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The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell

The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC


Small and White, Clean and Bright

Exodus 16:2-15

14th Sunday after Pentecost - Year A

September 18, 2011

Seems like yesterday I was sitting in my undergraduate religion class--professor seemed to be taking perverse delight in debunking doggedly held truths learned in Sunday School. My fellow students from the Bible Belt were trembling with discomfort, a few near the edge of apologetic rage. Not only had he denied Moses credit for writing Genesis and Exodus, not only had he pointed to older Ancient Near Eastern creation stories, not only had he nixed the Cecil B. DeMille image of giant walls of water through which Israel, led by Charlton Heston, fled Egypt. Now he was explaining away the miracle of the manna. Evidently you can obtain manna souvenirs in the Sinai: insects suck off honey-like deposits of the tamarisk, deposit the surplus on branches--the residue just loaded with carbohydrates and sugars crystallizes and falls--ants eventually eat the stuff as the day grows hot.

Now, I wasn't troubled by this, unformed theologically as I was at the time, yet I was intrigued. I mean, didn't the presence of real manna actually support the Biblical story instead of disproving it? The bread wasn't so miraculous, but what's a miracle anyway? As I think about Exodus 16 now, I find myself a little bit jittery, trembling with discomfort, but for three very different reasons.

1. The people of Israel murmured--and although I find it oddly fun to say murmured--I know from experience it was exasperating for Moses to listen to it. Having been a pastor for 30 years now, I am worn out from murmuring; and I suspect I hear even more of it than Moses, because we have emails, cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, ever expanding venues for murmuring. People ask me sometimes if I might burn out; and if I do, it will be because I heard just one too many trivial complaints about nothing of substance. The Israelites weren't just grousing though. It's downright doubt. They're questioning God; they're rejecting God.

I guess what really annoys me about Exodus 16 is God's response.  The murmuring surges: Would that we had died in Egypt--really? There we had plenty to eat--really? Moses, you brought us out here to kill us!--really? And then the stunner, in verse 4--The Lord said, Behold I will rain...and I find myself hoping the next word will be "fire" or "big boulders, "something to shut up these murmurers. But no, oh no. The Lord said, "Behold I will rain...bread from heaven for you." Bread?!? Murmurers should get discipline, and only those who boldly kept their chin up should get the bread.

I guess this is another one of those bizarre stories of grace, like Jesus' story of the workers in the vineyard who came late in the day and got paid like everybody else or the young son who squandered everything having a party thrown in his honor. Bread for miserable sinners. I guess I've given the murmurers little pieces of bread myself.... I guess as one who murmured about the murmurers, God has rained some bread on me, too.

Maybe God simply understood their misery, their sorrow over a lost life, no matter how brutal it had been, and that the desert really is a sad place, especially when there's no bread or water. God seems attracted to misery and sorrow. In her marvelous novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson imagines looking upon a very sad loved one's face: "I heard a man say once that Christians worship sorrow. That is by no means true. But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it; there is something in her face I have always felt I must be sufficient to, as if there is a truth in it that tests the meaning of what I say. It's a fine face, very intelligent, but the sadness in it is engrafted into the intelligence, so to speak, until they seem to be one thing. I believe there is a dignity in sorrow simply because it is God's good pleasure that there should be."

There's dignity even in murmuring, I would say, in any and all crying out. God seems fond of crying out, in its pious or baser forms. The secret isn't in learning how to pray better; the secret is realizing we are hungry, we are desperate. We abandon politeness and simply voice our despair, acknowledging it even in our I'm okay, you're okay too I hope culture. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, "I only pray when I'm in trouble; the problem is, I'm in trouble all the time."  God sees us in our trouble and rains...bread on us. Verse 7 says, "You will see the glory of the Lord because he has heard your murmurings!" Isn't that the glory of the Lord, that the Lord hears our murmuring? And rains bread instead of boulders on us?

St. Francis once visited a hermitage at Monte Casale, where the guardian reported that some thieves had just made off with a stash of bread. Francis said, "I must apprehend them!" So he took off down the road, caught up to them, and revealed he was carrying bread and a bottle of wine. "You must be hungry and thirsty, so here: eat, and drink, and come back to Monte Casale where there's more." The thieves, once they recovered from their shock, came with him, and became friars, friends of Francis and of Christ.

2. This manna story also bothers me because--not to question God's judgment!--that these little pieces of manna were so...small. I think my lifelong project in ministry has been to help people see that God isn't small, God isn't a little energy boost here or there, God isn't a neat little lesson tucked snugly in your back pocket. God is big, God is everything! Knowing God is a gargantuan undertaking; following Christ is as comprehensive as breathing.

I have always found myself bored by--I don't know what to call those--devotional materials, little booklets, book-lets, not book-sized in thickness or size of the page or scope of insight, but little tiny pages with little morsels of thought. Some even have titles like "Daily Bread" or "Manna from heaven," a delicious small mini-thought, like a spiritual M&M. When I was a little boy, we had some little plastic containers shaped like a loaf of bread, and inserted in the top were little pastel colored cards, half-an-inch by an inch-and-a-half, with a Bible verse printed on each one. Day by day, my mother would retrieve the card in the front, read the verse, and then neatly place that card in the back, to resurface in a few months after countless other days of...daily bread.

