BREAD OF HEAVEN
Exodus 16: 2-15
September 21, 2014
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Last week, the Bishop and the Cabinet visited Cobden UMC, a Hispanic Church by the name of Jesus es El Senor. Rev. Roger Russell, Cache River District Superintendent, arranged the trip. On site, the Senior Pastor, his wife and a male associate told us countless stories about their ministry. Cobden has earned a reputation for Bible Study in various homes, a dynamic worship, an active food and clothes pantry and providing shelter for the homeless. Work teams from across the country have helped to upgrade their facilities and have learned about the life and work of their Hispanic brothers and sisters. Regardless of race, creed or color, Cobden has ministered to all God’s people. As the pastor, his wife and the male associate talked about the ministries, I noticed something. They kept mentioning God.
For example, God helped them build a larger facility, supplied every need for the homeless, the hungry, the naked, the migrant worker and the stranger with aid and support from other local churches. Every time their supplies of food, clothes, shelter and money ran low or out, some church, individual or group arrived with new supplies or money to pay bills with some leftover. So, I asked them why they kept talking about God. In paraphrase, they said, “We’re amazed; God keeps supplying every need in our ministry, not us.” At one point, a member of the Cabinet put a $20 dollar bill in my hand for them. His gesture moved the Bishop and the Cabinet to give likewise. Before my eyes, I saw the “bread of heaven” fall on the Cobden ministry - supplying its needs. Today, we’ll talk about the Bread of Heaven in the life of God’s people then and now.
It was the best of times. Israel was free. God had delivered his people from 430 years of Egyptian bondage. To protect them from the pursuit of an enraged Pharaoh, God provided a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Through the Red Sea, God led them. Mary never had to weep because Pharaoh’s Army got drowned. Consequently, God’s people were saved, Glory Hallelujah! As Egypt disappeared from view and the desert expanded before them, the joy of deliverance turned into the sadness of a new captivity. They had no more food or water to sustain them. Moses and Aaron were blamed. According to the congregation, Moses and Aaron had brought the Hebrew children out of Egypt to die in desert.
Hunger and thirst made the people of God think about the good old days in Egypt. They were slaves but had food and water. They were slaves yet their surroundings were familiar. The sting of whips and lashes seemed better than stinging scorpions, venomous bites from rattlesnakes, the Coral snake or perhaps the death adder. They were slaves but their run down shacks were better than tent city in the desert. Egypt never looked so good.
Anniversaries bring back all kinds of memories of the good old days. Imagine participating in the beginning of this church. See yourself worshiping in a train station. Notice the passion of an infant congregation making disciples of Jesus Christ. Your hunger to make disciples of Jesus Christ in 1864 did not require an organ, pew, pulpit, bulletin or pastoral stole. Two or three persons gathering in the presence was enough to worship God. Setbacks such as lack of money, being on a circuit, itinerating pastors, membership struggles, the life and death of Chanute Air Force Base, and a host of other issues could not derail the ministry. Assisted by a God enabling First UMC: Rantoul to accomplish far more than it could imagine or think, your 150 years in ministry is a noteworthy achievement and witness. The longevity of First Church Rantoul authenticates the lyrics of one songwriter, “Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you.” Herein lies the “Bread of Heaven.”
One has to be careful telling a person or a group of people that God will take care of them. Numerous stories are at the tip of their tongue which contradict or seem to contradict the reality of God’s care. When the Hebrew children complain to Moses and Aaron regarding the absence of food and drink in the desert, it does not feel like God is taking care of them. Thus, they complain. When our Lord comes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the grave, Mary and Martha are not in a thanking mood. Gone is the best brother that two sisters can have. He is loving and kind. He provides financial support. He is a man of faith. He and the Savior of the world are best friends. And he’s gone. Instead of standing on the promise that God will take care of them - that everything is going to be alright, Mary and Martha complain to Jesus’ face saying, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.”
Have any long time members of First UMC ever lodged a similar complaint with Jesus of Nazareth. “Lord, if you had kept Chanute Air Force Base open our church and town would not been in the shape it is in?” Should that be true, First UMC would be emulating the behavior of God’s people who found themselves in the desert. In fact, I found a description of you on the Internet - one that begets complaining - one description that sounds hauntingly biblical.
“In 1917, Rantoul was chosen by the United States Army to be the site of Chanute Field due to its proximity to the Illinois Central Railroad and its War Department at the University of Illinois. Chanute Field grew, dominating the local economy as thousands of military personnel were stationed there. It was closed in 1993, 21 years ago. According to author Katy B. Podagrosi’s book entitled, “Eye of the Storm: Chanute Closes,” Rantoul’s economy has taken a sharp decline due to the base’s closing, from which it has never recovered.”
Some will question that analysis by Katy B. Podagrosi. Yet, Katy makes the point. People have no problem complaining to God or anyone else, “when bad things happen to good people.” Stuff happens to God’s chosen people, then and now. In passing, let me tell you what I have learned and experienced in 24 years of superintending in the United Methodist Church, 18 as Bishop and 6 as a District Superintendent. 95 % of my job is dealing with the trials, tribulations and complaints from the people of God. After three months on the job, District Superintendent Rose Booker Jones knows that already. Folks complain; and complaining works.
Our scripture says the same thing. Draw your own conclusions from these excerpts. Exodus 16:2, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” Exodus 16: 6-7, Moses and Aaron said to the Israelites, “in the evening you shall know that it was the Lord that brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord because he has heard you complaining against the Lord.” Exodus 16: 11-12, the Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites.” Say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning, you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” Notice, their complaining does not turn God off or get on God’s last nerve. God extends the bread of heaven to the Israelites for more than a few days. Rather God provides Manna from heaven for the forty years the the Israelites wander in the desert. See Exodus 16: 35.
What does this mean for a congregation on the journey for 150 years? “You have not because you ask not.” One songwriter declares that the people of God regularly, “forfeit their peace, bear needless pain”; because they refuse to, “take everything to God in prayer.” Whatever your needs church, you have to, “keep praying and not lose heart”, like the widow before the unjust judge.
Another method proved effective for the Israelites. We don’t often think it’s effective with God. Simply put, “You have not because you complain not.” Like protestors complaining against injustice, the Israelites accused God of bring them out of Egypt to die in the desert. Yes, they complained. And they got on the last nerve of Moses and Aaron. But God heard their complaints and gave them what they asked for, at least in this particular situation, namely food, drink and daily care. Isn’t that what God has done constantly in the life of First Church?
Thursday of last week, your DS preached a sermon to a group of Black Clergy. Her subject was, “Don’t Let Setbacks Set you Back.” By the time she finished, her God inspired Word supplied Bread of Heaven for everyone gathered. The Holy Spirit was alive. The same thing has happened to First Church. You started in a railroad station and kept walking. You built your buildings, paid down debt and kept walking. You witnessed the opening and closing of Chanute Air Force Base. Despite the hit, you’re still walking 21 years later. You’ve welcomed African-Americans into your church like the Ben Cheek family. You’ve been through membership loss, pastoral change, and the struggles. You’ve thanked God and complained. And here you are, 150 years later. As you continue your 150 year trek on behalf of Jesus Christ, don’t forget these words. “Guide me O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim in this barren land, I am weak but thou at mighty hold me with thy powerful hand. Bread of heaven, bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.” Thanks Be to God. Amen.