Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain & Ecumenical Associate with the Church of Scotland.
Sunday 15th of July 2018
15th in Ordinary Year B.2Sam. 6 1-5 & 12b-19. Mark 6 14-29.
Whatever the Cost
From the martyrs of the first century to Deitrich Bonhoffer of the twentieth, executed by the Nazis, a few days before the end of the Second World War, the cost of faithful witness has been high. Being willing to preach the Gospel no matter what the cost has been a mark of the church throughout its history. It remains so today.
My own church, the Methodist Church, has displayed its willingness to stand in this tradition through its history, and in many places across the world it continues to do so today. In recent years perhaps nowhere more so than the place of Methodism in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Taking the stories of David, and John the Baptist, as our inspiration I want to reflect upon this challenge, for we too must speak the truth in Love.
The Richmond room at MEthodist Church House. Missionaries going to Malaria areas of Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Expected to live for four weeks but still volunteers went in order that the they might witness for Christ.
We could add the names of Christians such as Martin Luther King Junior, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, who all illustrate the courageous determination to stand up for what we believe in, both inside and outside the church. We too must stand in this tradition.
At the “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference run recently by Bethlehem Bible College, Archbishop Michael Sabah, when asked about the relationships between Christians and Muslims in the context of ISIS and other jihadist Muslim groups, affirmed the good relations between Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land today – but said that the way things are developing, the time might come again in this land when Christians are called upon to face martyrdom for their faith.
The bible readings in this service illustrate the biblical precedent of this tradition. John the Baptist doesn’t face death because of his untiring work calling the people to repentance and baptism, but because of his outspoken criticism of Herod and his immorality. David celebrates the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem by dancing in the street and public praise of God, which some at least of those present see as behaviour being beneath dignity of a King. If we read on to the end of the chapter it is clear that David’s public showing of his devotion to God, was not appreciated by all. He wasn’t behaving as people thought a King should and he was shocking his own people. Words and actions can witness, we are called to both.
What is the extent of our willingness to speak out for our faith, to speak out for what is right no matter what the consequences are for us? In my visit to Syria last autumn I met people who have had to face that question. One conversation with a lady called Antoinette described how her three bothers had all died at the hands of jihadist Muslims rather than deny their faith.
John the Baptist’s criticism of Herod for marrying Herrodius was the logical consequence of his ministry. If he was calling the ordinary people to repentance, it was only right to do so for the rich and powerful. Christians are called today, as we have always been, to speak out for what is right. For some of us, and on some occasions it will be in public but just as often, it will be amongst our friends and family in normal conversation.
When is it right then to speak out? We do need to remember that we can be wrong. I wonder if the reason we so often hesitate to speak out is for fear of being wrong. There is a danger that the fear of being wrong is becoming a greater danger than being the possibility of being wrong itself. For fear of being wrong in what we say, we prefer to say nothing. This is no more than moral cowardice. To counter this there is the need to discuss social and political issues with other Christians, to pray about them and to think carefully about how they fit within the teaching of Christianity. If we do get it wrong there is no shame in saying so. That is being humble. Each of us does in the end though, have the responsibility to share the Christian message.
There are Issues today that face us that are ethical equivalents of John’s preaching against Herod.
As a British person I face the moral dilemma of how the British Government at the end of the 1960’s could, in order to build a military base, remove the 30,000 people of the Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia and simply dump them in the slums of Manilla, then fifty years later deny that they did anything wrong or that they should do anything to put right the situation today.
Here at St Andrews we have taken a stance as a church against the gross injustice that is taking place in Khan al Ahmen at the present time, as despite huge international pressure the village is poised under the very blades of bulldozers. The wonderful support for the people of Khan al Ahmen by bringing food here to church makes a clear stance – and those of us who have been to the village have made a statement by our presence.
Sometimes the hardest thing is to speak out for faith, for justice, against our own people – people we love and people who love us. Palestinians need to speak out against the injustices being done by the PA against the people of Gaza through their withholding of funds. Israelis need to speak out against the continuing use of live fire on the borders of Gaza against unarmed civilians.
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means to have just such a willingness to speak out for what is right, for what the spirit within us guides us to know as truth. It may not be a popular thing to do, even in the church, but when we see the courage of our forefathers in the faith, are we not also duty bound to do so?
David’s dancing before the Ark expressed in actions his devotion to God even if it was unacceptable to others around. John the Baptist’s willingness to speak out led to his death. Sometimes the hardest place to do this is within our local communities where people know us well, and within our own families. The challenge is to speak the truth in love. Both parts of that sentence are important, speak the truth, but also live out the love. Don’t allow the argument to get in the way of the relationship. The truth is spoken in the relationship of love – or else it fails to have integrity. It is hard, but it is a challenge at the heart of our faith. Are we willing to speak out the truth in love? May God grant us the courage to do just that.