Sunday, 25 October 2009

Forgiving others

Preacher: Veronica
Readings: Matthew 6.12-15 and Matthew 18.23-35

When I saw that I had been put down to preach today on forgiving others , I thought I’d got the most difficult of all our series on the Lord’s Prayer. Actually I was originally meant to preach some weeks ago on ‘Your kingdom come’, but in the event I wasn’t well enough to preach it, and Sue kindly took over. So now I’m stuck with the subject most likely to get a preacher labelled as a hypocrite, if she doesn’t practise what she preaches. And for me at least, this is one of the hardest things in Jesus’ teaching to practise. In preparation for this sermon I have spent time over the last few weeks trying to forgive everyone I have ever failed to forgive, and I’m not sure I’ve got very far. Your mileage may vary, as they say online.

On the face of it Jesus’ message is very clear and unequivocal. Our forgiveness by God is dependant on our forgiving others. If we don’t forgive, we will not be able to experience God’s forgiveness of our many failings.

But wait a minute. Does that mean God’s forgiveness of our sins is conditional? Is Jesus essentially saying, To earn God’s forgiveness you have to do something - you have to forgive others? It certainly looks like that. I can now hear Protestants all over the world, whose motto is ‘Sola fide’ or ‘faith alone’, squirming uncomfortably in their seats. Or at least they would be if they were all listening to me. Surely the only condition for forgiveness is that in Christ, God took our sins on God’s own shoulders and atoned for them? Does God’s forgiveness of us only apply if we have forgiven every one who’s wronged us?

This is one reason this subject is so scary. Which of us can say we have forgiven everyone who’s offended us, as Matthew 18 says, ‘from the heart’? I think there is a way round this, and I hope I’m not making excuses here. I’d like to suggest God’s forgiveness of us is truly unconditional. God is after all portrayed by Jesus as a loving father. As someone wrote recently on Ship of Fools website: ‘ I cannot conceive of disowning my child, whatever she might do, in any circumstances, for one second, ever. God's love for us is not less than our love for our children.’

Where the link with our forgiveness of others comes in, I think , is that while we are harbouring grudges and unforgiveness in our hearts, we are not in a state where we can truly experience God’s forgiveness of us. If our mental state is one of grudge-bearing, we will project that onto God, as it were making God in our own image as a hard man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter. So in order to be able to see God’s forgiveness clearly, we have to be in a state of forgiveness ourselves. So in the parable of the unforgiving servant which we heard earlier, the master is fully prepared to forgive, but when the servant is unforgiving, he loses the benefit of the master’s forgiveness. And I think this parable also tells us that God’s forgiveness of us is meant to have results in our own behaviour to others. If knowing we are forgiven does not inspire us to forgive others, then perhaps we don’t understand God’s forgiveness very well at all.

That’s the only way I can make sense of the link Jesus makes between our forgiveness and God’s. But of course the story doesn’t end there. There’s the small matter of how we manage to forgive, and what counts as true forgiveness anyway? And are there any preconditions to our forgiveness of others?

Well there’s one definite precondition, and that is that to practise forgiveness, we have to have enemies. You can’t practise enemy love without having an enemy. Having enemies is an uncomfortable position to be in, and I’m in that position at the moment in relation to my son’s headmaster, who is depriving children with special needs of the support which is their legal right. So forgiveness is a very live issue for me.

Of course some of the people we need to forgive - perhaps most of them - will be our friends, and especially our family. The closer we are to someone, the more they can hurt us. And the closest of all to us is ourselves, and it’s not always easy to forgive ourselves for things we regret doing or saying.

The second possible precondition is repentance. We experience God’s forgiveness best when we turn away from whatever we are doing that is against God’s will. Is it the same between us and fellow human beings - do people have to repent before we can forgive them?

