“A Divine Friendship: Complaints, Consideration and Conversation”
Exodus 16: 2-15 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ September 20, 2020
My girlfriend and I were enjoying dinner out to celebrate her birthday earlier this week. Being her birthday, I thought it wise to make reservations at an establishment that did not have the golden arches proudly displayed, so we ended up in a finer dining establishment…white linens on candlelight tables and courteous waiters. And as we were enjoying our evening, even from a socially distanced 6 feet away, we could hear another table’s comments to the waiter. Actually, they weren’t comments, but rather they were complaints: “excuse me…waiter…this restaurant is too hot. Could you please turn up the air conditioning.” The waiter scurried off with the patron’s complaint. A few moments later, the table waved the waiter over again: “now it is too cold, could you please turn it down”. And the agreeable waiter rushed off again. The complaints continued as the customer mercilessly continued and the waiter ran to the back after each complaint. After the table had left and we were paying our bill, I felt a certain empathy for the waiter and said: “you have a tough job. Somedays, you must feel like throwing out all of us complaining customers!” Smiling, the gracious waiter replied “oh, I really don’t mind. I need to go to the kitchen anyway. And besides, we don’t even have an air conditioner!”
As I share that story with you, you might have a variety of reactions…Perhaps you might think, what a terrible fellow that restaurant patron was! Complaining all the time! I would never complain like that! Yet, complaints are not all that uncommon in our society. Most of us are quite adept at tossing out our share of them. Sometimes, we complain more often than we realize. Local sports fans complain…Basketball fans complain about our beloved Raptors being eliminated to Boston; hockey fans complain about our beloved Canucks falling to Vegas; and baseball fans complain about how the Blue Jays are playing. We complain about Trump or Trudeau. We complain about the poor air quality. We complain about how long this pandemic has lasted. We are quite adept at complaining, aren’t we?
So far, we have been wondering if complaining is a bad thing. The restaurant patron complaining; the sports enthusiast complaining; the concerned citizen complaining. Yet, as we begin to unpack the wisdom in this morning’s text, we discover that complaining to God is not a bad thing at all. In fact, we discover that being able to respectfully complain to God is the hallmark of a deep and vibrant faith. What about the baby who complains by crying to show her distress? What about the partner who complains to their beloved saying, “honey, we need to talk about where we are going.” Conversation, complaints and considerations aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they are an indication of a complete and deep relationship. What about when they are directed to God. I would like to explore this morning how complaints to God are an indication of a deep friendship, a full kinship, that we have with God. A relationship that is so deep, so secure, that we don’t have to put on masks or be anyone other than ourselves. We can be totally open with God and complain when we are uncertain and afraid. Complaints are a sign of real friendship. Conversation, complaints and considerations…a sign of real faith.
Moving to the Exodus passage, we are given a window into the deep and vibrant faith between the Hebrew people and their God. And, in the context of this relationship, they complain. Complaining in fear about their survival, following their escape from Egypt, amidst their flight to the promised land, they find themselves hungry in the wilderness: “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Let me ask you…should they have just shut up and been grateful? I mean, God had freed them from slavery and had given them the ‘promise’ of a new homeland. Certainly, they were grateful for God’s deliverance. Yet, complaints do not mean that they were ungrateful. The Israelites were grateful for their release from slavery, grateful for a path through the Red Sea towards freedom. However, in the wilderness they were afraid, they were uncertain, and they were hungry. The Israelites needed to share this with their God. They needed to have God hear them; they needed God’s reassuring love.
This Judeo-Christian story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, of course, is paralleled later in the Christian story of Jesus wandering in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan. In his life, Jesus affirmed a new way to understand our relationship with God. Jesus taught a profound sense of trust and certainty with God. However, in this earlier stage in history for the Israelites in the wilderness, there was a deep sense of uncertainty and fear about the future. There was a promised land, yet it was only a promise. There was a certainty of food and provision which they had faithfully left; yet they only lived with a promise of a future. The Israelites had a deep faith with God; however, they needed some assurances from time to time. Perhaps, it is no different than with us. We too need some assurances that we are on the right course. We too, need to know that we will get through things. We too, need to know that, in the end, all will be well. We know God’s promise through Christ Jesus; however, from time to time our fears and hungers need to speak out so that we are reassured. And it is good and right that we have ongoing conversation, consideration and (even) complaints with God.
Gregory of Nyssa, who was a Bishop in Nyssa in the late 4th Century, wrote “The Life of Moses”. In it he spoke of Moses’ intimate friendship with God: “This is true perfection”, he writes, “not to avoid a wicked life because we fear punishment, nor to do good because we hope for rewards. On the contrary, we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God’s friend as the only thing worthy of honour and desire. This is the perfection of life”.
What was the result of their complaints? Reading further in the story, we learn that the Israelites suddenly became aware of the food that formed each morning on the branches and leaves. Well…food is a bit of a stretch here. Let me explain. They became aware of something miraculous that occurred through the night. It wasn’t a miraculous delivery of their favourite food via Skip the Dishes. Through the night came manna. Historians tell us that the ‘manna’ or “bread from heaven” was formed from the nightly excretions of the bugs and insects that the bugs left on the leaves. The Israelites “manna” or “bread from heaven” was actually ‘bug slime’. And as a result of their complaining, they saw and received what they needed for abundant life. Bug slime…the makings of a wonderful children’s story; not what any adult would like to dine upon. Yet it provided enough nutrition to sustain them and keep them going. In the immortal words of the Rolling Stones: “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you might find. You get what you need.”
I wonder if we should consider how complaining is an be an acceptable part of our full relationship with God. So many times, we see people frustrated and angry in a situation and they need to vent. To be angry with God. How could you God? How could you allow this to happen? And this is ‘OK’. God has bigger shoulders than anyone I know. Some people whom I have encouraged to share their anger with God have first been surprised. God can take it. If anyone can take it, God can. God loves you so much. In fact, God’s love is so deep that God wants to hear your fears, your concerns and your complaints. These are hard, challenging times in which we live. Complaints and honesty are a place for deep faith growth. Do you need to vent to God? It’s OK. In fact, it is good and right to do so!
If it has been a while since you have been honest with God, I wonder what that is that you need to do…to be honest to God…to complain to God. Is it time for you to have a good honest heart to heart with God? God would like to be as close to you as the most intimate person in your life. Don’t hold back. Share your hopes and fears, your joys and frustrations, your celebrations and complaints. And as you do so, walk towards the life that God has promised. The Promised Land that is yours and mine.