Sunday  18 July – 7th Sunday after Trinity 


The service is now live-streamed and can be found on the church Facebook page.

Collect

Generous God,
you give us gifts and make them grow:
though our faith is small as mustard seed,
make it grow to your glory
and the flourishing of your kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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First Reading

Jeremiah 23.1-6 

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!  says the Lord.  Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people:  It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.  So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.  Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.  And this is the name by which he will be called:  ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

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 Gospel

Mark 6.30-34, 53-56 

The apostles returned from their mission.  They gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.  When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.

When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

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 Post Communion Prayer

Lord God, whose Son is the true vine and the source of life,
ever giving himself that the world may live:
may we so receive within ourselves
the power of his death and passion
that, in his saving cup,
we may share his glory and be made perfect in his love;
for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

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Sermon

It’s one of the most notorious stories in the Bible, seamy, steamy and unseemly. If you’re not sure of the details I’ll give you a bit of background. Herod was a royal title rather than a name; this one is Herod Antipas, and he has recently divorced his wife and married Herodias, who has recently divorced her husband Philip,  the brother of Herod Antipas. I don’t know but I presume Herodias is also an honorific title. Anyway, the whole business is undisputably contrary to the letter and spirit of the Jewish law. The outspoken prophet John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod for condemning the marriage.

Some of this background comes from the historian Josephus, who was born Jewish, but freed from slavery and adopted by the Emperor in Rome. Josephus is the main source apart from the Gospels for our knowledge of Palestine and Jewish religion at the time of Jesus. He names the daughter of Herodias as Salome, although that name doesn’t appear in the gospels.

Reading between the lines of Mark chapter 6, we can assume that Salome’s dance was sensual and provocative, and made Herod and his middle aged male chums rather over excited. Herod had been drinking and rashly offers the girl, who is, of course, his step daughter and his niece, a gift. She can have anything she wants in return for…. we’d better not ask. Her mother, behind the scenes plotting, has the perfect opportunity to get rid of her insolent critic John.

It’s a story about sex, but even more it’s a story about power. It’s the misuse of power that John the Baptist is pointing out. Weak-willed, cruel, lecherous Herod can do whatever he wants, but might doesn’t make right. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Dictators and tyrants almost always end up killing dissidents, and that’s what happens to John.

Jesus too has a lot to say about power, but not very much at all about sex. When Pilate is questioning him, worried about Jesus’ talk of a kingdom, Jesus looks around him at the heavily armed guards, and tells the governor, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  I don’t think he’s talking about heaven; I think he means that his kingdom is not violent, intimidatory, coercive, built on power, the world according to empire. On one or two occasions people try to put a crown on his head, and Jesus literally runs away.

The church has a history with sex and power and, I’m afraid to say, has often got it wrong, condemning most expressions of sex with vigour and prurient relish, but endorsing, condoning and getting into bed with power.

But this is not entirely a black and white story, and Herod is a more complex character than we might have thought. Mark tells us that, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” When Herod is tricked into ordering John’s death, we read that “the king was deeply grieved”.

He knows John is a good man, but he fears him (strange choice of word), and doesn’t really understand him. He’s perplexed and yet Herod likes to listen to him.

Fear, perplexity, grief. These are not emotions that we welcome. We like to feel secure, we like to work things out and know what to do about them, and we like to feel happy. And yet these uncomfortable feelings have the potential to be redemptive for the king. They provide a counterbalance to his cruelty.

And if we were looking for qualities that would make a good ruler, we would rate discernment, listening and protecting very highly.

An imaginative approach to the gospels is often a way to unlock its meaning for us. If I could cast myself in the role of John and write his script for our own times, what would I say? What is the prophetic truth that you would like to speak and which powerful person or organisation would you like to speak it to?

A government minister has recently resigned. Was it about his sexual misconduct, or about his misuse of power?

And if I am cast in the role of Herod; how could fear or grief about something I have done be redemptive for me? Where do I feel perplexity, and how could not knowing, not having the faintest idea, be better for me than knowing I am right. Who are the good and holy people that I have come to recognise and would it be good for me to listen to them a bit more, and allow them to change me?

It’s a very unhappy story, and for John the Baptist it was his last story. It wasn’t the end of Herod’s story. I wonder how he might have reflected on these events and whether he allowed himself to be changed. Or did he just stop listening?