The Complaint Department

“The Complaint Department”

a message by Dr. Bruce Havens

based on the theme: “Our Job Description:  Change the World”

Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.

September 30, 2018


Numbers 11:4-23

4The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat!

5We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic;

6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” ….

10Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased.

11So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?

12Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them?

16So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you.

17I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.

18And say to the people: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wailed in the hearing of the Lord, saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt.’ Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat.

19You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days,

 20but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you …

. 23The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.”

I have been saying that our job description as Christians is to change the world.  I have admitted this is a simple job description but not an easy one.  This morning we see another example of how God works to change the world.  God is liberating the Hebrews from slavery.  You would think that is a good thing, right?  What could there be to complain about?  But the people were lined up at the complaint desk.  We want meat!  We are sick of this manna stuff!  But be careful when you complain!  You may not be thrilled with the outcome!

Apparently people don’t like complainers.  I Googled images for “Compaint Department.  The first 20 or so images I saw had a hand grenade with the words, “Complaint Department” over it and the words, “pull the pin,” under it.  None of them included the statement, “wait three seconds.”  I don’t know.  I guess complaining can get you results you don’t expect or want.  It certainly was true for Moses and for the Hebrew people.

Best advice I ever saw for complaining was in a window of an office I had to walk by every day from my dorm room to class at Harvard.  It said, “If you want to complain effectively use a ‘Complaint Sandwich.’  First layer – compliment me or tell me something pleasant.  Layer Two:  share your complaint without attacking me.  Layer Three: give me another positive comment or at least wish me a good day and leave with a smile.”  Pretty good advice, huh?

Well, too bad the Israelites didn’t get that message before they started in on Moses and God for the menu on their cross-country site-seeing tour of the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land, otherwise known as “the-land-flowing-with-milk-and-honey.”  It seems they are pining for the “good old days.”  You know the ones where they had fish, and cukes, and melons and onions to eat.  Now all they have is this manna, this coriander flavored, flavorless – “stuff!”  Of course, when you are hungry you may forget that slavery stuff they endured.  You know, the forced labor, building more bricks with less straw.  Then there was the killing of their babies by order of Pharaoh, who had gotten nervous about all the Hebrew babies being born in captivity.  They were hungry and they were angry – the current word is “hangry” – and they wanted meat.  So they were complaining!

Truth be told probably all of us can relate both to the people complaining and to Moses, and maybe to God in this story.  Who hasn’t complained about circumstances, thinking the “good old days” were better?  You know like the ones when only white men who owned land could vote, and none of those pesky women could because, well you know, they’re too emotional?  Well, they couldn’t legally own property, either but hey, small point.  Or what about the days when the KKK could ride through the south and kill black people and bomb their churches with impunity?  Right?  Those good old days.  Or the 1950’s.  Remember the Cold War and training to duck under your desk in case of an atom bomb being dropped on your school?  And oh, like when no one questioned a white man’s right to, you know, sexually assault a young woman?  Like, mothers even told their daughters that being groped by a man was “no big deal?”  Oh, right some mom said that last week right on camera and laughed about it.  Sarah Habermehl Locke, the Jacksonville Campus Minister reminded me that there is a thing called “internalized misogyny.”  It is what causes women to defend their own mistreatment.  Ahhh, yes, the good old days.  But when we complain about how things are different now, let’s remember where we are headed.  God will change the world.  We are called to join in that work to change the world.

We can’t go back to Egypt.  Why would we? There is a Proverb which ways, “A fool is like a dog returning to it’s vomit.”  Yuck!  But we are just as foolish if we think the “good old days” are something we want to go back to.  God is not bringing us out of slavery to put us back in chains.  We can’t go backwards to get to God’s Kingdom, God’s reign of mercy, love, and justice is for all people, not just some.  And when we get faint-hearted or grow weary in well-doing, when we are hangry for more than manna, just remember, God will provide.  God is not going to stop changing this world to be what God intends it to be.  Set backs are going to come, especially when those who are frightened and tired of the journey to the Promised Land.  And it can be scary to see people reverting to the foolish behavior of the past.

