Trinity 6 2021: Dissidents in our culture.
Mark 6. 14-29
The party is out of control. Herod is drunk. A young girl, a teenager called Salome, starts dancing for him in front of all the men there. She’s the daughter of his brother’s wife Herodias. Herod had an affair with Herodias and then divorced his own wife to marry her. Now, after he watches her daughter dance, he makes Salome an impossible offer. He offers her half his kingdom. You can tell that he’s drunk. He doesn’t have a kingdom to give away. He only rules as a client of the Romans. They’re not going to let him give away half his kingdom. Salome isn’t drunk. She’s sober and she’s calculating. She asks for something that he can really give her, something that her mother badly wants. She asks for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. And she gets it.
John dies because he told the truth. He told Herod that it was sinful to take his brother’s wife. John spoke the truth to power. He would not be silenced. In the 9th century the Venerable Bede said in one of his Homilies: “[St] John [the Baptist] gave his life for [Christ]. He was not ordered to deny Jesus Christ, but he was ordered to keep silent about the truth”.
He would not keep silent about the truth and so he died for Christ who is the Truth.
It’s much easier to be silent sometimes. It’s much easier to compromise.
But if we keep silent about the truth we deny Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth and the life. We cannot compromise with lies. You remember what Our Lord says to the angel of the church in Laodicea:
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot...So, because you are lukewarm…I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
If we decide to live not by lies, if we decide to live in truth, then that will make us dissidents in our culture.
We live in a culture dominated by the “whatever” attitude. We live in a culture dominated by a lukewarm indifference to what is good and what is the true, a culture that believes beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You must have heard people say, “well, maybe that’s true for you but not for me,” or “who are you to impose your values on me?” or in the immortal words of the Dude in the film “The Big Lebowski,” “well, that’s just like your opinion, man.”
Is seems like the only moral absolute left is the obligation to tolerate all points of view.
Some Christians have warned that, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of [our own] ego[s] and desires.”
By contrast, if the ancient philosopher Thales said, “the world is full of gods,” what Christians say is, “the world is full of values.”
Christians say that there is a hierarchy of values. Beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder - unless the beholder is God.
God saw that His creation “was very good” and so that value is objective. It it is inherent in created objects and not merely in our minds.
Some things are actually more valuable than others. For example maybe smoking a cigar when you get back from church is subjectively enjoyable –it feels good to you - but it’s not good in itself. Contrast that with the experience of witnessing John the Baptist dying because he dared to speak the truth to power, or a more recent example, someone forgiving a grave injury, someone like Gee Walker from Liverpool. She forgave the two men who killed her teenage son Anthony in a racist attack even though she said her heart was still broken.
An act of forgiveness like that shines forth with the mark of importance, with the mark of something noble and precious. It moves us and provokes our admiration. We are not only aware that this act occurs, but that it is better that it occurs, better that Gee Walker acted in this way rather than in another. We are conscious that this act is something that ought to be, something important.
Enjoying a cigar can only ever be subjectively important in so far as it gives us pleasure; while the act of forgiving someone, is important in itself.
So Christians say that the world is full of values. They say that there is a hierarchy of these values. Some things are more valuable than others.
They also say that these values form a cosmos, an ordered whole, and that these values point beyond themselves and give us an intimation of God.
Our culture divides the world between the neutral facts that really exist, and the “values” that we project into things on the basis of our feelings.
But Christians say that value is not a psychological projection but as the inner splendour of being.
As St Thomas Aquinas wrote: ‘The beauty of God is the cause of the being of all that is.’
So we live in universe that is so much more wonderful than those around us realise. Christians acknowledge the splendour of a reality that has a value that is not given to it by our desires and egos. The whole point of the moral life is to cultivate the appropriate response to these objective values, to respond to their demands. And we can come to realise what these objective values demand of us in the same way that John the Baptist did.
What was it that gave birth to this life, to this interiority so strong, so upright, so consistent, given so totally to God in preparing the way for Jesus? How did he come to realize that he was sent to bear witness to the light… the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
The answer is simple: it was born from the relationship with God, from prayer, prayer, which directs his life.
John was the divine gift for which his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for so many years. He is the answer to prayer and in the desert he becomes a man of prayer, a man in permanent contact with God.
Through prayer we can come to see the world more clearly as full of values. Through prayer we come to understand what we must do to respond to these values – to the beauty and the goodness and the truth that inspire us. And so through prayer we too can bear witness to Christ who is the Light and the Truth. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr James Lawson, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 11/07/2021