Monday, 9 July 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 15 July 2018,
Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Herod’s daughter dances for the head of Saint John the Baptist … a fresco in the Church of Analipsi in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next, 15 July 2018, is the Seventh Sunday after Trinity. The broadcast service on RTÉ on Sunday morning comes from Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, using the paired lectionary readings. The celebrant is the Dean of Saint Mary’s, the Very Revd Niall Sloane, I am the preacher, and other participants include the Revd Edna Wakeley and the Revd Paul Fitzpatrick. The choir is conducted by Peter Barley.

The appointed readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for Trinity VII as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland are:

Continuous readings: II Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6: 14-29.

Paired readings: Amos 7: 7-15; Psalm 85: 8-13; Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6: 14-29.

There is a link to the continuous readings HERE.


Inside the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Two of my own places for regular pilgrimage, retreat and renewal are the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist in Lichfield, where I had my first adult experience of being filled with the light and love of God, and where I was invited to preach a few years ago at the Festal Eucharist on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist; and the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tollenshunt Knights, which I tried to visit once a year when I was on study leave in Cambridge.

In Our Old Testament reading next Sunday morning (II Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b-19), David sets out on a pilgrimage to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Mount Zion, to Jerusalem. But it is not a journey without cost. Seeing David’s behaviour, his wife Michal despises and loathes him in her heart (verse 16).

In our Gospel reading (Mark 6: 14-29), we are caught in an in-between time.

At one bookend, we have the previous Sunday’s reading, when Christ is faced with rejection when he returns home to Nazareth and when he warns the disciples that they too face rejection in their ministry and mission.

The other bookend is an episode later in this chapter (30-32), when Christ calls his disciples together to go with him to a deserted place and to rest a while.

Pilgrimage and retreat are not necessarily about spiritual comfort and solace. Sometimes they are about preparing to face the truth, to face the world as it really is.

An icon of Saint John the Baptist in a small chapel in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Next Sunday’s Gospel story is full of stark, cruel, violent reality. To achieve this dramatic effect, it is told with recall, or with the use of the devise modern movie-makers call ‘back story.’

Cruel Herod has already executed Saint John the Baptist – long ago. Now he hears about the miracles and signs being worked by Jesus and his disciples.

Some people think he is Saint John the Baptist, even though John has been executed. Others think Jesus is Elijah – and popular belief at the time expected Elijah to return at Judgment Day (Malachi 4: 5).

On the other hand Herod, deranged Herod, who has already had John beheaded, wonders whether John is back again. And we are presented with a flashback to the story of Saint John the Baptist, how he was executed in a moment of passion, how Herod grieved, and how John was buried.

At this point, the story reminds us of the cost of discipleship, and prepares us for the accounts later in this Gospel of the arrest of Jesus, his trial, including being brought before Herod, his execution, and his burial.

Saint John the Baptist remains a key figure for all traditions in the Middle East and beyond. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, he is the last of the prophets, providing the bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Several places claim they have the severed head of Saint John the Baptist, and have become centres of pilgrimage, including a church in Rome, in the past two churches in England, the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun in Egypt, and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

When the late Pope John Paul II took off his shoes and prayed at the shrine of Saint John the Baptist in the Umayyad Mosque on a pilgrimage to Damascus in 2001, he sent out a clear message that Christians and Muslims can work together and can find more that unites us than divides us.

Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun, showing the relics in the crypt of Saint John the Baptist below the northern wall of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have also visited the Monastery of Saint Macarius. Each day, this monastery receives large numbers of Egyptian and foreign visitors, sometimes as many as 1,000 a day, both Christian and Muslim. Despite the upheavals and violence in Egypt, this monastery is playing a significant role in the spiritual awakening of the Coptic Church.

The monastery website says: ‘We receive all our visitors, no matter what their religious conviction, with joy, warmth and graciousness, not out of a mistaken optimism, but in genuine and sincere love for each person.’

Going out into the desert to this monastery is not a retreat from the world; it is an invitation to a new commitment to renewal, ecumenism and dialogue.

Those places associated with Saint John the Baptist can be reminders that pilgrimage and retreat are not withdrawals from the world, but are challenges to the ways of the world, particularly at times of injustice and violence.

