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3.11.18 S. Marcus

When I was graduating from Divinity School
And trying to decide what to do next,
There was an awkward, gentle dance of discernment
Between Clara applying to grad schools
And my wanting to start in an ordination process.
Eventually – after lots of stress, difficult decisions, some confusion,
And not a few tears –
We were pretty excited to be able to tell people that
We were moving to North Carolina
Where I would join Teach For America
And Clara would enroll in a joint Masters’ Degree program.
It felt like God had provided us a path
And a calling
And a way to get there,
And for a while we were pretty excited.

And oh,
How quickly things changed.
I tell you the truth:
A six week summer session
Does NOT prepare you to be a classroom teacher.
And two degrees in religion did NOT prepare me for IEP paperwork.

And that is why I can tell you
This strange story from Numbers is absolutely telling us something true:
We humans start complaining reeeaaalll quickly.
In our Episcopal context, we like to lift out certain themes from the Old Testament.

Moses liberated the people from Pharoah!
God’s people escaped oppression!
God provided a miraculous escape from genocide!
God led the people into a Promised Land!
The prophets declared the good news of God!
God is on the side of the poor and the outcast,
The orphan and the widow!

And sometimes we’re guilty of focusing too much on the positive,
Leaving out the strange and the dark and the confusing.

But this story of Numbers certainly sounds like my own experience.
The people were liberated from Egypt,
Set free from slavery,
Saved from Pharaoh’s hand.
It seemed to them, I’m sure,
That god had provided them a path and a calling and way to get there.
I bet they started out pretty excited.

But soon it got hard.
And they kept running into strange mountains
And they wandered around.
And they started to sound like all of us as toddlers:
There’s no food!
This food is terrible!
There’s no water!
We were better off in Egypt!
We wish we were dead!

How quickly they forgot their joy,
What they thought was their calling,
What they thought God had done for them,
And started to complain.

I’m not sure when I started to complain,
As a teacher,
But I’m sure it wasn’t long.
Maybe it was the first time I lesson planned well past midnight.
Or maybe it was the first time my principal told me –
Trying to joke, I’m sure –
That if I messed the paperwork up we’d get sued.
Or maybe it was when I realized
That I knew I had natural gifts to connect with teenagers,
But I did not have natural gifts to teach them math.
And wow, did I ever complain a lot.

And looking back, I can see what some scientists are literally mapping out
As they learn about how the brain works and grows and changes.
And that the more you complain,
The … more you complain,
Because you are giving attention to the negative things
And the physical neurons in your brain
Are getting into a rut.
And I’m sad to say –
But it is absolutely true –
That I started to feel like God
Hated me.
Forgot me.
Was punishing me, somehow, for something.

The people who told and re-told and collected and wrote down this story from Numbers
Are in the same boat.
It couldn’t possibly just be that they were in the dessert,
Where there were lots of snakes;
Oh no,
On this terrible wandering tour of doom
Through a God-forsaken desert
With no food,
With terrible food,
Now God was sending snakes to kill them,
Just because the people needed to vent a little bit.

Here is a riddle,
A paradox,
A question without an easy
Or a definite answer:
How much do you have to complain
Before you realize –
Or the people around you realize-
You are desperately crying out for help?

I ended up teaching for four years.
I would guess-
You can check with Clara afterwards-
That I probably complained about what I was doing
200 out of 208 of those weeks.
I got started complaining, and I couldn’t stop.

Thanks be to God
For the people around me.
For the housemates we lived with,
Who stopped engaging the complaining
And started sending me job applications.
For Clara who talked to someone about my plight,
And who forwarded me a random e-mail from a friend
Who had heard about how miserable I was
And said “why not this?”
And that’s how I found myself
As the Youth and Children’s Director
At a Southern Baptist Church in North Carolina.
And that was the first step that landed me here.

The people around me heard my complaining
And eventually
Saw that it was a cry for help.
They took my complaining,
And helped turn it into a prayer.
I was the Israelite people,
And they were Moses.
They didn’t fight me on whether or not God sent the snakes.
They didn’t bother trying to change my mind about how badly I felt about my situation.
They didn’t try to correct my warped and distorted view of God.
Instead, like Moses, they took my request and my plea and my anger and my hurt
And put them in God’s hands.
And they offered me things to look
That would help me to be healed.
During this Lenten season,
I have invited the children in Children’s Chapel
To represent their prayers with small beads.
Of thanksgiving, Of joy, Of excitement.
They have another set of beads-
Liturgical purple, of course-
For confession, For anxiety, And for sadness.
And each Sunday, they put their prayers
Into a bowl,
Naming out loud each reason they chose the stone they did.
And we talk about how as the stones hit each other,
God hears our prayers,
And God is with us.
And that as we share our prayers with each other,
God is with us then, too,
And we can help each other find and listen for God –
In joy and in pain,
In thanksgiving and in lament,
In excitement and confession.

This Lenten season,
I invite us all to start to monitor:
What are you complaining about?
Chances are, it’s something hard, something difficult.
And you have to talk about it.
You do.
How could you find help without talking about it?
But my challenge for us this morning-
For all of us,
Myself the chief of sinners-
Is to listen for our own complaints.
To hear them.
To stop.
And rephrase them as honest cries for help.

To listen to the complaints of others.
And not to try to change them,
But to ask then honestly, gently, and above all sincerely
With all the love we have
And all the love God has for us
How do they need help?

And let us live out the words of the Psalmist:
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.
He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction.
Let us thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
And let us offer thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds with songs of Joy.