Head on Platter

July 7, 2019

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley using Jeremiah 38.1-6 and Mark 6. 7-29 at Mattins on Sunday 7th July 2019, the Third Sunday after Trinity.

According to recent surveys, Christians are the most heavily oppressed faith group in the world.  The Foreign Secretary has commissioned the Bishop of Truro to head up an enquiry into the situation worldwide, and around Easter the bishop published an interim report, pending the full report due later this year.  The interim report, which is on the internet. offers a region-by-region catalogue of the oppression and active persecution that is being carried out.  And it is an appalling list.

There are more obvious examples of oppression by Communist states, such as China.  The Pope’s recent accord with China over the appointment of bishops hasn’t eliminated repression of some Catholic churches, not to mention the abuse of Protestant communities.  But oppression extends to non-Communist regimes too, particularly at the hands of some Muslims and some Hindus. Do you remember Boko Haram capturing 276 school girls from Chibok in Nigeria five years ago?  The press photographs from the kidnappers showed the girls in traditional Muslim dress. But they were largely Christian girls, who had been coerced into conversion to Islam.  And these are just two examples.

However, it’s not just Christians who are singled out. Anti-Semitism is rife, as we know, and seems to be gaining ground, particularly in the West. It’s sometimes encouraged by the activities of the state of Israel, but this does not justify antagonism to Jews as Jews.  And, of course, Islamophobia is also rife, in this case with Islam itself often being confused violent Islamist extremism. The BBC has just reported China forcing hundreds of Muslim children into boarding schools, allegedly for re-education against extremism.

In the light of all this, this morning’s readings are pretty topical, about courageous men locked up for speaking out. These stories are both about Jew-on-Jew persecution, but the principle is the same: both victims following their consciences, led by their religious values.

The first is the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah in about 600BC. Jerusalem was under siege from the Babylonians, and Jeremiah consistently warned King Zedekiah and the people against further resistance in the face of insuperable forces.  Jeremiah was telling the truth, as events went on to prove.  But he was accused of sowing seeds of unpatriotic discontent, and dumped in a deep cistern, where he sank into the muddy bottom. Fortunately, he was later rescued by being hauled out with ropes.

The second victim wasn’t so lucky. St Mark writes about a King Herod, who wasn’t really a king. This was Herod Antipas, the Jewish tetrarch in charge of a large region of Palestine on behalf of the Roman occupiers. He and his wife were on holiday with his half-brother Philip and his wife, Herodias. Herod took a fancy to Herodias, and the passions seems to have been reciprocated.  The two of them divorced their spouses in order to get married, Herodias bringing along her daughter, Salome. All quite modern!

Now entered John the Baptist. John heard what Herod Antipas and Herodias had been up to, and roundly condemned this second marriage. Herod responded by locking John up in prison, though it was Herodias who seethed with wrath.

While John was in prison, Herod held a party for his birthday, and invited the great and good from the area to feast with him. Herodias’s daughter, Salome, came and danced for the assembled company.  Her suggestive dancing appealed to Herod. Perhaps a little tipsy by now, he promised her a reward of practically anything she cared to ask for. Salome, sensible girl, went and consulted her mother about this, and the result was a demand for John the Baptist’s head.

Herod rapidly came to his senses, and probably hugely regretted his promise.  But he couldn’t get out of it.  The head was brought in on a platter and given to Salome, who presented it to her gleeful mother.

Herod probably finished his days in France, perhaps with Herodias with him.  At any rate, a story grew up in France that, after getting John’s head, Herodias viciously mutilated it.  Here in the Cathedral there is a piece of 16th century French stained glass showing Herodias, with a vindictive look on her face, mutilating John the Baptist’s forehead with a knife.  It’s against the east window of the Morley Library, now part of the wonderful new Exhibition in the south transept.  Although we can’t get close to it, a pair of binoculars reveals Herodias’s vengeful wrath.

Well, I hope all that’s brightened your day!

We have Jeremiah and John the Baptist, both prisoners of conscience, and John a martyr for the consequences of his faith. The penalties of speaking truth to power. They were, of course, cases of Jew-on-Jew repression. Though it is possible to argue that John the Baptist was the first Christian, since it was John who first announced Jesus as the Lamb of God. Interestingly, Muslims revere John the Baptist as a prophet, because he prepared the ground for the arrival of Jesus, one of the great prophets recognised by Islam. And it is a mosque, the Great Mosque of Damascus, that has a shrine, a bit like one of our larger chantry chapels, containing John the Baptist’s head.

The three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have much in common, and it beats me why we can’t always live happily together. Ironically, Christianity is often viewed in the Middle East and the Sub-Continent as a western religion, and is associated with the worst of colonialism. These impressions do last, and even the Crusades play a damaging part in the collective memories of both east and west, now after hundreds of years.  But, particularly in the west, there are signs of hope, with much inter-faith dialogue, and simple living together and working together across all strata of British society.  Birmingham, where we lived and worked three times for a total of 17 years, was a classic example of inter-cultural and inter-faith mutuality, and no doubt largely still is. I could tell you stories of positive diocesan collaboration in the educational sector with both the Jewish and the Muslim communities.

So what can we do?  We can ensure that we take every opportunity to welcome interaction with local Jews and Muslims and their communities, and try and understand their position on social and educational issues.  The Jewish Seder, or Passover meal, that Canon Roly arranged before Easter was a great and happy experience, and maybe there will be more. The Syrian refugee families who have settled in Winchester and district are all Muslim, and continue to find support and friendship from the local Christian community.  From time to time, the Central Mosque in Southampton advertises open-days, and is a fascinating and hospitable place to visit. And, in our conversations, we can gently combat religious prejudice when we hear it.  In our increasingly secular West, there is much more that unites people of faith than divides us, and we should rejoice in that, and hope that our unitedness can spill into the wider world.

And let’s never forget that Jesus himself was a Jew, Jewish through and through.