I read a writer who gave me great hope last week.  Rev. Molly Baskette,       [ “Extinction Behavior,”  SSD,, 9/16/18 ], a UCC minister and writer described what is called “Extinction Behavior.”  She said, “Anyone who has ever trained a puppy or raised a child knows the power of consistency in engraining new behaviors or habits in them. And you also know how extremely discouraging it is when, after initially demonstrating genius in mastering the art of, say, going in the potty, your toddler suddenly regresses to going beside the potty, or in the new big boy unders, or holding it for three days straight. Just as things seem to be getting better, they suddenly get a whole lot worse.  This is known as an extinction burst: an increase in negative behavior just before it disappears.”

She goes on to say, “American society has been experiencing an uptick in openly racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, and transphobic behaviors in public and out loud. Perhaps the animus was already there and is just now being revealed, emboldened by the words and deeds of public leaders. Perhaps we are in for a long run of hatefulness, one that will even be enshrined in law.

“Or perhaps (let’s imagine!) this sudden uptick is extinction behavior, a last flirtation with a beloved bad habit, a fool returning to his folly, a dog returning to his vomit, as Proverbs so pungently puts it. Perhaps, the fact that things are getting worse means that we are finally coming into a dawning understanding of God’s best hopes for Her growing-up children.  Our Mama God clearly set the terms for spiritual maturity in the words of Jesus: ‘Love your neighbor. Welcome the stranger. Give all your money to the poor.’ God is supporting us in growing up, and into the next age and stage: an age of dignity, respect, rights, equality and justice for every child of God.”  The world is changing.  Will we work for it to change in the way God really calls it to change or will we hang on to ways that were comfortable for some but painful and deadly for others?

The Hebrew people had to decide if they were going to go forward or backward, whether they were going to believe in God’s power to provide a better  future, whether they wanted to fall back into slavery or move forward into a new and very different future.  All that is scary.  It means change and difficulties and battles, even.  But what God said to Moses is exactly what God says to us today:

23The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.”

God’s word to them was liberation – liberation from Pharaoh’s slavery and from the belief that slavery was better than freedom.   I was shocked to read that one of our local black state representatives was quoted as saying “I thank God for slavery, if it weren’t for slavery my family and I would still be back in Africa worshiping false gods.”  This is another form of that self-hatred that religion too often perpetuates, that enslaves.  It is another form of “internalized misogyny” only in this case it is racial rather than gender self-hatred.  To think that God would use the suffering of a race of people to convert them to another religion is to believe not in God’s power, but to think God’s power is so limited it can only work in a way that causes or blesses or allows abuse, violence, slavery, and more.  It is like saying the Jews deserved to suffer the Holocaust because they killed Jesus.  It is horrible theology, but worse it is historically and factually untrue.  God liberates us from slavery of mind, body, and spirit.  If we only cry to go back to the old world, we are simply denying God’s power to bring about the change this world needs to become God’s realm, to bring God’s “Kingdom” or complete rule into full reality here on this earth.

Do we believe that God’s word is true and do we believe that God has the power to change the world?  Do we believe that God has the power to liberate us and those who are oppressed by the “freedoms” of others?  Do we believe that God’s power isn’t one where some win and others lose?  Because that is what the arguments and rage and division today come down to.  If we believe in a world where some have to win and others have to lose then the world as it is fine.  But ask yourself this.  Moses complained about having to bear the burden of power and leadership over all those Hebrew complainers.  So God spread his power out over 70 other elders to help Moses out.  Did Moses lose something in that or did he gain something?  Maybe it was both.  And maybe that is what it takes to change the world.

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.’”  Are we just going to sit and complain, or we going to go with God, trusting God’s power to change the world?  AMEN.