Not only are little tidbits of godliness boring to me; I feel they are a dangerous substitute for real religion. It is like an inoculation: you get a little tiny bit of a disease to build your immunity against the real thing. How satisfied we might feel with a little verse, a snippet of wisdom, putting a little holy patch on the outside of an otherwise unaltered life, God being checked off my to-do list for the day. There's depth to real Christianity, it's complicated, ridiculously demanding, not so easily retrieved and then stuck in the back of a little plastic loaf.

And I am right to urge my people, and myself, toward a more robust kind of spirituality, a more serious lifestyle of faith. But, then, maybe it is my pride, I think, that cannot see the beauty in what is small. When Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music fears for the future of his beloved Austria, he doesn't sing about Austrian might or intellectual genius or artistic accomplishments, although he could. Instead, he sings about a little flower, Eidelweiss, small and white, clean and bright, you look happy to meet me... may you bloom and grow forever. God loves what is small. God became small for us in Christ, for he wanted to win our hearts. My grandmother probably wouldn't have needed the little plastic loaf with the pastel verses; she knew them by heart. Like a field of pretty flowers, her soul was arrayed with a grand accumulation of little small things, quick prayers uttered in a moment of worry, a devotional she'd read, cut out, and used as a bookmark in her Bible; it probably got read 500 times until it settled deeply in her soul. The bigness of life is won, or lost, in the little things.

Yes, trivial devotional guides can be a bland substitute for real religion; but real religion is this flower and that little piece of bread, a barely noticeable act of kindness, a brief moment of prayer, a treasured saying, an infant in Mary's arms, the hem of Jesus' garment, the tip of a nail in Jesus' hands, the gasping news that He is risen, the humble plea of each person who's ever lived, a murmured ask, gathered tenderly into God's strong hands, the way a child picks a wildflower.

3. There's a third annoyance that I have about Exodus 16, and it is the peculiar provision God makes for the Sabbath. I guess the secreting bushes and insects worked twice as hard on Friday to deposit a double dose of manna to cover the day of rest. You'd think God would relax the Sabbath requirement for hungry murmurers in the middle of nowhere. It's the Sabbath: one day out of seven in which even the insects and bushes and manna gatherers rest. Probably nothing proclaims our distance from God more loudly than our vapid inattention to the mere idea of a day of rest. Even if we are off, we dash about, catch up on email, shopping, play frantically, a busy, busy, busy day this Sabbath, Sunday for us Christians now. When God made everything, God rested and wired us with the provision to rest one out of seven days. But we think we know better than God. So we're all about producing, achieving, earning, making it happen! Seven days, not just six.

No wonder we're tired. No wonder we are clueless when it comes to grace. To rest, you have to trust, you have to believe it's not all up to me and my feverish activity. If no time is sacred, if every day, every hour is up for grabs, then nothing is sacred; and we get frazzled by a frantic, frivolous frenzy. If we could do as God gently suggested, just sit down, turn the gadgets off, calm our minds, and just be--with ourselves, with each other, with God, for just one day out of seven, then, the way yeast causes bread to rise, we would discover a fullness to the entire week, maybe even a whole lifetime. "Be still, and know that I am God." "Come to me, all who labor and are heaven laden, and I will give you rest." The Sabbath isn't a shackling, but a liberation. A while back, we urged our members to try Sabbath observance for a month. Most didn't bother, some tried and failed. Some did it--or didn't do anything, actually!--but no one complained and quite a few thanked us. We walked more, we took naps, we talked, we prayed, we reflected. Mind you, I'm a busy guy, addicted to doing God's work and scurrying about like a squirrel gathering nuts before winter descends, so Exodus 16 bugs me a little. But my discomfort isn't God in me; it's society, it's my dad, maybe it's the devil himself. God said, "Be still--at least one day--and know that I am God--and you aren't."

At the end of the day, it is a little bit of bread that saves us. On the holy day of rest, I stand in line, with other murmurers, and a priest presses a small bit of bread into my palm. I remember what Jesus said when he gave chunks of bread to the hungry crowd by the sea: the bread I give for the life of the world is my body. And it is enough; I am filled, with the body of Christ, with joy, with grace.

Oh, and I suspect there's actually a fourth thought on this text I'd love to explore--the idea that God's people only take what they need and no more--maybe like those first Christians in the book of Acts who shared all their possessions in common, and no one was in need...but that's another day, another Day One sermon, and we'd probably not wish to think about, much less act on, such a thing just now. We might tremble with discomfort and tiptoe up to the edge of rage. We don't even have the little piece of bread part down just yet.

Let us pray. O Lord, we speak to you now and it may be just a murmur. We know that your glory is that you hear the murmur and you respond to something that is small and urge us to rest. Show us that way. In Jesus' name. Amen.

 


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