Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21, Year B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on September 28, 2003. 
Based on Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 (Proper21, Year B).

“Nothing’s ever good enough.” That could be our slogan this morning. Because the reading from the Book of Numbers and the whole story of relationship between Moses, the Israelites, and God returns to this theme over and over again. “Nothing’s ever good enough. 

This won’t be yet another sermon about counting your blessings and being content with what you have. Preachers often tell us this and there’s nothing wrong with it, except it’s just not that helpful. We already know we’re supposed to be satisfied with what we’ve been given but clichés from the pulpit are never inspiring. But I will talk about gratitude. Because that’s what’s missing in this story and it’s what’s often missing in our lives as well.

I have to admit that I love this reading from Numbers. There’s a comedic element to the whole exchange between the three parties. And what makes the exchange between Moses, the Israelites, and God so poignantly amusing is that through it, we see ourselves. We see our own lack of gratitude to God and it’s embarrassing.

To put this story into its proper context we have to go back to the time of the Exodus. You’ll recall the Israelites were living in bondage as slaves in Egypt. After the burning bush and the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, Moses led the Israelites to freedom. After years of harsh treatment at the hands of the Pharaoh, the Israelites revel in the euphoria of their new-found deliverance. They’re thrilled to get out of Egypt and exuberant at the prospect of finally reaching the Promised Land. Or at least until they get hungry. Then the complaints start. They grumble and complain bitterly to Moses and suddenly freedom by itself isn’t good enough. So God sends Manna from heaven and they are satisfied. But only until they get thirsty and suddenly bread alone isn’t good enough. So God commands Moses to strike a rock with his staff bringing forth water and they are satisfied. But only until they decide that bread and water by itself isn’t good enough. They want meat. And so in this morning’s reading we find ourselves at this point in the story. The people aren’t satisfied, Moses is fed up, and God is angry. 

What happens next isn’t in this morning’s portion of our reading. But God does indeed send the people meat. In fact God tells the Israelites he will send them meat “not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month – until it comes our of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you – because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’” 

The point of all of this is that nothing’s ever good enough. Not bread, not water, not meat, not even freedom. And we fall into the same trap. If only I had another room in my house things would be much easier. If only I had a few more dollars in my paycheck I could have everything to make me happy. If only my kids called home more often I’d have a better relationship with them. If only I had an extra hour in the day I could be so much more productive.

Where’s the gratitude? How can we come to a place where things are good enough? When will we start to focus on the abundance rather than the scarcity of our lives? This interaction between Moses and the Israelites and God is painfully amusing because through the ingratitude of the Israelites we see ourselves. And our lack of gratitude for God is exposed as an absurdity of great proportions. How can we not be grateful to the God who created us and redeemed us through Jesus Christ? To take God for granted is to risk our very relationship with God. And to risk our relationship with God is to risk our very lives.

Living a life of gratitude doesn’t mean we lose any sense of ambition. It doesn’t mean we simply accept things without seeking change and improvement. If that was Christ’s message then why bother coming to church, why bother proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, why bother working for social justice in our communities and in the world? But actually, just the opposite is true. We serve others precisely because we are grateful to God. We seek justice for the less fortunate precisely because we do live lives of gratitude to God. It is out of gratitude to God that all else flows. And when we are truly grateful, our lives are lived out as a meaningful response to this gratitude to God. May we, on this day, and in the future, never forget our gratitude to God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003

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