Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 21st September at 7 pm
“the whole community grumbled ” Exodus 16:2
There is a cartoon that shows Moses standing on dry ground with walls of water on either side of him, waving at the people of Israel to follow and calling out, “What do you mean. ‘It’s a bit muddy?'”
In a humorous way, the cartoon captures Moses’ years of struggle with the Israelites. At every point in the story there seems to be discontent, no doubt there were some among the people who even, when they were fed, complained that they did not like quail or that the manna got stuck in their teeth. Grumbling seems second nature to some people.
The Israelite grumbling tradition is alive and well in the Church of Ireland. A colleague tells of a lovely harvest festival service in his church: the church was full, the singing was great, the harvest offering was large, but at the door afterwards, there were two women engaged in a heated argument. Was it something in the sermon? Was there some theological disagreement?
No, the row was because someone had arranged a vase of flowers and put it on one step at the front of the church and someone else had dared to move it down a step. Is this what the church is about? Had Moses heard the story would he not put his hand over his eyes and say, “Oh no, surely people are not still grumbling?”
There is a great deal of difference between disagreement based on principle and grumbling based on? Well, it’s difficult to know what grumbling is based on.
I do not pray for the dead because I believe that once we move outside this world we move outside of time and that our encounter with God is immediate, I believe the departed do not need our prayers because if they are going to be with the Lord, then they are there already. Other people would disagree and find comfort in praying for their loved ones. Disagreement does not mean grumbling, it means an honest recognition of difference.
Grumbling is rooted not so much in what people think, not in strong positions they might hold, but in something more vague, something less specific. Grumbling is a state of mind rather than a clearly thought out attitude.
Why had the people of Israel left Egypt in the first place? Because of the misery and oppression they were suffering. Anyone with half a minute’s thought would have known that the grumbling was pointless; they had come to where they were because things had been so bad where they had been.
Grumbling comes not from conviction, but from a lack of conviction. Had there been a conviction about what they should be doing, they could have shared it with Moses, but there isn’t; all there is the state of mind that says, ‘I don’t like what I’m doing, but I’m not a person for doing anything, so I’m just going to moan about it’.
Grumbling stems from a lack of vision, from a lack of any sense of the big picture. The lady complaining about the vase being moved would have realized how absurd her complaint was if she had stopped for one moment to think about the big picture that harvest festival recalls. She would have seen herself as completely silly if she had had a vision of her church as the people of God trying to do his will, instead of, presumably, seeing it as a gathering of her small community.
Even Moses was afflicted with vase watchers. One of the greatest figures in the Bible and even he cannot get people to look up and see the big picture. However, perhaps there is more the church might do to create a sense of vision and to take on the grumblers. Reading notes on the prophet Haggai by Baptist minister Alec Gilmore, I found this reflection on Isaiah 35, a chapter which reads as follows:
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus,
2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness.
The unclean will not journey on it;
it will be for those who walk in that Way;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor will any ferocious beast get up on it;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Here’s what Alec Gilmore says in his commentary,
“If Haggai were feeling for a wider vision it is more likely to be found in a poem than a programme, and if the poem were around at the time, which is quite a possibility, it may well reflect some of the things he had in mind. Its strength is not in its detail or immediate relevance but in its timelessness and its capacity still to speak to us all.
A poem has the capacity to lift us out of our day-to-day world into a new world. It speaks to the heart rather than to the mind. Short on fact, it can be long on inspiration, and at the end of a dark day wrestling with insoluble problems Haggai might well have turned to something like this for comfort, reassurance and hope.
“Of course it is not going to happen. At least, not just like that. It may not even happen at all. Haggai probably never expected it to. But a poem is not a statement about what is or what will be. It is a description of what in our heart of hearts we would like to be, with just enough of reality to inspire us and enable us to go on living and to cope with all that is around”.
Perhaps in Alec Glimore’s comments there is a response to grumbling, a vision must have enough reality to inspire us, while expressing what in our heart of hearts we would like to see. “The whole community grumbled,” says Exodus, the vase watchers would have been there among them. The church needs that Isaiah–like vision to see the things that might be.