I don’t know if any of you listened to The Moral Maze on Radio 4 on Wednesday before last? It was all about forgiveness, sparked by the fact that the bomber of the Grand Hotel Brighton in 1974, Pat Magee, was appearing in the House of Commons alongside the daughter of one of his victims. If you remember, that was the bombing of the Tory conference, where five people were killed, and where Norman Tebbit’s wife was paralysed.

The ‘witnesses’ on the show were Paul Bowman, whose daughter Sally Ann was raped and murdered by a serial sex offender; Timothy Latchbourne, the grandson of Earl Mountbatten, who lost his grandfather and his twin in another IRA bombing, and has written a book about learning to forgive the bombers; Ruth Dudley Edwards, who has written a book about the Omagh bombing, and Peter Price, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who has been involved in a lot of reconciliation work.

A lot of the discussion centred around the fact that while Pat Magee is no longer a terrorist, he has refused to repent of what he did and says in the same circumstances he might do it again. Most of the panel were very sure that forgiveness can only happen where there is repentance. One said that there were some crimes too heinous ever to be forgiven; and Paul Bowman said that even if his daughter’s killer expressed remorse, he would never forgive him, and that to do so would be disrespect to his daughter’s memory.

The one clear Christian voice on the programme was the Bishop, who said that even if there is no repentance, forgiving can be beneficial to the victim in coming to terms with what has happened. His experience also told him that forgiveness ahead of repentance, can also sometimes lead to a change of heart in the offender. What struck me most in what he said is this: ‘The ability to forgive is part of a life well lived.’ The unforgiveness of Paul Bowman stood out starkly against this, and it seemed to me that his inability to forgive was inflicting far more pain on him than it was on his daughter’s murderer.

Bishop Peter also made the link between our forgiveness and God’s, by saying ‘I forgive because I am forgiven’. As the panel points out however, this could be problematic, because for most of us, what we need to be forgiven of is nothing so dramatic as rape, murder or terrorism. As the parable of the Pharisee and the publican shows, it is sometimes harder for the ‘good’ religious person to understand forgiveness than it is for the out and out criminal. In the face of the glory of God, however, we all feel besmirched and in need of cleansing, as in the reading from Isaiah we had last week: ‘Woe is me I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’ (Is 6.5).

But what is forgiveness anyway? Is it just an internal attitude? Or is it an objective change in the relationship between people? And if it’s the latter, does it mean releasing the perpetrator from all consequences or penalties of their actions? There was a lot of talk on the Moral Maze panel about the relationship between forgiveness and justice. Most of the panel agreed that forgiveness did not mean leaving crimes unpunished; and some said there could be no forgiveness until justice was done.

Which brings us to that other passage we heard from Matthew 18, which describes a process of confrontation and reconciliation between Christians. It’s interesting that Matthew’s order has Jesus advising this process before the parable of the unforgiving servant. Do we actually need to do something active, when we can, to put things right, before we can forgive? Certainly there is such a thing as forgiving, or apparently forgiving, too soon, when we haven’t really dealt with our anger. This can leave us still seething inwardly., with only a veneer of forgiveness. I’d like to suggest that if we read these two passages together, we can say that forgiveness is not an end in itself, it is a part of reconciliation. And perhaps sometimes it is not the precondition for reconciliation, but the result of it.

So where does that leave me, trying to forgive the Demon Headmaster for his offences against my child and others’ children, while at the same time chairing a campaign to stop him doing it? And as a result constantly hearing more of the appalling and probably illegal things he’s saying and doing, and being reminded how angry I am with him?

Well at the moment it leaves me struggling. I know I have to bless those who curse me and pray for those who persecute me, but what keeps coming into my head instead is ‘Woe to him who harms any of these little ones’ and part of me would love to tie a millstone round his neck and throw him into the sea.

The last person who gave me so much material for forgiveness, is now dead, and in some ways that makes it easier to forgive him, because I know for sure he’s not going to carry on doing the things that upset me. And if he was still alive, I’m afraid I suspect he would have gone on doing them.

