As many of you know, the first time that I ever went on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain I was wounded. I’d snapped my Achilles tendon and had it repaired by surgery. So I was in a cast that tilted my foot straight down, which was like having one foot in high heels. Add 25 pounds of luggage on your back, and the effect is to drive your toes into the fiberglass with incredible force and cut the skin with every step.
I just couldn’t keep up. So after four or five days, it seemed wise that I would let the more-or-less healthy-bodied continue to walk on without dragging me along like an anchor. Also, as nice as it was to be the welcoming committee of one, it didn’t seem the best use of my time or money either, to hire cars from one little village to the next and sit alone in abandoned town squares all day waiting for my friends to show up. So with the help of my colleagues at Concordia I’d cooked up a plan. I would head off to a country home in France owned by these colleagues, and spend a week with them enjoying lovely conversation, incredible wine, and the unmatched delights of the countryside.
Of course, there are plans, and then there are realities. Unfortunately my colleagues turned out to be not healthy enough to travel, and certainly not to France. No problem, they said graciously. Here are the keys to our place. You just go ahead and enjoy it. So I waved goodbye to my Camino friends, and jumped a train.
Three trains, an overnight in a semi-abandoned hotel at the border, and LOTS of walking later, I arrived at my little town in France. I was exhausted. There was no other word for it. I’d dragged my crippled body through more stations and up and down more stairs than I wanted to remember. I dropped my luggage, found out where there was a grocery, and walked another great distance through the town to a store to buy food. I hadn’t eaten properly for two days. I got my groceries. It turned out, with the requisite drinking water, that it was quite a few bags. No problem, I thought. I’ll just ask the check-out clerk to call me a taxi.
When they think you’re an idiot, the French have a way of speaking with a kind of disdain that really, only they seem to have mastered. The clerk arched her eyebrows at me, as if I had failed to register even a score on the IQ test of how to survive in little French towns. “Monsieur,” she informed me, “you are not in Paris. There IS no taxi here.”
Thus it was, that after 800 kilometres across country by train, completely exhausted, hungry and tired and alone, I tied six bags of groceries to my wounded body and set off, limping and hopping, jostling and sloshing, through an amused little French town to my destination. I was NOT happy. I was NOT pleased. And definitely I was complaining.
From the wilderness, says Exodus, the Israelites journeyed by stages. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. And there they quarreled with Moses, saying “Give us water to drink.” And they complained, saying: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
There’s a long Biblical tradition of whining, but this has to be one of the lowpoints! At a place sometimes called “the rock at Horeb” and sometimes called “Massah and Meribah”, the complaints of the Hebrews reached a fever pitch.
In reality, they had escaped from murder, genocide and forced labour. They should have been happy. But somehow, wandering around in the desert, they were definitely NOT getting the deal they felt they were promised. They maintained, as we so often do, an unhelpful image in their minds of a future that became more and more unreal and romanticized. Oddly enough, the perfect place in those former slaves’ minds, began to look more and more like Egypt, the land of their oppression. It’s odd how often we wind up attracted to the very things that oppress us.
So they complained. They complained and they complained. And Moses – poor, put-upon Moses, reacted by – what else? – complaining too. Moses cried out to the Lord, saying: “What shall I do with these people? They’re ready to stone me.” There’s more humour in the Bible than we realize. I think this is one of those places. Moses is complaining about the Israelites complaining. In other words, the whining just keeps going up the chain of command.
We live in a culture of complaint. The City complains about the police not doing their job, the police complain about the contract negotiations, people complain about how cold it’s getting when two weeks ago we were all complaining about how hot it was. We worry about this and that and something else, without realizing how fortunate we actually are.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression that with some people it’s: “easier to get water from a stone” than to get them to change their attitudes. The story from Exodus shows us that God’s people (including you and me) are SO stubborn and whiny that sometimes it’s easier to get water from a stone than to change human nature. So God opens the boulders and the water comes out. God can pull miracles out like rabbits from a hat. Even raising someone from the dead. But even God apparently can’t always change human nature. Then OR now.
There was a landowner, Jesus says, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. He agreed on a fair daily rate with them. Then he decided he needed more workers, so he went back at 9 am to get more workers, and noon, and three o’clock. Even at five pm he went out and got a few more people to work in the vineyard. Then, at closing, when he gives the last-hired a good wage, the first to be hired start rubbing their hands. Great, great, they think. But what’s this? He gave them all the exact SAME pay, the ones who had worked all day sweating in the sun, and the one who had only been out an hour. Complain? You bet they did. And the landowner says to them: Friend, I am doing you no wrong…Are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first and the first will be last.
When it was written, this text is probably about how the non-Jews, people like us, get a relationship with God even though we’re not Jewish and haven’t really earned our keep. For us, now, I think it also has says something about complaining. Do we really realize how fortunate we really are? If we did, wouldn’t we act differently?
That day in the little French village, I was berating myself for deciding to buy so much drinking water. Yes, it’s tough being crippled. As I staggered home under the weight of bags and with my crippled leg, I was wondering if I should just give up and break open the wine. Finally I managed, with lots of stops and despite all the smirks of passers-by, to stumble home. My fingers were raw from carrying bags. My toes felt like they’d been put in a vise grip. I unpacked and sat down, sweating. And then eventually I walked into the back yard of this little place.
“How in the world did I wind up here?” was what I was thinking right then. I was tired, and hungry, AND alone, in a foreign country. “What am I going to do in this abandoned place?” Sort of like the Hebrews. I was complaining. Just then I felt my cast squash something in the grass. I looked down to see what I’d stepped on. It was red, and squishy. There were lots more red and squishy things. I looked down, and then, finally I looked up. And what I saw was this: I was standing, hungry, under a whole tree full of beautiful ripe cherries.
The moral of this Bible text is simple: “God will provide.” Not necessarily in the ways we expect. Not without pain. Not without surprises. The wandering Hebrews did NOT expect water from a stone, or quail at nightfall, or manna in the morning. But God DID provide. And as God did for them, so God will for us. In ways both unexpected, perhaps painful, in the short term at least, and ultimately surprisingly full of grace and growth. Like the workers in the vineyard.
The last question the Israelites asked at Massah and Meribah was this: “Is the Lord among us or not?” And the Gospel answer is always the same: Is the Lord among us? Yes.
Let us wait on the Lord. Life may not always be a bowl full of cherries. But sometimes it is. And through the pain and the trouble, through the thanks and the complaints, though a future that so often seems uncertain and troubled, somehow, we can ALWAYS be sure of this: God will provide.