“The way of gratitude”
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Proper 21, Year B
September 27, 2009 (Preached at ESC)
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but there’s an insert in your bulletin where you can write down prayer requests, which we collect at the offertory before communion. Well, believed it or not, I received a prayer request last year that I deemed unworthy to present to God. You see, the prayer request in question wasn’t for little Timmy’s leg to heal, nor was it for grandma to get out of the hospital – the prayer, and I quote, was that “John Newton would either learn to be funny or else stop telling jokes.” Lest you’re worried, the offender was excommunicated. After all, God’s people should be known for their gratitude. Not their complaints.
But in all seriousness, we do love to complain. I was trying to write this sermon on Thursday – couldn’t think of a thing to say – and so I decided to kill some time by surfing the interweb, and I came across a site called fmylife.com. I’m not sure what the “f” stands for – fail, forget, farfegnugen – it doesn’t really matter. But the website is essentially one big message board where people post complaints. And in all fairness, they’re pretty bad. For example, one person writes “today I threw up on my dress. My wedding dress. While my dad was walking me down the aisle.” And another, “after years of searching, I finally tracked down my biological father on facebook and I decided to message him.” She then added, “He blocked me.” Now granted, those things warrant a posting on this site. But this website makes millions of dollars – on complaints! Well, depressed from all the complaining, and still not having any sermon material, I logged onto facebook. Bad idea. Got to love that newsfeed. One person had beef about their new driver’s license, which didn’t look as cool as the old one. Another person – and I quote – didn’t “understand rain.” Complaint after complaint after complaint.
In tonight’s reading from Numbers, the people of Israel are in the desert. And they’re in the desert because there are certain lessons that God wants them to learn. Because biblically speaking, the desert is that place where God lovingly refines and breaks and shapes his people into who he wants them to be. But the Israelites don’t want to be refined or broken or shaped – and so they complain.
First, the Israelites complain because they want steak or a cheeseburger or some other kind of meat. Apparently, the supernatural manna that God’s been sending from heaven isn’t quite up to their standards and they want a better menu. And so they complain. “We remember the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic we used to eat in Egypt.” I mean, they throw quite the hissy fit! Now remember, these are the same people that God has just freed from a life of slavery by parting the Red Sea. And so here the Israelites are in the desert – with a God that graciously desires to lead them to freedom – and they experience a little discomfort. So they complain. They choose the way of ingratitude.
The interesting thing about complaining – it’s contagious. Complaining breeds more complaining. And so when Moses hears the Israelites complaining, what does he do? He complains to God! And to paraphrase, this is what Moses says: “God, what did I do to deserve this? Why’d you put me in charge of these whiners? I’m not their mother. And so I tell you what God, I need you to do something for me. Either get a new leader for these people or kill me.” Now, in all fairness, when I received the aforementioned prayer request regarding my shabby sense of humor, I may have told God the exact same thing. And so here is Moses in the desert – with a God that’s chosen him to lead, with a God that speaks to him face to face (Num 12:8) – and Moses experiences a little frustration. So he complains. Moses chooses the way of ingratitude.
And then there’s Joshua – the #2 man. And Joshua gets word that Eldad and Medad are prophesying. So Joshua tells Moses to make them stop. You see, in Joshua’s mind, only Moses is supposed to prophesy. It’s what makes Moses special. And since Joshua is Moses’ assistant, the program coordinator for the people of Israel, it makes him special too. But if just anyone can start prophesying, then Moses and Joshua won’t be special anymore. And so here’s Joshua in the desert – and he has a front row seat in the great drama of salvation that’s unfolding – and Joshua experiences a little misunderstanding. So he complains. Joshua chooses the way of ingratitude.
It’s seductive, the way of ingratitude. It really is. It’s seductive because God has ordained a wilderness for each and every one of us. Like the Israelites, we too have to pass through the desert. There’s no other way from Egypt to the Promised Land. There’s no other way from the bondage of sin to the glory of the Kingdom of God. To quote the book of Hebrews, “the Lord disciplines those whom he loves and he chastises those he accepts as children.” Why? Because there are certain lessons that we need to learn. And so spiritually speaking, our wilderness, or our desert, is that place where God refines and breaks and shapes us into who he wants us to be. The wilderness is where God transforms our character. And allowing God to break us, trusting him enough to do whatever it takes to change our hearts – that’s hard. Allowing God to break us, asking God to break us – is hard. It is so much easier to complain! And that’s why the way of ingratitude is seductive.
And it’s a way that we all walk to one degree or another, though some more than others. We all know those people that always seem to be bellyaching about something – the unfairness of life, the insensitivity of their significant other, the liberals destroying the church, the conservatives leaving the church, the hot weather, the cold pizza, the greedy rich, the lazy poor – it’s always something. And so here we are in the desert – with a God that yearns to refine and break and shape us into better people – and we mistake the desert for hell. So we complain. Such is the way of ingratitude.
The good news of the Christian Gospel is that God offers us a better way – the way of gratitude. And unlike the way of ingratitude, the way of gratitude is God-centered. And it too is contagious. After all, gratitude is anchored in the belief that there’s actually Someone to thank – and that this Someone loves us deeply – so deeply in fact that He’s willing to refine and break and shape us into who he wants us to be. Not because it’s fun. But because it’s necessary – because it’s necessary for our transformation.
In his Rule for monasteries, St. Benedict thought that complaining was such an offense against the community that if a complainer wouldn’t stop, and I quote, “two stout monks should be sent to help him reconsider.” In other words, complaining monks would get a visit from Sonny and Guido. It seems that the saintly founder of Western monasticism was under the impression that a left jab to the solar plexus and a right hook to the jaw would do the trick. For the record, I have no plans of implementing Benedict’s policy here at the Student Center, but what I will say is this: not only have we been given the gift of life, but when we rejected that gift and denied God’s goodness in ourselves, in others, and in the world that God created, God refused to let go of us. Through the blood of Jesus Christ, our sins have been washed away and each one of us is a co-heir with Christ and will reign forever in the Kingdom of God. But in the meantime, there’s a wilderness that awaits each of us, and my prayer is that we’ll come to see the wilderness for what it truly is: the grace of God. After all, it truly is amazing news that our God loves us enough to break us – it’s good news that God refines and breaks and shapes us into who he wants us to be – into transformed people fit for His kingdom.
In a few minutes, you’ll be invited to receive the Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” When you approach the altar, hold out your hands in gratitude – especially if you feel broken – and receive God’s provision for the wilderness.