Bishop Gene Robinson:
“Inauguration Day”

Over the holiday weekend, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-Daily Episcopalian.

Excerpted from In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, by Gene Robinson, and used here with permission from Seabury Books.

By Gene Robinson

Every four years, like clockwork, an army of speechwriters squirrel themselves away in an office in Washington, D.C. and write, and re-write, and probably write again, an inaugural address for the new president of the United States. It’s usually brief, sometimes it’s eloquent, and on rare occasions it’s even memorable. And whether you agree with the words or not, that inaugural speech tells you where the president’s heart is as he begins his awesome tasks.

When Jesus began his ministry, he delivered an inaugural address, too, most likely written without a team of consultants. And like those Washington speechwriters, Jesus also squirreled himself away for a while. Jesus always removed himself for a time of prayer before making his move.

After he was baptized by John at the River Jordan and received the mantle of “beloved Son” from his heavenly father, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness to think about what his life would be about. His experience there in the desert isn’t so much a story of Jesus’ external struggle with the devil as it is the story of his own internal struggle with himself – the temptation to use his gifts in wrong ways, to squander his privilege as God’s beloved. Jesus spends forty difficult days in the wilderness, and emerges filled with clarity about his mission, ready to begin his ministry.

First item on the agenda: A trip back to his hometown, where, like a good Jewish boy, he goes to the synagogue in which he’s grown up. To honor his return, the elders of his synagogue call him up front to read from the sacred texts. He chooses a passage from Isaiah, and in this “inaugural” speech, declares what’s on his heart and what his life and ministry will be all about.

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18‘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,

19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:7–21)

“Do you hear Isaiah’s prophecy?” Jesus asked the people gathered in that small-town synagogue on that Sabbath day. “What you’re seeing now is the beginning of the fulfillment of those prophetic dreams.” Standing before the people he’d known since childhood, Jesus declared that he would preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recover sight for the blind, and set free those who are oppressed. It was a memorable inaugural speech.

The rest of Luke’s gospel confirms that this is indeed what Jesus’ ministry is about – touching lepers, embracing outcasts, honoring women and respecting children in ways unknown in that culture, loving the poor, refusing to stone the adulterous woman, including Gentiles in the Kingdom, and telling stories of Good Samaritans and Prodigal Sons.

Jesus may have delivered that inaugural message a couple of thousand years ago, but the people who claim to be followers of Jesus must share in the ministry he proclaimed that day. Being Christian isn’t about building lovely churches and having beautiful music and a fine education program and youth group. It’s not about right doctrine, and it’s not even about being “good.”

If you want to know what being a follower of Jesus is about, just check out his inaugural speech. It’s about preaching good news to the poor—whether poor economically or in spirit. It’s about releasing prisoners from all kinds of captivity. It’s about restoring sight to people from all kinds of blindnesses. It’s about working to set free those who are oppressed.

What Jesus’ inauguration tells us – indeed, what Jesus tells us about himself – is that if you want to see God, this is where you need to go, this is what you need to do: preach the good news, release the prisoners, restore sight, bring freedom. You need to do these things with those who are most in need, those most desperate to hear of a God who loves them beyond imagining, with those who are most marginalized, most excluded, most irritating, most angry, most reprehensible, most unworthy, least acceptable by the world’s standards.

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t exactly fit my idea of good news. Frankly, I don’t like hearing this–partly because I’m one of the privileged. I have more money than I need, I’m blessed beyond my wildest dreams, I live in a house ten times the size of most families in the world. I’m more educated than most people in the world, have never known hunger, have seen a good part of the world, and consume more than my fair share of what the poor of the world produce. I like my comfortable circumstances and my mostly predictable life.

And yet in his inaugural speech, Jesus asks me, “How are you going to spend the privilege you’ve been given? You know of God’s love for you, and you draw enormous strength and comfort from that knowledge. But what good are you going to put that to? What risk are you going to take, what bold and daring thing are you going to do because of – and in service to — the Gospel? Because if you want to follow me, if you want to know me and be in relationship with me, this is where you’ve got to be: with the poor, with the prisoners, with the blind, the captive, the oppressed.”

A church is more than a mutual admiration society. It exists for more than itself. If we are followers of Christ, we need to go where Christ is – which, as the Gospel tells us, is always with the poor, the dispossessed, and the marginalized –in New Hampshire or New York, in Manchester or Belfast, in El Salvador or West Africa. The question that faces every single person who takes the title of Christian is exactly the same question that Jesus faced in the wilderness after his baptism: “How will we spend the privilege that is ours? What risks will we take for the Gospel? What good will come to others from our knowing God’s love for us?”

Will our participation in our own little part of the Body of Christ —our families, our parishes, our circles of friends– propel us into caring about the kind of ministry Jesus cared about? Or will we be content to stay safely warm and snug within our beautiful, well-cared-for walls? Will our “inreach” to one another be the security blanket we hold onto for comfort, or will our loving community give us the confidence and courage to engage in “outreach” to those who most need to hear that they too are loved by God?

And there are so many who don’t know of God’s love for them. Some live next door to you. Some sleep at night under bridges in our cities and towns. Some struggle with mental illness or addiction or AIDS in hospitals everywhere. Some scratch out a living in the dirt of a sub-Saharan African village. Who are the poor you can reach, and what is the good news they need and long to hear? Besides the obvious ones in your state or county, what kinds of prisons hold people captive, and what would set them free? Who are the blind, and by what are they blinded? What can you and God do to restore their sight? What fight are you willing to join in Jesus’ name to free someone else from their oppression?

If we are to see God, if we are to be doers of the Word and not just hearers only, we have to go where Jesus went. This is the bottom line: We cannot know God or follow Jesus without participating in the “pain of love and the work of justice.” Every time we gather together as the body of Christ, it’s inauguration day for the Church. It’s a time to celebrate the best news there is: that we are loved beyond our wildest imagining by the God of all creation. And it’s an opportunity to ask ourselves this: From this day forward, what will our life and ministry be about? Just like Jesus, we too are the beloved of God, so how will we spend that privilege? What risks will we take because we are secure in that love? By virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection the Spirit of the Lord is upon us just as surely as it was upon Jesus. And like Jesus, we too can – and must – go about the hard and holy work of fulfilling the Scriptures in our own lives.

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is Bishop of New Hampshire.

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