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John the Baptist – A Political Figure

As I have been working on the series of Saint John in the Wilderness icons, I have pondered the question of what this icon has to do with 2017.  And I have been trying to write about it.

A friend in Kentucky sent me a link to a sermon preached by Fr. Justin Gabbard, interim curate at Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington, Kentucky, on Sunday, January 22. He said what I have been thinking, only better. With his permission I am linking to the recording of his preaching and sharing the written text.

There is much to ponder here.

Listen to Fr. Justin’s sermon.

Justin Gabbard

Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23 (Trump Inauguration)


Trinity Episcopal Church

Today’s Gospel reading begins with an arrest. There is so much going on in this passage that it’s easy to overlook this bit of news. John the Baptizer was arrested, bound, and held as a political prisoner. And in a few short months he would be beheaded. Let me say that again. John the Baptist was arrested and was murdered for speaking out against a corrupt government.

I’m emphasizing this point because its key to understanding the political environment in which Jesus begins his ministry.

If any of you watch HBO’s Game of Thrones then you have a pretty good idea what we’re talking about here. Herod the Great and his descendants were just like House Lannister; powerful, ambitious, and utterly ruthless.

At this point in our story, the region of Galilee was being ruled by Herod Antipas, the youngest son of Herod the Great, a position he inherited, though only after his father killed three of his older brothers. Like I said, these were ruthless people.

It was during the reign of Antipas that John began his ministry, baptizing in the River Jordan and preaching economic justice, charity, and the coming of the kingdom of Heaven. “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.”

He also publically criticized Herod Antipas for his corruption and immorality, especially for his decision to marry Herodias, his niece and the wife of his step-brother. John the Baptist spoke truth to power and for that he was silenced.

The Gospel of Matthew later tells us that it was actually Herodias who demanded John’s execution. In one of the Bible’s most scandalous stories, Herodias’ daughter Salome dances for her step-father, Antipas, who in return, offers her anything in his kingdom, anything in his power to give. Herodias convinces Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist, which Herod reluctantly produces.

But I could talk about this all morning. I love this period of history: everything from the Maccabean Revolt to the rise of the Herodians.

It’s a fascinating slice of history, ripe for an HBO miniseries. If you think Biblical history is dull take a look at 1st and 2nd Maccabees… or watch Rita Hayworth perform the Dance of the Seven Veils for Charles Laughton.

The reason I took the time to revisit John’s backstory is because the arrest of John the Baptist casts a long and ominous shadow over the entire ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus himself was a follower of John as were many of his disciples and when John is arrested Jesus has to flee Nazareth to the backwater village of Capernaum.

You might say that the arrest of John the Baptist is the catalyst that kick starts Jesus’ ministry. It’s not the reason for his ministry, just the event that propels him to action. The message we hear Jesus carryings into the world is the same message we heard from John; “Repent. The kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.”

Consider the courage it took for Jesus to do this, to step back out in public and offer the same teaching that put John in such grave danger.

The idea of the kingdom of Heaven, a central theme of both John and Jesus’ teaching, was definitely perceived by both the Jewish and Roman authorities as a direct threat to their rule, because it was. Like John before him, Jesus was putting the powers that be one notice.

You may have all the power and the wealth and the privilege now, but the time is fast approaching when God’s justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a might stream. Repent. The Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.

Now, when he calls us to repent, Jesus, like John before him, is asking for remorse and amendment of behavior, but on a deeper level he is also asking us to fundamentally reorient ourselves to a different reality.

To repent means turning away from these earthly kingdoms and turning toward the kingdom of God. The earthly kingdoms don’t’ cease to exist, not yet, the penitent just refuse to be defined by their terms, ruled by their laws, or judged by their values.

While these earthly kingdoms, like that of Herod Antipas and his Roman backers is one of fear, oppression, and greed, the Kingdom of Heaven is defined by justice, liberation, and love.

Jesus promises us that if we do this, if we reorient ourselves, if we turn our hearts toward the Kingdom of God, we will discover that we are dwelling there already.