As Hamlet said, ‘Ay, there’s the rub’. Unfortunately when Peter asked how often he should forgive his brother, Jesus didn’t say ‘Seventy times seven but only if he repents’. Nor did he say ‘490 and then you can beat him up as much as you like.’ Ultimately, if we are modelling our forgiveness on God’s forgiveness, we have to look to Romans 5.8: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. If God didn’t wait till we repented, can we do that to others?

Perhaps there’s some significance in the fact that Peter asks Jesus about his ‘brother’ meaning ‘brother in the Lord’. I think we could make a case that in Matthew 18 Jesus is recommending that with fellow Christians, we need a process of actively seeking repentance and change, not simply forgiving and forgetting. We should expect our Christian sister or brother, not to earn our forgiveness, but to respond to it with change. Perhaps with those who aren’t followers of Jesus, we cannot so readily expect repentance, so all we can do is forgive and pray for a change of heart. I can certainly try praying for my enemy the head master; and perhaps as a step towards forgiving him I should stop calling him the Demon Headmaster. I shall still however go on fighting his policies because they are harmful to vulnerable children.

So to sum up the main points, our forgiveness by God is not dependant on our forgiving others, but it is expected to lead to it; and we might need to forgiven others before we can really receive God’s forgiveness. Equally, our forgiveness of others is not dependant on their repentance, but it is meant to inspire their repentance; and when we are dealing with fellow Christians, we may need to confront their sin at the same time as forgiving it. Perhaps the most useful things said on The Moral Maze was that forgiveness is a process. Reconciliation is a process too, and the two need to go hand in hand.

In the bombed cathedral in Coventry, where I grew up, there is an altar with a cross on it made of blackened medieval nails salvaged from the ruins. On the altar there is a text in gold letters: Father, forgive. I’m sure it’s meant to remind us of the rest of that saying of Jesus from the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. Surrounded by the Gothic ruins, this clearly implies a reference to the Germans who bombed Coventry so heavily 55 years ago next month. Our country, of course, retaliated by dropping even more devastating bombs on Dresden and other cities. However since the new cathedral was built in the 60s, the cathedral has had an active ministry of international reconciliation, especially with Germany, and established a kind of scattered community of reconcilation called the Fellowship of the Cross of Nails.

If Jesus asked God to forgive the worst thing we have ever done to God, what right have we to withhold forgiveness from others? But please pray for me that I may be able not only to preach about it, but to do it. I’ve got a long way to go.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Forgive Us Our Sins

Preacher: Lesley

Forgive us our sins is the subject of this sermon in our series on the Lord’s Prayer. Sin has gone out of fashion. We don’t often preach about it in this church and it’s certainly not a word you find used much in society in general.

First of all, let’s be sure about this word ‘sins’. We may have grown up saying ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ and other versions of the Lord’s prayer say ‘Forgive us our debts’ So which is right? Well, having done extensive research using Sue’s Greek/English New Testament, which I failed to give back to her after I borrowed it some while ago, I can definitely say that in Luke the word is trespasses, whereas in Matthew, which is the version we tend to follow, the word is debts. So how do we get from debts to sins? The Greek word means ‘obligations’ or ‘things owing’. In the Lord’s prayer we start by addressing ourselves to God and, remember, we take with us, in saying ‘OUR Father’, all those who might claim to be children of God. To pray ‘Forgive us our debts’ in this prayer means that to do so we must be in harmony with the earlier parts of the prayer. We are approaching with this request the loving Father who longs to give us bread. To do so hallows God’s name, fulfils God’s will and hastens the coming of the Kingdom.

So what does the Bible tell us we owe to God and to the rest of God’s family? We are told that we must love the Lord our God, with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength. And we must love our neighbours with the same care and attention we show to ourselves. Now which of us can stand up and say that we have not, just occasionally, failed in this obligation? And that failure is what the Bible calls sin.

We understand debts because the vast majority of the population probably have debts of one kind of another, even if it is only an outstanding credit card bill which they usually pay off every month. So the state of being a debtor is pretty well universal, but the debts are owed by each as an individual and it is for what we owe as individuals that each will be held accountable.

