How are you?

Rev Sue gave this sermon on Wednesday 21 July 2021. Here it is again for you:

I remember one of my first French lessons at school was on how to greet people. We were taught “How are you?” “Comment allez vous?”, and the reply “Tres bien. Et vous”. Annoying 11-year-old that I was, my hand went up. “What do I say if I’m not very well?”. The teacher replied, “You still say ‘Tres bien’”. It’s good manners.

I wonder what you answer to the question “How are you?”. Of course, it depends on the situation. If it’s a quick “Good morning” in passing “Fine thanks, and you?” springs to the lips without too much thought. If the question is said by someone giving you their full attention, you have options.

When I looked at a commentary on Exodus the section including today’s reading was headed “Whingeing”. You have to have some sympathy for the Israelites. Moses had come along and told them that God was leading them out of slavery in Egypt. They had been leading oppressed and regimented lives, with no freedom to make decisions or themselves. Moses was offering them a better life, and they were in awe as plague after plague afflicted their Egyptian overlords, culminating in fleeing by night, being chased by chariots and then the Red Sea itself offering them a dry pathway, while the Egyptian chariots got stuck. It was, literally, an epic experience. And now came the anti-climax. They were wandering in a wilderness, hungry and thirsty, with no idea how to look after themselves. They started to complain. Today’s reading is sandwiched between two similar passages where God hears their distress and gives them water. We heard how he gave them bread in the morning and meat in the evening, in the form of manna and quails.

The sequence of events is this. The people complained that they were hungry and wished that they had died in comfort in Egypt. Despite God’s provision of water, they weren’t confident that he would continue to provide for them. He did, and in a very structured way. Every morning they had to gather enough for their families to eat that day, and no more. Except on the sixth day, they had to gather twice as much, so that on the seventh day they could rest. God gives them not just the food, but the Sabbath and a template for pacing their lives.

The interesting thing is that although the Israelites were complaining, God took pity on them. He saw through their grumbling to their real needs, which he met. I think few of us get that balance right when it comes to complaining. Whingeing is a recitation of unpleasant facts, that is delivered without any real engagement. It is boring because the person it is delivered to is not really expected to listen. It tends to be repeated every time you see that person. The whinger has no interest in looking at things differently – he wants a magic wand to make everything right.  A lot of people are afraid of boring people or depressing them in that way, and so hold back from expressing the pain and sorrow in their hearts and deprive themselves of the sympathy that would help them to feel better.

The best guide to complaining we have is the Psalms. We heard verses from Psalm 69 this morning. It starts in the agonies of depression as the author is at the end of his tether. He is feeling sorry for himself – everyone hates him without cause. He lets it all spill out. But then he remembers the love and mercy of God, and hope creeps in. Eventually he gets to the point where he is confident that God will save him and concludes with confident praise.

So back to the question “How are you?” Everyone needs someone to talk to, to share their fears and disappointments as well as their joys. Find someone who will give you the time and really listen and share how you really feel. With God, too, don’t be afraid to unburden yourself, in complaint, protest and even anger, if that’s how you feel, because after the raging storm comes the peace and light.

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