There is probably no more powerful symbol of our beloved country than the statue of liberty that stands proudly in the New York City harbor. Gifted by the people of France to their friends in the United States in the 19th century, it continues to stand as a beacon of the very best of our country. While many of us know this famous structure by its common name, the statue of liberty, I was intrigued to find out recently the formal name that this symbol of our country carries, given it by the French – Liberty Enlightening the World.
For the millions of immigrants and those seeking asylum in our country down through the decades, this title captures the power of its meaning for the peoples fleeing despotic governments, demagogues, poverty, and racism, to taste and breath the endless opportunities that freedom promises in this blessed land of opportunity.
In many respects, this symbol of our deepest and most honored identity as a nation reflects the power and challenge of the Lord’s own words to us enshrined in the Gospel of Matthew. You are the light of the world. My friends, our identity as followers of Jesus is to be that light in the midst of the all too common darkness that still enslaves so many of our sisters and brothers in the human family.
It was this image of our nation as a light for others that remained a favorite theme of our 40th President, Ronald Reagan. In his farewell speech to the nation on January 11, 1989 he eloquently stated:
"I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still."
I find these words all the more eloquent and prescient as we find ourselves in this present moment of tension in our country. I have spoken often homiletically, invoking that beautiful image of Abraham Lincoln, that of being attentive to the better angels of our nature. Now, more than ever, it is that attentiveness that is needed.
As Christians, it is of course, the call of Jesus, his way, his good news, the enduring values that he himself exemplified so powerfully in his life and ministry that must be the north star of our own lives that bear his name. It must be this vision that shapes all our choices and decisions as faithful citizens of this land. For it is this vision and its values that remain as a healthy corrective to the nativism, misguided nationalism and isolationism that are so unworthy of our great nation and its heritage.
The enduring words of the Prophet Isaiah, that we have heard this day, provide a challenging clarion call to us all of our deepest and truest identity as citizens of this land of freedom and opportunity:
"Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…"