Mr. President, Mrs. Obama; Mr. Vice President and Dr. Biden; leaders in government, business and faith: it is a privilege to be with you today, and to offer the Word on the occasion of this second inauguration.
This month marks the one-hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln is known as the Great Emancipator. But long before Lincoln, there was a man named Moses who was the great emancipator of the Hebrew people. On the occasion of the beginning of your second term, there are three lessons I’d lift up from Moses’ life that speak to leaders of all kinds and at all levels.
A Heart of Compassion for
the Marginalized and Oppressed
I begin with the heart and character of Moses. In Numbers 12:3, we read that “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” I suspect that it was precisely because of his humility that he was chosen for this great task. Throughout Scripture God chooses and uses those who are humble, who see themselves as servants of the servants of God. Jesus teaches the same thing when, on the night before his crucifixion, as his disciples are arguing over which one is “the greatest,” he says, “the truly great among you will be your servant.” He proceeded to illustrate this by washing their feet.
Moses’ humility was coupled with a deep and courageous compassion for the marginalized and the oppressed. He was raised in Pharaoh’s household, in the lap of luxury. But when he finally saw the plight of the Hebrew slaves, he could not remain in the palace. Ultimately he risked his own life to demand their release and spent the last decades of his life leading them toward the Promised Land.
This is what God looked for in every king who ruled over Israel. Rulers who failed to take this seriously brought judgment upon themselves and their people. Micah demanded that the people do justice and loving-kindness. Proverbs urges us to “speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.” James says that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to care for the widow and orphan.” And Jesus calls us to care for the “least of these.” In fact, he says that the Last Judgment will come down to how we cared for the poor, the sick, and the stranger.
America at her best reflects this combination of humility and compassionate concern for the lowly. This is why Emma Lazarus’s poem is etched inside the Statue of Liberty. Humility and courageous compassion for the marginalized and oppressed were central to the heart and character of Moses and must be to us as well.
Casting a Vision for America
The second thing we learn from Moses is the importance of vision. A compelling vision has power. It unifies. It excites. It leads people to a willingness to sacrifice and imbues them with a sense of purpose.
Today America lacks any unifying vision. Without this we continue to bicker and fight and look upon one another with suspicion or contempt. What most Americans long for is to find common ground; a common vision that leads us to be “one nation, under God, indivisible.” In this city, and in this room, are the people who can change this. This may be the most important issue you face, Mr. President. Without finding a way to bring Americans together, the divisiveness in our country will continue to act as a poison that eats away at the strength of our nation.
God has given you a unique gift, Mr. President. More than any other person who has ever held this office, you have the ability to cast vision in a way that inspires—you should have been a preacher! No, God has you exactly where he wants you to be. If you can bring people together to find that vision, and inspire us toward it—our picture of the Promised Land—anything is possible!
Never Give Up
The last word I’d mention regarding Moses is that, despite great opposition to his leadership, and despite feeling discouraged at times, Moses never gave up. To be a leader is to invite criticism. It doesn’t matter if you are a Sunday school teacher, a supervisor at McDonald’s, or the President of the United States: you’ll have no shortage of critics if you lead.
I’m reminded of the night in late January 1957, when Dr. King received a threatening phone call. It was not his first call like this since the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But on this night, as his children and wife lay sleeping, he said he finally felt like he could not go on. He began to think of a way gracefully to bow out of leadership of the movement. At midnight he bowed over the kitchen table and began to pray.
King described what happened next, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for righteous, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’” Imagine how the world would be different had he not turned to God in prayer that night.
The theme of this year’s inauguration was “faith in the future of America.” But in this service we come together to acknowledge that in order for America to have a future, we will first need to find a deep and abiding faith in God. It is this faith that calls and compels us to humility and a concern for the poor. It is this faith that helps us discover the kinds of visions that are worthy of our sacrifices. And it is this faith that sustains us when we feel like giving up—a faith that comes from trusting the words of Jesus, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
There’s a lot of darkness in the world. Lead us, Mr. President, to be a compassionate people, concerned for the marginalized. Help us rediscover a vision for America that is so compelling that it unites us and calls us to realize the real potential of America to be that “shining city upon a hill.” And, when you feel your lowest, don’t give up. Rather, “wait upon the Lord and he will renew your strength.” Amen.