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And When You Pray: The Gift of Daily Bread

(a sermon for July 9, 2017, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost; fourth in a series, based on  Deuteronomy 8:7-18, John 6:32-34 and Matthew 6:9-13)

So now here we are, roughly halfway through this “prayer of our Savior,” having appropriately prayed for things that relate directly to God and God’s kingdom –“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – after all of this, now things get personal. And for the first time, our prayerfulness turns to the practical realities of life; asking God for the things that are necessary for our physical lives, yours and mine:  “Give us this day our daily bread.”

You might remember that last Sunday I spoke about how there are “three levels of prayer,” and how that first level of prayer is basically our asking God to provide for us any and all of the blessings that we ask for; which isn’t necessarily as bad as that sounds!  However, I must confess that the whole time I was working on that sermon and into this week as well, I had this one particular tune running through my head:

“O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz,
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”
– “Mercedes Benz,” written by Janis Joplin, Michael McClure and Bob Neuwirth

Hey, I am a child of the 60’s after all!  What’s funny is that I can remember as clear as day hearing that song from Janis Joplin on the radio for the first time at about the age of 12 or 13, and thinking to my Sunday School educated self, “Well, that’s no kind of prayer, is it?”  Granted, Joplin intended for this song to be a bit of satire regarding the rampant level of materialism that still exists in our culture (and in spades!), but even back then, I remember thinking that this doesn’t jibe at all with praying that God “give us this day our daily bread!”

And I was right about that… God’s not meant to be the supernatural giver of luxury cars (or as the second verse of that song suggests, color TV’s!); yet, as I would discover throughout all the years that have followed, there’s much more included in that particular petition of the almighty than simply a loaf of bread!

Of course, make no mistake; there’s great significance in the fact that Jesus specifically speaks of “daily bread” in this prayer he’s giving us.  First and foremost, it’s a powerful image that would have strongly resonated in the hearts of the people of his time; in many ways bread was symbolic of the totality of God’s providential care!  T was reminiscent of the “manna” that fell from heaven and which kept Israel from going hungry during their time of wilderness wandering; it speaks of God’s on-going covenant of care with his people, from the time of Abraham to Jacob to Moses and beyond. Moreover, biblically speaking, bread is symbol of hospitality, of charity and generosity, and even of reconciliation:  “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat.” (Proverbs 25:21)  And anyone within the sound of Jesus’ voice would know that food begins with… bread.  It’s simply the stuff of basic sustenance!

Now, glutens notwithstanding, bread might still be for us “the staff of life,” but I would suspect that most of us would think of our basic sustenance as something much broader.  For us, “daily bread” might well exist in the form of a good job and a regular paycheck, the means to have food on the table but also a roof over our heads, or for that matter, a solid pension or a good 401K plan for our retirement years!  Actually to take this a step further, hear the words of Martin Luther from some 500 years ago: he said “that daily bread doesn’t just refer to food… it stands for all the physical things we need for life; everything that nourishes life;” things like “food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” (Whew… maybe that Mercedes Benz wasn’t so far off the mark, after all!)

The point here is that “daily bread” we seek represents all of that which provides for you and me a good, and full, and dare I say it: even a prosperous life.  But do you see what every one of those things I listed off have in common?  It’s that no matter how hard we work to attain it, hang on to it, cling to it or protect it, it could nonetheless all slip away from us… just like that.  Not that it will – I don’t want to inspire panic here (!) – but the fact remains it can!  In a prior church, I had a parishioner who was the CEO of a multi-million dollar, international corporation that had done quite well; and one day, in the midst of a conversation about faith and stewardship, actually, he said to me that today he could honestly say that he was worth an amount of X million plus dollars.  But tomorrow, he went on to say, I could well have nothing at all.  I asked him if that had ever happened to him, and he answered, “Oh, yes, any number of times…”  And then he smiled and added, “I just don’t really have any control over that.”

