Sunday, October 8, 2023

Phil Kniss: Do you see what I see? ---God

Compassion for the captives
AND GOD SAW... stories of God seeing and acting in Hebrew Scripture
Exodus 1:8–2:10; 3:1-15; Mark 12:26-27a

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There are at least a dozen different sermons
in the Exodus passage we read this morning.
Or more.

One is,
the question of what makes us fear people who are the “other”?
Why were the Egyptians afraid of the Hebrews?
They had no collective memory of Joseph.
They only saw people who were “other,”
and who were growing in number.
Doesn’t say Hebrews acted in bad faith,
or sowed seeds of rebellion.
Only, that they were numerous,
outnumbering the Egyptians.
So the Egyptian leaders dehumanized them,
oppressed them,
forced them into slavery.
Any parallels in our society?
Any comparison with the backlash we now see,
especially in some areas,
where White people of European descent feel threatened,
because they are already outnumbered
by people who aren’t White?

And there’s another whole sermon on active, non-violent resistance,
and the morality of deceit,
if it reduces human suffering and saves human lives.
The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.
They were brilliant.
Had they obeyed Pharaoh, hundreds of babies would have died.
Had they openly resisted Pharaoh’s injustice,
they would have been killed, replaced by loyal midwives,
and hundreds of babies would have died.
But by using trickery, and outright deceit,
they diverted Pharaoh off his murderous trail,
and they saved countless lives,
and kept countless mothers from suffering a lifetime of grief.
When are we called to use whatever power we have
to bend the systems of injustice, toward justice?

And there are more sermons.
These three chapters of Exodus are rich in narratives
that speak to us today.
Read them sometime,
explore the questions that come to you.

But now, let’s jump ahead to chapter 3, to the adult Moses,
tending the flocks of his father-in-law,
in the foreign land of Midian.
I say foreign, because it was, for both of Moses’ families of origin.
Midian was neither Hebrew nor Egyptian.
Yes, Midianites were also descended from Abraham,
but they were outside the covenant,
often portrayed as enemies of the Hebrews.
But here, Moses took a Midianite wife,
and attempted to start a whole new life and identity,
having run from his Hebrew people,
and from Pharaoh and his adopted Egyptian mother.
The only future he could imagine at this point,
was as a Midianite shepherd.

Think about it!
Moses had zero acquaintance with, or formation in,
the faith of his ancestors.
No knowledge of the God who journeyed with Sarah and Abraham,
Isaac and Rebecca,
and with the clan of Jacob.

God’s earlier plan to bless all the nations of the world
through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah,
had, by this time, gone completely off the rails.

The Hebrew people were not, strictly speaking, even a people.
No cohesive social identity,
no common history being preserved,
no religious or cultural institutions.
What did God even have to work with here?
They were a race of enslaved and traumatized people.
They lived in Egypt, but were not at home there.
They had no shared sense of worth or purpose in the world.
And as for the God who wanted to use them to bless all nations?
They didn’t even know that God existed.

Hundreds of years had passed since Yahweh’s first promise.
And God was no closer to fulfilling that promise,
than when God told Abraham and Sarah
they would bear a son in their old age.

These Hebrew descendants had forgotten about their God.
But . . . God had not forgotten about them.
And God was determined to rebuild a relationship . . . from scratch.
So God saw . . .
the suffering of the people.
And God saw what they could not see.
A future where the oppressors lost their power,
and the oppressed found their freedom.
A future where the life-giving covenant with God
would find a new life, a new beginning.

But here’s the thing . . .
God seeing something, and being moved to act,
is just the first,
in a sequence of things that need to happen,
in order for God to take action in our time and space.
God is all about forming communion with God’s people,
and together—God and God’s people—building shalom.
God didn’t set up the world for God to be a solo actor.
I’m not suggesting God doesn’t have the power to act alone.
But in the biblical record, God doesn’t seem to do that. Ever.
At least I can’t think of an example.
Feel free to prove me wrong.
But it seems to me, every act of God portrayed in scripture,
is relational.
It is either done in active collaboration with human partners,
or it is done by God in order to establish
collaboration with human partners.
God’s design is to work in partnership with us,
for the shalom of all creation.

So, God sees. That’s step one.
God is moved. God’s compassionate heart is activated.
Step two.
But nothing more will happen until God finds human partners—
collaborators who will work in concert with God
to bring about what God desires.
An attentive and compassion God,
needs attentive and compassionate partners to work with.
God asks us, “Do you see what I see?”

So where might God likely turn, to find a leader
for the oppressed and traumatized Hebrew people,
a people without an identity and purpose,
a people with no knowledge of, or relationship with, Yahweh?

