Today I was honored to deliver the sermon at the National Prayer Service following yesterday's Inauguration. I'll write more later about my entire experience—from yesterday's swearing-in ceremony and the Inaugural ball to today's service—but, for now, here's the transcript of my sermon:
Mr. President, Madam First Lady, Vice President and Dr. Biden, honored guests, leaders in government, the business community and the religious community.
It’s a privilege to be with you today … especially on this, the occasion of the second inauguration.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve been praying a lot. “God, what would you have me to say to these remarkable people? And the first thing I felt God wanted me to say to you was simply, thank you. Thank you. Friend of mine once told me, there are three reasons people seek public office. The first, they want all the power and they want to feel important. There’s a second group – those folks are just a little off in the head. There’s a third group, they really want to make a difference, they really want to change the world for the better. I believe that represents you and all the people in your administration and the leadership of our country.
We Americans say it seldom – but we should say it far more often. Thank you, for giving yourselves, for sacrificing, for living in glass houses, for accepting the constant barrage of criticism with very little praise, for being willing to risk everything in order to serve this country. Thank you. Thank you.
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation. Abe Lincoln is known as the great emancipator – but as I was thinking about scriptures to reflect upon I thought of the biblical emancipation story, and the great emancipator there was a man named Moses.
As we reflect on Moses’ life I’d like to lift up three ideas from his life, from his journey and leadership that might speak to all of us today as leaders in our country, and I hope in some way to speak in particular to those of you who are in the highest authority in our land.
I begin first with the heart and character of Moses. There are two things we learn about Moses’ heart and character in the Scriptures. Numbers tells us that the man Moses was a humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth. God chooses and uses those who humble themselves before him and before others. Young Mary, the mother of Jesus in her Magnificent says that God “scatters the proud and the thoughts of their hearts but lifts up the lowly. Jesus teaches the same thing. When he turns to his disciples, who were arguing on the night before he would be crucified, about which one was the greatest. And he says to them, “You don’t understand, that’s how the kings of the world operate but that’s not how you operate.” He said, “The first among you, the one who would be great, will be your servant.” Then he washed his disciples’ feet.
Now, Moses’ humility was coupled with a deep compassion and concern for the marginalized and the oppressed. He was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, he had everything a man could possibly want, but when he saw the plight of the Hebrew slaves, he could not remain in silence and he could not remain in the palace. Ultimately, he risked his life to stand before Pharaoh and to demand that Pharaoh release the slaves. And he led them into the wilderness towards the Promised Land.
This is what God looks for in the Scriptures from every king, every rabbi, every leader. He looks for those who will take seriously the call to justice, to do kindness, to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves. James says it this way, “True religion and undefiled before God is to care for the widows and the orphans. And Jesus at the Last Judgment it all comes down to this – “How did you respond to the needs of the least of these?” This is America at her best. At our best, we’re a humble people. And we remember the call to have compassion for the least of these.
Which is why Emma Lazarus’ magnificent poem is etched inside the Statue of Liberty, with these words:
“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 are central to the heart and character of Moses and are meant to be central to the heart and character of this nation.
The second thing we learn from Moses is the importance of having a vision. Professor John Kotter, now retired from Harvard Business School, noted that two of the most important tasks of any leader are to cast a compelling vision for the future and then to motivate and inspire people to pursue it. That vision has to be a clear and compelling picture of where we want to go, our preferred picture of the future. Moses led the salves out of Egypt, but that was not enough. Very quickly the grumbled and began to go back to Egypt where there were leeks and cucumbers to eat. It was at least safe there; the wilderness was hard. Moses had to constantly remind them of the vision. He said, “We’re marching to the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey, where we can worship freely, where we can love, where we can practice justice, where we can live in harmony.
A compelling vision unifies us. It excites us, 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 a lack of vision, a compelling vision at least. As a pastor, I can tell you the same is true of local churches. Congregations across the country that don’t remember their purpose, and they no longer see a compelling vision for the future. And sadly this feels true of America today. With our two-party system, vision-casting often feels like mere political rhetoric. And we typically are offered two different visions, competing with one another, not one unifying vision.
To many Americans, we feel like a house divided that cannot stand. We find ourselves desperately longing to find common ground. To find a common vision, to be one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for everyone. In this city, and in this room, are the people who can help. This may be, this bringing together of our country, a more important issue than anything else we face: because until we resolve our issues here or at least find some unifying vision that brings us together, we’re going to find it very very difficult to solve any other problems we’re facing – debt ceilings, issues of healthcare.
Proverbs notes this: without a vision, the people perish. They don’t literally perish. They just bicker and fight and become so polarized they can’t get anything done.
We’re in need of a new common national vision. Not one that is solely Democratic or solely republican. We need one or two goals or dreams that Americans on both sides of the aisle can come together and say, “Yes, that’s what it means to be American.” That’s where we need to go.”
God has given you a unique gift, Mr. President. Unlike any other President we’ve ever had, you have the ability to be to cast a vision and inspire people. You should’ve been a preacher.
God actually has you exactly where God wants you. And yesterday you began to lay out a vision for us in your inaugural address that was very powerful and compelling. Somewhere we’ve gotta find and forge one or two dreams or visions that people on the right and the left, the Republicans and Democrats, can come together and say, “Yes, we can stack hands on this.” Even just one or two. And you pointed toward that, you hinted towards that yesterday.