We know that Jesus linked debts and sins because he told parables which equated the two. The people of his day knew a lot about debts. Most peasant farmers – that is most of the population – were more or less permanently indebted to the large landowners who had flourished under Roman rule. These debts could be passed on from parent to child, so that someone could be born in debt, even though it was in contravention to the Law of God. One such parable, in Matthew 18, is in response to Peter’s question ‘How many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me?’ Jesus replies with the parable about a king who cancelled the huge debt owed to him by one of his servants. I won’t go into the parable now because I expect that Veronica may want to talk about it next week, but I just want to point out that the word used for debts in the parable is the same as that used earlier in Matthew in the Lord’s prayer. So when Jesus teaches us to say ‘Forgive us our debts, he clearly means our sins – in other words, our failures to love God or our neighbours. And the word for forgive is the same as that for release from debts in other parts of the Gospels. It means to set free, not from prison, but from the chains of obligation.

.It has always seemed to me that there is a rather abrupt shift in the Lord’s prayer. We have moved from honouring God to making requests. And our first request is for the basic necessities of life, summed up by the term ‘daily bread’. I would expect that the next request would be for the next most pressing requirement that people have. The psychologist, Maslow, even proposed a hierarchy of needs, starting with food and water at the bottom, through needs for social interaction, to what he called self-actualisation, including spiritual needs, at the top – something to which we may pay attention when all other requirements are satisfied. The Lord’s prayer is more realistic. In fact we find people all over the world attending to spiritual needs when other things are far from satisfactory. Among the billion people who are hungry in the world they still pray. As Jesus told Satan ‘Humankind does not live by bread alone’. So what comes right after our daily bread is a spiritual need. What Jesus implies is that getting our sins sorted out is the most urgent spiritual need we have.

As I said sin has gone out of fashion – if it ever was in fashion. I mean the word sin. Being sinful has always been popular. In these days we’ve stopped talking about it. The word ‘sin’ conjures up images of outdated and absolute moral codes and formal authority and other people telling us that we’re bad. And quite frankly, these days, we just don’t want to know. In fact our society has a great antipathy to anyone presuming to tell others what they should do. Even someone whose personal behaviour shows up the low standards of the rest of us is intolerable to a good section of the population. So we have books and TV programmes revealing all the shortcomings of Martin Luther King or Ghandhi or Mother Theresa. But this attitude seeks to ignore the fact that these individuals show that it is possible for humans to do a great deal more neighbour-loving than most of us manage. It’s as if we can feel better about ourselves if we can show that they weren’t perfect – as, of course, they weren’t.

In Western culture’s denial of sin; the only real crime is hypocrisy. And look at the glee with which the media have pointed the finger at MPs about their expenses – even, now, about being so profligate as to pay their cleaners more than £40 a week! (Even though this was allowed within the previous rules.) You’d think that MPs didn’t have anything else to do with spending large amounts of public money! I think this obsession with MP’s personal dishonesty is because. in the course of governing the country, these people, by the nature of their work, have to say something about the way that the rest of us live and what is right for society as a whole. But let’s remember what Jesus said about casting the first stone and that no matter how much I cut someone else down to size, it doesn’t increase my stature by one centimetre

At the same time, we see in our culture a strong tendency towards externalisation of evil. By that I mean that we tend to feel that it’s not us that’s bad; it’s something outside ourselves. The evil people are serial killers or child abusers; they’re Osama Bin Laden or, earlier, Sadam Hussein. We have a tendency to make whole groups of people into scapegoats – Muslims, homosexuals, young drinkers. The other tendency is to fantasise evil. There’s a huge proliferation of TV shows with paranormal themes and lots of vampires, witches (both of which seem to be being rehabilitated) ghosts and ghost hunters. For Halloween we’re told there will be a dangerous paranormal experiment, revealing the real face of evil or some such stuff.