You and I are not likely at that rung of the corporate ladder, but the fact remains is that all of the sources of our wealth and security; all of the things that we work for and consider to be sustenance is temporary at best.  And I’m here to tell you this morning that this is less an economic truth than it is a spiritual one:  for ultimately, you see, the source of all good things is eternal; and the place where we receive the gift of daily bread is from God!

I would suggest to you that when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” it is not as much a request for all the good things of life (though I would agree with Luther that it is part of it!), as much as it is the true acknowledgment that all good gifts do come from God!  This is a truth that comes through strongly in our reading this morning from Deuteronomy, which is a celebration of God’s many blessings unto his people (a reading, not coincidentally, that we often read around Thanksgiving!): “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land… [and] when you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied… do not say to yourself, ‘My power and my might of my own hand have  gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.”

Not that we people ever completely learn this; that’s why I also included this morning those verses from John’s gospel, in which some of those amongst the 5,000 who’d just been fed the loaves and fishes were still wanting to ascribe miracles to someone like Moses, who brought forth that manna in the wilderness.  But Jesus was quick to remind them that it wasn’t Moses, but “my Father who gave you the true bread from heaven,” the bread “that gives life to the world.”

In many ways, at least for most of us today in the kind of world we live in, it doesn’t seem like all that much, does it?  It’s such a simple request for us to bow our heads say to God, “Give us this day our daily bread,” but in fact, it’s everything.  Like I said at the beginning, here’s the point of the Lord’s Prayer when things get personal; for when we pray this prayer, we are affirming God as the sole source of our lives, our health, our food… every bit of what we consider to be our sustenance.  We are placing our whole trust, our whole selves in the hand of the one who cares for his people day by day by day; and in doing so, we discover that while the truth has always been that we don’t have the control over these things that we like to think we do, all will be well, and we will always know the gift of daily bread.

I think it important to add here that “daily bread” does suggest a simplicity of life; our focus is not meant to be on the so-called luxuries of life.  To quote one preacher by the name of Mickey Anders, “We are not to ask for cake or pie but for bread – the necessity of life.”  (I’m not sure I really like that quote, but there you are!)  Moreover, it should be said that just as throughout scripture bread is seen as the first means to share with others, to reach out to the poor or to reconcile with one’s enemies, our prayers for “daily bread” must also include our intentions for what which God is blessing us.  In so many ways, as we often like to say around here, we are blessed to be a blessing; and, I might add, we are people of a promise.

The renowned theologian R.C. Sproul tells a story of the days following the Korean Conflict, when there was left a large number of children who had been orphaned by the war.  There were, of course, a number of relief agencies who tried to deal with that situation and care for these children, many of whom quite literally starving to death.  But “even though the children had three meals a day provided for them, they were restless and anxious at night and had difficulty sleeping.  To help resolve this problem, the relief workers in one particular orphanage decided that each night when the children were put to bed, the nurses there would place a single piece of bread in each child’s hand,” not to be eaten, but to be held by those children as they went to sleep, a reminder that there would be food for tomorrow and “that there would be provision for their daily needs.”  And sure enough, the bread calmed their anxieties and those children slept soundly from then on.

Some would argue that there’s no real need for us to pray this prayer; for such is the grace of God that “daily bread” will come to us whether we pray for it or not.  But I would say that’s missing the point entirely; for just as those children found their comfort in holding a piece of bread for the next day, this prayer of humble dependence upon God gives you and me the assurance that no matter what other sources of sustenance run dry in this life, we will always have the presence of this ever graceful, infinitely loving Lord who provides for our needs on this and every day of our lives.

And whereas we can’t claim luxury vehicles and color TV’s as part of that providence, there is nonetheless spread for us a table of the bread that comes down from heaven, and which gives us life… and life for the world.

And for this day, our daily bread, thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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The Ways We Pray

In and through “the act and attitude of worship” on an average Sunday morning, one is apt to be led in prayer in any given number of ways.

