Friday, March 29, 2013

“The Power and the Glory" - Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

Text: John 20:1-18

Resurrection Sunday is the greatest day of the church year.  Beyond that, it is the only day determined by the moon.  It always falls on the first Sunday on or after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  What this really means is that you have to check your calendar.  While I know that Christmas will be December 25, I am not really up on full moons, to say nothing of the word “vernal.”  But as complicated as it sounds, in a way the placement of Easter Sunday in a given year makes sense because it means that Easter coincides with the greening of the earth.  Christ is risen and all the world comes to life.  Sap rises in the trees and crocuses pop out of the ground and forsythias bloom and birds sing and rabbits start showing up everywhere.  There is a connection between Easter and new life, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

But this connection between Easter and spring can also be a bit misleading, because spring is natural.  You can count on it; it comes every year, even if we do have a few late-season snowstorms.  You plant a bulb in the fall, something that looks like a half-rotten onion, but you expect a tulip to show up in the spring.  It is amazing, it is miraculous, but it is also natural.  It’s the way things work.

On the other hand, when we put a body in the ground, we do not expect to see it again.  We don’t wait around for the person to reappear so we can just pick up where we left off.  We say our good-byes and we try to carry on with our lives as best we can.  The only place that springtime happens in cemeteries is on the graves, not in them.

Mary was in the cemetery that morning.  She was paying her respects, saying her good-bye.  She goes to the tomb, and is stunned.  It’s like a punch in the gut.  Someone had moved the stone.  Someone had taken him to God knows where, afraid that the tomb would become a shrine, a rallying point for Jesus’ followers. 

Mary had that feeling of sudden terror that we may feel from time to time.  A pastoral colleague told of going to visit her father in the hospital following surgery.  She was unable to be there during the surgery but arrived at the hospital some time later that day.  Imagine her distress when she entered his room and found the bed empty and neatly made up.  She felt sudden panic.  She remembers going to the nursing station with trepidation and choking out through her tears, “What has happened to my father?”

That is the emotion of Easter morning.  It is a frightening thing to find that a loved one is missing.  The worst possibilities race through your mind.  As it turned out in this case, the surgery had been delayed and her father was still in recovery.

Mary goes to the tomb and finds that the stone had been rolled away.  She feels sudden panic.  She ran to tell the others.  Peter and John returned with her.  They found things as she had said, and after a few minutes, they left her there weeping.  We don’t know if they tried to get her to go with them, but if they did, she refused. 

As you read through the gospel accounts, it is interesting that even though Jesus predicted his death and resurrection several times, no one hears the report of the empty tomb as Good News.  It can only be a bad thing.  No one responds to the news that God has raised Jesus from the grave by saying, “Praise God!”  No one shouts “Hallelujah” when they hear that their friend has been raised to life.  And absolutely no one, upon hearing the news of Jesus’ resurrection says, “I knew it – just like he said!”  Nobody but nobody expects resurrection and no one, to be honest, believes it at first.  Mary and Peter and John all see the empty tomb, but the notion that this was a sign that Jesus was alive did not even occur to them.  And why would it?  This is not the way things work. 

Peter and John leave the scene and Mary is left in her grief.  Two angels were there when she got up the nerve to look in the tomb, and when they asked her, “Why are you weeping?” she said, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”  It never occurred to Mary that they might be in on it.

Mary wasn’t thinking clearly, of course.  She was running on autopilot.  She saw the gardener, or so she supposed, and said, “Sir, if you have taken him away, please tell me where you have laid him.”

It wasn’t a reasonable question, but then Mary was not thinking reasonably.  But then the gardener spoke her name.  “Mary.”  And she knew.  “Rabbouni!” she said.  “My teacher.”  She is overjoyed to find that Jesus really is alive.

“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus said.  “I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

Did I miss something?  This seems like a really weird response on Jesus’ part.  And I don’t see where Mary is holding on to Jesus.  The text doesn’t mention it at all, but the next thing you know, Jesus is saying, “Don’t hold on to me.”

