Based on the Scripture readings:
2011 September 18
The Possibility of Possibility
A thread runs throughout our scriptures asserting that there is always something quietly sacred right in front of us, amidst an environment of bright sounds and big sensations. This thread reveals the quietly divine in our midst: a baby, a still, small voice, a poem, a practice, or mud, which leads us to freedom, helps us know our call, remember our past, love our neighbor, or see. Many of the biggest ideas in our Bible come from the most peaceful, plain, everyday offerings. A touch. A cup of wine. Our name spoken. Or bread.
Amidst the sensational, I wonder why some people notice God in the austerity of the common, and some people don't. I wonder why some people see miracles at their own feet, and some people see dirt. Because we engage a simple story from our common history today that gave birth to a word, an idea, a phrase in Jesus' prayer, and a concept for our church. We engage a story about hunger and how it enables faith. We read about manna -- manna from heaven, and I wonder why the people in the desert thought that's what it was: from heaven? Because modern science has another explanation; but follow the stories in sequence, and consider what you see.
After all the smoke, clouds, hierophanies, theophanies, rulers, speakers, and crowds that suffuse the Book of Exodus, we come to this tender story about finding enough food for each day. And it would be easy to overlook because of what comes first and what comes later.
First come fifteen chapters of big drama. They begin as there arises a King over Egypt who did not know Joseph, with his coat and his capacities, and who thought that the people of Israel were too many and too mighty. The Book says that this Pharaoh was in dread of them, so he "made them serve with rigor." It says "serve with rigor" twice. Doublespeak and euphemism are not modern inventions, if you call slavery "rigor" without mortis.
Now, all this happened before Moses was born, and then he was born, and the next fifteen chapters of the book have quite a lot of shock and awe. There is a baby in a floating basket, a murder, a burning bush, a stick that becomes a serpent, and ten plagues: blood, frogs, gnats, flies, sick cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death. We see Passover, religious refugees, and the parting and reunion of the Red Sea.
It would be easy to be spiritually over-stimulated, exhausted, or distracted -- addicted to a God who only talks and acts in big and dramatic ways -- by chapter sixteen. By then we expect freedom and faith to have a daily dose of audacity and awe. It would be easy not to see God in the simple, the everyday, without a cloud or a pillar of fire. Indeed, to this day when people ask for a sign from God, they are often disappointed without a thunder clap, blinding light, or a lottery win. Portions of Exodus trained us for that.
But at the end of chapter fifteen and the beginning of sixteen what they get instead is drinking water and bread.
Why did they think this was from God? Isn't there another explanation? Why do some people see this as a gift, a touch from the divine, an inspiration, from heaven?
Perhaps you have to be hungry enough to notice the blessing of daily bread. Perhaps too much food isn't always a blessing if you don't know hunger.
Longing is like that, too. The first lines of Psalm 42 say "As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." Hunger and longing are linked.
Seeing is probably like that, as well. I am able to walk right past beggars in downtown Boston and children playing in our Weekday Nursery on my way to the Post Office -- I don't see all that is around me. Yet other people hunger for, long for, and see a miracle every day.
Anyway, the people of Israel were hungry, and they were fed, and they perceived that the food in their midst was a gift from God, and they thanked God and even followed God's guidance about how much to take and how much to leave.
They said manna was a miracle.
But of course there is another explanation for what happened in the desert. In the past 72 hours, I've read four scientific articles about manna. It's even called manna because in some ancient tongue the question, what is it, man hu, was also the answer, man hu. Scientists say this manna has a simple explanation. It was not given by God each morning for our good grace.
Let me put this delicately. manna is bug scat. There are two types of lice, each with three Latin names, deferentially referenced as scale insects, and they eat the sugary sap of the tamarisk that grows in the desert and, well, they discard a detritus that is itself a complex composition of three sugars and some pectin. The lice only want the nitrogen from the tamarisk, so its simple sugars come forth in bulbs at their bottom that hit the hot, dawn desert air and flake off either on the bush or on the ground, like the Good Book says.
I learned that thirty years ago. Maybe you did too. Yet the Bible describes this food as a fine flake-like thing, like coriander seed, like a white honey wafer. It calls it grain of heaven and bread of heaven among other things. The people in the Bible see a miracle.
Our own generation most frequently references Acts of God to refer to hurricanes, earthquakes, crises, and tragedies, which allows us to avoid political, personal, national, or insurance responsibilities as well as any measure of mature theology.
Once upon a time a hungry people saw their food as God's miracle. Along with the burning bush and the parted sea waters, there were simple, quiet, daily gifts from God.
I wonder if we can see that, too? See the daily bread in our midst and understand it as holy? Even while embracing a wise scientific sensibility.
It's a good question to ask ourselves as a church, too. What is the manna in our midst that comes from God? Is it our very bread ministry? Is it our Christian Education spirit or our choir? Is it our volunteers, our quiet prayer, our faithful commitment to civil rights? Are all of these to be expected, assumed, or are they miracles?
A new book out by Hans Kung, a brilliant Catholic theologian, says that it is good to trust in God as very present, and we can do that based on our traditions, norms, scripture, and values -- these are important. And I have days when tradition and trust in the stories of our family are completely fulfilling.
Other days I doubt the miraculous.
So William James offers another approach. In religion and faith James invites us to open ourselves to the possibility of possibility. To the premise that maybe what we have at our feet is more than bug scat. That there is sacred ground around us, where when we hunger, in our longing, and as we open our eyes, we see beyond thunder claps or blinding lights to those things that sustain us, which are graces of God.
"What is it," they asked long ago. What is it, for us, for you? That is a sacred question with a sacred answer.
Copyright © 2011 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.