Scripture: Exodus 16:1–18
We all know the experience. The family road trip: Day 6. Long rides in the car. Soggy sandwiches out of the cooler. Sleeping in beds and rooms that are not our own. Whether it is the kids in the back seat…or the adults in the front seat…eventually you move to The Complaint Zone.
It’s too hot.
It’s too cold.
I don’t want that food.
I want more of that food that’s all gone.
I have to go to the bathroom…again.
I don’t want to look out the window at the scenery.
My phone is dead.
My game player is dead.
My laptop is dead.
I don’t know where any of the chargers are.
I don’t like this room. Why can’t we stay at the last place again?
Why can’t we just go home?
Or, the Granddaddy of them all, “Are we there yet?”
At one time or another, we have all entered The Complaint Zone.
But what happens when you raise the level of complaint beyond soggy sandwiches and phone chargers? I would suggest that many of the voices that we hear in our society are, at their hearts, complaints. Complaints about government leaders, or cultural standards, or societal ills. Listen to a list of phrases (or hashtags) and watch how quickly we see the significance of complaint in our world today. Justice for Britney. Never Trump. Hidin’ from Biden. No Mask Selfie. Leave Our Kids Alone (rejecting vaccine mandates). Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. All Lives Matter. Each of these phrases, in one way or another, is a complaint about the ways of the world. About a certain situation, or the government, or culture or society. Now what that justice looks like depends on your perspective, and likely your political persuasion. You probably agree whole-heartedly with some of these phrases, and think that others are absolutely ridiculous, or even dangerous. But the bottom line is the same: our ears today are filled with the complaints of people who feel as though an injustice has been done in this world. You almost cannot turn on the news, or look at social media, or even drive down the road filled with yard signs without entering into The Complaint Zone.
Even the Ancient Israelites were familiar with The Complaint Zone. Last week, our Bible study conversation, the Two-Way, spent a lot of time parsing this idea of complaint. Asking what is the value—or danger—of complaint in Scripture. It is an idea with a lot of nuance…
First of all, we have to admit that we are programmed to be nervous about the word. Good, positive Midwesterners as we are, it’s like we are born with the phrase “I don’t mean to complain…” in our mouths. Complaint feels like whining. Complaint feels like negativity. Complaint feels like ingratitude. Complaint feels like Day 6 of the family road trip. Complaint feels annoying (“no one likes a complainer.”) We talked in the Two-Way about that discomfort; complaining seems like a bad thing. We came up with a list of close to ten other words for complaint…just so we wouldn’t have to say the word complaint!
But there are times in Scripture when it feels like complaint is a good thing, even a holy thing. Job complained to God. Psalmists complained all the time, “How long, O Lord?” Jesus “complains” from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” Even at the heart of the Exodus story is complaint. Last week, in Chapters 2 and 3, we read about the complaint of the Israelites, and God’s response: “I have heard my people crying out…I have heard their groaning.” Complaint is the catalyst for change. God doesn’t tell the people “You know, nobody likes a groaner.” Instead, groaning starts the wheels of justice turning! We happy, positive Midwesterners need to admit that sometimes it takes some complaining…some groaning…some anger…some frustration…to bring about justice in an unjust world. Sometimes our angry complaint is an act of trust…trust that God will do something about it. Trust that God is powerful enough, and sensitive to our groaning enough, and just enough, to make a difference in the injustice that we feel. There is something holy about our groaning.
But… (…and here’s the nuance. This idea of complaint feels like A, but also B, but then also C.) The “second but” is that sometimes it feels like complaint goes too far. After the holy groaning of Chapters 2 and 3, Moses responds to God’s call, stands up to Pharaoh, and delivers his people. By the end of Chapter 14, the people are so thankful to Moses and God that the chapter ends saying that the people “believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses”! But then by Chapter 15—the next chapter!—they have started to get anxious about their water supply and start to complain. Then God gives them water and they are happy again. But then by Chapter 16—the next chapter!—they start to get anxious about their food supply and again start to complain. In the passage I read earlier, they complain about Moses. They complain about Aaron. They complain about God. And here is the “but.” It feels like these back-to-back complaints go a little too far. They go as far as to say that life would have been better if they were back in Egypt. Really? Better living under unjust slavery? Being beaten day in and day out? Being fed but not because they were deemed worthy of food, but only so that they could provide more reliable slave labor? This is where the Two-Way crew had had enough…as had Moses and Aaron and God. Clearly this kind of complaint is not “holy groaning” about injustice, but something else.
