A GLORIOUS COMPLAINT
SCRIPTURE: Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20: 1-7
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
John Updike, in his volume, Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, has a short story about a young man who struggles with his faith. One night while in lying in bed, he decides upon a test. He lifts his hands into the darkness and begs God to touch them. He asks only for the faintest contact, saying that would be enough for a lifetime. His hands wait in the air. He feels something, but he is not sure whether it is the movement of the air, the pressure of his pulse, or someone’s touch.
He asks for a sign but is not sure when he receives it. Isn’t that what we often experience as well?
Woody Allen, the comedian, wrote, “I would believe God, if only God would give me a clear sign – liking making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”
The people of Israel ask for a sign too. They don’t want just a sign; they want a high definition plasma billboard. They want the real thing. They want tangible proof that God gives a rip about them. They are angry. They beg. They complain.
Last Sunday, I mentioned that Moses and Miriam gave a good positive witness in their singing and dancing because of God’s gift of forgiving, freeing love. Yet, the people don’t follow. They aren’t focused on freedom or forgiveness, but on their figures. They claim they are wasting to nothing. Their attitudes are being controlled by their cravings and inconveniences. The text states the whole congregation complained. It sounds like the prelude to a recall election. Moses and Aaron are getting a vote of no confidence. The no confidence extends to God as well.
Moses tells Aaron to tell the people, “Draw near to God for God has heard your complaining.” They looked to the wilderness, usually a place to be feared and avoided, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them.
The Greeks have two words for “time”: chronos from which we get our word “chronological” meaning regular time, and kairos, a time pregnant with potential. This is a kairos moment, a time full of meaning, potential, and God’s presence. The people are fed manna (literally means “what is it?) in the morning and quail at night.
We see here the unexpected, unearned, unbelievable generosity of God. God gives to sustain life. The life sustaining gifts of God just keep coming. The people have been forgiven, they have been freed from slavery, and now they are given bread and meat.
All of this is prelude to what really sustains life, which is the way we live in relationship with God and with each other, and which the Judeo-Christian tradition, is summed up in the Ten Commandments. God begins with the little stuff, manna and quail, and continues to feed them up to the commandments.
The people’s complaining about their stomachs is a glorious complaint because it sets in motion the revealing of the glory of God. The glory of God is that God sustains life. God sustains life by guiding us to move from our elementary appetites to life-giving relationships.
Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, wrote of a hierarchy of needs, which extends from food, air and water, on a progressive scale all the way to self-actualization. This is what we see here. God nudges people along this continuum. The goal is to appreciate our “higher” selves.
In the understanding of the Christian faith the higher self draws us to see life from an elevated vantage point. We see several perspectives important for faithful living. We all run into difficult times in life. Circumstances cave in on us. We make blunders. Others cause us grief, physical or psychological injury. Complaining is quite human and our frequent first response.
Some people never get beyond the complaining stage. They are grousers pure and simple, and very good at it. Yet for other people, at least some of the time, this higher self calls them to learn from the difficult situation, to be instructed by the incident, and to seek understanding which can help them put what happened into context. As with the people of Israel, we may be turned toward God. This is the first perspective of our higher self.
Second, when we operate out of our higher self and when we turn toward God, we are exposed to the unlimited love of God. Even in the midst of personal pain and loss, we can still perceive the goodness of God and the manifestations of God’s goodness not only around us but in the very marrow of our present painful experience. This is the point where the complaint becomes glorious, for the point of need we are brought to God.
The situations in life which draw us to complain can draw us to God, can help us experience God’s abundant grace, and, third, can be the springboard for our gracious response. This is operating out of our higher self. It is a kairos moment as we perceive God’s presence and as we respond in gracious ways.
Isn’t that what happened to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? Consider the glorious sequence: Jesus complains, “Let this cup pass from me.” Next he experiences God’s presence, with reassurance says. “Nevertheless, not my will but your will be done.” Finally, he responds to God’s grace by giving himself completely, even to the point of death. The garden complaint was glorious for Jesus but it is also glorious for us. It points us unmistakably to God’s grace but also to model for grateful, faithful response.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is Jesus’ story of the landowner who hired day laborers from early morning until late in the afternoon. The shock of the story is at the end of the day the owner pays each one who worked the same amount, a full day’s wage.
Those who worked long hours through the heat of the day are indignant and complain that those who worked only one hour received the same wage. It’s the comparison game. Yet by our work standards today it all sounds grossly unfair. However, let us remember the custom of the day was for everyone to be paid at the end of each day so the worker on the way home could buy food for the family’s evening meal.
The point of the story is everyone gets to eat. Life is sustained. The complaints are glorious in that they point first to the generosity of God and second, that latecomers experience the Kingdom as well. In Jesus’ time the latecomers were the Gentiles who the traditionalists of the day would exclude but Jesus included.
Consider this: in our families not everyone works equally, yet they all have a place at the table. May we continue to move in that direction in the human family as well. Thus we will develop our higher selves and we will move toward everyone experiencing the glorious grace of God.
A precocious little girl was being baptized. As the pastor placed the water on her head, she looked the pastor straight in the eye, and said, “Don’t you do that again!” Ah, but there’s the rub, dear friends. Our complaints are glorious for God does wash us again, and again, and again, always in grace, that we might be drawn to our higher selves.
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH