Jesus says a great deal in this passage from Matthew. But throughout the passage he is consistent. When people fail to see the amazing blessings that surround them, when they fail to really see it and get it, they are in danger. They are in danger of losing their very souls, not because God will take their souls from them, or punish them for their failure to see, but because in failing to see God in front of them, they fail to truly live in faith, live in connection to the Divine, live in the fullness of life that God wants to give us, chooses to give us, every day. Jesus said, “Woe to you…to Chorazin and to Bethsaida because they didn’t see the miracles that were performed right in front of them.” They did not see them. They did not take them in. The experience of being near and around these miracles, these life-changing, wonderful, beautiful experiences of healing and transformation, of God’s wanting the best for God’s people, of God wanting and making wholeness and life happen for people whom everyone else had abandoned or given up on – these experiences did not CHANGE the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida. Witnessing these miracles did not make them want to be the best they could be, did not move them to a gratitude that would cause them to change, to “turn around” which is the actual meaning of repent – to go another way. They were not changed by witnessing these miracles, which said to Jesus they did not really accept them, did not see, did not choose to experience God, experience Divine love through these events. And that failure to change in response to the blessings of their lives lead Jesus to say, ‘woe to you.”
Jesus also compares his generation to what? To whiners. “We played the pipe for you, and or you did not dance. We sang a dirge and you did not mourn,” the people complained. They complained that others did not respond to them in the ways they wanted, that they had worked hard, given much, and that others did not do what they expected, did not respond in the way they’d hoped to what they had done, what they had given. The irony of it: They complained that others were not moved by what they did. And yet, they, were not moved by what Jesus and John did. They complained about John because he ate differently: eating only locusts and wild honey and refraining from drinking. They complained about Jesus because he didn’t refrain from eating and drinking. And they dismissed the words of both people based on things that had nothing to do with what they were saying. Who cares what John and Jesus ate? But all of these people found ways to not see the blessings that surrounded them. They focused on what did not fit into their ideas of what people of God should look like, act like, what they thought people of God should do or be. They focused on their judgments of others and dismissed them accordingly. They failed to see the miracles, failed to see the beauty, failed to see God in what was around them.
Do we do this? We’ve discussed before how Fear can lead us to see and focus on those things that are going wrong to the exclusion of the wonders and miracles around us. Our human instincts to complain can lead us to focus on things that are not being done the way we want them to, or expect them to be done. We want Jesus to not “party” during his life but instead to be serious and self-sacrificing at every turn. We want John to not be “different” or eat strangely. We want things to fit into our ideas of how they are or should be. And if they don’t we complain. Actually, even when they do live up to our expectations, we also complain. And again, the problem with that is that in focusing on what we are uneasy with, we fail to see the blessings that surround us, we fail to see the good, we fail to see God, we fail to experience God’s love. And we are lessened by that failure. We are the ones then who do not experience Christ, or God in our midst because we are too busy focusing on the problems and not seeing the gifts to experience the blessings, love, joy, peace, compassion, peace, and ultimately the grace that God offers us every single day.
Rev. Craig Barnes, writes, "… we assume we can make our own lives by the way we construct them for ourselves." Barnes goes on to say this: “Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul. Since most people are unaccustomed to exploring the mystery of their own souls, they will often work out their spiritual anxieties by attempting to rearrange something external - like a church's music program. But it doesn't matter how many changes they make to the environment around them. They will never succeed in finding peace for the angst of their soul until they attend directly to it... (That is why) to be of service to the Holy Spirit, who is at work in human lives, the pastor can never reduce ministry to servicing parishioners' complaints about the church. –“
The truth is, we are often guilty of seeing what we know, what we expect and what we are used to looking for rather than knowing what we see. (As a side note, children are much better at seeing what is around them. The kids this week in music camp kept seeing things around the campus and in the building that I had never noticed – a ball on top of the arbor, for example. The seed pods hanging down from the Wisteria. The metal lights around the court yard. I don’t know exactly when and how our seeing stops, but it does. We can learn a lot from the observations and noticings of our youth.) Add to that that when fear is involved, it is even harder to actually see the blessings God surrounds us with.
About eleven years ago now my family went through a very challenging time financially. My husband was out of work and we were trying to support our family of five on my half time pastor salary in San Leandro. We had bought a new house right before he had lost his job, one with three bedrooms as opposed to the one we had before which had only two bedrooms and was therefore a bit tight for our family of five. But at the last minute in the sale of our old home, the buyers had pulled out. As a result, we were paying two mortgages, again in this unbelievably expensive part of the country. This was right before the housing market crashed. Add to that that the shower pan in our new bathroom cracked and we had to replace the entire bathroom, with money we just didn’t have. It was a truly, deeply frightening time. Because of that, complaining was at the top of my list of daily activities. Everywhere I looked and each day there was more to complain about. A child got sick, I left my wallet at the store, Trader Joe's stopped carrying my favorite breakfast cereal – whatever little thing that occurred was just another weight on shoulders that were already carrying far too much. The main character in the book, Life of Pi said, “When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling”. I found this to be absolutely true. It was the little things, the things that I knew were so very small which would send me over the edge during this time. I simply could not bear anything more because I was deeply frightened. I was reassured by Biblical passages such as we find in the psalms that allow for us to voice and share with God our complaints, our fears, our concerns, with full knowledge that God does indeed hear them, care about them, want us to talk to God about them; and I took full advantage of that to complain loudly and often, to express my fear and to pray, fervently and often for our house to sell, for my husband to find employment, for us to make it through this financially terrifying time.