How is Mary holding on?  Maybe it is in the way she speaks to Jesus.  “My teacher,” she says.  Maybe she was calling him by his old name, the way she remembered things, the way she wanted things to be.  Maybe she was calling Jesus by his Friday name, holding on to what she knew.  But this was Sunday, and now everything had changed.  This was a new day.  This was a new life.

As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, this was also very unnatural.  “To expect a sealed tomb and find one filled with angels, to hunt the past and discover the future, to seek a corpse and find the risen Lord – none of this is natural.”

It is unnatural and it is amazingly good news.  It is Good News because if we know about anything at all, we know about loss.  We are familiar with loss.

As sometimes happens, Easter this year has fallen smack in the middle of the NCAA basketball tournament.  This past week, both the ISU men’s team and women’s team suffered really tough, heartbreaking-type losses in the final seconds of games that would have sent them to the Sweet Sixteen.

Well, some losses stand out more than others.  The worst this year, I think, was the men’s game here in Ames against Kansas.  ISU led most of the way, seemed in control late in the game, but the wheels kind of fell off, and in a critical call with only seconds remaining, a Kansas player driving to the basket plowed over  Georges Niang, but charging was not called.  Instead, on the bottom of a pile of players on the floor, Niang was called for a foul when he tried to reach for the loose ball. The KU player hit the free throws to tie the game, and the Jayhawks won in overtime, just like the earlier game in Lawrence.

That was tough, but the image I will remember is in the final seconds of the game, the TV broadcast showed Fred Hoiberg’s family.  Fred and his wife have twin sons, and one of the boys was just sobbing as his mother held him.  And then they showed Fred’s mother, our daughter’s fifth grade teacher, with tears in her eyes.  This was a very hard loss.

You might think that it is dumb to cry over a game.  Well, call it dumb, but it is common.  It has been shown that following tough losses, the productivity of dedicated fans goes down at work.  After San Francisco lost the Super Bowl, less work got done in the Bay Area.  Losses are hard to take.  Serious sports fans internalize losses.  They affect us.

Now, you can roll your eyes at those sports fans if you want, but this phenomenon extends far beyond sports.  Zoe got us started on watching Downton Abbey this year.  We caught up on Seasons One and Two and then watched Season Three mostly as the shows were broadcast on PBS.  I know a few of you are still catching up on all of this so I won’t give it all away, but a key character on the show suffers a tragic and unexpected death.

Now, viewers are invested in this show, they watch it religiously, they feel like they know these people, and then, just like that, the story changes.  It was shocking and unexpected, and people were stunned.  People woke up the next morning feeling like a good friend had died.  Loyal fans kept asking whether this was real and if this person really did die – it was hard to believe.  A cloud hung over people.

All of this is to say that we can all become very attached to people, to movements, to ideas.  We can become very attached to things like sports teams and TV shows, which in the big picture of life are not really all that important.  And yet sports teams and TV shows allow us to speak about our loss.  And what we feel is loss.  Maybe we talk about these kinds of losses because the deeper losses, the gut-wrenching losses, are just too raw, too close, too personal. 

We can go on and on about how close the Cyclones were robbed or about Downton Abbey and how awful it was to kill of that character and how will the others go on next season, as if these are actual real-life people, but it is a lot harder to talk about losing a parent or a child or a sibling.  We can talk about a bad call by the refs, but it is another thing altogether to talk about loss of our youth, or losing a dream, or losing control, or being sad about graduating and leaving behind a lot of people and experiences we like very much, or missing the way things used to be – all of which are losses.  It comes in different ways for different people, and we handle it differently and talk about it differently, but we all share in the experience of loss.

Easter speaks to us so strongly because life is full of Good Fridays.  Easter reminds us that beyond the hurt and pain and losses of life, even beyond death, there is new life.  Easter tells us that these Friday experiences do not have ultimate power over us, that the real power and the real glory belong to God.

