Here’s the text of Rev. Sharon Watkin’s sermon on the “Harmonies of
Liberty.” It was released by the National Cathedral and Watkins didn’t
stray far from it, according to reporters in the White House pool.
After drawing some applause for highlighting her greeting to President Obama, she began:
an inaugural celebration you have hosted! Train ride, opening concert,
service to neighbor, dancing till dawn … And yesterday … With your
inauguration, Mr. President, the flame of America’s promise burns just
a little brighter for every child of this land!
There is still a
lot of work to do, and today the nation turns its full attention to
that work. As we do, it is good that we pause to take a deep spiritual
breath. It is good that we center for a moment. What you are entering
now, Mr. President and Mr. Vice President, will tend to draw you away
from your ethical center. But we, the nation that you serve, need you
to hold the ground of your deepest values, of our deepest values.
this moment of high hopes, we need you to stay focused on our shared
hopes, so that we can continue to hope, too. We will follow your lead.
is a story attributed to Cherokee wisdom: One evening, a grandfather
was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each
“There are two wolves struggling inside each of
us,” the old man said. “One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment,
self-pity, fear … The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope,
truth, love …”
The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: “Which wolf wins, Grandfather?” His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
are crises banging on the door right now, pawing at us, trying to draw
us off our ethical center — crises that tempt us to feed the wolf of
vengefulness and fear. We need you, Mr. President, to hold your ground.
We need you, leaders of this nation, to stay centered on the values
that have guided us in the past; values that empowered to move us
through the perils of earlier times and can guide us now into a future
of renewed promise. We need you to feed the good wolf within you, to
listen to the better angels of your nature, and by your example
encourage us to do the same.
This is not a new word for a pastor
to bring at such a moment. In the later chapters of Isaiah, in the
500’s BCE, the prophet speaks to the people. Back in the capital city
after long years of exile, their joy should be great, but things aren’t
working out just right. Their homecoming is more complicated than
expected. Not everyone is watching their parade or dancing all night at
their arrival. They turn to God, “What’s going on here? We pray and we
fast, but you do not bless us. We’re confused.”
Through the prophet, God answers, What
fast? You fast only to quarrel and fight and strike with the fist …
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice …
to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into
your house? … Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and
your healing shall spring up quickly …
At our time of new
beginning, focused on renewing America’s promise — yet at a time of
great crisis — which fast do we choose? Which “wolf” do we feed? What
of America’s promise do we honor?
Recently Muslim scholars from
around the world released a document, known as “A Common Word Between
Us.” It proposes a common basis for building a world at peace. That
common basis? Love of God and love of neighbor! What we just read in
the Gospel of Matthew!
So how do we go about loving God? Well,
according to Isaiah, summed up by Jesus, affirmed by a worldwide
community of Muslim scholars and many others, it is by facing hard
times with a generous spirit: by reaching out toward each other rather
than turning our backs on each other. As Mahatma Gandhi once said,
“People can be so poor that the only way they see God is in a piece of
In the days immediately before us, there will be much to
draw us away from the grand work of loving God and the hard work of
loving neighbor. In crisis times, a basic instinct seeks to take us
over — a fight/flight instinct that leans us toward the fearful wolf,
orients us toward the self-interested fast … In international hard
times, our instinct is to fight — to pick up the sword, to seek out
enemies, to build walls against the other.
And why not? They just
might be out to get us. We’ve got plenty of evidence to that effect.
Someone has to keep watch and be ready to defend, and Mr. President,
Tag! You’re it! But on the way to those tough decisions, which American
promises will frame those decisions? Will you continue to reason from
your ethical center, from the bedrock values of our best shared hopes?
Which wolf will you feed?
financial hard times, our instinct is flight — to hunker down, to turn
inward, to hoard what little we can get our hands on, to be fearful of
others who may take the resources we need. In hard financial times,
which fast do we choose? The fast that placates our hunkered-down soul
– or the fast that reaches out to our sister and our brother?
times, such as these, we the people need you, the leaders of this
nation, to be guided by the counsel that Isaiah gave so long ago, to
work for the common good, for the public happiness, the well-being of
the nation and the world, knowing that our individual wellbeing depends
upon a world in which liberty and justice prevail.
This is the
biblical way. It is also the American way — to believe in something
bigger than ourselves, to reach out to neighbor to build communities of
possibility, of liberty and justice for all. This is the center we can
find again whenever we are pulled at and pawed at by the vengeful wolf,
when we are tempted by the self-interested fast.
America’s true character, the source of our national wisdom and strength, is rooted in a generous and hopeful spirit: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
Lazarus’ poetry is spelled out further by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,:
“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if
I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions
of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or
thirty years, I can never be totally healthy . . . I can never be what
I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our
world is made.
You yourself, Mr. President, have already added to
this call, “If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t
read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child … It’s that
fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper
– that makes this country work.”
It is right that college
classes on political oratory already study your words. You, as our
president, will set the tone for us. You will help us as a nation
choose again and again which wolf to feed, which fast to choose, to
love God by loving our neighbor.
We will follow your lead — and we will walk with you. And sometimes we will swirl in front of you, pulling you along.
times like these — hard times — we find out what we’re made of. Is
that blazing torch of liberty just for me? Or do we seek the “harmonies
of liberty,” many voices joined together, many hands offering to care
for neighbors far and near? Though tempted to withdraw the offer,
surely Lady Liberty can still raise that golden torch of generosity to
the world. Even in these financial hard times, these times of
international challenge, the words of Katherine Lee Bates describe a
nation with more than enough to share:
“Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain …”
land of abundance guided by a God of abundance, generosity, and hope:
This is our heritage. This is America’s promise which we fulfill when
we reach out to each other.
Even in these hard times, rich or poor,
we can reach out to our neighbor, including our global neighbor, in
generous hospitality, building together communities of possibility and
of hope. Even in these tough times, we can feed the good wolf, listen
to the better angels of our nature. We can choose the fast of God’s
Even now in these hard times let us … Lift every voice and sing/Till earth and heaven ring …
with the harmonies of Liberty; Even now let us sing a song full of hope
… Especially now, from the center of our deepest shared values, let
us pray, still in the words of James Weldon Johnson:
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us … in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.