Grumbling and Grace

Sermon Preaced at Christ the King on September 21, 2008

Exodus 16:2-15 (Semi-Continuous)
Psalm 105:1–6, 37–45 (Semi-Continuous)
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16
Lectionary 25
Proper 20
Year A

I.N.I. (In the name of Jesus)

Setting the Scene
Last week we heard about grumbling. The Israelites were in the wilderness and they were having a crisis of faith, complaining against God and Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness.” If you recall, the LORD then sent poisonous serpents that bit the people and many died. They went to Moses and confessed their sin, asking him to pray for the LORD to take away the serpents. Moses did as God commanded and placed a bronze serpent upon a pole so that whenever anyone was bitten, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. Now that’s grace.

Trouble in the World
Are we there yet? I confess that like most kids I whined those words as a cranky child from the back seat during many a family trip. How much longer? Mommy I’m hungry? Daddy I’ve got to go to the bathroom… now!

Are we there yet? Childhood memories of grumbling, trivial compared to folks who travel from place to place without a permanent home, the adults and children at Anne Marie House and homeless shelters across the country. Wilderness places where in the depths of hearts and cranky lips of children, people without a home wonder, long for and sometimes lament their wandering.

Are we there yet? No, unfortunately many are not. People are homeless due to storms like Hanna and Ike; storms of foreclosure due to sub-prime mortgages; storms of economic crisis due to falling stock markets, medical emergencies or jobs lost; and storms of brokenness due to addiction or domestic violence. People lost in the wilderness of their wandering, lost in a crisis of faith, in need of food, shelter, and a place to feel secure and loved, people in need of some grace in a world of trouble.

According to a point-in-time count by the Greater Nashua Continuum of Care, as of January, there were a total of 457 homeless people living in the Nashua area. These numbers included 78 households with dependent children, 233 people, or 51 percent of the total number of people without homes counted. This number doesn’t capture the entirety of the homeless population and if we use national models, the figure is more likely between 1,300 and 1,800. According to the Continuum of Care, there are only 54 shelter beds available for families and 42 available for individuals in the Nashua area. Literally hundreds of people in this area are in crisis, experiencing wilderness as they wander each day. “No Direction Home: For area Homeless, an Uphill Struggle” Nashua Telegraph, September 18, 2008

So, what about those of us with homes, are we there yet? Even with permanent homes, we live in a dangerous world and with a turbulent economy, both worthy of a grumble or two. And grumble we do, not seeming to notice the roof over our heads and the many blessings of abundance in our lives. We complain and grumble about what seem to be wilderness experiences… a stressful commute, dropped cell call, rainy day, lawn to mow, bills to pay, errands to make, projects to finish, or sermons that go too long.

We grumble, we complain, we are hard to satisfy. We have regrets and often cannot let them go. We ruminate “if only…” or “we’ve never done it that way before!” We do have crises of faith and experience wilderness moments, but more often than not, we are hungry and rarely satisfied. In our consumer culture, we seek value packs, super-size and believe more is better (like homes w/3 car garages, SUV’s, and large flat screen televisions…). The grumbling in our lives is usually not our stomachs, but a cry for more, our fair share, our deepest needs and wants to be met.

When we get caught-up in selfish moments of entitlement or find ourselves wandering in the wilderness, we often find ourselves in a faith crisis. We demand and we doubt and find we are distant from God. We may not complain directly to God but if we are truly honest with ourselves, we are like the Israelites, whose true complaint was with God.

Trouble in the text
Faced with hunger in the wilderness, the Israelites longed for life back in Egypt and said they wished the exodus had never happened. Verses 1-3 describe their intense hunger and complaint with God.

I’m not sure if the Israelites used the exact phrase “are we there yet” but clearly they complained and grumbled. In fact in the first reading this morning, just two paragraphs long, there are seven references to complaints about the wilderness experience! Sounds to me like the back seat of the exodus is full of cranky people and the people in the front seat, driver Moses and navigator Aaron have gotten an earful. If I were Aaron, I would have pleaded with them to not kill the messenger. And if I were Moses, I’d explain that I was just the driver, and that it wasn’t me who planned the trip!