So there is nuance here. Which makes it tough when we start complaining. Are we more on the order of Chapter 2/3 Israelites, groaning about injustice in our world? Or are we more like the Chapter 15/16 Israelites, where it feels like we have crossed some line from holy groaning to unholy whining? I feel like the story of Exodus gives us some guidelines, some helpful personal and spiritual questions to ask as we discern, “When am I engaging in holy groaning…and when have I crossed some line into something less helpful?” Let me share four of those questions.
1. What are the stakes? I have talked before about the idea of fragility, and this idea that sometimes folks feel as though because they get their feelings hurt, or are uncomfortable, that they are true victims. Now, that is not to say that feelings don’t matter. But as therapists are known to say, “feelings are not facts.” There is a difference in the stakes between people’s lives being threatened and even ended…and people feeling uncomfortable. In Exodus 15/16, it seems like the latter. Notice, the passage does not say that the Israelites were dying of thirst. They were not dying of hunger. But the Israelites got nervous because they weren’t in on the plan and their anxiety and fear took over, and they lost perspective. They thought Moses and Aaron were trying to kill them. They thought returning to Egypt was a good idea. In the same way, before we proclaim our complaint, our groaning, a little perspective helps. Perhaps it is wise to examine the stakes. Are lives at stake…or am I just anxious or uncomfortable?
2. What is my part? This is a helpful way to distinguish between holy groaning and just plain whining. Often, we whine when we don’t like something about our life and we want someone else to fix it for us. God offers no such pandering. If you flip back to Chapter 15, you will notice that God expects the Israelites to do their part: “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.” Healing comes with responsibilities. That is not to say that God’s love is conditional, but it seems to suggest that the work of justice is one of action, not inaction. We have a part to play in order to receive the full blessings of God’s shalom. If we want to see peace, if we want to achieve justice, it is up to us to do our part. This is how we understand that Jesus was engaging in holy groaning. He clearly was in engaged in the work of active justice. He followed his mission all the way to death, all the way to the cross. That message of Jesus to take up our cross is of course an echo of the commandment of Yahweh that begins here on the Sinai Peninsula. When we complain about the way the world is working, are we willing to do our part, to take up our cross, to follow the ways of God, and help bring justice?
3. Who do you trust? Scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that the book of Exodus is really about shifting the object of trust of Israel. They trusted Egypt, even though it had killed them, because it was all they knew. Even though Egypt was a violent, slave-holding Empire, it was their violent, slave-holding Empire. If they were to become true followers of Yahweh, it was going to take some serious deprogramming. Like about 40 years’ worth. For the next 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, God and Moses engaged in a process of deprogramming from trust of Egypt and its empire, to reprogramming to trust the power of Yahweh. Brueggemann suggests we ask a similar question in our own context. Will we trust the narrative of scarcity of Empire, which suggests that we have to be afraid that we do not have enough, we must steal to get enough, and live in paranoia that there is not enough? Or will we trust the narrative of abundance, that we have a God who gives us enough? Who is enough? It took the Israelites 40 years to figure that out. Often it takes us longer. If we figure it out at all. Who do you trust? Empire’s scarcity or God’s abundance?
4. A final question, when it comes time to assess our complaint: Is this about community? Did you notice how the manna worked? There was enough. It gave people what they needed. But some took more than what they needed. They took what they wanted, even if it meant others would have gone without. But God’s provision with the manna didn’t work that way. It had an “anti-hoarding failsafe.” As soon as people started to hoard more than they needed, the manna would rot and go bad. It was designed to create equality and community, not competition and hoarding. This is a helpful guide to our question of complaint. Is my complaint about me and mine? Do I only want justice for myself or people like me? Or is there something in this complaint that sees the pain of others and seeks to bring healing in their lives? Is this about hoarding or sharing? Am I looking to the needs of others? Am I imagining the pain and frustration of their lives? The reprogramming of Israel from scarcity to abundance required a new understanding of what it took to care for neighbor. To welcome stranger. To make sure all are fed.
Again, it is Bruggemann that connects to our own context, including the context of the church: “This community continues to believe that bread that is broken and shared has power for life that bread does not have when it is unbroken and unshared—when it is guarded and hoarded.”
Let us break bread together. Let us share bread together.