What is clear is that, in our society evil is them not us. But on Friday I came across a Sunday Times magazine article showing pictures of various notorious people and pointing out that Himmler had ‘nice eyes’, that Rosemary West and the killer of Baby P look like people you’d see on the street any day. And I must say that one of the things I find difficult in the work that I do on the Mental Health Review Tribunal is that I can meet people who have committed heinous crimes and yet seem quite pleasant. I’m sure Judith could say the same about people she meets as a probation officer.

What the Lord’s Prayer asks us to do is to admit our sins – to recognise that we are as capable of sin as the next person and that we have done things of which we cannot be proud. It recognises that this is the last thing we want to do. Last week I heard a radio interview with Gillian Slovo, whose parents Joe Slovo and Ruth First were anti-apartheid activists (and Ruth First was assassinated for this.) She described attending various sessions of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This post-apartheid body gave people amnesty for crimes, including murder, committed as a result of their administration of the apartheid system, so long as they told the truth about what they had done. Gillian Slovo said she had only heard one person tell the truth. The others said what they had done but they hedged it around with justifications and mitigating factors. As she said, how do you live with the knowledge that you have done terrible things?

I don’t think it’s just about big crimes. We all of us spend our lives conducting an internal narrative about ourselves – who we are, what we’ve done, why we did those things. It is essential to our sense of identity and we will still try to do it even if we can no longer remember what has happened in the past – so people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease can come up with some bizarre explanations for things, for instance as they try to make sense of their lives. And in our internal narrative, we want to be the hero of the tale, so we explain things to ourselves in a way that shows ourselves in the best light. We do not believe we are sinful. We make excuses and justifications for our actions.

Thinking again of murderers; they also have an internal narrative and will tend to minimise or explain away their crimes. None of us like to think of ourselves as evil. In Britain, someone convicted of murder has a mandatory life sentence, and at the time of sentencing a tariff is set by the judge – a period that has to be served before parole can be considered, depending on the nature of the crime. Parole is not automatic. It is only possible if it is likely that that person will no longer be a danger to the public. One of the things the Parole Board is looking at is whether the person admits the crime, is remorseful and empathises with the victims. I deal on occasions with murderers who have mental health problems. They still have to serve the tariff and the tribunal then is looking at their psychological state and, again, whether they continue to minimise the severity of the crime, to blame the victim or others, to give excuses for their actions. The system requires the offender to face their sin in all its naked horror and to accept responsibility for it.

And God requires the same thing of us. We are not different from the rest of humankind. In the Lord’s Prayer, it is our debts which we bring to God. So we number ourselves amongst the great crowd of sinners. Just as the publican who stood in the Temple said ‘Lord be merciful to me, a sinner’. We do not claim to be different from the great herd of mankind. So the Pharisee who said ‘Thankyou God that I am not like other men’ was not forgiven, while the tax-collector was. As I John says, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and are strangers to the truth. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’

In the case of murderers, we demand this so they can participate in society again. God requires us to confess our sins and to ask for forgiveness so that we can be part of the society of Heaven – or whatever phrase we may use for freely partaking in the company of our God.

This is where we look at that peculiar series of readings that we had. I went through the Bible and I picked out the descriptions of encounters between God or God’s heavenly agents and human beings. What is the common factor? Being Afraid. What’s the first thing people do? Mostly they fall down – usually flat on their faces. Noel Moules used to say this when I did the Workshop course, so I thought I’d have a look at it for myself. I thought he was exaggerating. But I was staggered by the consistency with which people fall down in their terror, in such a way as to hide their faces. The question is why? Well, pure fear of the unknown may be one reason, but I would think that usually people’s response to a frightening apparition would be more varied. They might scream, run away, freeze in shock, pretend it’s not happening etc.

Falling down indicates both fear and submission. It is cowering in recognition of almighty power. In these events, the people recognise that they are dealing with God. Isaiah gives a clue to the other factor. "My destruction is sealed, for I am a sinful man and a member of a sinful race. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!" In other words, it didn’t matter what story they had been telling themselves about themselves or how they had rationalized away the things they had done, at the point of encounter with the power of God, each of those people were terrified as they recognized the purity of God and their own inadequacy to face up to this. So they literally covered their faces from God.