We have been looking at the Lord’s Prayer these last several weeks.  Today we come to the phrase, “for thine is the power and the glory forever.”  And this is Easter in a nutshell.  Easter is the greatest demonstration we have that the power and the glory really do belong to God.

When you read the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, that phrase is not included.  It is not in the best, earliest manuscripts we have.  Some of you are from the Roman Catholic tradition, and this phrase is not included in the traditional Our Father.  It was added in the very early years of the Church to adapt the prayer for liturgical use.  The words are similar to David’s praise to God in 1 Chronicles 29:11: “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty… yours is the kingdom, O Lord…”

This phrase, “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever” was added by Christian communities very early for use in worship – and continues to be used to this day.  These may not have been Jesus’ words, but they fit very well with the rest of the prayer.

In Jesus’ world - in general, popular understanding - who really had the power and glory?  Whose kingdom was it?  

Well, Roman soldiers were an occupying force in the land.  Tribute and taxes were paid to Caesar.  Tiberius Caesar is king of kings ruling a territory stretching from Gibraltar to Armenia, from Britain to the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq.  Power was concentrated in the hands of one man.  There was a kingdom of absolute power, bringing glory to one man at the top, and providing peace to those on whom his favor rested.  But it was peace bought at a great cost, enforced through brutal repression.

Caesar had the power.  Caesar had the glory.  In Israel, there were those who had power and glory to a limited extent, as allowed by Caesar.  There was Herod, a puppet ruler.  There was Pilate, the Roman governor.  There was Caiaphas, the high priest, and there were religious officials who may have detested Rome privately but who went along to get along and played the game so that they might retain what power they could.  They understood that the power they had was limited and was in a sense granted by Rome.

And along came Jesus, the son of a carpenter, a Galilean.  Not from an important family, not a priest, not a properly trained rabbi, not a government official, not a wealthy person.

This Jesus taught that the greatest power was love.  He taught that God’s kingdom was greater than any earthly kingdom.  He did not set out to amass earthly power; he did not build an army or a network of guerilla fighters to challenge Rome.  He went about healing and teaching and loving and caring and forgiving, as well as challenging evil and injustice, and the following he built was so that his disciples might go out and extend this very ministry.

The kingdom Jesus built was not coercive.  He did not force anybody to do anything and did not resort to violent means or fight evil with evil.

The kingdom he built was not exclusive.  He did not seek out the well-off and well-connected but especially included the poor and the outcast, the left out and left behind, those who were put down and written off.  And he said of his kingdom that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

Whose kingdom would you put your money on? 

Jesus might have been looked at as a curiosity, a kind of sideshow, but his message was so appealing and his life was so authentic, so real, that is was very threatening to the powers-that-be.  He offered an alternative to the message that they were the ones in control.  Jesus had no regard, no interest, no concern about the powers of empire and temple and money and all around him, and that made him all the more threatening.  And so, in the end, they had no choice but to stop his movement in its tracks.  That is the way their power was built and that is the way their power was maintained.  Jesus was arrested and crucified, and that was the end of that. 

In the end, Jesus found out who really had the power.  Or so they thought.

But then came Sunday morning.  Then came the empty tomb.  Then came resurrection.  And in Easter, we learn that indeed, the kingdom and the power and the glory belong to God. 

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are committing ourselves to this alternate reality, this different way of seeing and understanding the world, this way of hope and healing and transformation and possibility, this way of love and grace and forgiveness.  When we pray this prayer and really mean it, we are seeing the world through the eyes of Easter.

“Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”  Alleluia!  Amen.

Friday, March 8, 2013

“…Forgive Us… As We Forgive…” - March 10, 2013

Text: Matthew 6:9-15
Lord’s Prayer series, week 4

I have been in worship settings where there are folks from different churches and different traditions present – maybe it is a conference of some sort, or a wedding or funeral – and we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  We come to this part of the prayer and you hear a jumble of words, because people are saying different things.

