Beautiful Speech

Luke 4:14-21
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

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Seneca Falls. Selma. Stonewall. Three words, three names strung together in a speech this past Monday. It was a moment for our nation not unlike the moment portrayed in the Old Testament lesson for today. (Nehemiah 8)

Once upon a time, long, long ago, the great ancestors lost the precious words that had formed them as a people. They stumbled in darkness. And then the precious words were found. Ezra summoned all the people to meet in the public square. All stood as Ezra read the precious words that had been lost. The people wept when they heard the precious words.

There’s more to that story but I’ll stop there. And I’ll get back to Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall and to the gospel for today but first I’d like to bask a little longer in the glow of the pageantry, poetry and patriotism of the Presidential Inauguration this past Monday. The inauguration was a great day for patriots and all who love beautiful speech in word or song.

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountains majesty across the fruited plain. It was beautifully sung by James Taylor—one of many goose bump moments for me.

The inauguration was a great day for patriots and all who love beautiful speech.

We invoke the prayers of our grandmothers, who taught us to pray, ‘God make me a blessing.’ Let their spirit guide us as we claim the spirit of old.

There’s something within me that holds the reins. There’s something within me that banishes pain. There’s something within me I cannot explain. But all I know, America, there is something within. There is something within.

In Jesus’ name and the name of all who are holy and right, we pray. Amen.

Those were the words of Myrlie Evers-Williams, the first woman ever to offer the invocation at a presidential inauguration.

The inauguration was a great day for patriots and all who love beautiful speech.

Richard Blanco is the son of Cuban immigrants. He happens to be gay. He read his poem “One Sun” that ends with these words.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always — home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country — all of us —
facing the stars
hope — a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it — together

And, of course, there was the President’s speech.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.

Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall and a star guiding an endless journey.

At Seneca Falls in July 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered a beautiful speech calling for voting and other social rights for women. The speech ends with these words:

In every generation God calls some men and women for the utterance of truth, a heroic action, and our work today is the fulfilling of what has long since been foretold by the Prophet Joel (2:28)

"And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy."

We do not expect our path will be strewn with the flowers of popular applause, but [rather] over the thorns of bigotry and prejudice will be our way, and on our banners will beat the dark storm clouds of opposition from those who have entrenched themselves behind the stormy bulwarks of custom and authority, and who have fortified their position by every means, holy and unholy. But we will steadfastly abide the result. Unmoved we will bear it aloft. Undauntedly we will unfurl it to the gale, for we know that the storm cannot rend from it a shred, that the electric flash will but more clearly show to us the glorious words inscribed upon it, "Equality of Rights."

That was Seneca Falls 1848 and this is from Martin Luther King’s beautiful speech in Selma, Alabama in March 1965 calling for voting rights for African-Americans.

I know you are asking today, how long will it take? How long will prejudice blind the visions of men and darken their understanding? When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame?"

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

How long? Not long, because: 

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

That was Selma 1965.

Then there was the clash in the streets at Stonewall Inn in New York City that brought the oppression of homosexuals into the public eye on June 28, 1969.

I didn’t find a Stonewall speech but I did find an essay by Tony Kushner. Kushner is the screenwriter of the movie Lincoln. He wrote this essay 20 years ago.

On my seventh birthday, midsummer 1963, my mother decorated my cake with sparklers she’d saved from the Fourth of July. This, I thought, was extraordinary, fantastic, sparklers spitting and smoking, dangerous and beautiful atop my birthday cake. Hers was a gesture we both understood, though at the time neither could have articulated.

Stonewall, the festival day of lesbian and gay liberation, is followed closely by the Fourth of July; they are exactly one summer week apart. The [nearness] of these two festivals of freedom is important, at least to me.

Lesbian and gay freedom is the same freedom celebrated on the Fourth of July. Of this I have no doubt; my mother told me so, back in 1963, by putting sparklers on that cake. She couldn’t have made her point more powerfully if she’d planted them on my head: “[Son], this fantastic fire is yours.”

Seneca Falls. Selma. Stonewall. We are a pilgrim people following a guiding star, a fantastic fire.

Beautiful speeches are woven into our national heritage for which we can be proud. But beautiful speeches are not limited to our nation or our time. In fact those speeches, including the Declaration of Independence, are shaped from a distant place, by a vision older than Jesus.

And that brings us to the gospel story for today. Once upon a time, 2000 years ago, Jesus reached back 600 years to a beautiful speech by the prophet Isaiah.

Jesus came to Nazareth, his hometown. He went to the village Meeting House on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood at the lectern and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's good favor."

Then Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him and he said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Today this scripture is fulfilled. Fulfilled—just as the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton at Seneca Falls fulfilled the words of the prophet Joel. Which is to say: Today these beautiful words are coming alive.

Yes, words are powerful. But it takes more than beautiful speech to change our hearts, our nation and the world. It takes more than words and speeches. It takes a people. It takes a people to fulfill them, a people who will walk this endless journey together.