The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 9, 2015
John 6:35, 41-51
I do not watch much television. Except when I’m on vacation. And two weeks of vacation has provided me ample time to watch lots and lots of mind-numbing, soul-draining television. And it was glorious. I re-watched about four seasons of “The Office,” the comedy show about a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The boss, Michael Scott, if he was in the real world, would’ve been fired hundreds of times over for just about everything you can possibly do wrong in today’s office environment.
In one episode, Michael Scott decides to read the comments in the closed “Suggestion” box he has put out in the office. And you just know it’s going to be bad. Somebody puts in this “suggestion” for the boss, Michael Scott, “you need to do something about your body odor.” The next “suggestion” – “you need to do something about your coffee breath.” And the last comment in the suggestion box, well, it’s just a piece of paper with somebody’s chewed gum wrapped up in it.
What’s funny about this episode of the Office, is that it hits a nerve of truth. And this is the truth. Often times, what we call “suggestions” are actually complaints. And people love to complain. Guilty as charged. I am a complainer. But at least I’m not alone in this. You are complainers too. We all are. And so were the people that knew Jesus.
Here’s the setting. Jesus has just fed the crowd of five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. Everybody ate their fill and there were even leftovers. Then Jesus tries to teach about this. He says, “look, the bread that you ate, that will go away and you will be hungry again. But I, I am the bread of life. And if you eat of me, you will never be hungry again. I have come down from heaven to be bread for this world.”
And that’s when the complaining starts. The crowd rolls their eyes, “oh come on. This is Jesus. We know his dad, Joseph, we know Mary. It’s not right for him to say that he came down from heaven.” The people complain.
Now, this isn’t the first time the people complained. Go back and think about the stories when the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness with Moses. God gave them bread to eat in the wilderness so that they wouldn’t die. And you know what? The people complained about it. I prefer the word “murmur.” They murmured, “What is this bread stuff?” And remember, they’re in a desert and God opens up water springs from the ground so they can drink, and again they start belly-aching. “O, so God can give us bread and water, but what, no meat?” Murmur murmur murmur. Complain complain complain. And actually, God later does rain quails down upon them so they have meat to eat. But God isn’t happy about it. God is not too keen on complainers.
Neither is Jesus. He says, “do not complain among yourselves.” He’s straightforward. “Look, I gave you food to eat. I’m offering you life that is beyond life. What more do you want?”
And it’s not that complaints are annoying. It’s beyond that. I think that complaining is a spiritual danger. It’s a spiritual danger. Complaining hardens us. Or as the Old Testament would say, it “stiffens our necks.” We tense up, and we aren’t able to look around and get a full stock of the situation. When we gripe about everything from great to small, we are distancing ourselves from reality. We are so busy rolling our eyes, that we don’t have the capacity to see the truth.
Here’s an example. Houstonians love to complain about traffic. We hate it. We complain about traffic, but we aren’t going to take the bus to work. In fact, there are organized efforts to keep public transportation out of the most heavily congested areas. Or, we complain about “kids these days,” but we don’t help out at our local schools.
We complain about bad service at a restaurant, without remembering that there are children in Spring, Texas going to bed hungry at night. And they’re going to bed in their cars.
So here’s the moral of the story. Given the chance, we’ll complain. We’ll complain about b.o., we’ll complain about coffee breath, we’ll complain about anything under the sun if you give us long enough. Like I said, guilty as charged. Our house backs up to an elementary school. Over the course of the summer, they have been doing some work on the school. And now there is a giant spotlight that shines off the back of the school and straight into our living room at night. And boy did I start complaining. Maggie heard all of my belly-aching. “I can’t sleep. What is that even for? How come they didn’t ask me?” I was being a real jerk about it and I was this close to calling the school.
And then I just had to stop. And take a deep breath. The only thing my hardness of heart was doing was spiking my blood pressure. And my mind was so consumed with complaints, that I didn’t have room for the Holy Spirit. So, I had to consciously move from griping to gratitude. It wasn’t easy. I’m still working on it. I want to be thankful that there is quality public education available to the children of my neighborhood. I want to be thankful for those security lights that help make our area safe. I want to be grateful for the principal and teachers at that school, because Lord knows they already get enough griping.
Complaining is a convenient way of saying you could do it better, without actually doing it.
Complaining is a spiritual danger because it hardens our hearts and leaves little room for the Holy Spirit. The antidote is gratitude. That’s what Jesus is getting at. He’s promising eternal life, redemption, provision for the trials in life. I think what we are called to do, and what Christians are always called to do, is give thanks. First and foremost. Because in giving thanks, our hearts soften and we invite in the Holy Spirit.
I believe that we don’t know the Holy Spirit because we give so little place to thanksgiving in our lives. We complain and harden our hearts. To soften our hearts, we must turn to prayer. The truest prayer is the prayer of thanksgiving. The prayer of looking back with gratitude for all that God has done for us. We thank God for feeding us in the deserts and wildernesses of our lives. We thank God for the Holy Spirit in our lives. We thank God for the example of the saints who have gone before. We thank God for everything in all creation. (Paraphrase of William Temple in “Readings in St. John’s Gospel”)
The other thing about giving thanks, is that it is selfless. Complaining is a spiritual danger because it’s all about us. How we have been wronged, or how we perceived to have been wronged. How we think we could have done it better. When all we think about is ourselves, then we’re not thinking about God. Giving thanks is not about us. Giving thanks is about God. God reaches out to us, feeds us, redeems us. All we have to do in return is give thanks to God.
So I challenge each of you, to take a moment every day this week, and thank God for three things. It can be people in your life, it can be for Jesus, your gratitude can be for anything you want. And make a practice of it – write down your gratitude in a journal. Or share it with somebody on Facebook. I know – this sounds a little bit like Oprah or Dr. Phil. But I’m not giving you mental health advice, this is spiritual counseling. Because I believe the best way to recognize God in your life, is by looking back on all the places that God has already been in your life.
And you can start your practice of thanksgiving this morning at the altar. We celebrate the Holy Eucharist. Eucharist actually means “thanksgiving.” We eat this bread, this bread of life that is the Body of Christ, because we are thankful. We are thankful. We’re not trying to get anything out of it. We’re not trying to earn God’s favor. We’re not belly-aching to God. We’re just giving thanks.
Complaining will not get you anywhere. Nor will it bring you closer to God. So soften your hearts. Loosen your neck. Practice gratitude. And in all things, thank God.