Exodus scholar Terry Fretheim, who was a visiting professor at the Philadelphia Seminary last year, calls this a story of food and faith. Here the people have moved beyond grumbling “are we there yet” to “I’m starving, what’s for dinner.” He frames this as a food crisis, which leads to a faith crisis. The people have a faith crisis due to a “lack of discernment in the ordinary that leads to a denial of God’s activity in the extraordinary.” Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching Exodus (John Know Press, 1991)

The Israelites were good grumblers, having arrived at the shore of the Reed Sea and seeing the Egyptian army chasing them, they grumbled to Moses at the time, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11). And now here the grumbling follows both the wonderful and miraculous exit from slavery across the sea and the reality that they had survived so far. But survival was not the safety of Egypt; at least as slaves they had food and shelter. The people encountered real hardship in the wilderness called Sin, an interesting name for the area between Elim and Sinai, and they grumbled.

Grace in the Text
God miraculously and graciously gave the people quails and manna to eat as promised in verses 4-12 and delivered in 13-15 demonstrating that God provides.

God does not send serpents. God does not bite back as God listens to the grumbling refrains of the people. God does not get mad at the whining and complaining directed at Moses and Aaron, but clearly intended for God. God’s resolution is not to ignore or retaliate, but rather to listen and respond in grace.

There is grace in God’s listening to the grumbling people and by providing for their physical and spiritual hunger. In verse 16, we learn that God’s graciousness is so “that they shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ‘Your’ God, our God. God hears and God responds, making the gifts of listening and food a wonderful God moment. The people are fed with tangible food to sustain them, and with the knowledge that the LORD of all is their God, a God who loves and provides for them.

This story of grumbling and grace that tells of the exodus from slavery and oppression is one of wonder. Wonder in a journey that includes daily bread to feed stomachs. Wonder in a journey that includes daily bread to feed understanding of God’s unwavering presence in the midst of God’s people. Are they there yet? No, the Promised Land is not close and the journey will be long. How much longer? They don’t know, but do know that as the people of the promise, God will guide and provide for them with enough, enough to sustain them every day.

Grace in the World
The late James and Evelyn Whitehead often wrote about conflict in the Biblical narrative and the world. Examples of conflict and complaining like the Israelites lead to conflicts of faith. The Whitehead’s point out that those who persist in thinking they are entitled, or those who demand and do evil, cannot receive the reign of God.
The Promise of Partnership: Leadership and Ministry in an Adult Church (Harper-Collins, 1991)

Our story is also one of grumbling and grace…. one of entitlement, complaint, and hunger, one where we are hungry for physical and spiritual food, for answers and satisfaction, forgiveness, or meaning. Our story is also one of wonder… Wonder in a journey that includes daily bread to feed stomachs and feed understanding of God’s unwavering presence in the midst of the people. Are we there yet? No. How much longer? We don’t know, but we do know that as the people of the promise God will guide and provide for us with enough, enough to sustain us every day.
God reveals God’s presence and self by graciously answering grumbling with food (perhaps God is a Lutheran!). God is known through God’s grace and mercy. And God is present and known in the world wherever God’s people are gracious and merciful as well. Shifts covered at Anne Marie House, hungry folks fed at the Ash Street Shelter, money raised through Chicken Race and CROP Walk participants, resources and disaster response volunteers are actively assisting hurricane victims, the sick and homebound are visited, and children are taught and cared for in, with and under grace. God’s work, our hands.
People grumble and complain: Israelites in slavery and freedom, Yankee fans and Red Sox fans, Liberals and Conservatives, you and me, it’s our human nature. But the people of God, then as now, live and journey in tension. We are precariously under the shadow of the cross a symbol of torture and salvation, between law and gospel, grumbling and grace, promise and hardship. The promise of God, faithful to us in all our wanderings is a comfort to the hardship realities of life. We will complain, and God will hear us. And God will provide, eternally an unwavering presence in all our wanderings.

So when you find yourself grumbling, wandering aimlessly, feeling lost, or having a crisis of faith, you need only wonder in the promise and awesome grace of God. You are heard and delivered from those wilderness moments that cause you to grumble through the gift of grace, through the bread of heaven the LORD has given for you. Amen.

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