Sunday, 11 October 2009

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”.

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