For instance, depending on a congregation’s particular tradition of faith (or denominational affiliation), there will likely be some sort of bulletin containing a selection of unison and responsive prayers designed to lead worshipers through a celebration of Word and Sacrament that’s both spiritually meaningful and liturgically correct. Other churches tend to be a bit more “freestyle” about the matter, leaving pastors and other worship leaders to lead and direct the church in its prayerfulness; music very often plays an important part in this, and depending on the size and shape of a particular congregation (not to mention the length of the service!), prayer concerns are often shared from the pews before and during the act of prayer itself. But however it’s done, speaking and silence, confession and assurance, thanksgiving and dedication all end up as part and parcel of the church at prayer.  Oh… and yes, usually somewhere in the midst of things, the Lord’s Prayer is a part of it.

At East Church, as was true at other churches where I’ve been privileged to serve as a worship leader, our prayer life has been a healthy mix of the liturgical and casual; always seeking to allow what we do together as God’s people to embrace the inherent and Spirit-led movement of the worship service from praise and thanksgiving to nurture and dedication. It’s all about tradition, creativity and above all, reverence to God; and I try my best to guide the congregation accordingly.

I will freely confess here, however, that as a pastor I’ve always had a few preferred prayers to which I regularly return; for example, just prior to preaching (“O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts…”), or occasionally something like an invocation or offertory prayer. But just as familiarity often breeds contempt, I’ve learned over the years that sometimes this kind of repetition can get you into trouble: once, years ago when one of my sons was still a teenager, during one such prayer I glanced up (yes, sometimes we do that, too!) to discover that he and his buddy were at the back of the sanctuary not only silently mouthing the words I was speaking but also imitating my particular vocal inflections with appropriate facial movements; giggling the whole time!

It was funny, I’ll admit – and trust me, I mixed things up the following Sunday (!) – but it was also an enduring reminder to me of how easily the flow of our words of worship and prayer can become little more than habit.  I think this about this a lot when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, especially about now as we’re in the midst of a sermon series that seeks to unpack those all-important petitions that Jesus taught his disciples and us to pray. To wit, if our repeating of these words is merely by rote or because it’s what’s printed in the bulletin, are we truly “hallowing” the name of God?  Are we at all claiming the supremacy of God’s will or acknowledging God’s gift of daily bread, and are even really asking for forgiveness of sin?  If praying the prayer of our Savior is simply a matter of mechanics, can we honestly say that “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever?”  I wonder…

Interestingly enough, over the years when I’ve been asked by parishioners about a way to begin or renew a discipline of prayer, I’ve recommended something that’s worked well for me: to go someplace quiet and say the Lord’s Prayer… again and again and again.  But in this instance, rather than engaging in an empty exercise in sheer repetition I’ve found that this offers us the much needed opportunity for us to pause after each and every phrase and prayerfully consider what’s actually being said; perchance to let God’s own Spirit not only deepen our understanding of the prayer itself, but also our relationship with the one who gave us the prayer to pray!

To be sure, for such a true spiritual awareness to grow within us takes time, effort and perhaps above all, patience; indeed, for every part of this prayer that comes easily to our lips, there are inevitably those bits and pieces that we stubbornly resist. But that’s the very nature of prayer, isn’t it: that even as we give thanks and praise to God for giving us all the myriad blessings of our lives, we are forced to confront the ways that we’ve fallen short of God’s intentions for our lives, our living and our world; truly, it seems to me that if we’re doing it right, the very act of prayer ought to be as humbling as it is uplifting!

And if all this feels a bit overwhelming… well, you’re right.  But the good news is that when we pray in this way, we are promised that God will be present with us in every moment and beyond with hope, with peace, with joy… and love that’s abundant and eternal.

And to this, what can we say exceptAmen, and thanks be to God!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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And When You Pray: The Hardest Prayer to Pray

(a sermon for  July 2, 2017, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Matthew 6:9-13 and Colossians 1:9-14)

“Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Two brief sentences contained within a single verse of Matthew’s gospel that are considered by theologians and biblical scholars to be the second and third petitions of the Lord’s Prayer; and yet it’s a sentiment that just kind of flows together as one as we quickly repeat the words on any given Sunday morning (“thykingdomcomethywillbedoneonearthasitisinheaven”), to the point where we might not notice, much less wholly understand what we’re saying!  And that’s unfortunate, friends; because it’s precisely at this point in our praying the Lord’s Prayer that things, as they say, get real.