But as Craig Barnes suggested, looking back, the complaints were all hiding a deeper spiritual issue – and that is that I was living in fear, I was consumed by fear instead of living in faith and trust. Not that I think God is a magician who takes away all our problems. Not that I think God micromanages our lives. I don’t. We have free will, as do the others around us, and sometimes that means times get hard. But trust and faith require seeing that each moment, each second, we are surrounded by love, care, presence, that will sustain and carry us and guide us through the hardest times. Looking back, I can see God’s presence, God’s blessings. Looking back, now that I am beyond that moment of fear or terror, I can see what I could not see then, that, in so many ways, we in fact were carried through that time. We had savings that saw us through, and the old house did sell, right before the market crashed. My husband did find employment right before that savings would have run out. Yes, we used it all. But we had it to use. And we were okay in the end. I can see, looking back, that we were surrounded also by love and fellowship of people who would have been there for us had things become desperate. We were held through this time by friends and family who expressed their care in ways both “normal” and amazing. I’ve shared with you before about that one day in particular when the outpourings of love from the community and from my own family were so deeply amazing that they were nothing short of miraculous. I won’t share them again, because that one day is not the point. In looking back, the bigger thing to be seen was that we were cared for daily. Daily there were overflowing signs of love – from God, from God’s people, a love that has, and continues to sustain us through the hard times because the hard times are always there if we focus on them. The love, too, is always there to sustain us, if we can just see it when we need it. Miracles, are all around us, every day, if we allow ourselves to see them, if we can face the spiritual issues such as fear that prevent us from seeing, if we pray and open our eyes to seeing God because God is there, all the time, with blessings in abundance.
As I was standing in line in the grocery store yesterday, I overheard someone complaining loudly. The teller was complaining about her husband, describing him in terms that would make him sound abusive. But when you really listened to the words, it became clear that what she was actually complaining about was that he didn’t pay for an incredibly expensive luxury for her that she wanted. Instead, she complained, her son had to do it. And as I listened, I found myself reflecting again on how much we like to complain and how much we fail to see the beauty and good around us. There were three different ways she could have told that same story. In the complaining version, her terrible husband wouldn’t buy her this thing she desperately wanted and so her son had to do it. In a second version, the husband didn’t pay and the son did – just the facts. The third version I believe is the way we are called to look at the wonders of life, of God’s presence, of beauty and joy: she had this amazing son who was able to buy even expensive things for her and chose to do so.
With David’s permission, I want to tell you about a conversation we had yesterday. A similar situation, but this time about something essential. David was telling me that he was incredibly lucky and blessed because he had a grandmother who would take money out of her tiny income and buy food for their family. As many of you know, David grew up extremely poor. Food could be hard to come by. They lived from day to day, shoes were a once a year purchase at the thrift store and when they were outgrown, the kids did without. But David was not focusing on complaining about his childhood, he was focusing on the gift of his grandmother’s help, coming at especially needed times. He does this with other things too. He shares with wonder about the church down the street from them that also helped provide food and other essentials. He describes the care of the community, the wonder of those who held them up. He does not complain about what his life was like living in that poverty. He has chosen an outlook of seeing the good, of seeing the Divine, of seeing God.
How do we describe the events in our lives? But more deeply, how do we see the events in our lives? Do we see the gifts and blessings God has given us each and every day? Or are we so distracted by the things that are hard that we simply cannot see the miracles?
Connie Schultz wrote that we all have stories of things we can’t explain, wondrous amazing stories that we want to tell but are afraid of being doubted. Still, they stick with us as signs of something bigger, something that “coincidence” doesn’t quite cover. She tells her own story this way:
“Soon after my mother died, I was driving and listening to NPR like I always do when, inexplicably, I reached down and switched the radio station. “I know you’re watching over me from heaven,” the singer crooned. Still raw with grief, I sighed and said out loud, “I miss you, Ma.” Then I looked at the license plate on the car straight ahead: MISS U2.”
Sr. Joan Chittister once shared this story: Once, the ancients say, a seeker asked a group of disciples: "Does your God work miracles?" And they replied, "It depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of people. We say that a miracle is when people do the will of God." Sometimes I think the will of God is nothing more than looking and seeing with God’s eyes where love and compassion and grace are all around us, and helping others to see it too.
In today’s passage from Matthew Jesus challenges us to put aside our expectations, our fears, our complaints and to look instead for the good, for God, for God’s love that surrounds us. But the Good News is that Jesus also knows that isn’t easy for us, this people of God, to always do successfully. So even after we are scolded for our complaining and scolded for failing to see the miracles that surround us and allow them to change us, deeply, from within, Jesus ends the passage with these words of reassurance, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” When we can’t let go, we can turn to God with our fears, with our complaints, with our burdens. God wants to hear from us all of what we are feeling, all of what we experience. We can lay the burdens at Jesus’ feet. And when we do we will find that God will help us to carry them, God will show us the good that goes alongside our hardships, God will remind us that in every moment there is something both to complain about and something to be thankful for. God will show us the face of the Divine in those around us, and God will love us into seeing. Because that’s what God does. God’s promise is clear: in God’s loving arms, we will find rest. Amen.