I’m a dreamer. I don’t mean metaphorically – although I am kind of a day-dreamer. I mean literally: almost every morning, I remember what I dreamt the night before.
My dreams are weird and unique to me, I know… but they’re also kind of universal, the types of dreams that most people have. I dream a lot about being in some kind of action/adventure sequence. A lot of my dreams put me back in a previous stage of life, doing old work or reunited with old friends. If I’m worried, I have the dream where I’ve neglected responsibilities; it used to be that I forgot about a test, but now it’s that I forgot to get ready for a sermon.
Most people have these kinds of dreams, right?
Well, how about this one: A couple of times a year I have this dream where I’m trying to yell… but I can’t. I’m trying to yell because something bad is happening – someone’s trying to hurt me, or trying to hurt one of my kids. I need help; I know all I need to do is cry out and get someone’s attention. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t find my noise, even while whatever is happening is getting worse. Usually I’ll wake up from that one to find that I’ve actually been making noise in my sleep, trying to form the words but it’s all coming out mumbled because I’m not quite conscious.
Have you ever had a dream like that?
It’s a bad feeling, to need to cry out but not be able to. Sometimes it lingers with me even after I wake up. Sometimes, unfortunately, we live with this feeling. A bad thing happens and you have no voice. Maybe fear is keeping you from speaking out. Maybe you’re speaking out but no one seems to believe you. Maybe people believe you but they don’t seem to care. You need to cry out, you need to be heard… but no one is listening.
We’re born with this basic human instinct: when we’re desperate for help, we cry out. And when our cries go unanswered, we feel helpless… abandoned.
But we don’t have to feel that way. Our cries are being heard.
Today’s Scripture is a reminder that our God is a God who hears our cries.
The book of Exodus picks up after Jacob is renamed “Israel”; after his twelve sons relocate to Egypt because of a famine; after generations pass and the descendants of those sons – “Israelites” – became a strong immigrant people in a foreign country. A big, strong immigrant people are a threat to the existing power structure, so the king of Egypt decides to solve the problem by making them slaves. He exhausts them with forced labor so they’ll be too tired to rise up. This goes on and on; things get worse, including the killing of Israelite babies to keep them under the thumb of oppression. Finally, “after a long time” (Exodus 2:23), the Israelites have had all they can take, and they do what comes naturally to human beings when we need help:
They cry out.
And their cry rises up to God.
And God hears their cry.
This is a foundational story about the nature of our God. Our God is a God who hears us when we cry for help.
Sometimes we can doubt that. For good reason, honestly. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that God isn’t listening. There are a lot of people who have cried out to God and are still waiting for God to respond. God keeps giving us free will even though we keep using it irresponsibly. God fails to stand in the way of hurricanes or fires. God appears to stand by silently while our loved one loses a fight to cancer. Is our God really a God who hears our cries?
I say “yes.” Not just because it says so here at the end of Exodus chapter 2… but because I’ve felt it myself.
Sometimes, over time, I can see how God isn’t deaf, but patient. Like when I was locked in indecision, and I cried out to God for the answer, and God told me loud-and-clear that I needed to figure it out. Without that time for figuring it out I wouldn’t have really understand my decision or fully owned its consequences. In a similar way, when God heard the Israelites cry out it took time to recruit Moses to lead them, to convince him that with God’s help he could be the one to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites. Sometimes, God chooses not to sweep in and quick-solve our problems on purpose.
Other times, I cry out and God never answers with a solution. But even in the messes that never got fixed, I still feel God hearing my cries. Like when I cried out over that broken relationship; God never resolved our issues… but God reminded me that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, and I knew God heard me because I could feel God in the struggle with me. Or when I cried out because my mom was sick; God didn’t take away her tumor… but God reminded me that God has made a way for eternal life, and I felt the the God who had lost an only son grieving with me.
I know that our God is a God who hears our cries.
I know that God hears your cries. God *is* listening.