That’s all he sermon I had prepared for you this morning. Did anything else happen in the world this week that I should talk about?

There is a preaching maxim that says that if 30% of your congregation is thinking about a given issue, you should preach on it.  I don’t need a poll to tell me that 30% of you are probably thinking about the inauguration of President Trump.

I know some people think it’s inappropriate to talk about politics in church, especially from the pulpit, but I disagree. One need only look to today’s Scripture readings to see that the prophecy of John and the ministry of Jesus are completely inseparable from 1st century Judean politics.

These men were players on the political stage and the Gospel has political implications that the powers that be have always recognized and feared.

The church isn’t a private holiness club. We are not called to quarantine ourselves, but to be actively engaged in the world.  Like John the Baptist, we are called to speak truth to power, to fight for justice and equality, and to speak for those who have no voice. We are called to be lobbyists for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That being said, I think we can be political without being partisan. After all, no politician and no party have a monopoly on truth and that people of good faith can and will disagree on questions of policy and principle. It’s a perilous thing to convince yourself that God is exclusively on your side.

Mixing partisan politics with the church can also rob the church of its prophetic voice. We often forget that the separation of church and state also exists to protect the integrity of the church. Political power can be very seductive.

When the church becomes too closely linked with one political party or movement, it may find itself negotiating compromises with the Gospel for the sake of political expediency. Then its reduced to a kind of civic religion that exists primarily to organize voters and confer legitimacy on its chosen party. Such was the ultimate fate of the Moral Majority in the 1980’s

The church can only be effective advocate for the Gospel when it maintains its integrity. And it does this by remaining engaged in but completely independent from the political system. Then it can speak with a clear, prophetic voice; preaching God’s love and justice to whoever happens to be in power. This is our calling.

In his farewell address to the nation, President Obama urged all Americans to combat the growing partisanship and factionalism in this country by escaping our bubbles and forming relationship with people across the political divide. I am very proud to say that Trinity Church is one of a dwindling number of places where that is possible.

We have conservative members and liberal members, socialist and libertarian members, independent member, disinterested members, and members who refuse to be labeled. That political diversity is a strength and a virtue. It’s why I like going to church here.

I know there are many people across our nation and in this church who voted for President Trump because they felt ignored and abused by a political class that no longer works for the interests of the American people.  I understand this feeling.

It is my hope that President Trump lives up to those hopes and dreams; that he is able to break the power of special interests and disrupt politics as usual; that he truly is a champion of the people.

I also know that there are many people who were dismayed by Trump’s victory because his campaign rhetoric made them fear for the rights and even the safety of vulnerable members of our community. These also are legitimate concerns.

It is my hope that as President, Donald Trump will work to unite our divided nation; that he will speak to our hopes rather than our fears;

and that he will be a President for all the peoples of this nation.

I abide in hope, but I also keep my eyes wide open.

Today marks day two of the Trump administration and I don’t think the pundits, the press, or anyone in Washington has any idea what this president will do with his time in office. I certainly can’t tell you what he’ll do. Only time will tell.

What I can tell you is what this church will do. This church will seek and serve Christ in all persons. This church will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. This church will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ

This is our calling. Its what we do regardless of who happens to be in office.

Trinity Episcopal Church will continue to serve those who are poor, homeless, or suffering in body, mind, or spirit; and to speak for those who have no voice.

We will continue fighting for justice and equal rights for all people regardless or their race, gender, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation.

We will continue to practice radical hospitality, welcoming all of God’s children into our parish family, affirming the dignity and humanity of all people; and providing a safe space for all those who have been rejected by our society.

Trinity will continue to promote responsible stewardship of God’s creation, promoting sustainability and fighting against environmental degradation.

Most of all, however, we will strive to be a reflection of God’s love in this world.
This is our calling. It’s who we are and what we do. We are lobbyists for the Gospel. And were putting the powers that be on notice. Repent. The Kingdom of God has drawn near.