Those places associated with Saint John the Baptist in the Middle East, including Syria and Egypt, remind us that there is another way. That we are not disciples of Herod, that blood-letting for the sake of power and victimising people of religion is not the way for people of religion who share a vision of peace.

‘The Feast of Herod with the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist,’ Prado, Madrid. This enormous painting, almost 10 metres wide, is probably the work of Bartholomeus Strobel the Younger (Image from Wikipedia, click image to enlarge)

Looking at the Gospel reading:

Did you ever get mistaken for someone else?

Or, do you ever wonder whether the people you work with, or who are your neighbours, really know who you are?

I am thinking of two examples. Anthony Hope Hawkins, son of the Vicar of Saint Bride’s in Fleet Street, was walking home to his father’s vicarage in London one dusky evening when he came face to face with a man who looked like his mirror image.

He wondered what would happen if they swapped places, if this double went back to Saint Bride’s vicarage, while he headed off instead to the suburbs.

Would anyone notice?

It inspired him, under the penname of Anthony Hope, to write his best-selling novel, The Prisoner of Zenda.

The other example I think of is the way I so often hear people expressing a lack of personal confidence, but who are being complimented on some success or achievement, yet put themselves down with sayings such as: ‘If they only knew what I’m really like … if they only knew what I’m truly like …’

What are you truly like?

And would you honestly want to swap your life for someone else’s?

Would you take on all their woes, and angsts and burdens, along with their way of life?

It is a recurring theme for poets, writers and philosophers over the centuries, including John Donne, Izaak Walton, Shelley, Goethe and Dostoyevsky.

More recently, it was the dramatic theme in John Boorman’s movie The Tiger’s Tail (2006), in which Brendan Gleeson plays both the main character and his protagonist – is he his doppelgänger, a forerunner warning of doom, destruction and death? Or is he the lost twin brother who envies his achievements and lifestyle?

The doppelgänger was regarded as a harbinger of doom and death.

There is a way in which Saint John the Baptist, Saint John Prodromos or Saint John the Forerunner, is seen as the harbinger of the death of his own cousin, Christ.

As well as attracting similar followers and having similar messages, did these two cousins, in fact, look so like one another physically?

But Herod had known John the Baptist, he knew him as a righteous and a holy man, and he protected him. Why, he even liked to listen to John.

Do you think Herod was confused about the identities of Christ and of Saint John the Baptist?

Or is Herod so truly deranged that he can believe someone he has executed, whose severed head he has seen, could come back to life in such a short period?

If Herod is that unstable and that mad, he is surely unsuitable for sitting on the throne.

Or is Herod’s reaction merely one of exasperation and exhaustion: ‘Oh no! Not that John, back again!’

If Herod is deranged or exasperated, then his courtiers are confused.

Some of them say Christ is Elijah – not just any old prophet, but the prophet that popular belief held would return at the great Passover, at the end of the days (see Malachi 4: 5).

Others say he is ‘a prophet, like one of the prophets of old’ – the old order is passing away, a new order is being ushered in as part of God’s great plans for humanity and the whole of creation.

Even before John was making way for Christ, God himself has planned for Christ’s followers to become members of his family, to be adopted as his children.

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” ... an icon of the Baptism of Christ at the Tomb of Saint John the Baptist in the Monastery of Abu Maqqar (Saint Makarios) in Wadi Al-Natroun in Egypt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As Saint Paul tells us in the Epistle reading, the fulfilment of this is God’s will and God’s ‘pleasure’ (Ephesians 1: 5) – words similar to that heard after Saint John baptises Christ in the Jordan – when a voice from heaven says: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1: 11).

This plan, which will come to fruition when God’s eternal purposes are completed, is to unite all creation, all ‘heaven’ and ‘earth,’ in Christ.

In this way, we too are forerunners; we who know the wonder of God’s promises are the forerunners of those who will benefit from and be blessed by the completion of God’s eternal purposes, uniting all creation, all ‘heaven’ and ‘earth.’

To be a disciple is to follow a risky calling – or at least it ought to be so.

In the previous passage, Christ has sent out the disciples to preach repentance, to cast out demons, to cure sick people. But they are beginning to realise that the authorities are rejecting Christ.

