Grace that Saves a Kvetch like MEYG (and Me)

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Readings for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Year B Track 2)

1 Kings 19:4-8

Psalm 34:1-8

Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

John 6:35, 41-51

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in San Rafael CA on August 9, 2015. 

Each year, over the last three years, the Marin Episcopal Youth Group (MEYG) has teamed up with the Jewish youth at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael to serve warm meals to the hungry and homeless. I love this annual activity for many reasons. One reason I love it is because it gives me a chance to practice some of my Hebrew and even some Yiddish with the rabbis and some of the youth. Although I’ve always loved many of the popular Yiddish words like “klutz” and “schlep” and “mensch,” there is one word that I have especially enjoyed using recently when dealing with some of the restless and often whiney junior highers (of course these are Nativity youth, who are always well behaved). The word is “kvetch” which means, “to complain, whine or fret” or, when used as a noun, “a person who tends to complain, whine or fret.” There are definitely some full-fledged kvetches in the youth group and I often have to remind them to stop all their kvetching, but I have to also confess that I myself can be a real kvetch sometimes as well. I complain about bills and rent and gas prices and traffic and a hundred other things. I even whine about the research and writing that I should be completing for my dissertation or all the exercise that I should be doing instead of eating delicious In-N-Out burgers. I often grumble about these things to my friends, my colleagues, or my fiancée, usually to people who can’t really do anything to actually fix whatever it is I’m grumbling about.

The last time we teamed up with Rodef Sholom to serve meals to the poor, I was finding a lot of things to kvetch about as I drove across the bay: the bridge toll, the traffic, my car that seemed to be falling apart, and several other things. However, instead of grumbling to someone else or just to myself or to no one, I decided to pray and bring my complaints to God.

In our reading from First Kings this morning we witness the whining of the prophet Elijah. But unlike the Israelites from the Exodus reading last week, who complain to one another and to Moses and Aaron, Elijah brings us his complaint directly to God right away. And how does God respond to the prophet’s complaint? Instead of chastising Elijah or telling him to stop all his groveling, God responds in the same way that he responded to the complaints of the Israelites, by bestowing gifts of love and nourishment. God does not necessarily encourage the whining, but God does seem to create a space for it, to accommodate it and to respond generously to it by sending the gracious touch of an angel and some miraculous instant hot breakfast pancakes. Throughout Scripture, God responds to complaining with an amazing grace that appears to save all of the kvetches. And personally, I’m comforted by this lesson because it helps me to believe that God’s amazing grace can even save a kvetch like me.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann highlights the many complaints and laments to God throughout Scripture and explains that our failure to bring our grievances to God in prayer leads to “both psychological inauthenticity and social immobility.”[1] By not confronting God with our frustration, we lose our voice and our capacity for what Bruegemann calls “genuine covenant interaction.[2] We also lose “the ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith”[3] and our prayers become “a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense.”[4] If we fail to be honest with our frustration and refuse to bring our gripes to God in prayer, we fall into “civility …docility…grim obedience and eventually despair.”[5] But if we are honest with our frustration and bring our complaints to God in prayer, then we will experience the generosity and love of God in response.

Throughout Scripture and throughout the history of Western spirituality, those who complain to God tend to draw closer to God as a result. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.”[6] God can handle whatever anger or frustration we bring to him, whether it be profound sorrow caused by deep loss or complaining about some apparent injustice. When it comes to major tragedies like the shooting of Michael Brown that we remember today on this one year anniversary, the word “kvetch” feels wholly inappropriate and inadequate to describe what we want to do and what we want to say to God whom we expect to be ultimately in charge. Literally, the word “kvetch” means “to press or to squeeze,” which is what Jacob was doing to the Angel with whom he was wrestling; he squeezed and refused to let go of the angel until he received a blessing. Eventually, God gave him a blessing as well as a new name: Israel, which means “The one who struggles with God.” When it comes to major suffering in our lives, our kvetching turns into wrestling and serious struggle. God can handle our angry complaining (and will handle it) and then transform us in the process by showing up and providing us with blessing and nourishment.

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After kvetching to God in my car all the way from Berkeley to San Rafael, I experienced a divine response to my complaining when I arrived at Rodef Sholom. We always begin our meal together at the synagogue by gathering together in a circle and blessing the bread. The rabbi lifts two enormous loaves of challah bread and prays, “Baruch ata Adonai Elohenu melech ha olam ha motzi lechem min ha aretz” (Blessed are you LORD our God, Generous Provider of all good things, who gives us bread for our nourishment). It is a holy moment when God shows up and opens our eyes to see all the beautiful gifts right in front of us. God opens my eyes to see the miracle of the moment and to stand in awe as the young people grow in their understanding of the divine through conversations and friendships with the poor and with their Jewish peers. Knowing that Jewish-Christian relations have been fraught and tenuous over the last 2000 years and that there are many theological disagreements between Jews and Christians today, I become deeply touched as these young people of different faith traditions work together to serve others and discover a great deal of common ground in service and in stuff like food, school, and Dr. Who. And I end up leaving the meal feeling profoundly thankful for the spiritual refreshment and nourishment, much like Elijah in the wilderness.