It has been aptly suggested that there are essentially three levels of prayer; and how and when you and I transition from one level to another says a great deal about our own personal and spiritual growth.  Now, the first level of prayer is very basic and, well, very self-oriented: these are prayers that we say quite naturally as children, and which sometimes continue on as adults; where God is the heavenly giver of all good things, and you and I are the ones placing the orders!  It’s “O Lord, please give me a pony!”  It’s “O God, I don’t ask you for very much, but could you please, please, please not let the teacher call on me today because I didn’t do my homework and I’m not prepared!”(That’s the kind of school prayer that will always be with us, friends!) It’s “O Lord, help me get this job today… let me get the car I really want at a price I can afford… please, God, won’t you make this person I’m about to ask out on a date say yes?”

And on it goes; not that it’s inherently wrong to pray these kind of prayers (sometimes they even work out!); it’s just that as we live and grow and reach a deeper understanding of God, we do begin to realize that prayers like that can be a little frivolous, not to mention materialistic; that God’s not to be seen as merely some cosmic Santa Claus, and that just maybe our prayers to our Lord really ought to be a little bigger than that.

And therein lay our transition to the second level of prayer.  We still ask for God to give us what we’re asking for, it’s just that now we’re asking for things like life and health and food; for comfort and healing and strength in the midst of sickness and sorrow; for insight and clarity in times of discernment; for the inspiration we need to make good and right decisions regarding employment, relationships or any other number of challenges we end up facing in this thing we call life.  We are literally and spiritually asking that God “give us this day our daily bread,” and by the way, we’re also praying that those around us might be given that bread as well.

I dare say that this “second” level of prayer is the place where the most of us dwell in our spiritual lives; and I do mean that as a compliment!  It’s the place where we are profoundly aware of God’s abiding presence in our daily lives; it’s where we begin to truly understand that God’s Holy Spirit is alive and moving in and through all his people in ways that are transformative and empowering;  it’s where we are moved to truly love our neighbors as ourselves; and it’s how we as the church are, as the Rev. John Dorhauer, our General Minister and President in the United Church of Christ, said in a speech yesterday at our General Synod in Baltimore, equipped to be “one of the greatest agents of social transformation that this world has ever known.”

The truth is that many of us, as we say in our communion liturgy this morning, who “confess Jesus as the Christ and who seek to follow Christ’s way,” might well spend the whole of our spiritual journeys at that level of prayer.  And that’s not a bad thing; I mean, there’s communion with our Lord, there’s great spiritual depth; it’s good and nurturing, and brings us hope, and comfort and strength.  And moreover, we discover that life is not all about us, but about reaching out to others in Jesus’ name, and seeking to live together in a just and loving community.

So spiritually speaking, you see, this second level of prayer is fineexcept…

… there’s this third level of prayer; a higher level, but one that’s more difficult. And it’s all summed up in what might be the hardest prayer of all to pray: those two simple and yet all-encompassing phrases, “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done, one earth as it is in heaven.”

Thy will be done! Think with me for a moment about the sheer weight such a prayer; for it represents the polar opposite of those level one, “give me what I ask for” prayers, in that God’s intent and desire for our lives and our are placed at the forefront rather than our requests and petitions; we’re not asking God to change his will, nor are we asking God to bless ours.  We are coming to the Lord God and saying, whatever you wish, whatever you desire, whatever you plan for my life and for this world, O God, so might it be according to your will!

