Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 17
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
5 The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah[a] and Meribah[b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Summer weather, two months too late.
The price of everything.
People who think they can drive.
Books with titles like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain.
People who fly to conferences to denounce people who fly to conferences.
The municipal election that never ends.
Adding the word “gate” to every scandal.
Paul Calandra.
Phones that bend in your pocket and the people who lined up for days to buy them.
Our new plastic money.
Offering me dark roast coffee instead of asking for my order.
That voice that says “the number you dialed is not a long distance number.”
The latest medical study that contradicts the last medical study.
Road work.
Verb phrases like “lean-in” and “drill-down” and anything that starts with “eco.”
Pets dressed as people and people dressed as pets.
And that guy with 51 turtles in his pants.

It seems I have a lot to complain about. You will notice I didn’t include presbytery, conference or any of my colleagues. You never know who reads these things online. I also deleted “mothers who complain I don’t call enough,” since she has spies everywhere (or can read online).

And I know I’m not alone. Complaining is as human as breathing, and when we’re not complaining we’re just as likely listening to complaints. Being a sentient being more-or-less demands complaining, since being dissatisfied means seeking change and improvement. In other words, complaining is nature’s way, as Darwin as walking on two feet, since before that, we complained we couldn’t reach anything.

And complaining has a long and storied tradition in the Bible. Adam was the first to complain, saying “you know that woman you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree and made me eat it.” It was at this point that God told Adam to put on his big-boy pants and accept that life would be nothing but endless toil. Thanks, dude.

The Israelites complain more than kids on a long road trip: ‘we’re hungry, we’re thirsty, we have to go to the bathroom.’ I added the last part, but I think such complaints are a safe bet. In chapter 17 it’s thirst, so Moses strikes a rock at Horab and it’s problem solved.

My favourite part of this short passage is really Moses’ revenge on the complaining Israelites. He strikes the rock, the people drink (and presumably stop complaining for a moment) and Moses then calls the place Massah and Meribah, which we are told means “quarreling and testing.” I know of a couple of churches that could easily rename themselves Massah United Church or Meribah United Church, but I won’t name names (not Central, of course).

Job famously would not complain, and argued the point over several chapters, but even Job succumbed in the end. A bunch of brothers complain that the kid with the cool coat is the favourite. David includes some complaints in the Psalms, the prophets mostly complain about disobedience, and the twelve disciples complain throughout four gospels: who can understand you, Jesus? Why can’t I be the greatest? And unless I see the wounds, I will not believe.

And all of this leads to the most memorable complaint found in scripture, this one from the cross:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

It is, of course, a quote from Psalm 22. And it helps us recall that the scriptures were so essential to Jesus and his understanding of God that even on the brink of death it is a Psalm that best captures the moment. He could have went on—and perhaps did—as the Psalm continues to express his sorrow:

Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.[b]

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.”

It is the second stanza here that no doubt inspired John Newton, who famously wrote:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a worm like me!

Later generations would recoil at the word ‘worm’ and give us ‘wretch’ instead, and by the time the Red Book was published (1971) the hymn was omitted altogether. We cheered when the hymn returned for Voices United (1996) but even then the editors suggest it would be suitable to awkwardly alter the line to read “saved and strengthened me.” Those of us who continue to feel like worms or wretches at least part of the time can continue to use the old words.

It sounds like I’m complaining again. So I’m going to make the argument that complaining is a spiritual discipline—a unique path to God—and one that anyone can master. When we complain we ask God to listen, and our dissatisfaction becomes part of a conversation about life on earth.

But before I refine this idea, I should say a word about how we respond to endless complaining. Back in minister’s school, they warned us that some people might complain. And the key lesson regarding pastoral care and complaining is avoid making a lame response. Some examples? The silver lining: “At least you know the chainsaw is working.” The counter-argument: “Surely it can’t hurt that much.” The distraction: “This has to be the nicest September ever.”

Instead, we were taught to listen, and then keep listening, and if we really felt compelled to say something, best to limit ourselves to something simple like “I’m sorry.” And we should be sorry, because if someone is having a truly awful time of it, feeling sorry seems the best response.

So back to God. Most often, our communication with God seems somewhat one-sided. We don’t usually get a noticeable response, nor do we expect one. We try to focus on a sense of God’s presence with us, and this can be aided by the very principle of pastoral care I mentioned a moment ago.

In a world of trouble, we have a God who hears our prayers and in love answers—not with a silver-lining, nor a counter-argument, nor a distraction—but a quiet presence that says “I’m sorry.” Your complaint is real and heartfelt, and the God-who-listens does not dismiss it or turn away, but rather adds it to the depth of God.

And how do I know? At Calvary, Jesus cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And at that moment God was powerless to stop the events unfolding around the cross precisely because this was God on the cross. But God was not crying out to God, not in some sort of circular conversation. This was the human Jesus and the divine Christ suffering together, dying together, feeling abandoned in the moments before everything would change.

This was the moment that God learned in the most intimate way what it means to be human. To feel physical pain and the sorrow of separation, to feel separated even from the totality of himself, and to complain using ancient words that in a strange way would being comfort.

And somehow—in the mystery of that moment—the God addressed in that plea became so immersed in human suffering, that from that moment forward every example of human suffering would reach God. Every example of human suffering would enter the heart of God, and every example of human suffering would be met with “I’m sorry.”

May we continue to give God both our joy and our sorrow, the things we celebrate and the things that trouble us, and may we trust that God is always listening, adding depth to depth in the mercy of God alone. Amen.


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