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Or, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Or, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Well, which is it?

In Matthew, it is debts.  Mostly.  Depending on your translation, but the more literal translation in the prayer itself, in verse 12, is debts.  Although if you go on to verse 14, kind of an explanatory note following the prayer, it says that if you forgive others their trespasses, God will forgive your trespasses.  So it is somewhat of a split decision.

But then, in the version of the Lord’s Prayer found in Luke chapter 11, it is “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those indebted to us.”  Another split decision.

Being curious about the whole question, I did a little survey.  I pulled 13 Bibles off the shelf – some were getting a bit dusty, to be honest – and I tallied the words used in those three verses – the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:12, the additional note in verse 14, and then in Luke 11:4.  I used 13 different translations, from the King James to the NIV to the NASB to Today’s English Version to the Jerusalem Bible.  For each translation, there was 1 tally per verse.  So if a given translation read “forgive our sins as we forgive our debtors,” then sins and debs would each get half a tally.

OK, so are you with me on the methodology?  Here are the results, which were a bit surprising to me:

Sins – 10 ½
Debts – 9 ½
Wrongs 8 ½
Trespasses – 3
Offenses – 1 ½
Faults – 1
Transgressions – 1
Failings – 1
And there were 3 cases where what was to be forgiven was not actually specified.  We are to forgive or we pray to be forgiven, but it doesn’t say exactly what we are to be forgiven for.

There was also one footnote saying that the Greek read “debts,” so if you add in that tally, it is a dead heat between “debts” and “sins” with 10 ½ votes each.

Well, if it is a tie counting Bible translations, maybe liturgical use would break the tie.  Both the Lutheran Book of Worship and the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church had two alternatives: sins or trespasses.  American Baptists don’t have an official worship book, but a worship manual published by a couple of Baptists used debts and a hymnal published jointly by the ABC and the Disciples of Christ a number of years ago also had debts.  So, consulting the worship books on my shelves, it is a 3-way tie.

Well, what should it be?  Did Jesus have more to say about bankers and debts, about lawyers and trespasses, or about religious leaders and sins?

I am reminded of the story of a dying man who gathered his lawyer, his banker and his pastor at his bed side, all lifelong friends, and handed each of them an envelope containing $25,000 in cash.  The man made them each promise that after his death and during visitation at the funeral home, they would place the three envelopes in his coffin.  He told them that he wanted to have enough money to enjoy the next life.

A week later the man died.  At the showing, the lawyer, the banker and the pastor each concealed an envelope in the coffin and bid their old friend farewell.  These three friends met a few weeks later.  Soon the pastor, feeling guilty, blurted out a confession, saying that there was only $10,000 in the envelope he placed in the coffin.  He felt that rather than waste all the money, he would send it to an orphanage in Africa.  He asked for their forgiveness.  The lawyer, moved by the pastor’s sincerity, confessed that he too had kept some of the money for a worthy legal aid charity.  The envelope, he admitted, had only $8,000 in it.  He said, he too could not bring himself to waste the money so frivolously when it could be used to benefit others.

By this time the banker was filled with outrage. He expressed his deep disappointment in the behavior of two of his oldest and most trusted friends.  “I am the only one who kept his promise to our dying friend.  I want you both to know that the envelope I placed in the coffin contained the full amount.  Indeed, my envelope contained my personal check for the entire $25,000.”

Debts, trespasses, and sins.  Which was it?

Well, think about Jesus’ audience.  What were their primary concerns?  They lived on a subsistence level and prayed for the food they needed for that day.  The majority of persons in the Roman Empire were in debt.  If a person had land, it was not uncommon to have to put one’s land up as collateral for a loan and then lose the land.  People would become slaves to satisfy their debt.

This was such a problem that the Old Testament contains laws regulating debt.  One of God’s commandments is to not charge interest on loans.  The rich would frequently abuse the poor, so within the nation of Israel, there was to be no interest charged.

