Sunday 12th July 2015
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Mark 6.14-29

The family tree of King Herod Antipas, the "King Herod" of today's Gospel, would defy all but the best graphical genealogists. To take but two examples: the mother of the Philip mentioned in our Gospel was the fifth of his father Herod's ten wives; and Herodias, who had been Philip's wife but was subsequently married to Herod Antipas was not just his sister-in-law but his niece. I cite these two cases neither in a sense of moral outrage nor mere prurience but to point out that sexual license is a symptom of power out of self-control and usually denotes, as it does with this family, the misuse of power in other areas. For although there is no evidence that King Herod actually massacred the innocents it certainly would not have been out of character. And Herod Antipas was not only known to be a cruel and licentious man; his downfall occurred through his shameless greed which revolted even the Romans.

To have called for moral renewal in those days, particularly pointing a finger straight at the tin-pot royal family which, nonetheless, had the power of summary, almost arbitrary, execution, took immense courage, the kind of courage which we see today in those Christians, full of the Holy Spirit, who are - I almost said "not afraid" but of course they are afraid - who are emboldened to stand up for their faith in Jesus Christ in the face of brutal sanctions. John paid for his truth with his life; and that is what is happening today. People are paying for the truth of Jesus with their lives.

On the very same day that British tourists were slaughtered in Tunisia, Pope Francis visited the Nazi Concentration Camp at Belsen. So much for the theory of progress, notes the weary historian in me; but it is more than that. The game we play in society is to gauge, as accurately as we can, what we are prepared to tolerate in order to maintain our comfort. I am not, for example, saying, as I am not a military expert, that we would be any better in our struggle with Islamic State if we put boots on the ground, but the point is that refusing to put boots on the ground is not a strategic nor a tactical matter, it is a straightforward proposition that the sacrifice of the lives of soldiers would be too great. Instead, we drop millions of Pounds-worth of bombs in the sand, hardly mentioning the sacrifices that poor people are making every time one is dropped; less on bombs would mean smaller welfare cuts. So we have bombs but no boots; and we have welfare cuts. And then, because I currently find it almost impossible to make any public statement without thinking of the hundreds of thousands risking their lives to reach Europe, we have the issue of our comfort and how it might be threatened by immigration, even though global aspiration is a consequence of global capitalism, the source of our comfort.

We don't know whether John The Baptist calculated the odds of his execution though he surely knew that arrest was all but certain; and when the end came, it was the result of a boastful whim, not a feud nor a cold blooded calculation; it was even worse than a useless sacrifice because it actually weakened Herod's political position. What was critical from John's standpoint was that in order to proclaim repentance, to make the way plain for Jesus, he put himself in harm's way; and was harmed. Thus Jesus, who might well have been a follower of John, emerged to take the place of the decapitated man.

Today, we all know about decapitation; and although we might have learned something of it originally from the more shameful Chapters of the history of Christianity, most of us surely learned of it first through the classical image of  the Lernean Hydra which self generated new heads when a head was cut off. But in human affairs there have to be heads to replace the decapitated, volunteered until such a time comes - and it always does - when the persecutor either over-reaches or is over-reached. In the case of John, the new head on the block was that of Jesus and he, like his cousin, died for public, explicit pronouncements which offended entrenched power.

How are we lining up? And what lines are we drawing? Are we content with our comfort if it involves turning a blind eye to the Middle East?  Are we content with our comfort if it means forcing thousands of wretches, made in the image of Christ, to suffer where they are, or to be saved and put on an inhospitable island? Or is our comfort worth turning a blind eye and letting thousands of them drown until the risk of coming is greater than the risk of staying where they are?

This is not a call for political solutions but a call for moral, public commitment: the commitment to recognise that those who decapitate came from somewhere, were children of mothers whose lives were distorted; but by what? When apparently decent families from Yorkshire and Luton up sticks with their tiny children and voluntarily go into the Islamic State, has it nothing to do with us as a society? Has it nothing to do with the way they were treated, or the way they learned to think about themselves, or the way they thought we thought about them? Have we no responsibility for the errors of our religious and political entanglement with the Middle East? No, it's not guilt I am looking for, it's an understanding of a very simple law which cannot be over-turned: if we use questionable morality to solve today's problem or satisfy today's craving, then the result of questionable behaviour will come back to haunt us. Not only is there no such thing as a free lunch, there's no such thing as a free anything.

To say this is not to reduce behaviour to a question of prudence. True, to do questionable things always produces unhappy consequences but that is not the primary reason for desisting. The pursuit of virtue is intrinsically Christian; and that means social commitment, not passive adherence. We are to proclaim by our words and by our actions that, as creatures, we have been put here to create, as nearly as we can, the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven; and it should have become obvious that we cannot do this by preserving our own comfort and denying the existence of anything that might disturb it.