A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Lent • February 28, 2016
What do you need every day? I suppose most of us have a daily routine: clean up, something to drink, something to eat, something to do. Most of this is a matter of choice: what do you really need? We can go about three minutes without air; more if you are a trained diver. The average person can go three days without water, although some have survived longer. We can go about three weeks without food; Mahatma Gandhi survived a 21 day fast. We can go a long time without light but it disorients us and distorts our time sense. Solo sailors on long voyages often report hallucinations; Joshua Slocum, the first person we know to have survived a solo circumnavigation, reported a period when he believed someone else was on board, helping him navigate. Simon and Garfunkel famously sang, “I am a rock, I am an island” but in fact we can’t survive in isolation: we need things, we need each other.
The first human experience is a fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer. An infant must be fed, must be cleaned, must be held or the child will not survive. An infant can’t provide these things. Instead, as we all know, babies develop a complex way of signaling their needs and making life unpleasant for unresponsive parents. “Give me” is in that sense our very first prayer, and if it isn’t for bread, it is the same prayer. Give me what I need. The need is supplied: the supply is gift and in the gift a bond of love is formed. “Give us our daily bread.” Last Sunday we talked about the first request of the Lord’s Prayer: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Just as that prayer turns to the heavenly father, this prayer asks the heavenly father toward us, toward our needs. Like an infant asking for milk, like a child hungry for dinner, we come to God: “Give us our daily bread.”
Bread was both symbol and fact of daily life in Jesus’ time. Surely he means to remind us of Israel’s time in the wilderness, when the cry for bread was answered by manna, a bread like substance on which the people fed and which came as the gift of God. Surely he means to remind us of the great feast Isaiah imagined. Bread there is what sustains, and the feast itself is the gift of God, a gift to be given to everyone: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Surely he means as well to remind them of the great time when they believed a crowd would go away hungry and miraculously all were fed.
On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. 1When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured. 12The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.
There they are, in a deserted place, a place that must have felt to them like a wilderness. No McDonalds, no Stewarts, no Dunkin Donuts, not even a gas station in sight. Yet even there, bread is provided. They bring what they have to Jesus, intending obviously for him to get the message: five loaves, a couple of fish, not enough, not nearly enough. Yet when he blesses what they have, somehow everyone is fed and there are 12 baskets of leftovers. “Give us this day our daily bread” reminds us that our source is not ourselves but the gift of God.
The importance of the gift is part of the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Do you remember the story? Jesus is baptized; immediately, he is called into the wilderness. Some versions say he was led there; some that he literally “thrown into the wilderness”. The wilderness is more than geography or climate, it is the place where Israel met God, where God formed the people and gave the covenant. Jesus is in the wilderness, according to the story 40 days, a Biblical number that really means “complete”.
While he’s there, he’s hungry, and the tempter comes. Jesus has just been embraced and heard the Spirit call him the son of God; now the tempter takes this great blessing, this wonderful moment, and turns it around: “If you are the song of God, command this stone to become bread.” You know this temptation, don’t you? You’re at home; there’s food in the fridge you could make, but you’re hungry and there are potato chips so… What would it mean to be hungry and told you could easy as waving turn stones to bread? Stop relying on God and God’s way: just do it yourself. Most of us know this temptation because so often we’ve given into it. We substitute things we make for bread that satisfies: the list is endless, from career success to how we look, how much we make, how many likes we have on Facebook. Jesus replies to the temptation by turning to God’s Word, saying that we do not live by bread alone.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Bread is easy for us to get today. We stop into a store, pick some up off a rack, the only difficulty all the choices: white, whole wheat, rye, whole grain, cinnamon, so many types. But in Jesus’ day, bread had to be made, then as now, from basic ingredients: flour, oil, yeast, baked in an oven. Most people didn’t have these things on their own. You might raise the grain; but it had to be milled, and for that you traded grain. You might have olives to make oil, but you needed a press, and you might trade for that. Ovens weren’t individual, they were a community resource, a place where people gathered together to bake together. They were a focus of community life, like the village well, a place to go and talk and laugh and share and gossip and finally take the hot loaf of bread from the oven. So when Jesus speaks of being given our daily bread, surely he has in mind this sort of community. You can raise lentils and make lentil stew on your own but it takes a whole community to make bread. This is the effect of bread. So it is with us. We sing, “One bread, one body, one Lord of all”, at communion, reminding ourselves that sharing the bread of communion binds us into the body of Jesus Christ. For as the Apostle Paul said, “The bread which we break, does it not mean [that in eating it] we participate in and share a fellowship (a communion) in the body of Christ?”
So: packed into this one prayer we remember and acknowledge we live not alone as a result of our own efforts but within a community, where so much of what we need comes not as reward but as gift. There is one more thing this prayer has to teach: it says, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus teaches here as he does elsewhere a focus on the dailyness of life, the nowness of our lives. I’ve been going to the yoga class here on Tuesday nights for a little over a year, off and on. I’m not very good at yoga; I have trouble keeping up with the poses. I struggle along, better some weeks than others. But the hardest thing for me at yoga isn’t the poses or the effort or the stretching it is the constant encouragement to be present, to focus on that moment and not let my mind wander off to other places. I live with a constant future tug; there’s always next Sunday’s sermon, next month’s worship, next year’s strategy. So given the chance, my mind will happily go off there, thinking about what’s going to happen Sunday, what’s going to happen Easter. Jesus means to bring me back, I think, as he does with each of us. The manna in the desert was a daily thing; in fact, only on the day before sabbath could more than today’s need be gathered, anything over would go bad. “Give us this day our daily bread” means to bring us back to today: what do we need today to live as God’s people?
We have seen already how Jesus’ prayer means to turn us to a relationship of loving intimacy with God when he begins, “Our father”, or as I suggested, “Hiya Dad”. Then he moves to inviting God’s rule in our lives: “Thy kingdom come”. Now in the prayer he asks us each day to focus on today, to remember thankfully how we are sustained by God’s gifts; to remember that live from God’s gifts. So this week, each day, every day: let us indeed pray with Jesus, seeking to live as the body of christ, sustained by the bread of life.