"My house is good," he says. Minoj Singh gets up at 4:30 in the morning, rides a bike into the heart of Calcutta, and picks up his rickshaw. He spends the day pulling it around – not a bike but walking, gripping the wooden handles, a person or two sitting in the carriage behind. Through pouring rain or oppressive heat, or both, he carries people around the packed and dirty streets. "Happy," a fantastic documentary I watched this week – that I credit our colleague Barb Schmidt for telling me about – starts with Minoj.1 The producers synthesized a ton of research from around the world to try to better understand the question, "What makes you happy?" We meet folks from the Louisiana Bayou to the streets of New York, from groups of widows on Okinawa, back to Calcutta. It turns out that it is pretty simple what makes one happy – family and friends, social connections, being involved in something that matters. Minoj, it seems, is statistically about as happy with his life as the average American. He sits outside his house – about a third of the size of the choir loft for 6 of them – bamboo rods forming the frame, plastic tarps tied together forming the walls and roof. "My house is good," he says, matter-of-factly. "During the monsoon, we have some trouble with rain blowing in. Other than that we live well. When my son comes home and calls out to me, when I see my baby’s face," he says. "I feel happy."
The contrast today’s text sets up is powerful. After 430 brutal years of slavery, the people were free.2 In an extraordinary series of miracles God called Moses, confronts Pharaoh with plagues, parts the Red Sea. But it only takes them 45 days – a month and a half – after 430 years, to start complaining. If only we had died as slaves, they say. At least then we had something to eat. For YOU have brought us out to kill us with hunger. We are at the beginning of what scholars call ‘the sojourn tradition,’ the traveling before and after their time at Mount Sinai, the heart of the Exodus experience.3 Point 1 of this tradition reminds us of the faithlessness of the people. When things get the least bit unsure, folks gather in a corner and start grousing, then they decide who they can blame. The complainers churn and churn, content to stir people up, rarely desirous of any sort of solution. It seems as though most of our political class is in a perpetual state of complaint. But it trickles down, as we complain about our jobs or our kids’ teachers, that the television that doesn’t work, that people aren’t quite who we want them to be for us. The yard needs to be mowed, our house [what good news, we have a house to live in, with a roof, and electricity!] isn’t quite the way we want it to be. Whether 430 years of slavery, or 45 days of wandering, or 2 days of a plumbing problem. It is hard to be satisfied where we are.
But God meets them with grace. Not even a well-deserved lecture on the fact that they were doing forced labor 2 months ago and now were FREE. God says, I am going to provide for you. And not just today, but each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. This is point 2 of this same sojourn tradition: they are reminded that God can be trusted. God provides anyway. In the wilderness, when times are uncertain, God calls us to trust.
But simply trusting doesn’t compute. In the morning there was a layer of dew in the camp, and as it lifts, this flakey stuff is on the ground. And what do the people do? They ask each other, ‘What is it?" What is this? Why is this here? They can’t see. Moses reminds them that God made a promise. Here it is, guys. This interchange is likely how we get the word manna, what we call this bread. The question, ‘What is it?’ in Hebrew sounds awfully similar to ‘manna,’ and so most scholars assume that first question ended up providing the name for the bread.4 And we continue to question, because I tend to think that deep down folks like us still have a hard time believing that grace comes as a gift. No matter how privileged our upbringing or how many folks help us along the way, we tend to believe we earn what we have. And we work darn hard, don’t we, to scratch and gather and achieve? To take that next step up, to get the very best for us and our families. But this so easily – often without us even realizing it – becomes a relentless drive for more, and deep anxiety when it feels like there is not enough. And then you are stuck, because when you always want more, it also always feels like you don’t have enough. It eats you up. We end up restless, never content, with the idols we create of who we are and what people think of us and who we long to be taking over the simple love of God and neighbor among us. I think in communities like ours figuring out our relationship with money is THE spiritual disease of our time, that gets us off track, distracting us from those who matter.