And then there was the Sabbath year.  In the book of Deuteronomy we read, “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.  And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor.” Every seven years all debts are forgiven.  Every seven years all debt slaves were to be freed. 

And then there was the Jubilee Year.  Every 50th year was to be a Jubilee year in which all land was returned to its original owners.  Now, there isn’t much evidence that these laws were ever followed, especially the Jubilee part, but the intention in God’s law was that overwhelming debt and poverty was never to be a permanent condition.

The background of Jesus’ prayer is this culture of crushing debt.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  But we are not to pray for First National to cancel the debt on our mortgage, or that CitiBank will say, “The three payments you have already made on your new Ferrari are good enough – we’re forgiving the rest of the debt and mailing you the title, free and clear.”  

Rather, we pray that God might forgive our debts.  Well, that‘s different.  What do we owe God?

Created in the image of God, we have been given responsibility for the care and stewardship of creation.  We owe this to God.  We are to hallow God’s name – to treat God seriously and reverently.  We owe it to God to do so.  We are to invest our lives in establishing God’s kingdom on earth, in doing God’s will.  We are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  All of this we owe to God.  And we fall short. 

But there is more.  We pray that God might forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  Here, the language of debt is especially difficult for us.  Forgive someone for treating us poorly?  It’s hard, but probably manageable.  Forgive someone for the pain they have caused us?  It’s not easy, it may take time, but it is possible.  It’s do-able.  But forgive somebody who owes us money?  Forget it.

Of course, the line between debts and sin and trespasses is blurred.  Jesus is not speaking exclusively of financial debt.

Jesus spoke the common language of the day, Aramaic.  The prayer was first spoken in Aramaic and was translated into Koine Greek, the common everyday language of the empire and the language of the New Testament.  And in Aramaic, the word for debts and sins is the same word.  So in the original language, the language behind the language of the Bible, it is ambiguous as to whether it is debts or sins, or maybe it is supposed to be both.

At a practical level, for us, the bigger problem is not debts or sins.  It is forgiveness, period.  Forgiveness does not come easily or naturally to us.

Forgiveness is hard because we have so few models of real forgiveness.  In our daily lives, where do we see it?  Where do we see it at work or at school?  Where do we see forgiveness in public discourse?  Where do we see it in our families?  We can think of a few examples, maybe – but not many.

Tom Long told about a preaching class he taught.  He announced that there was going to be a test.  The class looked at him apprehensively – they had not been expecting this.  There would not be a grade on the test, he told them, but it was an important test nonetheless.  It involved being given a list of theological words and students writing about how they had experienced these concepts in a personal way.  If preaching means making such ideas real and understandable, Long told the class, then students needed to be able to articulate what these things meant to them.

The first word was hope.  The class had no problem writing away about hoping for a baby to be born, about high hopes for their children, about standing at a bedside and praying hopefully for healing, about standing at a graveside and hoping for joy to rise from sorrow.  They knew about hope.

The next word was faith.  Again, the pens got to writing.  They had chosen a life of ministry, after all.  Many had left careers to come to seminary.  They had trusted God’s voice and followed.  They knew about faith.

The next word was forgiveness.  Long said that the pens stopped writing.  When students did write, it was about fairly trivial things.  A mother forgiving a child over a broken vase, a high school teacher not holding a bad test score against a student, things like that.  They were preparing to preach a gospel rooted in forgiveness, but they did not have a lot of concrete examples of forgiveness in real life. They had not experienced much of it for themselves.

To be honest, deep forgiveness is not so common.  Now, failing to forgive may be human.  Holding on to the hurt may be natural.  But in refusing to forgive, in holding on to the pain, we are only hurting ourselves.  Anne LaMott wrote that refusing to forgive is like “drinking rat poison, and then waiting for the rat to die.”

Barbara Brockoff told about a neighbor who had a sign in his front yard for many years.  The sign sat on a pile of dark, ugly sheets of aluminum.  The sign was lighted at night and could be read from a distance.  It read, “This Alcoa aluminum with a 30-year guarantee is no good.”

