Sunday 7th July 2019
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Genesis 29.1-20
Mark 6.7-29

Hardly a day goes by, quite rightly, without a public figure condemning the persecution of Christians in some faraway country by dictators and fanatics. All over the world Christians are paying a high price for their discipleship.

We cannot say that we were not warned: in our Reading from Mark, the sending out of Jesus' followers is quite deliberately juxtaposed with the murder of John the Baptist in a Marcan sandwich of which we have a slice of bread and a slice of meat; the other slice of bread follows where Jesus' followers return from their first missionary outing. Tradition has it that all of the eleven Apostles died as martyrs, alongside many more followers of Jesus.

John's great error was that he spoke out against the bad behaviour of King Herod, a public figure who was setting a bad example. There used to be a time, not so long ago, when the only kind of misconduct by a public figure that attracted any serious attention was, like Herod's, sexual misbehaviour but times have changed. In the case of President Trump, no matter how disgusting his sexual misdemeanours, his inability to separate lies from truth is even more startling, and it should not escape our attention that, far from condemning his gross sexual misconduct and serial lying, many Christians are not condemning him but are cheering him on, on the rather insecure basis that as long as he opposes abortion he can do absolutely anything he likes. Trump has boasted, in one of the most Christian countries in the world that he could shoot people in the street and his supporters would still vote for him. I don't doubt that for a moment.

We, of course, are much more sophisticated than the Americans but we are rapidly sliding into the identical error which they made when Trump began his campaign to be President. Then, he was dismissed as a joke, as a person to be ridiculed, as someone who did not have a proper grip on reality. But are we, on this side of the Atlantic, not making precisely the same series of mistakes?

Now I know that we have an unwritten convention that our politicians are economical with the truth on the basis that if they told us the truth they wouldn't get elected; but there really is a difference between a nod and a wink and bare-faced lying. So the first question for us is how bad does it have to get before we do anything about it? The second, more profound, question is how far will the general fall in standards in public life have to go before we wake up to our danger. All over the democratic world there are worrying signs of dictators using democracy to climb to the top before kicking the ladder away. That is what has happened in Turkey, is now happening in Italy and the United States. We say it could not happen here to which my reply is that only we can stop it but it will happen if we don't stop it. What we learn from our Reading from Mark is that you can't be a follower of Jesus and, at the same time, back off from the difficult issues.

It could be argued that people in every age have said that they are living in the worst of times, always looking back to a golden age that never was but I cannot think of a time in history since the late Middle Ages when public governance in Europe has been so bad; and although there have been a good number of incompetent American Presidents, there has not been one so blatantly immoral as Trump who makes Nixon look like an angel.

What are we supposed to do? First, we must face the situation head on and we must be prepared to sacrifice our own personal interests and preferences for the sake of the truth. Secondly, we must take politics seriously and not leave it to small groups of ever more extreme activists. Thirdly, we have to speak out, even if that means upsetting our friends and neighbours, not by standing on a soap box and preaching but by not allowing things to be said that require honest correction. It seems to me that at the moment we live in a paradoxically difficult society where the political correctness that is condemned by people on the far right is protecting them from reasonable criticism; while it is proper to be careful in our speech so as not to upset people gratuitously, the operative word is gratuitously.

Underlying all that I have said, is my belief that discipleship is not simply a matter of religious observance but involves enacting the socio economic justice which Jesus specified. Trump and his ilk are not liars for nothing, they are lying their way into power to enrich their own kind at the expense of the poor; that is the biggest danger to society because they are in public office but not in public service. It is easy for us to think that heroism is for martyrs that heroic discipleship is admirable but only alive and well in places like China and the Middle East, that John the Baptist was perfectly correct in what he said but a bit rash.

All this is very difficult for us because we like to separate discipleship from politics; we like to think that we can follow Jesus and, in parallel, go our own not so sweet way. I think not. John the Baptist was only the herald: the main man was subjected to judicial murder because of his political views. He threatened the Temple but contemporary Christianity seems not to be threatening the temples of the plutocrats.

We will almost certainly not be called upon to die for Christ but we are all called upon to live for him.