During this March Madness season, it seems appropriate that the title of the morning sermon comes from a basketball coach. Years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers had such an entertaining team they were known by the nickname, “Showtime.” They won numerous NBA championships together, but one year this immensely talented team had an uncharacteristically bad season. Their coach, Pat Riley, was asked to identify the reason for their lack of success. He replied: “We became infected with the disease of more. Everyone wanted more minutes, more money, more recognition, more impressive statistics, more fame. The result was a team that became less than the sum of its parts. We ceased to function as an effective organization.” Riley’s phrase points to a pernicious human tendency to confuse means and ends. Playing time, salaries, assists, scoring, etc., are meant to be a means to accomplishing the end of winning a championship. But over the course of the season, the players ceased to look upon these means as a means and began to construe them as ends. They wanted more for themselves, not the team. Riley admitted that he had failed to help his players look beyond their individual agenda to see the team’s ultimate purpose. The disease of more had ruined them.
Likewise, the ancient Hebrews suffered their own form of the disease of more. God had brought them out of bondage in Egypt, had led them through the Reed Sea, had guided them on their journey with fire and smoke. Even so, when they woke up one morning with hunger pangs they were sure that God had led them out into the wilderness to die. As they were complaining, God provided for their needs with quail in the evening and a fine, sweet flaky cake in the morning. Give the Hebrews credit. They were not afraid to include a joke on themselves within the Scripture. Some kid picked up one of these flaky cakes and asked his mama, “What is it?” The mom replied, “What is it? It is ‘What is it?’ — that’s what it is. Don’t ask stupid questions, just eat it.” So the Hebrews called those flaky cakes, “manna,” the Hebrew word for ”What is it?” Manna came to symbolize the Hebrew people’s questioning of God’s providence and God’s provident answer.
God offered the Hebrews only two instructions regarding “What is it?”: 1) don’t try to hoard God’s providence overnight, because they should trust their God to provide for them every morning; and 2) there would be double “What is it?” on the day before the Sabbath, so they were to collect extra because there would be no manna provided on the Sabbath, a day of solemn observance. Do you think the Hebrews could obey those simple instructions? No! There were those who tried to stash extra “What is it?” in their tents, only to find that it turned wormy. And there were those who went out on the Sabbath looking to gather more “What is it?”, only to find there was none. God asked Moses in exasperation, “Here I am providing quail and manna. Why can’t your people follow my simple instructions?” God gave them food in abundance that they might look beyond and through these blessings to the One who supplied their need. God gave them manna and quail that they might be physically nourished and thus be freed to focus upon nourishing their souls. God gave them manna and quail that they might behold God’s providence and be filled with a motivating thankfulness that would move them to become a servant people. Did God’s plan work? No! For by hoarding and sneaking out of their tents in hopes of gathering extra manna the Hebrew people revealed that their focus was upon the manna, not upon the God who bestowed it. They utterly confused God’s means and God’s end. They suffered from the disease of more.
The question of the morning is, do we sometimes succumb to the disease of more ourselves? Do we sometimes confuse our means and our ends? Some years ago I came across the story of a precocious youngster whose single mother was trying to provide for him; every night she sequestered herself in a corner of the den, working on her computer, churning out business reports. And her work was paying off: she was progressing through the company. But she was ignoring her young son. So one day he asked, “Mom, if you owned a beautiful dog, and you really loved that dog, and you worked hard to earn the money to give that dog the best food and the best training in town, wouldn’t it make sense every now and then to play with the dog?” The woman would have insisted to anyone who asked that everything she did she did on her son’s behalf. But the truth was, she had come to confuse her means with her end. The promotions, the power, the prestige and the income had become the end that governed her life. Somewhere along the way what she thought were her means to an end had become her primary reasons for living. The son she thought was her true end knew that he lived in her home as a virtual stranger, the victim of the mother’s confusion of means and end!
All of us struggle from time to time to recognize what is our true end, our true goal and purpose in life. God blesses us with innumerable forms of manna and quail. God does so because God seeks to accomplish three specific goals in our life. First, God seeks through the manna and the quail to make us proud to be the children of a gracious and benevolent God. I cannot express this point except through analogy. Some years ago, in a city four hundred miles from where my Dad lived, a stranger came up to me after one of my church casts had produced one of my Christmas plays. He asked me an unexpected question, “Are you by chance related to Bill Kremer?” I said, “Yes, I am his son.” In that moment I felt a swelling up of emotion, a sense of pride, not in myself, but a pride rooted in the realization that I had done something that had reflected positively upon my father, whom this stranger obviously regarded highly. God blesses up with manna and quail abundantly, that we might swell with pride that we are the children of a benevolent Parent whom our lives might glorify. The prophet Jeremiah speaks the very mind of God when he says, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not the wise boast in their wisdom; let not the mighty boast in their strength; let not the rich boast in their riches; but let those who glory boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord who practices loving-kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these I delight, says the Lord.’ ” (Jeremiah 9: 23-34) What a remarkable verse! We rejoice not in our strength, not in our riches, not in our wisdom but we rejoice in the profound spiritual knowledge that we are the children of a God who delights in love, justice and righteousness. We rejoice that we are called to trust in this good God!