The thing is, friends, we pray this prayer every Sunday and at nearly every gathering we have as God’s people:  “Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We know the sound and the flow of the words; but the question is, how many of us truly understand what that means?  How many of us are willing to give up the control that we at least like to think that we have over this life, and to surrender ourselves, our lives, the lives of those we love, and the well-being of our very world and willingly place it all in the hands of God; trusting God and God alone to care for us and bring us into his kingdom?   That’s what makes this the hardest prayer to pray; for in doing so you and I are forced to shed this notion, seemingly part of our human nature and reinforced again and again by the popular culture that we are so-called “self-made” men and women, and instead live wholly unto the truth that we are God’s children, precious and chosen, and subject to God’s will for our lives, and not our own.

“Your will be done on earth:” I love what the Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, has written about this particular petition of the Lord’s Prayer; he writes that these words bring us right back “to the pew where we sit, to the shop where we work, to the relationships where we struggle to be responsible, to the place where we try to serve.”  That’s because when we are faithfully living unto God’s will rather than our own, there is going to be a strong and essential connection between that decision and everything else we do here on earth. “A cry to the God of salvation leads us in God’s name to our neighbor in need” because, writes Long, “a plea for the heavenly God to save empowers to be earthly agents of reconciliation.”

To put this another way, for us to surrender our priorities to those of God doesn’t mean we’re surrendering altogether.  This is borne out of our text this morning from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, in which the Apostle, perhaps writing from prison and toward the end of his life, tells these newly minted Christians that “we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understand, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.”   Paul’s prayer for them is that they be filled with strength and joy and purpose and patience in their lives and living, bearing fruit “in every good work” even as they continue to grow “in the knowledge of God.”  Make no mistake; what Paul is saying here is that the spiritual journey begun by these believers in Colossae is only at its beginning, and likewise, their discipleship in doing the will of God in the name of Jesus Christ is a work in progress; much, as it turns out, like the kingdom of God itself!

There’s a reason, I believe, why those two petitions – “thy kingdom come,” and “thy will be done” – follow one another so closely in this prayer that Jesus teaches us to pray.  Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God are central to his message and “good news,” but if you read through the gospels, you’ll find that there’s this dichotomy of thought to what he says about that kingdom.  On the one hand, Jesus says again and again that the kingdom is already here in the midst of us, by virtue of Jesus himself; and yet Jesus also says that this promised kingdom will, but has yet to emerge in its fullness.  And so it is a work in progress, this blessed kingdom to come; and when you and I pray, “Your kingdom come,” we are also humbly and yet boldly praying that God’s will be done for the sake of that kingdom.  We are asking God to bring that kingdom to fruition; so that God’s reign of love and justice and peace and true prosperity will be extended to all of God’s children everywhere.  But above all, we are praying that this all important work of the kingdom might be furthered in and through you and me, so that God’s will might be wholly and wonderfully done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Anyone who’s ever had to do so, in any fashion, knows just how hard it is to “let it go.” As I alluded before, as people we’re simply not wired that way; even as we pray to God for life and health and food, even as we ask God to bless others in Jesus’ name it is tempting and much easier for us to try to keep our own handle on things.  But isn’t it also true that it’s when we do “let it go” that we’re enabled to truly experience the wonder and adventure of life?  I think of our children learning to ride a bicycle for the first time; how it was only when they decided to have us stop running beside them and let go of the bike they could experience the incredible sense of freedom that the two-wheeler could provide.  Or how it was, not too many years later, to let go of those same children so they might be able to build lives of their own as adults.  For that matter, how it felt for us to let go of old fears and apprehensions so that we might be ready to engage in the next great adventure that life sets before us! Indeed, so much of what makes life meaningful and fulfilling has to do with letting go with that which holds us back from being who we really are; and so it is with our walk with the Almighty. To release from our own grasp the need to do everything “our way” ultimately keeps us from living and walking in God’s way; and what an adventure we’d be missing!

For you see, for us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” not only shows forth our true allegiance to God in Christ, it also means that we are participating in the greatest adventure of all: the gospel’s good news that God’s kingdom is already at work among us and is coming, soon and very soon, in all its fullness.

And so let us not be afraid to pray this amazing, wonderful, utterly hard prayer that Jesus has taught us; placing ourselves and this world in God’s hands… for even now, and even right here, the kingdom comes!

And thanks be to God for it!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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