Sermon for Trinity 7 High Mass Sunday 15 July 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Amos 7.7-15; Psalm 85.8-end; Ephesians 1.3-24; Mark 6.14-29
Imagine we are outside Westminster Abbey. A long queue of tourists is awaiting admission to see the treasures of this royal abbey: the tombs of monarchs, the shrine of a sainted one, the memorials of the nation’s “great and good,” and sometimes “not-so-good,” the repository of its history.
Then we notice a rather wild looking character with a megaphone. We hear him denouncing both church and state; the Abbey’s round of Solemn Eucharists and Choral Evensongs, its coronations and royal weddings, its state funerals and memorial services, as blasphemous idolatry; the Queen’s government, Parliament and the Supreme Court, all clustered together in the seat of power, as corrupt and unjust.
This being Britain rather than some other places with more robust attitudes to public protest, Mr. Putin’s Russia springs to mind, an Abbey steward arrives to ask him politely to be quiet. His attempts are to no avail, so a verger is called, then the duty chaplain, and so on up the Abbey hierarchy – minor canon, canon-in-residence – until finally there appears on the scene a figure resplendent in scarlet cassock, white bands, and black gown: the Dean of Westminster, no less.
Now I am not suggesting that Dr. John Hall, whose hospitality a number of us enjoyed recently at a party in the Abbey Gardens to celebrate the 80th birthday of my predecessor Canon David Hutt, who went from here to be a Canon of Westminster, is a latter-day Amaziah; merely that the temple at Bethel was the equivalent in the Northern Kingdom of Israel of Westminster Abbey; it was “the king’s sanctuary.”
Amos’s vision of the plumbline set against Israel is an uncompromising judgement on the Northern Kingdom. God’s anger is aimed at its spiritual and political institutions: the “sanctuaries of Israel,” and the “house of Jeroboam,” its founding king. The announcement of the destruction of the northern kingdom in the leading theme of the Book of Amos.
After the death of Solomon, the ten northern tribes had broken away from his oppressive successor Rheoboam, who ruled in Jerusalem. The northern kings, the house of Jeroboam, worried that their people would still go on pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem and fall under the influence of its kings. There was no idea in those days that politics and religion did not mix. So they set up alternative places of worship. The arrival of a southern prophet in Bethel would be about as welcome as a Puritan one at the court of Charles I, or an abolitionist preacher in the Deep South before the American Civil War.
Amaziah, the royal chaplain, represents the king who has the authority to decide who can speak or not. We hear first of Amaziah’s message to the king denouncing Amos, as an outside agitator, accusing him of conspiracy against the royal house. Then comes the face-to-face encounter between priest and prophet; which begins with Amaziah trying to send Amos packing. He thinks he is just a professional prophet, there were such people who made their living this way. He tells him to go home and ply his trade there. But Amos insists that he is not such a one. He is where he is, saying what he does, because God has called and sent him. Like most of the Old Testament prophets, he is actually a reluctant one. He knows the risks involved and would really much rather have stuck to the day job. But, “The Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” So, go he went.
The encounter ends with Amos telling Amaziah that he will share the fate of a faithless Israel. Behind the accusation stands the assumption – common among the prophets and priests as well as their audiences – that the word of God through the prophet has the power to set in motion what it announces.
The Gospel today takes us to another royal building, the palace of Herod Antipas. Both John and Jesus ministered during the time when he was tetrarch or ruler of Galilee on behalf of the Romans. The Herods were a gruesome lot who left a trail of blood across the pages of the New Testament. Herod the Great, the founder of the dynasty, massacres the innocents of Bethlehem to eliminate a potential rival. His son Archeleaus also poses a threat to the holy family, leading Joseph to seek safety in Nazareth. Later, Herod Agrippa I would have the apostle James executed and Peter arrested. A great grandson, Herod Agrippa II, would hear Paul’s defence at Caesarea as part of the legal process which would send the apostle to his death in Rome.
