Thursday, September 18, 2014
September 21, Proper 20, Transformations 4: Complaining
One of the great Otto Heinigke windows in the Old First sanctuary. "Go ye also into the vineyard."
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
I’m a grumbler, like those vineyard workers. I’m a complainer, like the Children of Israel. I’m a person who files complaints. Just this week I filed a complaint against the workers in Prospect Park who start the leaf-blower going at 6:45 am, right outside my window, even though the city ordinance says not before 8:00 am. I’m the kind of guy who calls up 311.
I mean grumbling is essential to democracy. Finding fault with your officials is a necessary preparation for elections. Democracy is not as much about voting somebody in as being able to throw the incumbent out.
Complaining varies by culture. I’m a dual citizen, and I spend about sixty days a year in Canada, and I can tell you that grumbling and complaining are not only more tolerated in Canada but even endorsed. It comes through on CBC, where the tone of the news is constant indignation, especially against the government, when it doesn’t deliver on what you are entitled to.
In the States, the government doesn’t owe you anything, you’re on your own, including your self-defense. Americans are violent. Canadians complain. That’s why I like it there—I’m a grumbler. When my wife and I are at events together she very often has to shut me up. My very cheerful and loving reputation is an effective cover, don’t you think? Just don’t complain about me.
Complaining comes from feeling that something is not right which could be right, and that this is the fault of whoever is in charge, and that it touches you, so you have to say something. (My two problems are that I think everything touches me, and I feel like I should always speak up.)
Not all complaining is bad. In another parable Jesus compliments a widow who complains. I guess the question is whether you really do have something to complain about.
In this parable, the vineyard workers had nothing to complain about. You understand that a vineyard was much smaller than they are today, and the practice was to harvest it all in one day, so that the grapes could be pressed all at once. As the day wore on, and if the crew was running late, you had to quick enlist more workers. So Jesus has this landowner being more generous with the later workers than he has to be.
He could have kept this under wraps by paying the earlier workers first, but by reversing the order of payment he’s rubbing their noses in his generosity. Or testing them. Well, it’s a parable. It’s about how you experience the generosity of God. When God is good to you but even more good to someone else, you feel it as unfair. And yet you’ve got nothing to complain about. Well, if I can’t complain, then what else am I going to talk about?
The Children of Israel did have something to complain about. They’ve been traumatized. And they have been conditioned by years of slavery not to trust the goodness of the guys in charge. They’re not asking for much— just plain, “What are we gonna eat.” When I was a pastor in Hoboken, I told my congregation I was being called to a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. When I was at the front door shaking hands one of the members said, “Reverend, whatta you gonna eat?” And of course, for the next four years in Michigan I did complain about the food. That was the sin, I think, the fault, my failure—it was in my resentment.
With the Israelites it’s when they start saying nasty resentful things, like: “If only we had died in Egypt.” Excuse me. “When we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” That’s selective memory. Now they’re unfair. You might have something to complain about, but what’s the energy in your complaining? For me it’s jealousy of other people getting preferments which I did not get, and it’s resentment that I have to pay for my mistakes when other people seem to get away with theirs. Well, that’s the extent of my suffering. My life is so lacking in real suffering that I actually don’t have anything to complain about.
If you’re truly suffering, it’s as natural to complain as it is natural for babies to cry when they are hungry. But in the epistle, St. Paul tells the Philippians that it is their privilege to suffer for Christ. If it’s a privilege does that mean you have nothing to complain about? We can guess what their suffering was. In Philippi you could get beaten up just for being Jewish, and Christians were still regarded as renegade Jews who were even worse for their recruitment of Gentiles. Philippi was a Roman military colonia, in which their Christian faith will have been treasonous and their worship illegal.
We don’t know of any active persecution at this time, but the threat, the fear, and the tension were ever present. They had to be so careful, and trust the good will of their neighbors. To complain about their predicament would have been self-defeating. There’s something in that for us in general. Complaining comes easily and naturally, but how often is it not self-defeating. What you want to do is to discipline your complaining.
I’m not saying to stop complaining. There’s lots of productive complaining in the Bible. I mean, God heard the complaining of the Israelites and answered it with manna. Was that God’s intention all along? Then why did God hold off, and rub their noses in their need for God’s providence? Just testing! So that they’d learn to say, “Give us this day our daily bread, and lead us not into temptation?” Do we have to learn that the hard way? Does God have to train us to say that? Is that the transformation? Is that the opposite of complaining? “Give us this day our daily bread, and lead us not into temptation.”
I would say that the opposite of complaining is not complimenting, nor is cheering the opposite of grumbling. Yes, maybe on yelp.com, and maybe according to Park Slope parenting, but not morally, not spiritually. When we come to the heart, when we come to your soul, the opposite of complaining is quietness, and the opposite of grumbling is silence. Not the silence of being shut up, but of your own self-directed repose and your own self-referential inner quietness, your being free and unattached to what the guy in charge does wrong. And if there’s some justice required or some repair to do, you’re more able to address it when you’re not complaining about it.
I don’t mean cynical silence, and I don’t mean stoic resignation. I mean the quietness of worship and the silence of adoration. I mean that the more you develop your attitude of worship the less complaining you will do, and your grumbling will decrease the more you kneel in humble adoration.
Notice how Moses and Aaron called the people to worship the glory of God. They said, “In the evening you shall know it was the Lord who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.” It is in worship that you renew your mind and you realize your right place in the world, and in worship that you rehearse your rights and your privilege as not your own, but as God’s beloved.
Worship is the expression of your feelings, yes, but it’s more the transforming of your feelings, and it has something objective and substantial against you in order to renew you and transform you. You want this; that’s why you’re here today. You have come here to have your mind renewed again. Just being here you are transformed, and for this time together you have no time for complaining, and you have no spare breath for grumbling.
There were many good people who complained about Jesus. It’s not because he was not loving and gracious with them. It’s that he was no less as loving and gracious to bad people. He is generous to everyone, not as you deserve it, but as you need it. Jesus does not give out points for good behavior. That means there is no point to be good, except just to be good. Being good has to be its own reward. And being good will not exempt you from suffering and sorrow. That’s the other side of the coin of grace.
In the same way, there is no point to loving, except to love. And the love of Jesus did not exempt him from suffering and sorrow. But he loved because he, though absolutely free, could not help but love, because God was so fully in him, and God is love. Yes, even though God is absolutely free, God is love. Within this love right now you are transformed and the vision of this love renews your mind. You came here today to lift up your heart to the glory of the love of God.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.