God has not changed. We are still unfit to stand in God’s presence. We require forgiveness. But forgiveness cannot be based on a lie. Just as we require murderers to admit the truth of our crime so we need to look at the truth about what we are really like. Remember that we are thinking about all the ways we have failed in love to God or neighbour. I can only be forgiven myself if I am first of all conscious of my sin. Forgiveness cannot come first.

One of the other reasons that people don’t like to talk about sin any more is that psychologists tell us that we need self-esteem and there is quite a tension between knowledge of our sinfulness and self-esteem. As I’ve been involved in counselling and psychotherapy in various roles for many years, that has been an issue for me. However, I have come to the conclusion that we cannot base self-esteem on a lie. How does it help anyone for a person to think well of themselves when in fact they hurt others around them? The sin still works away under the surface, even if it is buried, and causes pain and distress. Better to know what I really am and to come for forgiveness. It is noticeable that seeking the forgiveness of the people that I have hurt is an essential step in the Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-step Addiction programmes.

Yes, low self-esteem, often thought to be due to lack of feeling loved during infancy is a real cause of hurt and distress, as people cannot make relationships properly without having them distorted through a lens of how they view themselves and others.. How can someone find that love in later life? Do we expect a partner to be able to make up for what we never had? The burden is often too great for the relationship to sustain. Do we seek to love ourselves and look after ourselves first? We risk even more failures towards our neighbours – and it’s often difficult to love even ourselves when we have suffered damage as infants.

But there is One whose love is big enough to sustain even the most damaged. ‘Don’t be afraid’, the angel said. ‘I bring news of great joy’. and ‘He is risen!’ In Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is a way for us also to be forgiven and loved. The cost is coming to God as we really are, with all our sins exposed, and that may feel like death. But the reward is that we may rise like Jesus, as the song says: ‘Forgiven, loved and free.’ 1 John, which tells us that we are all sinners is also the book in the Bible which most talks about love – love for our neighbours, the love of Jesus in his incarnation, death and resurrection and the overwhelming love of God, so that it says ‘God is love’. And that love is for us. As Gene Robinson said on a tape that our small group listened to on Thursday – in my words. Just as God can be throughout the Universe and beyond and yet can hear our small prayer, so God can love all of us equally – and yet I am his favourite – and so are you.

Give us today our daily bread

Preacher: Sue
Readings: Exodus 16:14-21, Deuteronomy 8:1-9, Matt 6:9-15, Luke 11:1-4

Today we’re continuing our series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, and our phrase today is “Give us today our daily bread”. It’s a very rich, resonant request but it raises a big question for me.

Because for me it’s been a long time since I last had to really worry about whether I’d have enough money to feed myself. Even at the worst of times I’ve always been able to afford staples like bread, potatoes, rice or porridge, as well as the essentials of tea and milk! In fact it was only when I spent two years with Operation Mobilisation more than twenty years ago that I really faced tough choices, for instance between medical treatment and food, and things once got so bad that our penniless and hungry team sat together reading Judges chapter 7, fantasising about the cake of barley bread that tumbled into the camp of Midian and desperately praying for food or money. (On that occasion, you will be pleased to know, we had a rush of gifts of food and money and invitations to eat at other people’s houses.)

So, I wonder, is it honest for me to pray “Give us today our daily bread”? Or is it just going through the motions? Do we need to be living hand to mouth, not sure where our next meal will come from, in order to pray this without hypocrisy?