Now with Herod’s maniacal and capricious way of making decisions, discipleship has become an even more risk-filled commitment.

But Herod’s horrid banquet runs right into the next story in Saint Mark’s Gospel where Christ feeds the 5,000, a sacramental sign of the invitation to all to the heavenly banquet – more than we can imagine can be fed in any human undertaking.

The invitation to Herod’s banquet, for the privileged and the prejudiced, is laden with the smell of death.

The invitation to Christ’s banquet, for the marginalised and the rejected, is laden with the promise of life.

Herod feeds the prejudices of his own family and a closed group of courtiers.

Christ shows that, despite the initial prejudices of the disciples, all are welcome at his banquet.

Herod is in a lavish palace in his city, but is isolated and deserted.

Christ withdraws to an open but deserted place to be alone, but a great crowd follows him.

Herod fears the crowd beyond his palace gates.

Christ rebukes the disciples for wanting to keep the crowds away.

Herod offers his daughter half his kingdom.

Christ offers us all, as God’s children, the fullness of the kingdom of God.

Herod’s daughter asks for John’s head on a platter.

On the mountainside, Christ feeds all, and although at the beginning all we can offer is five loaves and two fish, more than 5,000 are fed – and even then, 12 baskets are left over.

Saint Mark places these two stories, one after the other, so we can see the stark contrasts between two very different banquets.

During these tough times, people ought not to be ashamed if they and their families need food and shelter. Everybody has the right to food and housing.

Our lives are filled with choices.

Herod chooses loyalty to his inner circle and their greed.

Christ tells his disciples to make a choice in favour of those who need food and shelter.

Herod’s banquet leads to destruction and death.

Christ’s banquet is an invitation to building the kingdom and to new life.

But how many of us in our lives would rather be at Herod’s Banquet for the few in the palace that to be with Christ as he feeds the masses in the wilderness?

Who would you invite to the banquet?

And who do you think feels excluded from the banquet?

We may never get the chance to be like Herod when it comes to lavish banqueting and decadent partying.

But we have an opportunity to be party to inviting the many to the banquet that really matters.

Do you remember how as dusk was falling in the wilderness and the disciples saw the crowd were hungry? And they said to Jesus: ‘the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat’ (Mark 6: 35-36).

Are we in danger of confusing Herod, the harbinger of doom and death, with Christ, who comes that we may have life and have it to the full?

Who feels turned away from the banquet by the Church today, abandoned and left to fend for themselves?

Saint John the Baptist depicted on a pillar in the Church of the Four Martyrs in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Mark 6: 14-29

14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ 15 But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’

17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for 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. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias* came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ 23 And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ 24 She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Saint John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary … a scene in the chancel of Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect:

Lord of all power and might,
the author and giver of all good things:
Graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion,
nourish us with all goodness,
and of your great mercy keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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 with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

The fifth century mosaic of the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the Neonian Baptistry in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

II Samuel 6: 1–5, 12b-19

529, Thy hand, O God, has guided

Psalm 24:

48, God in his love for us lent us this planet
266, Hail the day that sees him rise
337, Lift up your heads, O ye gates
131, Lift up your heads, you mighty gates
134, Make way, make way for Christ the King
284, The golden gates are lifted up

Amos 7: 7-15

381, God has spoken – by his prophets

Psalm 85: 8-13:

695, God of mercy, God of grace
539, Rejoice, O land, in God thy might
140, The Lord will come and not be slow

Ephesians 1: 3-14:

84, Alleluia! raise the anthem
189, As with gladness men of old
318, Father, Lord of all creation
352, Give thanks with a grateful heart
99, Jesus, the name high over all
652, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
524, May the grace of Christ our Saviour
363, O Lord of heaven and earth and sea
313, The Spirit came as promised
9, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done! 451, We come as guests invited

Mark 6: 14-29:

460, For all your saints in glory, for all your saints at rest

In addition, Hymn 471 (Rejoice in God’s saints) may be suitable; it is the processional hymn in next Sunday's broadcast Eucharist recorded in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

The execution of Saint John the Baptist … a fresco in the Church of Analipsi in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

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