Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
These are the words that are on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The statue was the brainchild of a Frenchmen named Bartholdi. But the words come from the sonnet The New Colossus written by Emma Lazarus, an American poet and activist. She wrote the poem and donated it to an auction to raise funds to build the pedestal for the statue. It took several years for Americans to embrace Lady Liberty. In fact, when it was unveiled, suffragettes protested it. The idea that an enormous female figure would stand in the New York harbor representing liberty when American women had not been give the right to vote seemed incongruous to them. Even at its unveiling there were questions about whether the Statue of Liberty and its subsequent plaque tell the true story of America.
A little over a year ago, in a heated debate between a journalist and a senior White House official this subject came up again. Does the Statue of Liberty and the poem on its pedestal speak for how America lives out its ideals? We are in a time of deep struggle for the soul of America. We have been here before.
We were in the midst of this struggle back in the sixties during the Civil Rights movement. Rev. Dr. King encouraged this nation to see its racism and be the America it claimed to be. King said, “All I say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”
This year I happened upon the poem that Rebecca read this morning, Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes. Hughes’ paternal great grandmothers were enslaved African-American women. His paternal great-grandfathers were slave owners. His maternal grandmother was one of the first women to attend Oberlin College and her first husband was killed in John Brown’s raid on Harper Ferry. His heritage reflects the complexity of most African Americans. Hughes wrote this poem on the train as he traveled to see his mother upon learning that she had cancer. He has traveling across a Depression weary America in 1935.
When I first stumbled upon this poem I read it once and then read it again and then sat and read it again. I couldn’t stop thinking about the words:
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
I thought back to my growing up years in the Midwest where every year my classrooms were filled with children who looked so much like me and came from middle class families just like mine. In those classrooms I listened to my fellow students pledge allegiance to the flag…”with liberty and justice for all.” On Fridays we had music class and we sang about America with words like “Sweet land of liberty” and “God shed his grace on thee.”
Then every evening after dinner my family would turn on the evening news and watch the Civil Rights movement unfold. That is how I learned there was not liberty and justice for all…that America was the land that never has been yet…that the statement Make America Great Again speaks a voice of privilege.
Today Eric read to us the first scene of Jesus’ public ministry, according to the Gospel of Luke. Jesus stands up in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth…the place where he grew up, the place where people know him as Joseph and Mary’s son. He is handed the scroll of Isaiah and he chooses the passage to read and by choosing Isaiah 61 he announces this life changing moment:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus announces that his good news isn’t for the middle class and above. He isn’t speaking to the powerful. Jesus announces good news for the oppressed…for the huddled poor. But what is revolutionary about what Jesus says is what he does next when he hands the scroll back and sits down, the posture for teaching. He says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
He doesn’t say, “I have a dream that one day….” He doesn’t say, “One day, the kingdom of God will be.” He says, “Today…”
This…right now is the life changing moment. God has entered the world in the flesh and no one can be overlooked. Right now, no one can be left oppressed. No one can be kept from the good news. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. God is alive. God is present. Today.”
The Kingdom of God is not a dream…it isn’t an intent….it isn’t a place. The Kingdom of God is today. It is choice. It is a way of living. It is our job….our project….our mission….our home.
America is more than a failed dream. It is the place where we Kingdom of God livers call home. And if we are faithful to the calling on our lives then the dream becomes the reality, the choice makes it so. It isn’t America will be. It is America is.
In August of 1963, King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, another statue that calls to the soul of America…that place dedicated to emancipation. The people there were demonstrating, like the suffragettes at the Statue of Liberty before them. King said:
We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now…now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
Today, my friends. Today. God is alive in the world. The incarnation is present. The spirit of the Lord has anointed us to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God alive in the world…in our nation…in America. Today.