A Lesson in Empathy

Sunday, September 15

Chaplain Mel Baars O’Malley

“A Lesson in Empathy”


This passage is one of the few I distinctly remember from my Old Testament class in seminary. Our teacher described this exchange between God and Moses so beautifully. She said it was as if God and Moses were sitting together, side by side. God’s anger and frustration and disappointment were all so overwhelming that the veins in God’s forehead would have been popping out. We tend to want to leave someone alone when they are that mad. Smart kids would say to their siblings, “I would not go talk to Mom right now, run for your life.”


And so, in the midst of that raw emotion, Moses is brave enough to stay with God. And, what I remember my teacher saying is that it is as if Moses, reaches up and gently strokes God’s cheek and says “There, there, I am grieved, too.” Perhaps that gesture of gentle touch, of empathy, of being present even when it gets a little scary, jolts God back to the reality of his love for his broken, forgetful, and wayward people.


Off the top of my head, I couldn’t really think of another place in the Bible like this, where it says that God changes God’s mind. But, I figured that there would be a Bible scholar among us or someone not too ashamed to break out their phone in the middle of worship to do a google search, so I decided to do my own googling. There are a few places in the Bible that talk about God relenting. In the book of Jonah, God decides, much to Jonah’s dismay, to spare the people of Nineveh. In that instance, though, the king and the people of Nineveh repent. It’s understandable that God would have mercy on them. But here, the people don’t repent. They don’t say they are sorry. Nonetheless, Moses is able to remind God, that despite the Israelite’s disobedience, their propensity to lose faith when the going gets tough, God still loves them. They are still worth fighting for. Or like our gospel reminds us, they are that lost sheep or lost coin that still needs to be found.


I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Israelites. Maybe it is because I can relate to their challenges. As a listener it’s easy to think, oh my goodness, how could they doubt God because God had seen them through some really difficult moments. God had brought them out of slavery, had literally parted the Red Sea so they could escape the Egyptian Army. They had personally experienced God’s presence and power. It wasn’t a story they heard, but it was a memory as fresh as any. It’s hard to imagine that they would ever forget what God had done for them.


But hard times had come. After the high of escape, the low of the desert had settled over them. There wasn’t food and water readily available so they complained and asked God if God’s plan was to save them from Egypt only to watch them suffer and starve and die in the wilderness. So God brought them water from a rock and fed them daily, exactly the amount and the nutrients they needed. As you can imagine the same food every day gets old, and so they complained some more, and started to doubt whether or not God really knew what God was doing.


This is where we step into the story today. The Israelites are over it, over being lost, over the wilderness, over the manna and the quail. They want some creature comforts. They want a home, some stability. They are tired of having to trust. So even though they have experienced God’s saving power, in this moment of weakness, they start to think it might be better to hitch their cart to another horse.


I think it’s fair to say that many of us have had days like this. We may not have brought all of our gold jewelry to Carol in the church office so that Caitlin and John might melt it down and make us a cast of an image of a calf to worship. Our brazen idols look different. Our doubts tempt us to have faith in other things before our faith in God. Perhaps faith in a candidate who we think can make all the difference, get us back on track or save the planet. Faith in a strong economy, faith in our savings, faith in our doctors, faith in what the experts say. Faith in that new pastor that we have been waiting for who is going to come in and make things better, the way they should be. Faith in our own ability to control the future, to make things happen the way we want them to, to keep those we love safe. I don’t know what your brazen idols are, but I sure know mine. The fear, anxiety, control and how those things so quickly overtake my thoughts and my trust of God’s love and God’s promises are forgotten.


But this is where all of us can make a real difference. Think about the Israelites. If when one or two of them had started to complain or worry or share their doubts that they would ever even make it to the Promise Land, imagine what would have happened if a few others from the community had said, hey, wait a minute, this is really hard right now, I feel tired and overwhelmed, too, but God never abandoned us back then. I don’t know what it is going to look like. I don’t know how long it is going to take, but I believe God will be with us even now. Imagine what the crowd would have done if Aaron, one of their leaders, had said, Look friends, I know you think this calf is what you need, but it’s not. It’s not going to make it all better. I can’t make your calf. But I can listen to your worries and your fears. I can pray with you.


There is a reason that idolatry is one of the 10 commandments. It is easy to be distracted by worldly saviors, to put our faith in those promising a quick fix or a painless salvation. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, these temptations will always be calling out to us. But that is why we are better when we are not on our own. It’s why we come here on Sunday. It’s why we call a trusted friend and confess our doubt or our struggle. The temptation is not going away but how we handle it, how we navigate our doubts and struggles that is what matters. And the friends, the sisters and brothers of faith to our left and our right, our beloved community, we can make all the difference in helping one another find our way again.


Perhaps we learn our most important lesson on what “to do” from Moses, when he reaches up to stroke God’s cheek and say hey, I know this hurts, but don’t forget you love them. It isn’t easy to stay present with someone who is hurting. Often we might feel a little of the hurt, too. Often we aren’t sure what to say to make it better. But my guess it that it wasn’t what Moses said to God that helped God remember love. It was just the fact that Moses was there, right next to God, willing to reach out and stroke God’s cheek when God needed it the most.


I have known a lot of Moseses in this congregation, people who show up, who are willing to brave the dangers of the wilderness to help those in the midst of pain and struggle to remember that they are not alone, to remember God’s promise of love and faithfulness.


This is what so many of you have done for me when throughout the time I have been in the Army as a chaplain, so that I remember I am not alone in my ministry. It’s what you do every time you encourage one another, every time you are there when someone is sick or has experienced loss, every time you respond to partners in ministry whether it’s here in Kent County or in Malawi or the Bahamas, these are all opportunities to be present with those who find themselves, like the Israelites, in the wilderness. This is what we are called to be for one another because no matter who we are, how old or young, how faithful or faithless, how deserving or not, the wilderness will come to each of us.


When it does, and we find ourselves struggling with fear and doubt, and we wonder if we are ever going to see any relief, there is Good News. First, none of us have to deal with the wilderness alone. Look around you even now and remember there is a wider family ready to be present, to listen, and to pray. Finally, God doesn’t give up on us. God doesn’t stop loving us. Not even when we have made our brazen idols. Instead, God continues to seek us, and reach out for us, and when, like that lost sheep and lost coin, we are found, God rejoices. This is one promise that we can count on, one promise that will never change. May it be so. Amen.