And so God carefully structures the deal with this manna. This is almost as important as the gift itself. They are commanded to gather as much of it as they need, defining ‘need’ – an omer, close to 3 quarts.5 But even when they didn’t follow directions, verses 17 and 18 tell us that they all ended up with around the same amount, ‘as much as each of them needed.’ This is the way the covenant community works. Not too much. Not too little. Enough for the day. If they sway from gathering enough, it rots. "The wondrous reality," Walter Brueggemann writes, "about the distribution of this bread is that their uncompetitive, non-hoarding practice really does work, and it works for all!"6 The second point of emphasis – in the section we didn’t read but will come back to next week – is on the Sabbath. Every other day there is enough for that day. Except for the day before the Sabbath, when enough for the next day is included.
As you are by now aware, today is the beginning of stewardship season. While some may roll their eyes, I actually like this time of year, because it calls us to really dig into what each of us values. What matters? What do you care about? Or, asked a slightly different way, what makes you happy? Not ‘happy’ as a vague pleasant feeling, but something more akin to joy. This is the season to take a little more time to remind you what we do in some way or another every single week as we hear assurance of God’s forgiveness, and as we are called to the offering. God our God is a God of abundance, of boundless grace, and God gives that grace to us as a gift. Not as something you need to earn – goodness knows even the best of us aren’t capable of earning it. Grace is a gift. And that is the best news I will ever have to tell you. God loves you for exactly who you are. Really. For exactly who you are. But God also loves you enough to want you do respond in joy, to share with others, to love, to love, to love.
It is also the time when the church will ask you to respond in a specific way, by asking you to make a pledge. This year we’ll ask you to take a brochure home, to read it – it is an exceptional document that a lot of people put a lot of work into – and to think and pray upon your gift to this place. I have probably been a bit too lax in the past few years in asking you all for a commitment. But I am here to tell you from my experience, in my life here, and in my life more broadly, that the church is the gift God gives us for this difficult journey. To surround us. To teach us. To drive us out way beyond ourselves to do campus ministry and feed homeless people and taking care of victims of domestic violence. None of it happens without you. We will be talking more in the coming weeks about the gifts God gave the people in the wilderness to shape their life together – of this manna, of the Sabbath, each of us giving as we have been blessed, and of the biblical standard of tithing. I am convinced that an investment in the ministry of this place is an essential act of faithfulness, one that binds us together, as we do so much remarkable ministry, that embraces each of us and – as the organizations we support tell us so well in the brochure – is critically important to Durham.
After we meet Minoj, the filmmakers of "Happy," walk us through some research. They tell us that around 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes – that we are born with a kind of genetic set range. External circumstances – your job, your finances, your health, account for only 10%. Most researchers have concluded that the remaining 40% is intentional behavior. The things you choose. We get to choose what kind of perspective we will have about our lives. We get to choose how anxious we will be about the world. We get to choose how we will think about who God is, whether we believe God is, in fact, gracious. And we get to choose how we will respond, as we come to lunch, as we go to work, as we contemplate the ways we will return those gifts to God not only during stewardship season, but far beyond.
The documentary closes back in Calcutta. Andy Wimmer is from Sweden, a financial manager who, 17 years ago, showed up to work in Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute and dying. He had all these fancy clothes, he said, and then he realized he was ridiculous. His first day, he said, they brought in a 15 year old who had been found in a dumpster. And he held to his mouth a small glass of water, and his eyes shot open, and they were connected. ‘And there it is’ Andy said. "I got this life, my parents, my friends, I was never really sick and I always had enough food to eat. I was the first generation in a long time to never experience a war. My life, he said, is a loan given from God. I will give this loan back, he said, but with interest. You love, you serve the brother or sister in front of you. That is how you have a happy life."
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Learn more at www.thehappymovie.com. It’s worth your time!
2. We don’t really know how long, but Exodus 12:40 gives us the 430 number.
3. Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), pages 58-59.
4. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), page 813.
5. The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, Henry Gehman, ed, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), p 685
6. NIB, 814.