We have to remember our picture of the Promised Land. And when we do that anything is possible in America.
For one small example of the power of vision from the church that I serve in Kansas City – One of our visions at the church is to address the root causes of poverty in Kansas City so that our city might look more like the kingdom of god that Jesus preached about. And when we began to ask, “How do you address the root causes of poverty?” what we learned that everyone agrees upon is early childhood education. And so we had a vision that we would work, together with the public schools in Kansas City, to find a way to give the 2,284 children in six elementary schools where 90% of those children are on the free or reduced lunch program a chance for a better future. We partnered with these schools; we came and we said, “We don’t have the answers, we just offer ourselves as servants. What do you need? How can we help?”
This last year, 2,500 of our members volunteered at those schools. We built playgrounds at all six of those schools where they didn’t have playgrounds before. We repainted the insides of the schools where they didn’t have money to fix the schools. Our members volunteered as tutors to read to the children. We purchased 20K books and gave them to the children so that they might read at home. When we found out that 1,400 children were coming to school hungry on Monday, because they didn’t have the reduced lunch program at home over the weekend, we started providing backpacks for children with nutritious snacks every Friday, 1,400 of them, that our members pack and then deliver, so the children come back to school Monday fed. When we learned that 300 children sleep on the floor at home or on the couch in their homes, we provided 300 beds. We delivered them, we provided sheets and blankets and pajamas for these children.
On Christmas Eve, the biggest night of the year at our church, we voted a number of years ago to give away the entire Christmas Eve offering to projects benefiting children and poverty. And we challenged our members – would you consider giving an amount equal to what you spend on your own children at Christmas in this offering? We give half of to the projects benefiting a thousand orphans in Malawi, and half of it to the projects benefiting the 2,284 children in Kansas City. And on Christmas Eve, our folks in one evening gave $1.235 million to these projects.
I mention that not to brag, though I’m very proud of our congregation. But to say that’s one congregation with one vision and that unifies us as a church. We’re Democrats and Republicans in our congregation, we’re left and right, conservative and liberal, but somehow these kinds of visions pull us together into the future. They excite and they help change the world.
The last word I’d mention regarding Moses is, despite great opposition to his leadership, and despite feeling discouraged many times, he never gave up. To be a leader is to invite criticism. If you’re a Sunday School teacher, they’ll criticize you. If you’re a supervisor at McDonald’s, they’ll criticize you. If you’re a preacher, they’ll criticize you. And I don’t know how you’re still standing.
It was not long after Moses began to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt that they began to grumble against his leadership. Four years in, they disliked his policies so much, a number tried to vote him out of office. It was a close vote but somehow he managed to keep his job. In Numbers 11, we read that he went out into the wilderness – it’s a wonderful and endearing story of Moses – and he lifts up his hands and he prays, “God, just kill me now. I don’t want to do this anymore. It is too hard.” But this was one time that God didn’t answer Moses’ prayer. Instead he said, in essence, “Get back to work. I need you.”
I’m reminded of the night in late January 1957 when Dr. Martin Luther King received a threatening phone call. His children and his wife were asleep. This wasn’t his first threatening phone call. Since the Montgomery boycott, there had been many. But on this night, as his children and wife lay sleeping – he felt he couldn’t 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 he began to pray, “I’m afraid, Lord. The people are looking to me for leadership, if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too, will falter. I’m at the end of my powers, God. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” And then he describes something interesting that happened next. He said, “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 righteousness. Stand up for truth. And God will be at your side forever.
Imagine how the world would be different today if Dr. King had bowed out of leadership because it got just too hard. Had he not stopped to pray that night, to seek God and God’s reassurance?
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 compassion and concern for the nobodies. It is this faith that helps us discover the kinds of visions that are worthy of our great nation and worthy of the sacrifices we can make. It is this faith that sustains us when we feel like giving up, a faith that comes from trusting in the words of Jesus who said, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
I end with a story. During MLK weekend several years ago, I was listening to NPR and they were conducting an interview with Rev. Billy Kyles, who many of you know, was on the balcony with Dr. King when he died on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when he was assassinated. The interviewer asked Kyles what he’d be preaching on that weekend, and Rev. Kyles told the interviewer a story you’ve undoubtedly heard before but bears repeating today.
He said, I’ll be telling the old story about Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson, the 19th-century author, once told how, as a boy, he’d been sitting in front of the window at nightfall, watching the lamplighter light the gas street lamps. He would erect a ladder at one post, he would climb up and light the lamp or the torch, then he’d take it down and go the next one and the next one. And his father walked into the room and he said, “Son what are you looking at? What do you see out there that’s so fascinating?”
And the young Stevenson said, “Daddy, I’m watching that man out there knock holes in the darkness.” There’s a lot of darkness in our world. Lead us to be a compassionate people, to be concerned for the marginalized. Help us re-discover a vision for America that is so compelling it unites us and calls us to realize the full potential of this country, to be a shining city upon a hill. And when you feel your lowest, don’t give up. Wait upon the Lord, he will renew your strength, that you might lead us as a nation to knock holes in the darkness. Amen.