Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 •
It’s been almost a week since the President’s Second Inaugural Address, and pundits are still talking about it. Some are saying that the President is finally coming out as a liberal. Some are saying the President’s agenda has been, and remains, staunchly centrist. Some suspect that his words and his actions will not match up.
Whatever you think about President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address, one thing on which I think we can probably agree is that it can’t be easy, picking the words you will use to define your term as a public servant. People watch and listen with close attention to try and gather signs about what kind of leader you intend to be, what kind of agenda you will pursue, and how it will effect them and those around them.
Leaders, standing in the gap between the world they have inherited and the world they hope to build, often turn to the past to find sources and resources to affirm and legitimize their agendas. President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address began:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
It is a carefully crafted piece of rhetoric. He begins his remarks by invoking the Constitution, our nation’s foundational document, and by doing so the President suggests that whatever he says next should be understood in light of that document’s purposes and promises. Then he says, “we recall” — again, placing whatever he says next in the past, as if it is already accomplished — “we recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.” In this era of diversity-awareness and multicultural education, that may sound like just one more bit of politically correct rhetoric, but I don’t think that’s true.
Because, in fact, it has always been an open question in the United States, and it remains so, whether or not we will imagine ourselves to be a people defined by something other than race, religion, or ancestry. Indeed, our country’s history is the story of an unfolding identity.
Built with the forced labor of enslaved people. Fueled by the unpaid and unrecognized contributions of women. Always receiving new immigrants from every land, but struggling to integrate them without forced assimilation. “American exceptionalism” has always been a hotly contested term. Are we a land full of people who consider themselves exceptional by virtue of their race, gender, and national origin; or is there some other characteristic that makes us exceptional? In his Second Inaugural Address, the President has reached back in time to our foundational documents and sifted through history to make the claim we need to hear here and now, that we are exceptional because of our conviction — however poorly executed — that we are each equal to one another, and that we are born with undeniable rights to life, freedom and self-determination.
Consider the parallels between the public inauguration of our President, observed earlier this week, and the events recorded in Luke’s gospel that we’ve read this morning. Jesus, having been tested in the wilderness, has returned to Galilee and has begun to preach in the synagogues where his message has been well received. So he returns home, to the place where he grew up, Nazareth. On the sabbath, as the congregation gathered for worship, Jesus stood up to read — assuming the role of a teacher and preacher — and he reaches back in time to one of the community’s foundational texts, the book of Isaiah.
The book of Isaiah, written to comfort a community in exile, was the perfect choice to read to the Jews during a time of Roman occupation. It was scripture that spoke to their circumstances. It was a document whose purposes and promises seemed crafted for people just like them, people hungry for hope and longing for freedom. Think about the way those of us born and raised in the United States hear the words, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s like a mantra. We know these words by heart. They are a part of our national identity. That’s how these words might have sounded to the Jews in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, “good news to the poor… release to the captives… sight to the blind… the oppressed go free.” Familiar words of comfort for people grown accustomed to the status quo.
Then Jesus does something to change the meaning of those words. As he finishes reading from this ancient, foundational document, and the people look to him to see what will happen next, Jesus reinterprets its meaning, saying,
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
These words, drawn from our foundational document, scripture, are not simply words of comfort. They are not just assurances of God’s favor. They aren’t even promises that God will someday act to free God’s people. These words from the past mean something for the present. Something for us, here and now. That’s what Jesus seems to be saying to the people.
Imagine, for centuries people had been reading these words from Isaiah
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…”
and yet they had assumed the “me” being referred to was someone else, someone yet to come, someone in the future, or maybe someone in the past. But, definitely, someone else. Good news, release, recovery, freedom — those were all in someone else’s hands.
But Jesus takes words drenched with time and wrings new meaning out of them for the present moment. These goods, God’s promises, aren’t meant for other people some other time, they are meant for all people, here and now, and it starts with me.
In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer — an author many of us here at St. Luke’s have read together in small groups — writes about the challenges facing our nation and its democracy today. He writes,
If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we — you and I — became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.
I love what Parker is saying here, because it convicts me. When I bemoan the state of American politics and public life, I have my favorite targets. I love to complain about the power of big money and corporate lobbyists shaping the national conversation about issues from gun control to health care. I can heap all kinds of scorn on elected officials and their failure to act to preserve the common good. These are easy conversations, since they perpetuate the lie that all power resides with someone else. I can be right, without having to do anything about it.
And this is where I think we too often resemble the good people of Nazareth in today’s gospel. They came to church hoping to hear a good sermon from one of their hometown heroes made good on the preaching circuit. They expected to hear something from Isaiah, or another of their people’s foundational prophets. They presumed the message would be what the message had always been, that they were God’s people, that God loved them and was coming to liberate them, someday.
But Jesus said something different. In his inaugural address to the people who knew him best, Jesus took ancient words of promise and made the bold proclamation that those promises were meant for here and now. He issued a call to action, saying “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
As we’ll hear next week, when the scriptures pick up right where this week’s story leaves off, this doesn’t go over very well. Already we can imagine why. It’s one thing to accommodate yourself to the structures of injustice and comfort yourself with the hope that things will one day change. It’s another matter altogether to be called into the struggle to bring the world into alignment with God’s vision for creation and community.
But that’s what this is. Jesus’ inaugural address is a summons. He has chosen his words carefully, and for effect. He has spoken them in public and now he will act on them. His term is just beginning, but we already know how it will end. People will be drawn out of complacency and accommodation to be part of a movement that is changing the world, still. It is good news for the poor. It is release for the captives. It is new vision for those who need a new worldview. It is freedom for the oppressed. It is here. It is now. It is happening.
Are you with us?