Moses is the both the perfect and most unlikely choice.
He also bears the mark of oppression and trauma—
forcibly given up by his Hebrew birth mother,
raised in social isolation,
in the house of a tyrant who was
committing genocide against Moses’ people.
Now Moses is exiled in Midian because his own trauma
boiled over and resulted in murder.
Moses is half-Hebrew half-Egyptian,
and shunned by both Hebrews and Egyptians.
And he wants nothing more than to leave all that behind,
and start fresh with a new identity and new people.

Moses is God’s perfect and unlikely choice
of someone to stand up to Pharaoh,
and lead his people into freedom.
If God is starting from scratch, in terms of rebuilding a people
to be in relationship with,
God could do no better than to start the rebuilding process
with someone like Moses.
If someone as wounded and cut-off and disinterested as Moses
had the capacity to see and notice God’s presence,
hear God’s voice,
perceive God’s purpose,
and grasp what was at stake,
then there was at least a chance God could rebuild
a genuine relationship with
a wounded and cut-off and disinterested people.

So in a way, the burning bush in the desert
was God testing Moses.
God, in essence, was saying, “I can see. But, Moses, can you see?”
An attentive God was looking for an attentive partner.

Would Moses notice the fire?
And would Moses be curiously attentive enough
to notice the bush was not being consumed?
And would Moses perceive the divine presence in the flames?
And would Moses move toward it, instead of away from it?

Yes, Moses would do all those things.
Moses passed the test, and engaged God in a conversation,
that went something like this.
“Moses, Moses!”
“Here I am!”
“I am the God of your ancestors. Go to my suffering people.”
“Who am I to go?”
“It’s not who you are. It’s who I am.”
“But they won’t respect me.”
“I am enough. And I will be with you.”
“But they won’t believe me.”
“I’ll demonstrate with a sign. They will see and believe.”
“But I’ll fall flat. I don’t have what it takes.”
“Who gave you what you have?”
“Oh, God! Please! Not me. Send somebody else.”
“Okay, fine! Take your brother. Take this stick. You’ll figure it out.”

That’s a whole chapter and a half, in about a dozen lines.
But it’s even more accessible than that.

We don’t need to think of this burning bush story
as a unique, spectacular encounter between God,
and one of the greatest leaders in our biblical record,
never to be repeated again.

We can also read this conversation there at the bush
as a metaphor for how God and humans usually
have to negotiate a working relationship.
Maybe you and God have already had
exactly that kind of conversation.
But you didn’t identify it as such.

Maybe it will ring a bell, if I reframe the conversation this way.
I’ll put it in the first person.
You can put yourself in the conversation.

I might be out in a favorite spot in nature,
or some other place with enough space and inner quiet,
that I can be attentive.

And I hear God call my name.
No! Not literally. I just have this sense that I’m known
and loved by God, in that moment.
I respond with “Here I am.”
Again, not literally, but I open my mind and heart to the divine.

Then, partly in that moment,
but mostly in the coming days and weeks and months,
a struggle ensues between God and me.
I never hear words or a voice or see anything spectacular.
But God is working on me, I realize in retrospect.
God is bringing to mind a particular place of brokenness,
that God wants to see restored, healed, made right.
It may be in a relationship I have with someone.
It might be in the life of a hurting neighbor
that I’ve been trying to avoid.
It might be systemic oppression happening
in my workplace, or community, or nation, or wider world.
And I have a voice that I have not yet raised against it.
And I have power that I have not yet leveraged
to confront that injustice, together with others.
Or . . . maybe it’s creation itself,
groaning under the weight of human injury,
and I have choices to make, to help heal that wound.
Or maybe it’s brokenness within myself,
that I have not yet mustered the courage to face.

Whatever the issue at stake, in my burning bush,
God seems to be pushing me, now, to Go.
Join God in healing, restoring, redressing a wrong.
“But who am I?”
“It’s not who you are. It’s who I am. And I will go with you.”
“But nobody will notice. I’m an outsider.”
“I am enough. I will be with you. Be patient.”
“But they won’t believe me.”
“I’ll demonstrate. If you can believe, they can believe.”
“But I don’t have what it takes.”
“Who gave you what you have? I trust you. Will you trust me?”
“No, not me. Send anybody else.”
Then I sense God’s disappointment and hurt,
but I am not forced, just allowed to take whatever small step
I’m ready to take, even with a crutch.
I imagine God saying,
“Okay, Phil. I trust you, even more than you trust me.
So take your walking stick with you. You’ll figure it out.”

There is plenty of brokenness to go around.
There’s the global and intractable—war in Ukraine,
the renewed war between Israel and Hamas,
the global refugee crisis.
And there’s the local—poverty, lack of housing,
essential transportation, basic childcare.
And there’s the interpersonal—broken family relationships.
And there’s the internal.

God sees. God’s heart is moved with compassion.
And God is asking, “Do you see what I see?”
God is looking for partners who see what God sees,
to join the work of rebuilding shalom.
And meanwhile, God joins us in our suffering. God weeps with us.

—Phil Kniss, October 8, 2023

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