Well, I think this is an important prayer for us all, whether in times of plenty or hunger, and I hope I can convince you of that too,

Let’s look at where we’ve been so far in this sermon series. “Our Father in Heaven hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. These are all quite lofty requests, focused on God and God’s purposes, and full of “you” - “hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done”. And then all of a sudden we switch to “us” - “Give us today our daily bread”. And it’s so down to earth and close to home. It reminds us that however important it is to focus on God and work and pray for God’s kingdom, we are frail, physical and human and have physical needs. We need to eat and drink, sleep and have shelter. And we are not expected to ignore these basic needs for the sake of the kingdom; indeed we’re encouraged to pray for the kingdom and ourselves virtually in the same breath.

I’m interested in the two versions of this phrase which Matthew and Luke give us. (I’ll divert for just a moment to talk about that. Joachim Jeremias thinks that both Matthew and Luke are reproducing a catechism on prayer based on Jesus’ teaching, different for their different audiences. Luke’s Gentile readers are new to prayer so have a kind of primer for beginners while Matthew’s Jewish readers already know about prayer so the basic framework of Luke has been expanded into a more advanced lesson. So Jeremias thinks Luke’s version came first. However, he finds the concepts more challenging and the language more complex in Matthew than in Luke. Based on this and on Aramaic texts which he thinks reflect the Aramaic of Jesus’ original teaching, he concludes that Matthew’s actual words are closer to Jesus.)

So, let’s look more closely at our line for today. Matthew says: “Give us this day our daily bread” while Luke has “Give us each day our daily bread”. Now I can see the attraction of Luke’s approach. Just pray “Give us each day our daily bread” every now and then and you’ve got the whole of the foreseeable future covered. It’s got to be a more efficient approach that Matthew’s “Give us this day our daily bread” with its implication that we have to come back to God in prayer every day for our daily needs. If I were trying to design a sustainable system I’d go for Luke’s approach every time. But…

I really like Luke’s gospel but, you know, here I think he has it wrong and that Matthew is much closer to the spirit of this prayer (so I’m with Jeremias I guess). I think we really are supposed to be praying in daily dependence on God and trust in God, as the people of Israel had to do in the wilderness for forty years, gathering each day the manna they needed for that day and not hoarding for the next day - unless the next day was the Sabbath in which case they did need to gather two days’ worth and the stored manna didn’t go off.

I find this a challenge for us whose cupboards are probably never literally bare so aren’t confronted with our dependence on God by the kind of poverty that so many of our world’s population live in. To take just one statistic, the average daily per capita income of the poorest half of Haiti’s people is 44 cents. I guess that buys a bit more in Haiti than it does in London, but still, a poor Haitian would have a lot more incentive to pray for daily bread than I do.

So I think this part of the Lord’s prayer is a challenge both to remember our dependence on God and to stand in solidarity with the poor by praying the same prayer of dependence as they pray. Indeed, we are not invited to pray “give me this day my daily bread”, even though we’re encouraged go into our room and shut the door and pray to our Father who is in secret. Even if prayed alone, this is a prayer for our bread. So I think this phrase “Give us today our daily bread”, which has so much resonance, can among other things stand as short hand for the prayer we prayed at last week’s communion service here and often sing as a grace:

God bless to us this bread
and give bread to all those who are hungry
and hunger for justice to those who are fed.
God bless to us this bread.

As one who is fed and needs to hunger for justice, I think I will pray this phrase differently in future having lived with these thoughts this week.

Let’s think some more about praying for bread. On the one hand this is a very modest request. As Gregory of Nyssa pointed out in the fourth century (in rather fourth century terms, including a reference to slave ownership):

"So we say to God: Give us bread. Not delicacies or riches, nor magnificent purple robes, golden ornaments, and precious stones, or silver dishes. Nor do we ask Him for landed estates, or military commands, or political leadership. We pray neither for herds of horses and oxen or other cattle in great numbers, nor for a host of slaves. We do not say, give us a prominent position in assemblies or monuments and statues raised to us, nor silken robes and musicians at meals, nor any other thing by which the soul is estranged from the thought of God and higher things; no--but only bread!”

But in another way bread stands for so much more. In our reading from Deuteronomy it stands for having one’s basic material needs met in a way that resonates with the vision of shalom:

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.

