The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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11am Holy Communion      11th July 2021
Justice and Challenge
Graham Dunn

“Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed and yet he liked to listen to him.”
About 15 years ago, I went on a silent parish retreat to a wonderful retreat house, sadly no longer in operation, in the Cambridgeshire village of Hemingford Grey. As you can imagine, having the clergy, the churchwardens and most of the members of the PCC in an old house for 3 days and forcing them not to speak was an interesting experience which might have found its way into an Agatha Christie plot.

About 20 of us from the parish were there and over the course of the three days, we had a series of talks from the wonderful Brigid Pailthorpe. Brigid has been conducting retreats and quiet days for many years and developed an incredible way of delivering talks that spoke deep and sometimes uncomfortable truths but were also absolutely gripping at the same time. As our priest said, “you hang on her every word, but you’re terrified about what she’s going to say next”. 

It sounds from our Gospel that Herod was having a not dissimilar experience with John the Baptist.

The nature of this passage about John’s execution, and indeed it’s inclusion in Mark’s gospel at all has been the subject of debate and discussion among scholars for many years. In some ways it is an anomaly in that it is more or less the only story in Mark which centres on someone other than Jesus. 
It is also unusual in that Mark is known for being the Gospel writer in a hurry. Mark’s is the shortest of the Gospels and it is driven forward with breathless energy and momentum – the word “immediately” is one of his most used pieces of vocabulary. Here, though we get something different. Mark pauses and we get a flashback to something that has already happened. 

It is of course natural for our focus when reading the Gospels to be on Jesus himself, so it is easy to forget the huge impact that John the Baptist had on both the popular and political classes. Herod is worried about Jesus because he thinks he might be John the Baptist come back from the dead. 
The reason he fears John the Baptist is because he says things that threaten Herod both personally and politically. In this case it is about his marriage to his sister-in-law, but the point is that John was unafraid to speak up and speak out. 

For him, speaking the truth was infinitely more important than preserving his own safety and perhaps that is part of what made him so compelling even if he was perplexing. 

The Herod in today’s reading is the son of the earlier Herod who appears in the narratives about Jesus’s birth and infancy. Part of an established dynasty, this was a man who was driven by power – indeed although he was technically a tetrarch under the supervision of the Roman authorities, he had pushed to have himself made a king. This was not a man used to being challenged or having to compromise. But there was something about John that perplexed him. In fact, the Greek word used is sometimes translated as being at a loss. 

A powerful ruler with officials and servants at his disposal and yet at a loss in the face of the preaching of a man who had lived in the desert and survived on locusts. 

John the Baptist is such a familiar fixture in the narrative of Christianity, appearing as he does in countless works of art such as the window behind me, it’s easy to forget what an anti-establishment figure he was. John was provocative, disruptive; he made people feel uncomfortable. 

It can be tempting to paint the Christian life as an exercise in being nice. We’ve all heard people saying things like “that’s not a very Christian thing to say”. Indeed, my first few days of wearing a clerical collar have shown me what it’s like to be a more public face of the faith – I’ve certainly been aware of the need to be nice to people in the street (not that I wasn’t a model of courtesy and politeness before I was ordained, obviously).

However, what John shows us is that sometimes we need to speak up and speak out. Sometimes that means saying uncomfortable things and sometimes that means allowing ourselves to be made uncomfortable. 

Of course, it’s not just John the Baptist that shows us this. Indeed, John’s core role has been to prepare the way for Jesus, and Mark’s depiction of John’s entanglement with the ruling classes and his death for the sake of political expediency, is a clear foreshadowing of Jesus’s own experience. 
There is no doubt that Jesus’s ministry, the things he taught, the things he did, the people he prioritised, also made people uncomfortable. Yes, it made those in power uncomfortable, but it also unsettled and transformed the lives of ordinary people too. 

The Gospel is not a comfort blanket in which to wrap ourselves – we are called to challenge and be challenged.

Of course, the basis on which we do this is not simply to be awkward or difficult. It is because, in Jesus, we see a different way of being, a transformed understanding of how the world could be, based on the Kingdom of God. And we can have the confidence to pursue this, because we are known and loved by the very God who created us and cared enough to walk alongside us and who, in Jesus’ death and resurrection, reset the parameters within which we live, once and for all. 

It is on this basis that we can pursue the values of the Kingdom in the face of the injustices we see. But this is not about being arrogant, or self-righteous, in fact it is about re-centring ourselves in Jesus – something which involves opening ourselves up to be challenged as well. In his book ‘Christ on Trial’, Rowan Williams talks about the interaction between believers and the powers that be and the need not simply to accept the parameters of the status quo of the world. He describes the goal of inhabiting “a new depth of truthful living, a new deeper centre to the self, relocated in the life of Jesus.”

Many of the clergy from the Edmonton Area of the Diocese spent Wednesday listening, talking, and praying together about the issue of racial justice. It is a good example of an area in which we need to challenge the status quo but also allow ourselves to be challenged as part of the process. Some of the stories certainly brought me up short and made me think – am I doing enough?

This is just one example - there are many other areas on which it is right for people of faith to speak up but also look inward and allow ourselves to be made uncomfortable. 

But even as we allow ourselves to be disrupted, we can be secure because we know that ultimately, we are underpinned by God’s saving love and that in striving to be better and to build a better world, we are taking part in the God’s unfolding plan. 

As we heard in the letter to the Ephesians: “In him, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to his grace, which he lavished on us…he 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 to gather up all things in him things in heaven and on earth.”

Taken together our readings today are not a command to recklessly tear down every piece of the establishment, or a call to indulge in constant self-criticism. But they are also not a licence to simply sit back, put our feet up and wait for the end of time. Precisely because we believe in a God who loves every single one of us without limit, we are called to take that message of love to the world.

Herod was captivated and terrified by John the Baptist’s message in equal measure and in the end, he gave in to fear and had him put to death. 

We on the other hand are called to engage with the powerful and transforming message of the Gospel – to prayerfully, and thoughtfully examine those areas of our lives where we may need to do or think differently and also discern those places and situations in which the message of God’s radical and inclusive love for all his people needs to be heard afresh or for the very first time. 

And unlike Herod, we need not fear, for as we look to take the powerful message of love to those we meet, we do so supported by the God who loves us and supported by one another. Like many other things in the Christian life, we are not called to walk alone, we are called to walk together, as a community. Learning from each other in humility and respect, growing together as disciples, forgiving each other when we get it wrong and encouraging each other as we move forward. 

I give thanks to God that I now have the privilege to be part of just such a community here. A community in which people clearly love and support one another, a community committed to seeking justice, welcoming all and walking alongside one another in faith and love. 

I look forward to joining you on this walk as we seek to learn more of what the Gospel message of love means for ourselves, for our community and for our world. 


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