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A Sermon for ‘Complaint Sunday’: Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Exodus 16:2-15
Matthew 20:1-16

You might know this old joke: two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” And the comedian concludes: “that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”*

Maybe a bit of homework for us this week is to be aware of our language, and see how long it takes before we complain. Will you make it to partway through the week? Will it be a consequence of a bad Monday? Or, will you even last to the end of your ride home after the service? Or is complaining such a normal feature of our lives that we probably won’t even notice?

The Hebrew community, having escaped from the clutches of Egypt, and rescued through an amazing walk through the sea, have come to a stage of complaining. Not even the usual ‘are we there yet,’ but accusations against the leader whom God raised up: ‘The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron.'”

Many of the figures in the gospel parable complain, too: “they grumbled against the landowner.” Understandably, it’s the ones who worked all day who take exception to the ones who just dropped in for an hour, yet ended up collecting the same pay cheque (and got their pay cheque first, by the way). I can tell you, as someone who worked on a farm throughout the summers of high school, there were some days, early in the growing season, when there was only enough work to go from 7:00 until noon. At other points we were there from 5:00 in the morning until 5:00 at night. And sometimes extra work on Saturdays. I can tell you that your body notices the differences between the short mornings, and the more arduous 5-to-5 shifts. So we can understand how the first workers in the parable take exception to the ones who just worked for an hour, and went home with the same pay cheque.

This story, Jesus says, tells us something about the Kingdom of God; about the nature of God, and how God will act (or does act). The story reflects something about the abundance of God’s goodness. About how our notions of fairness might not necessarily apply to divine matters. About how there is always — no matter what your ability or experience — work for us to do in looking for and participating in God’s movement in the world. And it says something, too, about how there is something in our human nature that finds meaning and satisfaction in being in competition with others. Maybe even revelling in the suffering of others. For those longest-serving labourers in the parable ended up caring less about how they received the standard and agreed-upon wage, and more about how their situation stacked up against others. People have their eyes more on our neighbour (especially the neighbour we don’t like) than on God. There are echoes in this story of the good son who complains when the wayward child comes back home, and gets a party thrown for them. Or of the learned and responsible crowds who so often took exception to the ‘sinners’ and ‘outcasts’ to whom Jesus so often gravitated.

Thrown into the mix this morning is our snippet from the Letter of Paul to a church in Philippi. Usually it’s easiest to be harshest on the wayward sheep Paul is trying to lead, but here the details are slim. Their situation seems more dire than the others: “For [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…” So don’t just complain about whatever danger or challenge you’re facing, but think about how Jesus might be specially close to you, in this suffering.

So there must be something here for each of us to relate to. There’s an unvarnished realism to the scenes depicted in the lectionary this week. For me, I find myself gravitating to the story of the crowds complaining against Moses and Aaron. Maybe you can think back to a staff, or an office, or family, or hockey or baseball team that went through a difficult time. Or especially: struggled to adapt (or tolerate) new leadership (sometimes with good reason). Or maybe you’ve been in that leadership role, which can be a tough place to be. Things are especially difficult in times of change. And especially in times of scarcity. Both of these are in play for the Israelites: even that change from bondage to freedom can be difficult. ‘At least life was predictable,’ they say. ‘We had good enough. Out here… well, we don’t have any food, and it tastes terrible!’ (Which doesn’t make too much sense, when you think about it.) Like the joke: the food’s terrible, and such small portions.

There was a famous rabbi and therapist named Edwin H. Friedman who wrote about leadership, and especially leadership in times of anxiety. One chapter in one of his books is called “A Society in Regression.” I can’t help but think of that crowd of Israelites, wanting to regress back into the familiarity of Egypt. This rabbi points out some features of these communities and societies in regression:**

First there’s REACTIVITY. Under stress our reactions to one another are often intense, and unhealthy. Where it’s much easier to label the other as ‘you’ rather than come up with a mature ‘I’ statement. The crowds don’t say “we’re hungry,” but frame it as “you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Finger pointing you, you, you… [Friedman, 69.]

Then this rabbi points out the tendency toward HERD INSTINCT. Where “peace” is favoured over “progress” (the comfort of Egypt over the promise of the desert). And where the crowd tends to gather and give power to the least mature members, rather than to the creative thinkers and leaders. [Friedman, 74-75.]

Thirdly, there’s BLAME DISPLACEMENT. Where it’s easier to cast blame than to take responsibility. [Friedman, 83.] Instead of organize themselves in a way to maximize sharing, or care for the most vulnerable, the crowds just complain.

And then after that we come to the QUICK FIX MENTALITY, marked by impatience and a desire for absolute certainty. [Friedman, 92.] In churchland we hear this when someone says something like ‘if only we’d kept the old prayer book, everything would have been fine.’ Or if they just close the stores on Sundays, then we’ll be back on top.

For the Israelites, there’s the quick fix of just turning around and going back to Egypt. Also the proposed quick fix of “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt…” Favouring the clarity and certainty of that ending to the ambiguity and risk of change and new beginnings in the desert in search of the Promised Land.

The situation of the Church in much of the western world these days is often likened to a desert period in which we’re learning to rely on God, and not on status, wealth, or culture. And the readings today shed light on human life and relationships in the midst of this. But they also say something about the presence of God in all of this. Even confronted by a difficult, moody people, God still provides bread from heaven. Even has them collect double once a week so that they can still observe rest on the Sabbath. And not only that: God provides quails for meat; for variety in their diet.

And then all of a sudden: “as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.” A reminder that even in the worst times… or when we are at our worst, God is more faithful than we could ever desire or deserve. God doesn’t abandon the complainers. Nor does God ignore the people in the city square, still looking for work at the end of the day. And God is still faithful to the grumpy hard-workers who were there at sunrise. In all of this there will be stretching, pushing, and pulling, and some will come to a breaking point. But God is present in all of that.

So, to get back to our homework this week, when you catch yourself complaining, don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t deny it or sugarcoat it. But take a moment to look for grace and blessing, or promise, or God’s presence, even if it’s hidden under the surface.

* From Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.
** Quotations and ideas are from Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix: Revised Edition (New York: Church Publishing, 1999, 2007, 2017).