So bread can stand for material sufficiency and well-being, but its symbolism goes further. For Abraham offering bread to strangers is a sign of hospitality. In Isaiah 58 sharing bread stands for food and practical provision more generally (and notice the language of sharing, not just breaking off a little corner that won’t be missed):

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

And I think that is one of the powerful things about this petition, that bread is at the same time a modest staple, an essential, and yet can symbolise so much more too. If we think of Jesus’ quotation from our Deuteronomy passage, that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord, bread may remind us of Jesus, the Word of God and the bread of life. And think of the bread of the last supper or the bread broken at Emmaus which reveals the stranger on the road to be the risen Jesus. Bread can bring so much to mind, yet is so simple. Maybe it can remind us of the sacred-ness of the everyday. One of the things I really like about our tradition is that the same bread that we buy from the corner shop for our lunch is also the bread we break together at communion.

Now some commentators really major on this symbolic and spiritual dimension of bread as they look at the Lord’s prayer, so I want to talk about that briefly.

Part of the reason for this emphasis is the word which we translate as “daily” which, rather unhelpfully seems to be a new coinage by the gospel writers, or at least records of other usage at the time haven’t come down to us. So what does it mean? Well, the consensus seems to be along the lines of “daily”, “necessary”, “today’s” and “tomorrow’s”. So some read it as “tomorrow’s” and think it looks ahead to the heavenly banquet. And maybe in part it does… But for today I want to stick with the down-to-earth concrete idea of the physical bread we need to survive and think a bit more about necessity and praying for today’s essentials - or perhaps at night praying to have enough to eat tomorrow.

And here comes another challenge. To pray this prayer is to confess that “enough” is “enough”, that we need what is necessary but don’t need the kind of consumerist excess that so many other daily messages tell us we do need and even deserve. Certainly in the fourth century St. Basil read it as urging simplicity and generosity and contrasted “daily bread” with having more than enough:

"The bread that is spoiling in your house belongs to the hungry. The shoes that are mildewing under your bed belong to those who have none. The clothes stored away in your trunk belong to those who are naked. The money that is depreciating in your treasury belongs to the poor."

Or as Hauerwas and Willimon put it:

Through learning to pray this prayer we are taught that our money is not “ours”. Thus we can be asked to share because what we have is shared.

Perhaps we need to pray this phrase again and again just to counteract the other pressures on us to buy, to consume, to hoard. Perhaps it can even become for us a prayer that we might grow to know more and more clearly what we do need, how much is enough, and what we simply want, at the expense of the poor and the environment.

I wonder how many of you have tried the carbon footprint calculator on the WWF website which Dave Nussbaum mentioned at the weekend away. Peter & tried it several times, each time changing another answer to something we thought we might be able to manage but weren’t yet doing, but however simply we even imagined living - and this is well off what we are actually attempting right now - the calculator still showed us needing substantially more than our “share” of the planet’s resources. Maybe praying “Give us today our daily bread” can be a prayer to learn to tread more lightly on our struggling planet.

So I have found this at once a sobering and an exciting phrase to meditate on. It reminds me that, whatever illusions I may have of self-sufficiency and autonomy, I am dependent on God - and maybe I should say grace before meals more often as a way of reminding myself of this and acknowledging my dependence on God and my need for God’s daily presence. Praying “Give us today our daily bread” challenges me to remember the hungry and to hunger for justice even when I am fed - and to think about how I store the money I have to save in case my tenants need repairs done on my house in Hemel Hempstead. Maybe it’s time to put that into Shared Interest as Ken has been telling me since the days when I was barely solvent! It reminds me too of the sacredness of the everyday, of the bread that is both a staple and a token of so much else. And it comes as a corrective to the messages that tell me that I need more possessions, that I am worth more expensive shampoo, and that it’s reasonable to consume and pollute far beyond what the earth can afford to give me. I may not start each day wondering where my next meal is coming from - but that is precisely why I need to pray this prayer, “Give us today our daily bread”.