Did you watch the inauguration on Monday? Some of you may not have been able to watch the festivities live, but perhaps you caught some of the key moments on the news or from pictures and clips your friends posted. What was your favorite moment? Was it the oath of office or the inaugural address? Or was it the Obama girls taking pictures of their parents kissing before the parade started? Perhaps it was Beyoncé’s rendition of the national anthem, or Senator Chuck Schumer saying “Wow” after Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Or how about Al Roker jumping around like a little boy who just hit the ball out of the park?
I loved it all. More than any one thing in particular, I love the fact that the inauguration is a big, public liturgy with pomp and circumstance, music, prayers and poetry, parade and dance – an event that brings us together when there’s so much that pulls us apart.
It was President Obama’s second inaugural address, and like 43 presidents before him, he spoke about his vision for the country and the priorities of his administration. Against the backdrop of this week, Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus ministry in Galilee reads like an inaugural moment, doesn’t it? Jesus has begun to teach, and word about him has spread through all the surrounding country. And now the famous son returns to Nazareth where everybody knows him and word of mouth has stirred up all kinds of expectations, and on the Sabbath day, at the synagogue he gets up to read.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me 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.”
This is not just a random reading on a random Sabbath, this is the inaugural address of God’s anointed. This is his vision and mission, the words that capture who he is and what he is about: good news, and specifically, good news for the poor. Then Jesus sits down and all eyes are fixed on him; all are excited to hear his comments, hungry for a teaching to remind them that these ancient promises are still theirs, despite the daily reality of poverty, foreign occupation, and oppression. And he says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled.”
As far as sermons or Sabbath talks are concerned, that one is about as short and to the point as it gets. ‘That’s who I am,’ Jesus says, ‘that’s my life’s purpose, that’s what I’ve been anointed and sent to do.’ The sermon is short and to the point, because his entire life is the teaching. He is good news for the poor in person.
Now this is the part where you need to listen very carefully, because the preacher is going to make a little leap, and if you miss it you will find yourself wondering how we ended up where we’ll be in just a moment. Jesus’ entire life is his teaching, and because we are baptized in the same Spirit whose power filled him when he came to Galilee, we are part of his continuing proclamation. Jesus’ life is ours, and our lives are his. His mission is our mission. Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth was short and to the point, because the church, in the power of the Spirit, continues to bring good news to the poor today. The church, of course, is and has been all kinds of things, but in the power of the Spirit, we are good news for the poor, messengers of liberation, and ambassadors of reconciliation.
Good news for the poor – that is as simple as Room in the Inn, as simple as making a bed in the fellowship hall and cooking a meal, so a homeless veteran can enjoy the warmth and fellowship of home for a night. But it can’t end there; we can’t stop asking why there are 4000 homeless men, women, and children in Nashville alone. We can’t stop asking ourselves and one another why so many of us are being pushed to the margins of our communities and beyond.
I want to tell you about Emma Faye Stewart; actually, I invite you to imagine for a moment that you are Emma Faye Stewart, a thirty-year-old, single African American mother of two. You were just arrested as part of a drug sweep. You are innocent. You don’t use drugs, let alone sell them. You just happened to be there. After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, saying the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. You didn’t do anything wrong. Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty just so you can return home to your children. You are sentenced to ten years probation and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs.
You are now a drug felon. This means you are no longer eligible for food stamps. This also means that on any job application, you have to check the box that you have been convicted of a felony. And it means that you cannot vote for at least twelve years, but that’s the least of your worries: You are about to be evicted from public housing, and once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.
You think it couldn’t get any worse? It can and it does. A judge eventually dismisses all cases against the defendants who did not plead guilty. At trial, the judge finds that the entire sweep was based on the testimony of a single informant who lied to the prosecution. You, however, Emma Faye, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.
What do you hear when you hear Jesus proclaiming freedom for the oppressed? What comes to mind when you hear him talk about release for the captives? I’m asking you, Emma Faye, because I want to know how the good news of the kingdom that Jesus is and proclaims can become good news for you today. I’m asking you, Emma Faye, because Christ tells me that we are one in him. Yes, I can live my life quite comfortably without you, but not in the kingdom where he rules with grace and truth. He has made us his own, and that makes us each other’s business. I am beginning to see how you are being oppressed by grave injustice, but I don’t see clearly yet, and I believe that it is Christ through you who will restore my sight. I am beginning to see how your captivity is also mine, and we can only be free together.
I’m not making this up. Emma Faye’s story is based on an actual case, and sadly, it’s not uncommon at all, especially among the poor.
Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” The reality of being members in the one body of Christ lies at the opposite end of “I have no need of you” and finds expression in the words, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to look Emma Faye in the eye while hearing or remembering these words.
A few days before Christmas, a rabbi, a priest, and a minister went to prison. I know it sounds like the beginning of a joke, but a group of prisoners at Riverbend had invited us to come over on a Saturday night to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. We sat in the chapel together, Christians, Muslims, non-believers, Buddhists and Jews, and we had one of the most rewarding conversations I can remember. But what I want to share with you today about that night is a question one of the insiders asked at the beginning, when we went around the circle introducing ourselves. He looked at me across the room and said, “Where is the church? Do you even know we’re here?”
No, man, we don’t, not really. Most of us haven’t been paying attention for decades. We like to think that there are chaplains for that, and we gladly leave the prison ministry to our brethren on the right. We live our lives quite comfortably without you. We didn’t notice that the number of incarcerated Americans has quadrupled since 1980 and that more than two million of our people are now locked up, and for increasingly longer terms, even for non-violent crimes. We’re surprised to hear that the United States leads the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens, and that we imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth or in human history, including China which has four times our population.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” Jesus said in his inaugural address. “He has sent me 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.” It was a reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, but Jesus didn’t quote the entire verse at the end; “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” is what Isaiah wrote. Now I don’t think Jesus dropped that half-verse by accident, do you? I believe he dropped it because the good news he embodies and proclaims isn’t about vengeance or retaliation, but rather about reconciliation and the restoration of life.
That’s something we need to work out together, and we can’t do it without the men and women on the other side of the prison walls. Let’s pray about that. Let’s talk about that; and the next time I go over to Riverbend, I want one or two of you to come with me.
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (p. 95). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.