The house was newly painted, the lawn was mowed, there were beautiful flowers in bloom.  It was an otherwise lovely home, but its beauty was marred by this ugly sign.  Apparently, the owner had a bad experience and used this sign to get even.  But who was really being hurt by this grudge?

Forgiveness is hard.  Even when we become victims of our own lack of forgiveness, it is still hard.  In fact, it may be more than just hard.  There is a sense in which forgiveness is downright impossible.

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our sins (or debts, or trespasses or offenses or wrongs) as we forgive those who sin against us.”  It is pretty presumptious, if you think about it.  We pray this as though we can forgive the way God forgives.  As if our forgiveness is in the same league as God’s.

“Forgive one another,” we are told, as if by a sheer act of will we can get past the deep pain we have experienced, as though we can just change our heart by a decision of our mind. 

But you know, the Bible frequently asks us to do things that we really can’t do.  Love your enemies.  Bless those who persecute you.  Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.  Pray without ceasing. 

To forgive another – to truly, deeply, completely forgive – can be an impossible task.  But maybe we need to look at forgiveness in another way.

Timothy Haut, a pastor colleague in Connecticut, wrote:

Forgiveness is something we cannot just do as a technique to make us better than we were, to heal an old hurt, or to free us from a corrupting power that diminishes us.  Of course, forgiveness helps us in all those ways.  But forgiveness seems to mean that I willingly dip my heart into the fountain of God’s love so that I may be a channel of that love, and if I am observant and patient, I see miracles.  Grace, joy, wonder, healing--all these things start to happen in me and in the other, too.
I think maybe this is why we pray first for God’s forgiveness.  We pray for God’s forgiveness, and as we experience that forgiveness we are able, however imperfectly, to forgive those who have wronged us.  It is the experience of God’s forgiveness that makes our forgiveness possible.

Forgiveness then is not simply something we decide to do, but it is a process that grows out of our own experience of God’s love.  It’s not so much that we grant forgiveness but we participate in God’s forgiveness. 

Jesus’ ministry was overflowing with forgiveness.  To one sinner after another he said, “I forgive you.” “I forgive you.”  It was a behavior so threatening, so upsetting to the way the world worked, that bankers and lawyers and religious leaders alike condemned him to the cross.

And then he forgave even that.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

“Our Daily Bread…” - March 3, 2013

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-2, Matthew 6:9-11

We have making our way through the Lord’s Prayer in this season of Lent.  The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer that Jesus taught his followers, a prayer that he teaches us – not as magic words to say, but as a model for praying.

We begin with Our Father, who art in heaven.  Not my father, not an individual God, but God of all of us.  We don’t own God, God doesn’t belong to us, and we pray not only for ourselves but for the wider community and indeed for all of God’s creation.

And we pray to our Father – one to whom we are intimately related, not a distant deity but a God who provides and protects and has compassion for us.

Hallowed be thy name – we pray for God’s name to be treated reverently, respectfully, for God to be taken seriously, not just used as a mascot for our own causes.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We pray that the structures of this world and the rhythm of daily living might be what God wants and intends – that justice and righteousness would rule not just in a dream of a world to come, but here and now.

OK, finally, we are through with the preliminaries, we can get on to the good stuff.  We’ve been talking about God – God’s name, God’s kingdom, God’s will.  Now the prayer focuses on us.  And it’s about time.  We can hardly get through the first part, just chomping at the bit to get to the part where we ask for stuff.  We’ve got things to pray for.  We’ve got a lot on our minds.  We’ve got more than a few needs we want to bring up.

We get to the part of this prayer where we finally bring our petitions to God, and we pray – for our daily bread?

Our daily bread?  Are you kidding me?  If we are going to ask, why not ask big? 

Bread?  Why not great jobs and cool cars and fame and fortune?

Bread?  Why not an easy life, endless good hair days and bucketfulls of happiness?