The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that while he was his way to Rome and a guest of his half-brother Philip, Antipas began an affair with Philip’s wife, Herodias. Antipas then divorced his own wife and married Herodias, who became something of a Jezebel to his Ahab. John the Baptist’s denunciation of this incestuous relationship has landed him in a dungeon.
Antipas’s position was a precarious one. The Herods were of mixed race and regarded with suspicion by the orthodox. He made matters worse by building his palace on an old burial ground – so most Jews would not enter it to avoid ritual pollution. He surrounded himself with courtiers who were Gentiles or non-observant Jews.
Mark gives us the fullest gospel account of the murder of John and the events leading up to it. Just as John was the forerunner of Jesus in his ministry, so too, he goes before him in his death. His portrait of Herod shows a weak man desperate to secure the support of his courtiers. He is not entirely bad: enough of his conscience remains to cause him to regret the consequences of his rash promise to the dancing daughter of his consort – a pledge Herodias is quick to exploit. But in the end he cannot be seen as weak – and so the episode reaches its grisly conclusion.
The parallels with Jesus and Pontius Pilate, another weak ruler swayed by private conspiracy and public opinion, to act against what he knew to be the truth, with fatal consequences, are clear.
Mark deliberately places this story of the costly consequence of speaking truth to power between Jesus’s sending out of the disciples on their first missionary journey and their return which is followed by the feeding of the 5000.
Last week, we began reading at the daily Eucharist, passages from the “Mission Sermon” in Matthew’s Gospel. In this Jesus instructs the disciples as he sends them out on their first missionary venture. First, he speaks to them of the simple lifestyle appropriate to that mission. Then he warns them of the danger of opposition and persecution and how they are to respond to it.
By coincidence, or divine providence, as I told the evening mass congregation on Thursday in my homily, I had been phoned that day on by the PA of the Bishop of Islington. He is the bishop responsible for encouraging the planting of new churches or worshipping communities in the diocese of London.
He was inviting us at All Saints to join what is known these days in the Church of England as a “Learning Community.” This one is on “Church Growth” and is designed for large churches – large – but clearly not large enough for Bishop Ric!
As I said on Thursday evening, after the din of President Trump’s procession of helicopters taking him to dinner at Blenheim Palace, had subsided and we could hear ourselves think and pray again, I have no objection to us being part of such a programme. I hope that we are not so arrogant or smugly self-satisfied as to think that we have nothing to learn from others. We should be a “learning community” when it comes to mission, and parishes of our tradition, if we’re honest, have neither a reputation for interest in mission or a brilliant record of success at it. We should want to find more effective ways of sharing the “spiritual blessings” we heard about in the Letter to the Ephesians, blessings we already enjoy, with others.
But as I said in my homily on Friday evening, I wonder if the learning community’s programme will have any place for response to opposition if we really start proclaiming the Gospel.
This is a church dedicated to All Saints and the holy ones who have been canonised and commemorated from the past century have in large measure been those who have died for their witness to the faith and the gospel. We need think only of a few examples commemorated in stone on the west front of the Abbey:
- Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda murdered by Idi Amin after protesting his cruelties:
- Dr. Martin Luther King assassinated as he led the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States, re-calling the people of that country to their founding declaration that all are created equal and to the prophet’s demand for justice;
- Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, shot down at the altar, by the agents of the regime whose brutal oppression he chronicled and denounced day after day in his sermons; the blood of his sacrifice mingling with that of Christ in the sacrament.
None of these were self-appointed prophets; all of them could have had safer and more comfortable lives, successful ecclesiastical careers, if they had not heard and heeded the God who said to them: “Go, Prophesy to my people.” Because they went and paid the price of speaking truth to power they will be honoured and remembered long after the founders of ‘successful’ mega-churches – let alone the Vicars of All Saints, Margaret Street – have been forgotten.
In Mark’s Gospel, the Baptist’s death is followed by the feeding of the five thousand, a foreshadowing of the Eucharist we celebrate when we have heard the word of God proclaimed; the sacrament which unites us to the sacrificial life and death of Christ and strengthens us to share in it; to bear what another 20th Century martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship,” which is the cost of mission.