Why Complain? (March 15, 2015)

Listen to the sermon:

Sermon for March 15, 2015: Why complain?

Deborah White

          I recently heard about a study that suggested that complaining is good for your health.  My first reaction was to exclaim, “I guess that means my teenaged daughter is going to live forever!”  But then I began to wonder exactly what the study results meant.  Is it that complaining allows us to vent our pent-up feelings?  Or is it possible that when we voice our complaints out loud they don’t seem so bad?  Or perhaps it’s that maybe we get a tiny bit of satisfaction by making everyone around us as miserable as we are.

The Hebrew Scriptures don’t tell us whether the Israelites felt any better after they complained to Moses in the wilderness.  We just know that they did a lot of it.  Despite the fact that God sent Moses to rescue his people from a life of slavery, the Israelites started complaining almost immediately after escaping Egypt.

In fact, there are numerous passages in the Exodus narrative which feature

Israelites whose complaints sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s taken a long road trip with children in the back seat of a car.  “I’m thirsty.  I’m hungry.  Are we there yet”?  God is pretty patient with them, but today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures suggests that at a certain point in the Exodus God had had enough – so he sent poisonous serpents among the people and many were bitten and died.  It’s safe to say that in their case, complaining was not good for their health.

And it’s not necessarily good for us either.  According to study author Guy Winch, “We complain today more than ever before in history but few of our complaints get us the results we want. Instead we usually find ourselves repeating the same tale of woe or dissatisfaction to one person after the other in an effort to rid ourselves of our frustration… The problem is that today we associate the act of complaining with venting far more than we do with problem solving.”[1]  It’s like my mother always said – if you want to feel better, you can’t just complain about things – you have to do something about them – because complaining is only good for your health if it motivates change – if it brings hope.

Maybe that’s why the Israelites kept complaining instead of trying to help themselves.  Maybe they started to lose hope.  They were in the middle of a desert.

They didn’t know where they were going or how long it was going to take to get there.  They had given up everything based on the word of one man and for the worship of a God they had never even seen.  Maybe hopelessness started to make its way among them.  Like poison.  Like snakes.  Like death.  Maybe it was just too hard for them to keep believing in something that seemed impossible.

The members of the early Christian communities also complained a lot.  We know this because so many of Paul’s letters seem to be written in response to disputes among them.  Paul spends a lot of his time telling people how to live with each other, and he often can come across as more punitive than pastoral.  That’s why many scholars don’t believe he wrote the collection of letters we heard from today because, unlike Paul’s more practical letters, the Epistle written for the people at Ephesus seems to be focused on what Christians have, instead of what they should do.  And what we have, according to the writer, is grace. We who were dead from sin are alive because God allowed Jesus to become human and to be punished for human sins.

The idea that we owe God for having offended him and that Jesus paid that debt for is us is the core of what many Christians believe.  Based on the number of t-shirts, posters, and placards you see that read “John 3:16,” you might call it “the secret password of salvation”: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”  Humans are bad.  God is good.  Jesus died for our sins.  If we believe this we are saved, but if we don’t believe, we are condemned.  It seems straightforward, and, for many people, it’s that simple.

Not for Nicodemus though.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee and an underground disciple of Jesus.  We know he was a member of the ruling class, which means that according to Jewish tradition he was assured entry into the Kingdom of God by birthright.  But in an exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus that takes place right before today’s passage, Jesus tells him that entry into the Kingdom of God has nothing to do with birth.  It has to do with spiritual re-birth.  It is about what you do, not who you are.  It is a matter of choice.  And it has to be an informed choice.  Note that the gospel writer doesn’t say that people who do not believe because they have never experienced the light of God are to be judged.  It is those who know God and still choose to turn to darkness who are condemned.  It is those of us who call ourselves Christian but act otherwise who are doomed.

The good news is that we have many chances to choose the light – to choose the good – to choose God.  Because faith is a process. It’s not a one-time choice; it’s a choice we make over and over again.  We repeatedly choose whether to do good or evil- to love the light or hide from it -to promote life or participate in death.   We are always making these choices – whether we can see them or not.

Maybe that’s why the Lord told Moses to put the snake on a pole where the Israelites could look upon it.  Maybe they needed to see that God wasn’t punishing them.  Maybe God didn’t send the snakes at all.  Maybe the snakes were already there.  God simply took what was evil in their hands and turned it into grace in his.  You see, the serpent is not necessarily a symbol of evil.  It can be a symbol of fertility and life.  What matters is how we choose to perceive it.  The Israelites chose to be healed.  They chose salvation over sin, faith over fear, life instead of death.

Which is the same choice Jesus offers us.  We live in a world in which sacred symbols are used to justify evil as often as they are used to inspire good.  It is a world in which it is easy to see darkness.  A world in which people no longer trust the Church to lead them into the light.  A world in which life is cheap and everlasting life is a scientific aspiration.  In such a world it is hard to keep believing in something that seems impossible.  It is easy to give up hope.  We have a lot to complain about too.

But we can choose not to allow the serpent of hopelessness to unfurl inside of us.  We can choose to stop complaining and allow God to heal us.  We can choose to change things.  We are not alone.  The Israelites chose to go into the desert, but it was God who led them through it.  Human beings chose to allow greed and violence to take root in our world, but God can help us uproot it.  God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it.

The question is not whether we are “born again.”  The question is not whether we have the “right” kind or the right amount of faith.  The question is not who is saved and who is condemned.  The question is what we will choose.  Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so that the people might look upon it and live, Jesus allowed himself to be lifted up on the cross, so that we may look upon him – and choose to live.

Complain if it makes you feel better.  Tell God that you hate him, or fear him, or simply don’t believe in him.  It doesn’t matter.  The cross of hope is just like the serpent of hopelessness.  It is what we choose to make it.  It can be a tool for dividing people or bringing them together – a reason to kill others or the strength to be merciful to them – a symbol of death or the promise of rebirth.  Decide what it means to you.  And then stop complaining and get up.  Get up and take up your cross – take up your cross and follow Christ- and then you will have eternal life.  AMEN.  

[1] Guy Winch, “Does Complaining Damage Our Mental Health,” Psychology Today Online, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/thesqueakywheel/201201/doescomplainingdamageourmentalhealth {accessed 3/13/15]. 

Click below to download this sermon:

March 15, 2015 What have we got to complain about.pdf

Leave a Reply