A Sermon Preached on September 20, 2020
Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your [whining].
When I was a kid, my sister and I inherited nicknames from our older cousins. My sister, prone to ramming her head into things by sitting too close to sharp-edged coffee tables, flipping off the front of her razor scooter, or slamming head-first into the wall while roller skating, was called “Crash Jenny.”
When I tell you that my nickname was “Leah Whiner,” I’m sure you can imagine what that meant. If I had a catchphrase it would be, “That’s not fair!” shouted in that nasally yowl that’s the vocal equivalent of nails scratching a chalkboard.
Much like the Israelites in today’s Old Testament reading, my eyes were attuned to injustice, even in the midst of rescue. In the face of numerous calamities, big and small, it was easy for me to whine.
The story we heard today in Exodus is not a one-time deal, either. In the face of numerous calamities, it was easy for the Israelites to complain, too.
In fact, the opener, “The Israelites complained” is repeated enough throughout Exodus and its retelling in Numbers that it has earned its own genre. Called “murmuring stories,” these narratives come about repeatedly through the Israelites’ “wilderness wanderings.” This is how it goes: Rescued by the hand of God from the dehumanizing exploitation of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites find themselves dwelling instead on the terrifying uncertainty of what lies before them. Rescue has come, but the Israelites are still whining.
It would be easy, I think, for me to condemn the Israelites for complaining, if I couldn’t so easily see my whining-self in their story. Like them, I find myself deeply immersed in God’s wondrous call for my life. I have been ushered to the great land of Connecticut for seminary. I have been freed from the insecurities, inhibitions, and theologies that had not allowed me to pursue such a call for the better part of a decade. And yet, I look out across the landscape of my future and, often, see only endless desert.
Maybe this is true for you, too. These are “unprecedented” times, after all. These are times of escalated uncertainty in the face of pandemic, of the necessary turmoil of protest in the face of police brutality, and vigilantes gunning down people in the streets. These are times of unlearning and unknowing.
To use a technical term often used by grief counselors, we – like the Israelites – have lost our “assumptive worlds.” Put another way, we have lost our sense of what to expect. And even if what we expected before amounted to forced labor under imperial rule in Egypt, for some of us, this offered a measure of comfort. Paradoxically, even shamefully, we sometimes want the very thing we have been freed from. We want it because we want to imagine that we can plan for our future. When God rescued the Israelites, they weren’t prepared to let the future rest in God’s hands.
But this “righteous indignation” doesn’t only arise in stories of rescue for the marginalized. It can also arise in events we perceive as “unfair” even when our needs are being fully met. This is apparent in today’s Gospel reading. The early-bird day laborers agree to a certain wage, toiling in the scorching sun of morning and noonday. Meanwhile, other laborers are hired late in the afternoon, working only a few hours before the sun sets, stopping their work for the day.
I can imagine those early laborers sharing work gossip in the field. As word spread that the late-hired laborers were receiving identical pay to morning laborers, those tired from a long day’s work must have assumed their wages would rise, too. After all, it was only FAIR. Yet, the time came for the landowner to pay out wages, and they all received the same wage! Those tired, early-morning laborers, thousands of years after the Israelites murmured in the desert, felt the same burden of sudden change. Aggrieved by the loss of a world that seemed to make sense.
What they had thought was fair under the conditions of their hiring began to feel exploitative as the expectations of their employment changed with the addition of new hired hands. Like the Israelites, they were indignant.
And what lay under the whining of both of these crowds of weary, labor-worn people was the grief of loss and the burden of fear.
We, too, may find ourselves wandering through a landscape of loss and fear. While some may be able to find the silver lining in the face of uncertain employment, death of loved ones, and societal despair, today’s texts remind us that it is just as likely that we will feel a strong urge to fall on our knees and complain.
There’s another murmuring story, by the way – and it’s the last one to occur in the Old Testament. In this one, found in Numbers 21, the Israelites finally summon the courage to complain, not just to their earthly rulers, but directly to God. The suffering, they say, has gone on long enough. And just as they think they don’t have the strength to survive another calamity, poisonous snakes impose themselves in pandemic proportions, ravaging the community. The death toll rises. The future is uncertain as ever.
And then something strange happens. The whining turns to the silence of grief. The murmuring turns to the quiet cacophony of prayer. And God commands Moses to make a bronze snake on a pole. Healing happens here – when the afflicted Israelites gaze upon it, they recover from their poisoning. They live to see their future, however uncertain it may be. Many theologians have suggested that that this serpent on a pole foreshadows the cross. Anyone who gazes upon that final indignity of Christ crucified, against all odds, sees life.
We stand in the legacy of a great cloud of witnesses who saw that things were unfair and whined about it.
We stand in the legacy of enslaved people and imperial rulers, day laborers and landowners, of those marginalized and those in power. And while we must continue to ask ourselves where we stand and how we embody these stories, it is undoubtedly true that God answers the whiners. When God answers, as God did in the case of Israelites, problems do not go away altogether: people still endure suffering and the future remains unclear. When God answers, in the case of the day laborers, we are reminded that what we think we deserve and what actually restores God’s equity in the world are often, almost always, two different things.
But we are also reminded that freedom in Christ is linked with the cross. It is sitting with suffering and those who suffer even while we are inexplicably being healed. And so we whine, and we expect an answer. Our future may be unclear, but we can depend on that.