I don’t know why the delay. I don’t know why sometimes the miracle happens and sometimes it doesn’t. But I know that in Christ God came to be with us, so that we would know that God is with us. God heard our cries over the guilt of sin and the terror of death, and God answered them through the cross and the resurrection.
Our God is a God who hears your cries.
I hope you know that.
And if you do… then it’s your turn. It’s our turn.
We who have dedicated our lives to following the example of Christ must, like God, hear people when they cry out. We need to listen to them as God listens to us.
And people are crying out, all around us. If you don’t know that, you haven’t opened your social media feed lately. If you don’t know that, you haven’t turned on the news lately. People are crying out, yelling their loudest, holding up signs, standing in streets…
…and are we listening?
Now, I get it. You may not like what they’re saying, or how they’re saying it. You might have heard a little bit of their message, or maybe you’ve heard what someone else said about their message, and you didn’t like the little second-hand cry that you heard. And people do cry out for things that are just plain wrong. Like just last night, a group of protesters gathered outside of the hospital where the two shot police officers were being treated. They tried to block the entrance to the ER, and called for the death of the police. Voices like that can make it really hard to hear the cries that need to be heard.
It can be hard to listen. Sometimes, when the Israelites and the Egyptians are both yelling really loud, it can be hard to sort out who’s who – who we’re supposed to listen to.
I’ll tell you what’s made a difference for me: finding ways to listen to one voice at a time.
About 5 years ago, I first had a black mother tell me that she trained her sons about what to do when the police stopped them. Like, turn your hat forward, sit up straight, keep your hands in view, be very careful with your words. She was not saying, “Death to the police.” She wasn’t even saying, “All police officers are bad.” But she was confessing to us that she was afraid for her boys. She was crying out that she knew there was a chance they could get pulled over by an officer who didn’t act responsibly.
I heard her say all that… but I didn’t really. My whole life I’ve only had a positive experience with police officers. For me, they are 100% the good guys. Sure, they gave me a lot of speeding tickets in my 20s – but I was speeding, and I deserved them. And they were always nice and respectful as they tore off that expensive piece of paper. So when this mother told me that she was afraid of her black sons getting pulled over by the police, I believed her fear… but I didn’t hear her. It was too far off from my own experience.
Could she see it on my face that day? Could she tell that I was just politely nodding?
As she talked and I failed to really listen, did she feel like that dream I have, where I need to cry out but I can’t make the sounds?
That moment has stood with me, because in the years that followed more black mothers would tell me they had the same fear. In the years that followed, more black sons have died at the hands of more police officers. That doesn’t mean that all police officers are bad – I still know a lot of good ones. But it does mean that maybe this was a cry I should have listened to.
Well, I’m listening now.
I’m listening because God heard my cries… so how could I not listen when another one of God’s children is crying out?
I mean – really listen.
Listen like God has listened to us. Patiently hearing all our prayers. Coming to us, where we are. Long ago, in the form of Jesus Christ – experiencing all that it means to be human, feeling all the things that we might cry out about. And now, in the form of the Holy Spirit – being here with us, not distant and far off but close enough to know the dark corners of our hearts.
If God has listened to us like that, how could we not listen to each other?
So, you who follow Jesus, you who believe that God hears your cries: I challenge you to listen to others in the same way. Knowing that it’s hard to listen to the crowds – hard to tell the Israelites from the Egyptian en masse – then you might try to find ways to hear one voice at a time.
Talk to a friend who is crying out. Ask that person to tell you their story. Don’t judge; don’t debate; just listen.
Read a book that represents an opposing point of view. Or watch a documentary. Or listen to a podcast.
Find a friend who went to a protest that you wouldn’t have attended… and ask that person to tell you what motivated them.
God has heard our cries. Thank God – because it feels miserable to cry out and not be heard.
So what if we truly became a people who listened to each other?
How radical would that be?
Wonderfully radical. On earth as it is in heaven, may it be so.