“With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.”
* * *
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
* * *
“My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of all.”
* * *
“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
* * *
“We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.
“Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.
“Let freedom ring.”
* * *
You don’t have to be a history buff to recognize at least some of these quotations. They all have the same source, the inaugural addresses of presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and for a little variety, Nelson Mandela.
All inaugural addresses serve a common purpose. In them, leaders try to articulate their vision and mission for their people in the coming years.
Inaugural addresses usually don’t get bogged down in details of how that vision is to be achieved. Those kinds of speeches are for other times.
Ted Sorenson, speech writer for President Kennedy, said that the best inaugural addresses offer transcendent words that inspire not only those who first hear them, but generations to come.
During this season of Epiphany, many of our gospel readings are from what might be called Jesus’ inaugural address, better known as the Sermon on the Mount.
The sermon comes early in Matthew’s gospel. The adult Jesus has been baptized and led into the wilderness for 40 days to face his temptations, necessary preparation and training for the difficult work ahead.
He has called his disciples, who amazingly seem to know nothing of him before leaving their livelihoods and families to follow him.
He has begun healing people and attracting crowds wherever he goes, but so far the only teaching ascribed to him is merely an echo of what his cousin John has proclaimed before, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Now Jesus is ready to put forth his vision of what life in that kingdom will be like.
In our nation, inaugural addresses are given from a place of power, usually the steps of the Capitol. The president speaks from a podium with the presidential seal, a symbol of his power. People watching understand the symbolism involved.
Jesus, too, chooses a symbolic spot for his inaugural address. Matthew says, “Jesus went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak.”
Just as we recognize the steps of the U.S. Capitol as a place of power, a mountain held special import to those who follow Jesus.
Mountains are where we hear from God. The great prophets Elijah and Moses met God on the mountain. Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments.
But Jesus is more than a prophet; he sits on the mountain and begins to teach. Or as one commentator puts it: “He sits like a king on his throne, his disciples approach him like subjects in a royal court, and the king delivers his inaugural address, in which he lays out in considerable detail what life in his kingdom will be like.”
We missed the opening of his address because last Sunday’s regular readings were superceded by the story of the infant Jesus being dedicated to God in the Temple.
Here is the opening sentence, which must have stunned those who listened. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Right away Jesus lets his disciples know that life in the kingdom of God is radically different from life in the Roman empire, or any empire, including the one in which we live today.
The beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount are so familiar to us that they have lost much of their power, but they must have been startling to those who first heard them.
Blessed are those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemakers. Blessed are the persecuted, including you who will be persecuted for following me.
In the kingdom of God, which Jesus has come to initiate here and now, the world is turned upside down. What the world values, and what is valued in the kingdom are often very different things.
I recently read an interview with a teacher from an inner city school, who had this to say about her work:
“As jobs go, it’s a pretty lousy job, to work in a failing city school system. But as a vocation, it’s a blessing.”
That teacher understands something about the kingdom of God as Jesus is describing it in the beatitudes.
The Sermon on the Mount continues with the reading we heard in today’s gospel. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. “You are the light of the world.”
You, who are persecuted for my sake, are precisely the ones who will function as salt and light for the world.
Citizens of the kingdom, Jesus is saying, have responsibilities. The kingdom is for the world, here and now. Those who follow Jesus are not to retreat into personal piety, to wall themselves off from the world and it’s numerous problems and worries.
Followers of Jesus are to let their faith guide them, even when doing so puts them at odds with those around them. That is what it means to let your light shine.
Salt and light have an impact on the surrounding environment. Disciples are called to the market place, to the public arena, to transform the world.
But Jesus also warns that salt can lose its capacity to season. It can fail to do what it is intended to do. It can become useless, cast aside.
Catholic priest and writer Richard Rohr notes that the images Jesus uses to talk about the power and work of disciples are humble, in keeping with the kingdom.
“What modest images these are,” Rohr says. “Jesus is telling his disciples, ‘I’ve given you a great truth. I want you to hold the light and the salt in the middle of the world. As light or salt, it will do its work, and God’s purposes will be achieved.’
But Rohr says that though the images are modest, they are also hopeful. “The Church has always been at its most effective, I think, when it has been in a minority or even persecuted position,” he says.
“The Spirit works best underground, when we work from the bottom. Jesus surely never intended Christendom to be a gospel imposed by law and government and majority status.
“God knows we’ve tried,” he adds. “But as soon as the Church became establishment, as soon as we came into power, we lost the true power. Jesus says we are a mere mustard seed, we are salt, we are leaven, we are the hidden treasure in the field.
“Jesus is quite content, it seems, with such a humble position.”
And in the kingdom of God, so should we.