Sermon preached on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity (12 July 2015) by the Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

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7:30am Morning Prayer
8:00am Eucharist
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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Choral Evensong

Sermon preached on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity (12 July 2015) by the Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

The Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas look at prisoners of conscience and says: "God is for us – and stands ready to bring hope and power, yes even into the sorriest prison cell."


Our readings from the scriptures could hardly seem more different. The first captures the wonder of the truth that before even the foundation of the world God has intended good for us: blessed beyond imagining; made holy, adopted as children of God, gifted with forgiveness and hope.

I wonder if John, held in a tyrant’s prison, felt blessed? We heard the account of his imprisonment and brutal death in our gospel reading. It’s not necessarily comfortable to say ‘thanks be to God’ in response to words like that.

Those words begin with the ruler, Herod, hearing extraordinary things about a young prophet, Jesus, from the hill-town of Nazareth.

Rumours were running wild: Maybe this was the ancient prophet Elijah – who, according to Jewish tradition would return to get things ready for the final judgement?

Maybe it was one of the other great prophets of old?

Or maybe, said Herod, this is John – John back from the dead.

Who was John and why was he so much on Herod’s mind?

John had been a wonder both to hear and see. A relative of Jesus, even in the womb he’d had responded to his coming, John had lived in the wilderness, preaching, calling people to repentance, proclaiming that forgiveness was possible, he had  baptised many, preparing the way for the one who was to come.

His own work and words were pointed towards by the words of the prophet Isaiah.                       

Words perhaps familiar to us from the opening section of Handel’s ‘Messiah’:
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low
And the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places a plain
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'

Herod, was Herod Antipas, under the occupying authority of Rome, he ruled over the region of Galilee. It would be before this Herod, that, eventually, Jesus too would be brought.
 
John’s imprisonment and martyrdom are dramatic – the account takes the form of a story within a story; with elements which would sell newspapers even today; royalty, power, lust, seduction, political ambition, scandal and death. Titian and Carravaggio, amongst others have painted it. Oscar Wilde wrote a play about it and Richard Strauss used it as the basis of his opera ‘Salome’.

More though than simply tracing the drama of life and death, the account of Herod, his court and John, the messenger of God, brings into focus the great struggle between ambitious power and prophetic truth. John’s words had intrigued and challenged Herod. The poignancy is that perhaps it could have ended differently – their encounter could have been liberating for both of them. A story of so near and yet…

Another twist and a turn, and Herod’s demons seem to trap him and he can see no way out. John, languishing in prison, pays the price. The price of Herod’s torments and of having dared to speak truth to the powerful.

The price for pricking Herod’s conscience.

And of course many have continued to pay a similar price ever since.

The term ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ was coined by Peter Benenson in an article called ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’, published in the Observer newspaper in May 1961.                            

The article launched the campaign ‘Appeal for Amnesty 1961’. It received enough public support to become a permanent organisation and Amnesty International was born.

Today Amnesty campaigns for those jailed because of their political, religious or other conscientiously-held beliefs, their ethnic origin, gender, colour, language, sexual orientation, economic, birth or other status. Since its foundation, thousands of prisoners of conscience have been released following action by Amnesty and its supporters. Others, however, still wait for release and more join their numbers.

If Herod Antipas and his court thought that with the death of John that they had won, that trouble had been averted – they would be disappointed. The story of his killing got around. And worse, other rumours were getting stronger –another preacher, a teacher, a miracle-worker was attracting attention – everyone wanted to see him, to hear him.

Who is this man? Might it be John, returned after all, wonders Herod..?

Before long Herod would meet Jesus for himself.

In the gospel of Luke, we hear that Jesus’ accusers ask Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor to judge and condemn Jesus, accusing Jesus of making false claims of being a king. While questioning Jesus, Pilate realizes that Jesus was a Galilean, and therefore under Herod's jurisdiction. Given that Herod was in Jerusalem at that time, Pilate decides to send Jesus to Herod to be tried.

According to Luke, Herod had wanted to see Jesus for a long time, hoping to observe one of the miracles of Jesus. However, Jesus says nothing in response to Herod's questions - so Herod and his soldiers mock Jesus, put a gorgeous robe on him, ironically dressing him as ‘the King of the Jews’, and sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate become friends with each other that day: for before they were at enmity.

It seems Herod hadn’t altered much – as with John, he had some of the right questions, he was still curious yet ultimately unwilling to commit.
 
Herod may have believed that he’d come out on top – both John and Jesus had come into his orbit and he’d had a role to play, he thought, in extinguishing them. But, he was mistaking apparent success for lasting significance.

For what became of Herod?

Within a decade he’d fallen foul of the Roman overlords, was banished to Gaul and left to die in disgrace in a distant land.

But, just a few days after he’d stood before Herod, new rumours began circulating about Jesus – it was said that his tomb, though he’d been crucified, dead and buried, was now empty! Later, as Herod languished in his exile, elsewhere hope was rising and good news spreading, carried by the movement initiated by John and Jesus.

Rumours of hope which persist to this day … declaring that even before the foundation of the world God has intended good for us. That within reach are blessings beyond imagining; since God is for us – and stands ready to bring hope and power, yes even into the sorriest prison cell.