Second, God blesses us with gifts innumerable so that we might develop a profound spiritual pride in participating in a spiritual community. The Exodus story records God as moving the Hebrew people from one geographical location to another. We think God is moving them to the Promised Land. But that is not really God’s purpose. God is not as interested in the destination of the Hebrews as God is in their transformation along the way. The purpose of the journey to the Promised Land is for the Hebrews to develop the communal identity of being a servant people. So, too, we strive to be a servant church. We do so, not that we can garner accolades for the good that we do, but rather we recognize that the need of the community and our need to give form a composite whole. God blesses us with manna and quail so that we can not only feed ourselves, but so we can feed those in need and thereby claim our role as servants and instruments of the Kingdom of God. We are meant to swell with pride that God has engrafted us into a spiritual servant community. And we are called by God to employ our manna and quail in such a way that we work together to achieve God’s goals.
Some years ago, a psychologist named Julius Edney ran an experiment with his college students in which he split the kids into small groups and said to them, “I am going to put ten nuts in a bowl. These ten nuts represent extra credit. Every nut you grasp is a point of extra credit. I want you to get as many nuts as you can. However, every ten seconds I will double the number of nuts that are in the bowl.” The professor’s intent was to encourage group cooperation. If a group worked together, the benefits were virtually limitless. But Edney reported that 65% of the groups that played the game never even lasted ten seconds. Everyone was intent on grabbing nuts for themselves. None of the groups lasted more than thirty seconds. Given the opportunity to earn unlimited extra credit, the kids refused to exercise a sense of community or cooperation. Everyone was infected with the disease of more.
Notice that when people tried to hoard the manna it turned wormy. That should tell us something. The third reason God gives us manna is that we might develop the profound wisdom of putting our manna in its proper place. God wants us to look through our manna, our innumerable blessings, and acknowledge the One from whom all our blessings flow. Manna is not merely nourishment. Manna is a test. God gives us blessings as a way of challenging us to look through our blessings as something we are not to hoard for ourselves, but are summoned to invest in others as a way of addressing the hunger of a needy world. In living as a servant people, in committing ourselves to live a servant life, in devoting ourselves to be instruments of God’s Kingdom, we find out who we really are. As long as we stay fixated upon the manna and the quail we have received, our selfishness hides our true identity from ourselves.
Years ago, there was a great collegiate basketball player named Len Bias. He was the number one player drafted that year, possessing a host of coveted skills, more money than he ever dreamed of spending, the adulation of everyone. His future was limitless. Yet all of those blessings created in him an inner emptiness that caused him to experiment with cocaine, which cost him his life. There was a Washington insider named Jim Wright, a politician of immense fortune, power, and prestige. Yet the disease of more drove him to enter into an illegal business deal that ruined his good name and destroyed his political influence. Ivan Boesky made a vast fortune playing the Wall Street Market shrewdly. Yet the disease of more inspired him to seek illegal insider information, a move that cost him his career. All of these people enjoyed manna in abundance, but they were unable to put their immense manna in its proper place: they came to regard their manna as the entire end and goal of their life, rather than a means to great accomplishment. Bias, Wright, and Boesky had manna and quail in abundance, but it wasn’t enough. They stand as cautionary tales, reminding us that when we do not put our manna in its proper place, when we focus upon our blessings rather than the One in whom these blessings are rooted, we disfigure our lives. We are meant to look through our blessings to the Source who has given us our life and all that we treasure. The disease of more can conceal our true self from us.
Our Lord spoke very directly on this matter. He said, “You cannot live by manna alone.” He counseled us, “Trust the One who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field, trust this One to give you gifts sufficient to live. Seek first the Kingdom of God and all other things will be yours as well.” Jesus advises us to look beyond the manna in our lives to see the One who is the Source of our being. We cannot serve two masters. If our vision focuses upon the means of life, then we have chosen the wrong deity. True fulfilment comes from worshipping and orienting our lives around the Deity who provides these means of life.
To develop a spiritual pride in living as a child of a benevolent God; to live as one proud to be part of a spiritual servant community; to live as one wise and mature enough to put manna in its proper place, able to look through our manna to see the giving God who blesses us — these are the reasons God blesses us with so many good gifts. Recognizing and appropriating these three truths can protect us from the disease of more, a virus that has caused more violence and affliction to humanity than any other sickness on earth.