August 22, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
“I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,” God says to Moses out of the burning bush.
“I have seen, I have heard, I have known.” To the Hebrews who suffered the indignity and cruelty of their slavery in Egypt — the men who felt the whip lashing their backs and the women who listened every night to the whimpered cries of their starving children — God declared: “I have seen your affliction. I have heard your cries. I have known your suffering.” What precious hope there was for the slaves in those words; what hope there is for us: “I have seen, I have heard, I have known.”
When we kneel in prayer every day, we pray for health and for the safety of our loved ones and for peace in our lives. We pray that we will not be visited by tragedy and that no hurt will come to those we care about, yet even as we pray, even as we speak aloud these desires, we know that our prayers are really more of an expression of our deepest wishes than an expression of any belief in the magical protection of God. We realize that God cannot shield us miraculously from all hurt because we have too many experiences that say otherwise. We have lost spouses, parents, and children to death; we have gotten cancer; we have lost jobs; we have suffered from depression, addiction, or fractured relationships, and if we ourselves have managed to escape sorrow so far, we know too many good people of faith who have been broken in body and heart to believe that faith is a free pass on suffering. This, of course, leads us to the conundrum: if God can’t protect us, then why do we pray? If God can’t protect us, then honestly, what good is God?
The beginnings of an answer to that question are found here in the conversation between God and Moses on a mountain set to the crackle of a burning bush. For several generations, the Hebrews have dwelt in slavery in Egypt but God insists to Moses that God has not been absent from the people. God understands that there is a condition as brutal to the human spirit as physical suffering: disease and loss and hunger may harrow the body but isolation destroys the human soul. If no one sees us, if no one hears our cry, if no one knows that we are here, then what is the point of our being? We would be no more than a meaningless speck in an uncaring universe. And so God assures us that God has seen; God has heard; God has known.
Elie Wiesel, who survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust, wrote that even within the unbelievable cruelty and devastation of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the Jews discovered that they increased the possibility of survival if they could remain connected to one another.
“In this the German psychological methods often failed,” Wiesel wrote. “They tried to get the inmates to think only of themselves, to forget relatives and friends, to tend only to their needs…. But what happened was just the reverse. Those who retreated to a universe limited to their own bodies had less chance of getting out alive. As for me I could cope thanks to my father. Without him I could not have resisted. I would see him coming with his heavy gait, seeking a smile, and I would give it to him. He was my support and my oxygen, as I was his.” A smile, a shared crust of bread, a kind word — these could not overcome the horrendous cruelty of the Holocaust but they could give life to a withered soul by speaking into the darkness, “I am here with you; you are not alone.”
I have seen. I have heard. I have known. These words of God’s to Moses told the Israelites that their God was not a God of some far off heaven who demanded shows of allegiance to feed his ego but cared not at all about their suffering; their God — our God — is a God who comes down from the highest heavens to sit in the dust and ashes with us. For Christians, we received this proclamation again in the incarnation of Christ who came to dwell among us and to take our sorrow and suffering upon himself. The healing power of a caring presence in our pain is real. We know it from the time we are young: a child who falls and skins her knees holds back her tears until she has run all the way into the house and sees her mother, and then the tears flow because she instinctively knows that her pain is meaningless unless there is someone to see it, to hear it, to know her in her suffering. When we pray for the sick in church, what we are really expressing is our recognition that we are bound to the people who make up our lives. We hold people in prayer and ask God to watch over them as a way of saying, “We see them, we hear them, we know them; and they matter to us.” And we hope that when we are the ones who are suffering, someone will be holding us in their prayers as well because we find healing in being seen, in being heard, in being known.
Moses stood on the mountain before the flaming compassion of God who brought hope in the words of assurance that God had not ignored the suffering of the people but had been present with them in all that they endured. Moses must have then been overjoyed to hear that God planned to deliver the Hebrews from oppression and bring them to a new land and a new life, until God followed up that declaration with these words: “Come,” God said. “I will send you.” Come; I will send you! Suddenly Moses realized that God’s grand plan of liberation was to be his shoulders.
“I have seen, I have heard, I have known and so come, I send you.” God reminds me of the story of a young man named Joe who found himself one Saturday night with nothing to do and so convinced his friend Charles to go with him to a revival down on the Baptist church lawn. The speaker that night was from the International Missions Board and preached a fervent appeal for volunteers to a new mission field in Asia. The speaker’s enthusiasm was so contagious that when he wound up his sermon with a call to join God’s work in the frozen steppes of Mongolia, Joe, full of excitement and zeal jumped up from his seat and shouted, “Here I am Lord. Send Charles!”
God’s voice rises out of the burning bush recounting the sorrows of the people and telling of God’s intention to free them from their suffering and the lynchpin of God’s grand scheme for action is Moses. One writer says, “After the massive intrusion of God, the exodus … suddenly become[s] a human enterprise. It is Moses (not God) who will meet with Pharaoh. It is Moses (not God) who will bring out [God’s] people. It is Moses who acts in God’s place to save God’s people.”
Christian belief is the coupling of both faith in the power of God and faith in the power of human goodness. If we had faith only in the power of a self-sufficient divinity who magically worked God’s will upon the world, we would be subject to the whims and caprices of a God who changes the course of atoms to manipulate a puppet show in which we are the marionettes and God is the puppeteer. Likewise, if we had faith only in human effort and didn’t believe in God at all, we would struggle to maintain that faith when humanity fails to measure up. There would nothing beyond what we can see, and if what we see is human brutality, then we would lose hope. Elie Wiesel, again in his memoirs of the Holocaust, noted that it was the secular intellectuals and humanists interred in the Nazi concentration camps who most often gave up their ideals to adopt the cruel ideologies of their captors. The rabbis who were imprisoned in those same camps, he reports, remained faithful to goodness and compassion.
The promise of presence that God made to Moses that day was melded with the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah that what is impossible for human beings alone becomes possible with God.
“I have seen, I have heard, I have known, I send you, and I will be with you,” God says, “to make what feels impossible possible.” God sees and hears and knows the pain of a child whose stomach aches with the emptiness of starvation and God envisions a world where this child will not go hungry in the night. God turns to us to make that vision a reality.
God sees and hears and knows the fear of the Black teenager stopped for a traffic violation and God envisions a world where a person will not be in jeopardy because of the color of their skin. God turns to us to make that vision a reality.
God turns to us to make peace, to bring justice, to comfort the brokenhearted, to be with others as God has been with us because we know the healing power of discovering that we are not alone. We have been seen, we have been heard, we have been known by the God of Abraham and Sarah, by the God of Moses and the burning bush, by the God of Jesus Christ who came to dwell with us and gave his life so that we might be healed.
May we, with faith in the healing power of God’s presence and hope in the power of human compassion, do for others as God has done for us.