There is a different way: a way of truth and compassion and justice

Karen Kousseff, 15 July 2018

Ephesians 1: 3–14; Mark 6: 14–29

News headlines: ‘Thai football boys and coach rescued from cave’, ‘England football team in the World Cup’, ‘David Davis and Boris Johnson resign from the cabinet over Brexit’, ‘Donald Trump visit to Britain causes protests’.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m delighted to be here with you today; many thanks to Peter Seal for the invitation to preach, and to join you later for lunch.

I want to say to you, ‘Thank God for Gareth Southgate! Thank God also for John Volanthen and Rick Stanton’ (respectively the England football manager and the two British cave divers at the head of the extraordinary rescue in Thailand). These three men have shown us that there is a different way to be leaders, in a week when the news headlines have otherwise been dominated by certain politicians (UK and US) who are known for their manipulation – of people and the truth – for inciting division, being incapable of admitting they are wrong and for caring more about their own careers than the people they serve. These three men have modelled another way of leadership, shown us the power of being kind, compassionate, practical, generous and ego-free.

Today’s gospel reading

How appropriate that today we have a gospel story about a political leader who executed an innocent man rather than lose face. The story of Herod and the death of John the Baptist is a flashback in the middle of the account of how the disciples began their ministry. It’s the only time Mark uses such a device, and it’s quite long and detailed; considering he is known for the brevity and urgency with which he tells the story of Jesus, this should surprise us and make us pay attention.

Jesus has just sent his disciples out in twos to preach and to heal the sick in his name, and they are having considerable success. Mark says that King Herod heard about the healings and other miracles, ‘For Jesus’ name had become known’ (Mark 6: 14).

The flashback

News of this man performing healings and other miracles worries Herod, because he feels guilty. He thinks, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised’, and that’s why he has this miraculous power.

At the very beginning of his gospel Mark had introduced John the Baptist, describing his call to repentance and his baptism of Jesus. Following that we hear simply that after Jesus came out of the wilderness, John was put in prison (1: 14). It’s only now in chapter 6 that Mark fills in the rest of the story – of Herod’s lavish birthday banquet, the dancing, the rash promise made by him to his daughter and the consequent beheading of John.

The end of today’s reading is the end of the flashback, 6: 29, ‘When his disciples heard about it [the beheading], they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb’. But if you read on, verse 30 takes us back to the disciples: ‘The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught’. They all then try to go somewhere quiet to get some rest but are followed by a large crowd, which leads to the feeding of the five thousand – perhaps the world’s first and greatest bring and share lunch.

Why are these two stories side by side (both here and in the gospel of Matthew)? Let’s do a little comparing and contrasting.

Herod’s birthday banquet

This is hosted by ‘King’ Herod – not really a king, but a puppet ruler with a weak grip on a resentful people, desperate to hold on to power. So he lavishes hospitality to curry favour with the Galilean officials. Imagine the plates piled high with food, the wine, the fancy dishes, the ornate furniture, the exotic entertainment and dancing, the guests hand-picked as the most important people in Galilee, courtiers and yes-men.

His motives: self-serving, showing off his wealth, trying to impress, with an element of sexual politics. (‘She asked for it’ – does that ring any bells?) In front of the leaders of Galilee, Herod thinks more of his drunken promise and his own honour than the life of the prophet he is allegedly trying to protect.

Feeding the five thousand

This is hosted by Jesus, impromptu, unprepared-for, in the open air, with an impossibly small amount of food for a huge crowd of ordinary people who just want to hear Jesus, and are tired and hungry. The disciples want to send them home, but Jesus feels compassion for them and is able to provide enough food that there’s a huge amount left over.

Their compassionate and generous host cares about them and provides what they need. His power is with words; by example; shown in miracles. He also has power over the waves (creation), demons, disease; ultimately over death itself.

Jesus’ power is with words; by example; shown in miracles. He also has power over the waves (creation), demons, disease; ultimately over death itself.

The contrast

These two stories taken together reveal the starkest contrast between man-made power and the power of God in Jesus. The one is cloaked in superficial riches, the other in lowliness. The one is man-made and precarious, the other deep-rooted and divine. The ‘generosity’ of one is calculating and manipulative, for a chosen few. The generosity of the other is spontaneous, unconditional and available to all. Ultimately the one is literally life-destroying; the other is life-giving, for the body as well as for the soul.

There is another way

When we’re daily appalled by fresh examples of those in power behaving badly, it’s easy to think the whole world is going to hell in a handcart. That’s why I say, thank God for Gareth Southgate, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton. They have offered us glimpses of goodness that make your heart sing – all is not lost, there is still humanity that makes the headlines.

God is sovereign

Alongside the gospel story of Herod and the abuse of power, we have the beginning of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, reminding us in a great hymn of praise (that in the Greek tumbles out of his mouth in one huge sentence): God is sovereign. God, who made the world and made himself known in and through Jesus, chose us to be his children through salvation in Christ, and he lavishes on his children the riches of his grace – an inheritance we aren’t entitled to and can’t earn, but can all claim.

In The Message translation (Ephesians 1: 3–6; 11–12):

How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love.

It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.

Our prophetic calling

As we embark on the new cycle of mission action planning across the deanery, I thank God for all that he is doing through you and your work here to share the gospel – the news that there is a different way, a way of truth and compassion and justice, because that is God’s way and God is sovereign. It’s our prophetic calling to model this way and to share the riches God lavishes on us.

Who are the people who need to have God’s grace and love lavished upon them, and how can we play a part in doing it?

How will we model this other way, which can transform relationships and communities and the world?

I pray God’s blessing on you as you seek to do that. My closing prayer for you is from the psalm set for today (Psalm 85: 8).

May you continue to listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people. May his glory dwell in our land, in our communities and in our hearts. Amen.