Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Inauguration of Fulfilment

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Did you watch the inauguration, last Monday? Do you find yourself occasionally replaying a moment or memory of that event?

For me, it was seeing that vast ocean of people on the national mall. Stretching as far as the eye could see, that countless teeming mass of Americans standing in the chill of winter to see in person what they could have stayed at home and watched on the screen. I felt a real movement of spirit come over me as I saw so many tens of thousands (and more) small American flags whipping in the breeze, signs of such enthusiastic approval of what those crowds heard from the Capitol steps. I felt awe seeing this shoulder to shoulder solidarity, and I loved that moment when President Obama halted his exiting, turning around to catch one more glimpse of a panorama that may have refreshed the hope and the heart of this man as he starts his second term.

How long has it been since we last felt so moved by anything coming out of Washington? We’ve grown accustomed to a diet of frequent disillusionment and old boys behaving badly, young ones too disappointing our hopes for functional government. Times are tough, when the one unifying element among us is cynicism.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
--Emily Dickinson

Except, of course, when it comes to our hope for this nation, it will be more than a crumb that will be asked of us.

I used last Sunday a prayer from our Book of Common Prayer, a thanksgiving for heroic service, easy to adapt for Martin Luther King,Jr. In it this petition: “Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.”

The scripture readings we have today resonate with this message that true freedom requires disciplines—skills, abilities, commitments. From Nehemiah in the Hebrew scriptures we listen in on that day when the long-neglected Law of Moses was heard again, not to scold or restrict but to inspire and enlighten the people, to reveal their God-given freedom and rekindle their sensing of spiritual joy, themes that we hear echoed in Psalm 19.

Paul writing to the Corinthian Christians trains us also to recognize and welcome the chief work of the Holy Spirit, the uniting of evidently different people in mutual regard and commitment to the common good.

The Gospel writer Luke narrates the inauguration of Jesus’s public ministry, at our Lord’s hometown synagogue where he had returned after his baptism, “filled with the power of the Spirit of God.” When someone out of the ordinary appeared in the assembly on the Sabbath, a distinguished visitor or, in Jesus’s case, a hometown boy returning to the fold, the scroll of sacred scripture would be handed to him to read, giving the assembly a fresh voice to hear. Was it the assigned reading of that day, or did Jesus use his freedom to select the portion of the prophet Isaiah that we heard today?

He filled ancient words with burning, glowing, energizing power. At the heart of any inauguration, the people need to experience a revitalizing of connection of the present moment to both their founding vision from the past, and their opportunity to fulfill that mission in the future. American presidents do this by drawing upon iconic language—from Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King. Jesus does this by lifting up the great servant oracle in the Book of Isaiah. It is a passage that for centuries shaped Israel’s hope for a Messiah, the anointed agent of God who would inaugurate the reign of God on earth as in heaven.

And here is where Jesus delivers a speech that has been remembered only by the headline it got in the Nazareth Daily Post: “Carpenter’s son tells hometown congregation, ‘Isaiah’s vision fulfilled’!”

That is for sure what the first Christians believed about Jesus. And it was for sure what his Nazareth contemporaries, classmates, and former neighbors never expected him to say, especially about himself (as he appears to do). They thought he gave a marvelous speech, but the more they chewed on it, the more it left a bitter taste, as if he were distancing himself from them, leaving them with an abrupt sense of disconnect. When they push him on this, he pushes back. They want him to be their regional Messiah, the kind that brings pork barrel funding home to the district. In sharp contrast, he knows he is called to “bring good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… to let the oppressed go free…” and the more he spoke, the more examples he gave, the more they fretted that if he had his way Nazareth would become a dumping ground for all Israel’s disabled and disenfranchised. Not in their backyard, thank you. And then, says Luke, his townspeople led him to the brow of a hill, to hurl him off the cliff. This story, told early in Luke’s Gospel, feels like a forecasting of what will happen in the capital city, Jerusalem, on Good Friday.

Today’s Gospel is the story that completes the inaugural ceremony started at the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. The purpose of this inaugural story is to make clear the disciplines required by the freedom that God gives.

First and always, our primary discipline is to be open to the power of the Spirit of God. This is why, and how, and for what we pray. God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, not by our passive acquiescence but by our commitment to stand (and kneel and dance and work and play) where inspiration may reach us and move us.

And “us” is such an important and powerful word. The inspiring poet we heard on Monday, Richard Blanco, spoke about unity, the one sun that shines on the one land, embracing all sorts and conditions of people and their work and their hopes. One body, says the poet Paul, one Spirit has made us that way; keep drinking of that one Spirit. This imperative of becoming one is crucial to the Church, equally crucial to the nation.

In both cases, becoming one is not setting out on a new course to change into what we are not; Richard Blanco reminded us, as St. Paul does, that we are one—diverse as can be, but “e pluribus unum” by virtue of citizenship, “One Lord, One faith, One baptism” by virtue of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The requisite discipline is learning to behave, learning to communicate, learning to decide as members of the one body who are called to have the same care for one another—across the aisle in Congress, across denominations, across the gulf between the 1% and the 99, across the separations of what labels us as progressive and conservative. Becoming one is really being what we essentially are, but emptied or stripped of all the partial and partisan so we may be filled with the power of Spirit and truth.

Jesus’s inaugural message is that fulfillment comes as we accept disciplines of care: bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, setting free the oppressed, announcing the immediacy of God. It’s no accident that these should remind us of our baptismal vows. They too express the disciplines—the skills, the carings, the commitments, the abilities—by which people are fulfilled, and the reign of God on earth fulfilled.