Up until now, this prayer has been somewhat surprising – it’s an almost revolutionary prayer.  And it continues to be surprising.  Tom Long points out that, “The three phrases that were directed to aspects of God’s character (‘your name. . .your kingdom. . .your will’) are now matched by three phrases that ask for God’s help (‘give us bread. . .forgive us. . . rescue us’).

Jesus’ model for prayer is one that holds together both the worship and love of God on the one hand and the recognition of human need on the other.  Both are to be parts of our prayer life.  They are not to be separated.  They are connected.

As we pray for human need, we start with, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Many centuries ago, Gregory of Nyssa, an early church father, noted with wonder that given all the things we need, we are only to pray for our daily bread – not herds, not silken robes, not a prominent position, not monuments or statues.  Just bread.

And we are not just praying for the bread that we personally need.  It’s not my bread, it is our daily bread.  Not just bread for me and mine, but bread for everyone.

Patrick Willson told the story of an aging infantryman who recalled an incident at the end of the Second World War.  American soldiers trudged through a little German village that had been ravaged by artillery shelling.  In the streets and alleys, there were children, with no homes to go to.  They were dazed and shellshocked.  They were afraid.  The soldiers felt heartsick at the cost of war and their helplessness at repairing the pain and chaos they had been a part of creating.

This GI reasoned that half a chocolate bar was plenty for him, so he broke it in half, and he gave the other half to a frightened little boy.  The child did not, as the GI expected, immediately snarf down the chocolate.   Instead the boy backed away.  Other children appeared and gathered around him.  The GI watched as this child broke the chocolate bar into smaller and smaller bits, so that each child might have a taste of the chocolate.

On a street filled with the ruins of homes broken by war a quarter inch piece of chocolate in a child’s mouth tastes like hope, it tastes like home, it tastes like heaven.  This little boy broke the chocolate into tiny pieces so that each child might taste the sweetness, and everyone might share in hope.

The bread we pray for is our bread, shared bread.  We can’t really pray for our daily bread without thinking of those who do not have enough to eat.

And enough is a key word here.  It is interesting that we don’t pray for a steady supply of good food.  We don’t pray to have a banquet set before us every night.  We don’t pray for our freezers to be full and our pantries to be well-stocked.  We pray for this day, for food sufficient for the day.  We pray that we may have what we need, and that all may have enough.

On Saturday mornings, Susan and I  - and Zoe if she is in town – generally go out for breakfast.  Often I get a bagel at Panera – bread is a big part of the equation.  And then we will often stop at the grocery, and bread is usually not on the list.  When you buy bread, what do you need to look for?  - The expiration date, of course.  Bread won’t last forever.  If it sits around for a couple of days, it will get stale.  Wait a couple more days, and it’s moldy.

Bread is a great image for food sufficient for the day because it won’t last.  Oh, you can freeze a loaf it you want, but it loses some of its flavor.  Bread is best when it’s fresh.  It really doesn’t work to stockpile bread.

After Moses had led the children of Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery, they had no sooner been given the gift of freedom than they started to grumble and complain, and wish they were back in Egypt.  “We’re hungry!” they cried to Moses.  “Why did you bring us out here to die?”  Even though they were ungrateful brats, God fed them with bread from heaven.  They got up one morning, and the ground was covered with white stuff.  “What is it?” they asked.  “Exactly,” said Moses.  It was manna, which means “What is it?” Moses said to the people, “This is the bread the Lord has provided for you.”  Each morning they were to gather as much as they needed for that day, but for that day only.  There was no point in trying to secure the future by gathering a bunch of it, because it would spoil.

God provided them with bread in the desert – their daily bread.  Enough for each day.  Not for tomorrow or the next week, but for that day. 

Manna symbolizes God’s gift of life.  Life itself is not meant to be hoarded, but shared.  We are to be value the gift of life we have today.  We can miss the possibilities and opportunities and challenges that are before us today because we have our eye on what might happen next week or next month or next year.

