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 your second inauguration, Mr. President. Over the last two weeks I’ve been praying, “Lord, what would you have me say to these remarkable leaders?” The first thing I’d want to share with you is simply, “Thank you.”
A friend once told me that there are three reasons people run for office: 1. Either they love power and all that goes with it. 2. Or, they are a little off in the head! 3. Or they really want to make a difference in the world. I believe the latter is true of you and those in your administration. So, thank you for accepting jobs that pay less than you’d make doing something else. Thank you for working late night hours and weekends. Thank you for living in glass houses and enduring the criticism of nearly half the nation at any given time. Thank you for risking your lives to serve our country. Americans say it too seldom, but thank you.
This month marks the 150th 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.
I. A Heart of Compassion for the Marginalized and Oppressed
I begin with the heart and character of Moses. Here there are two things we learn in scripture that stand out – two lessons for leaders: The first is found in Numbers 12:3 where we read, “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. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a peasant girl when she was chosen to bear the Christ child. She rejoices in her Magnificat that God, “scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…and lifts up the lowly.” 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 amount 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 towards 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 to do justice and loving kindness. Proverbs urges us to “speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.” James says that “true religion 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’ poem is etched inside the Statue of Liberty,
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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.
II. Casting a Vision for America
The second thing we learn from Moses is the importance of vision. Professor John Kotter, now retired from Harvard Business School, noted that two of a leader’s most important tasks are to offer a compelling vision, and to motivate and inspire people to pursue the vision. That vision is a clear and compelling picture of where we want to go – our preferred picture of the future.
Moses led the slaves out of Egypt and into the Sinai. But it was a wilderness, and life was hard. Moses had to constantly remind the people where they were headed – he cast a vision of the “Promised Land” and he described it as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” where they could worship freely and live in harmony. Over and over and over again he had to cast that vision lest they turn back to Egypt.
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.
Kotter suggested that the average American company struggled with the lack of a compelling vision for the future. The same is true for many churches in America – congregations often don’t know why they exist, nor do they have a compelling picture of the future that unifies them. This leaves them anemic. Sadly, this feels true of America today. With our two party system, we’re regularly offered two competing visions for America. And when our leaders cast vision it’s come to feel like only another campaign speech.
To many Americans, we feel like “a house divided that cannot stand.” The Book of Proverbs notes that, “without a vision the people perish.” Modern translates say, “they cast off restraint.” They don’t literally perish, they just bicker and fight and find themselves polarized and directionless.
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, we’ll continue to experience gridlock on nearly every issue and the divisiveness in our country will continue to act as a poison that eats away at the strength of our nation.
We’re in need of a new common national vision – not one that is solely a Democratic vision, nor only a Republican vision. It cannot be handed down by one part to the other, but forged together. We cannot wait for the next crisis to bring us together. We need a goal or dream of which Americans on both sides of the political and sociological divide might say, “Yes! That’s what America is meant to be! That’s where we need to go!” We don’t need ten visions, that too many. One, or at the most two will do. We’ll continue to disagree on a thousand things, but if we have one or two specific visions that “we the people” can work together on, that we all embrace, it will bring us together.
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 towards it – our picture of the Promised Land – anything is possible!
I offer one small example. At the church I serve we have a vision of addressing the root causes of poverty in Kansas City so that our city looks more like the Kingdom of God that Jesus so passionately preached.
As we researched how to address poverty there were no simple solutions. But one thing nearly everyone agreed upon was the importance of pre-K and elementary education for children in poverty. So we began to partner with six elementary schools in the Kansas City area where 90% of the children are on the free or reduced lunch programs. There are 2,284 children in these schools. We came as servants – not as saviors. We came to serve and to support. We looked for ways to partner and to help the schools do what they could not do otherwise.
We repainted the schools, built playgrounds where there had only been empty blacktop. We provided school supplies and winter coats to each child. Our members volunteered as tutors to read to children. We purchased and gave away over 20,000 books to kids in the last few years. When we found out that 1,400 kids were coming back to school hungry on Mondays because there was no free lunch program at home, we began filling and distributing 1,400 backpacks with nutritious snacks to tide the children over for the weekends. When we learned that 300 children slept on the floor or on couches we provided and distributed 300 beds, sheets, blankets, pillows and PJ’s. Several years ago we began giving away our entire Christmas Eve offering for causes benefitting children in poverty, half to be used in Kansas City and half in Malawi. We challenged our people to consider giving in this offering an amount equal to what they spend ont their own families at Christmas. The congregation was inspired by this vision of helping children have a future with hope. On Christmas Eve this year they gave $1,235,000 towards this vision. That may be small by Washington standards but that’s going to have a real impact upon the lives of children.
That’s the power of a compelling vision. And though the church I serve is made up of Democrats and Republicans, of conservatives and liberals, we’re united by visions like these. Moses understood the power of a compelling vision.
III. 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 McDonalds, or the President of the United States, you’ll have no shortage of critics if you lead.
It was not long after Moses began to lead them that the “honeymoon” ended and the Israelites began to grumble against his leadership. They didn’t like Moses’ policies (I suspect they may have called them “MosesCare”), and not four years after the Exodus sought to vote him out of office. It was a close vote, but Moses kept his job. And the people continued to grumble. In Numbers 11 we read that Moses, weary from their grumbling, goes out to the wilderness and says, “Please Lord, kill me now! I’m tired of these people complaining and grumbling all the time.” But the Lord said, in essence, “get back to work – I need you.” You each know what he was feeling that day.
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 to gracefully bow out of leadership of the Movement. At midnight he bowed over the kitchen table and began to pray,
I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
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” (King, Martin Luther Jr., Stride Toward FREEDOM: The Montgomery Story. San Francisco, California: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., chapter 8; I’ve read in the original, but found this here).
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.”
I’d end with this story. During Dr. Martin Luther King weekend a few years ago I heard on NPR an interview with Rev. Billy Kyles. Kyles was with Dr. King on the balcony of the Loraine Motel when he died. The interviewer asked the the Reverend what he’d be preaching that weekend, and Billy told a story you’ve undoubtedly heard before, but one that bears repeating. He said, “I’ll be telling the old story told about Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson, the nineteenth-century author, once told how as a boy he’d been sitting in the window, nose pressed against the glass in rapt attention as the lamplighter came to light the gas street lamps. Climbing up and down the ladder in the darkness, he would light one street lamp after another. It was a fascinating sight to a little boy. His father walked in the room, and seeing how intently his son was looking out the window asked, “Son, what are you looking at?” To which the young Stevenson replied, “Father, I’m watching the man out there knock holes in the darkness” ( There are a variety of ways the story is told, and often “punching” is used instead of “knocking.” I cannot find the original text, only its myriad of varieties online).
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, so that you might lead us to knock holes in the darkness!