep coming back to this – that God loves us, more than we can imagine; that he knows us, in every detail; and that, yes, he likes us!

Psalm 139 captures this beautifully:

If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand shall lead me,
your right hand hold me fast.

And then there’s what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ. All we have to do is make that our own, live it, breathe it. There is risk – we may need courage. But if we live it, it’s a living that will carry us deeper and deeper into the loving heart of God, together, as adopted sisters and brothers of Jesus, who came to take us home.