God gives us the gift of today.  Today, we’re able to open our eyes, and get up, and experience life.  We hope to do that tomorrow as well, but there are no guarantees.  God feeds and sustains us today, body and soul.  And each day we pray that God will feed us and sustain us right now – today.  This is the attitude that Jesus encourages us to have – to see each day as a gift, and to understand that the food and drink that sustain us and the air we breathe and the shelter we have and the friends and family with whom we share this life - all of these we need, these things sufficient for each day – are gifts from God. 

Like Israel in the wilderness receiving manna each day, Jesus’ followers are to trust God for each day’s provision.  Now, most of us don’t have to worry about enough bread for today.  We live in the richest country in the world and use far more than our share of the world’s resources.  Our problem is not too little bread, it’s more likely too much bread.  And we can’t pray these words with integrity, we cannot pray these words honestly, and at the same time turn our backs on the needs of the hungry in this world.

“Give us this day our daily bread” connects us to God but it also connects us to one another.  We think of sisters and brothers around the world, and their hunger becomes our hunger.  When we understand this connection, then our hands and feet and resources become the tools through which God provides daily bread for others. 

Last month, on communion Sunday, I shared about the homeless shelter and food pantry at the Morgan-Scott Project in Tennessee, where we sent a group on a mission trip last spring break, almost a year ago now.  The director of the shelter and pantry was murdered several months ago and one of the results of losing this faithful person who poured his life into caring for the needy there is that the shelter missed a couple of grant deadlines and are in a tough place right now financially.  We received an offering to help provide daily bread for people in that place, and we sent a check there this past week.  We can’t really pray this prayer without thinking of people both near and far who don’t have enough to eat.

“Daily bread” represents all of those things that we have to have to live.  It represents our needs.  Part of the difficulty, I suppose, is figuring out which are our needs and which are our wants.  But our needs, our daily bread, goes far beyond actual bread.
Roberta Bondi, in her book of reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, says,

... this ‘daily bread’ I ask for is that for which my heart longs, that without which I can hardly imagine my life.  Such prayer is extravagant, a truthful expression to God of what I really feel without much consideration of whether what I pray for is for the best.  I pray this way because if I don’t I will cut myself off from God or I will burst.
As another writer says,
Every day God comes to us.  Every day God waits for us to pray in gratitude and trust, asking for what we and what others need.  Some days we ask for courage, some days for healing, some days for the ability to love, some days for food and clothing, some days for strength to get through a challenge we’d prefer not to face.  And God who hears our honest prayers responds. 
Our Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah is a wonderful expression of God’s generosity and grace – God wants to provide us with our daily bread, with the things we truly need.  God spoke through the prophet:
Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food ... For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
We pray for our daily bread, and Jesus, in a sense, not only teaches us this prayer but is himself the answer to our prayer.   

When we pray: “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are open to receive the One who said “I am the bread of life.”  And we come to find that getting Jesus means getting enough.

We will be celebrating the Lord’s Supper in a few minutes.  You know, different churches do communion differently.  In some churches everyone comes to the front to receive the elements.  I kind of like that, and we do that on occasion.  But our more common practice here is for everyone to remain seated, and we serve each other.  The deacons bring the trays of bread and juice around, and as we pass the elements down the pew we serve one another.  The trays are brought back to the front of the church and the pastor and worship leader serve the deacons.  And then deacons serve the pastor and worship leader.  In other words, we all serve each other.

We do this most every month but rarely think about the mechanics of it, much less the theology behind it.  But part of what we are demonstrating is that the bread that God provides is bread that we share.  The bread that God provides – whether the bread we eat and enjoy, or the bread of life we find in Jesus, is bread to share, bread for all.  It is bread for everyone and it is bread for the world.

As we share in communion today, I encourage you to be mindful of this as we serve one another – as we share the bread of life.  This is a reminder of the source of our sustenance, both physical and spiritual, and a reminder of our responsibility to share this bread with those who are hungry.

Give us this day, our daily bread.  Amen.