In this morning’s Gospel, the theme of divine response to human complaining persists as Jesus continues his Bread of Life discourse in the midst of grumbling. In fact, the Greek word for grumbling is γογγύζω (gong-good-zo), which is almost as much fun to say as “kvetching.”

Now this Bread of Life teaching is so difficult and dense that the lectionary splits it up into four weeks. So by the end of August, you will probably be so sick and tired of all this esoteric ‘Bread-of-Life’ talk that you yourselves might start kvetching. But before that happens, I want to provide you with two pieces of background information that may help guide you through some of this challenging discourse.

First, the Jewish people at the time of Jesus held the belief that the Messiah would not only be like Moses by causing manna to fall from heaven but that the Messiah would actually be greater than Moses by causing manna to fall from heaven all the time. So in the Messianic Age, no one would ever go hungry because food would be perpetually falling from the sky whenever it was needed.[7]

Second, the Jewish people held a fairly complicated and mysterious theology around bread. Inspired by commands in the Torah, the Jewish priests always kept twelve loaves of bread in the temple, which they dedicated to God and then replaced with new loaves every Sabbath. So although no one was allowed to work on the Sabbath, the priests were still expected to replace these loaves of bread, which they called the lechem panim, meaning the “Bread of the Presence.” Three times a year at the major Jewish pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, the Jewish people were commanded to appear before the presence of the LORD (Deut 16:16). They apparently learned how to fulfill this command by having the priests bring the twelve loaves of the lechem panim out to the front of the temple for everyone to see, three times a year. When they brought the lechem panim out to the people, the priests said to the people, “Behold, God’s love for you,” understanding that this bread of the presence somehow embodied the loving presence of God.[8]

So with these pieces of background information, let us look again at the Bread of Life discourse. After feeding five thousand people with only a few loaves and a couple fish, the people ask Jesus to pour manna down from heaven all the time (as they expected their Messiah to do) saying “Sir give us this bread always,” and then they start complaining to one another when he tells them that he himself is the bread from heaven. Jesus responds to this internal grumbling by saying, “Stop complaining to one another. Instead, draw closer to the One who can hear your complaining and respond with his life-giving presence and with spiritual nourishment.” Jesus invites them to bring their frustration to God rather than just spreading it around. He invites them to draw close to the One who hears their complaining so that their eyes might be opened to see the presence of God standing right in front of them, because when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” he is associating himself with the lechem panim, the Bread of the Presence that embodied the loving presence of God among his people.

Two weeks ago, Kirsten invited us to share whatever we have and experience abundance as a result, like Jesus and his disciples in the feeding of the five thousand. Last week, she challenged us to pray and work towards the healing and the feeding of the whole world, which is a tall task indeed, but one that we are called to nonetheless. Today, I invite us to bring our frustration to God in prayer, to draw near to the One who hears our complaining, knowing that God will respond to our complaints by opening our eyes to see his loving and nourishing presence right in front of us. This may come to some of us in the form of a Jewish blessing over bread (as it did for me) or an abundant feast or in a simple glass of water.

When we gather around this altar to celebrate the Eucharist, which means “Thanksgiving” for God’s loving and nourishing presence among us, we continue in the ancient tradition of seeing the presence of God in bread, not because there is something especially holy about bread but because bread functions as an effective symbol of God’s loving and nourishing presence (so too do gluten-free wafers by the way); a symbol of God’s patient response to our complaining which opens our eyes to see his amazing grace all around us, an amazing grace that does indeed save a kvetch like me.

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[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms & the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1995), 111.

[2] Ibid, 102

[3] Ibid, 103

[4] Ibid, 100

[5] Ibid, 102

[6] New York Times, Oct 15, 1986.

[7] Evidence of this expectation: “As the first redeemer caused manna to descend, as it stated, ‘Because I shall cause to rain bread from heaven for you’ (Exodus 16:4), so will the latter redeemer cause manna to descend” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:9). “You will not find it [the manna] in this age, but you shall find it in the Age to Come” (Mekilta on Exodus 16:25). “And it will happen that when all that which should come to pass in these parts is accomplished, the Messiah will begin to be revealed…And those who are hungry will enjoy themselves and they will, moreover, see marvels every dayAnd it will happen at that that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time” (2 Baruch 29:3, 6-8). As cited by Brant Pitre, who writes, “This [final] text, which most scholars date to the late first or early second century AD, is an important witness to the fact that the Jewish belief in the return of the manna was circulating at the time of Jesus. It also shows that the coming manna was expected to be miraculous. In the days of Messiah, the righteous would see miracles (‘marvels’) every day, because they would eat the manna every day.” Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (New York: Doubleday, 2011), 90-91.

[8] “They [the priests] used to lift it [the Golden Table] up and exhibit the Bread of the Presence on it to those who came up for the festivals, saying to them, ‘Behold, God’s love for you!’” (Babylonian Talmud, Menahoth 29A) as cited in Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, 130 – 131. Also see pp. 116 – 146.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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