Sunday, 15 July 2012

An invitation to the banquet ... but which banquet?

‘They came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb’ (Mark 6: 29) … Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Abu Maqqar (Saint Makarios) in Wadi al-Natroun, Egypt, shows the crypt of Saint John the Baptist below the northern wall of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 15 June 2012,

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin

11 a.m.: Solemn Eucharist,

Sung by the Saint Bartholomew’s Consort

Victoria, Missa Ascendens Christus in altum
Tye, Omnes Gentes

II Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b-19 or Amos 7: 7-15; Psalm 24 or Psalm 85: 8-13; Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6: 14-29.

Hymns: 205, 337, 378, 277, 206.

Proper 10 – Year B.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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 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 this morning, the fulfilment of this is God’s will and God’s “pleasure” (verse 5) – words similar to that heard after 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?

May all we think, say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Merciful God,
you have prepared for those who love you
such good things as pass our understanding:
Pour into our hearts such love toward you
that we, loving you above all things,
may obtain your promises,
which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of our pilgrimage,
you have led us to the living water.
Refresh and sustain us
as we go forward on our journey,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin, on Sunday 15 July 2012.