August 25, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, August 28, 2016. Third in a four-week series on the Lord’s Prayer in Luke (Luke 11.2-4), called “Learning to pray with Jesus.”
An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.
Give us the bread we need for today
In Jesus’ day, you didn’t just go to Safeway and buy a loaf of bread. Mothers would grind the grain to make the flour themselves, by hand. The grain might very well have been grown by father. Mother would also go out and collect water from the nearest clean water source. She would mix the dough herself, and flatten it with her own palms. Bread was baked in community ovens, on a rotation. Enough for just a few days at a time.
In very lean times, the bread mother baked for the week might be the only food there was. And more often than not it was lean times for many of Jesus’ neighbors.
I suspect that for Jesus’ first followers, praying, Give us the bread we need for today, meant something very different than it does for First World Christians now.
In Jesus’ world, bread meant survival. So Jesus teaches us to pray that our Father will give us the bread we need for today. When we pray those words, we are acknowledging that our very lives—right down to the next meal we will eat—depend on our heavenly Father, who makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5.45). The grain and water that are used to make our daily bread are gifts from our generous Father, and he gives those gifts without our earning them. Both the evil and the good receive them. Our food is a gift, as is the sun and the rain and the air we breathe. And there’s no possible way to pay that gift back. Nor does Father God expect us to.
Another way of understanding this phrase, the bread we need for today, is heavenly bread. Bread that comes down to us from our Father. This calls to mind the manna that God fed Israel in the wilderness. God told Moses how he was going to feed his traveling children: I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day (Exod. 16.4). Each family only got enough for that day. If you tried to hoard up more than you needed, it would get all wormy, and stink. And God worked it out so that everyone had enough, regardless of their need. The ones who had collected more had nothing left over, and the ones who had collected less had no shortage. Everyone collected just as much as they could eat (Exod. 16.18). When we pray for our daily bread, we are asking God for no more and no less than enough.
Now we’re really learning something about prayer. So far, Jesus has taught us to pray that Father God’s name be kept holy, and that his kingdom will be brought in. Father God’s name is kept holy when people have enough—no one has too much at the expense of someone else having too little. In Father God’s kingdom, no one goes hungry. Everyone has enough.
This idea comes to us from the book of Proverbs. In Proverbs 30.8-9, it says:
Don’t give me either poverty or wealth;
give me just the food I need.
Or I’ll be full and deny you,
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or I’ll be poor and steal,
and dishonor my God’s name.
God’s name is kept holy, and his kingdom advanced, when people have enough. Every petition of this prayer goes back to the source: a longing for God’s kingdom, where everyone has what they need. To pray these words should transform us. Renew our minds. The prayer Jesus taught us trains us to see things more and more from God’s perspective.
I said earlier that our daily bread is a gift from Father God that we can never repay. I meant it. God doesn’t even expect us to try to pay it back. But he does expect us to pay it forward.
How do we pay the gift of daily bread forward? The answer lies in the words of the prayer itself. Jesus didn’t teach us to pray, Give me the bread I need for today. He said, Give us the bread we need for today. So when you pray this, you’re not just asking God to take care of you. You’re asking for God to feed us. You, your family, your neighbor, and everybody else. Just after Jesus gave his disciples their praying lesson, he told them a parable that likened prayer to going to your neighbor in the middle of the night to ask for bread. The person in that story had to ask for bread because a hungry traveler had arrived unexpectedly. The story Jesus told was a story about prayer. And it was a story about someone making sure someone else got fed. So Jesus taught us to pray that everyone gets fed.
But will the answer to our prayers come as manna from the sky? Saints have been praying this prayer for two thousand years now, and that hasn’t happened yet. I think the answer lies in the story of one of Jesus’ miracles: the feeding of the multitude. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell a story about how Jesus fed 5,000 people off a pack of crackers and a can of sardines. His disciples came to him and said, We’ve got 5,000 hungry people here. Let’s send them away so they can go to the village and get something to eat. What did Jesus tell them? You give them something to eat (Luke 9.13). The disciples only had some sardines and crackers they’d gotten from a boy’s lunch pail. Jesus told them to distribute that. And everyone ate until they had enough! And there were leftovers, too. When we pray like Jesus taught us, we learn that Father God gives us enough to share, so that everyone has enough. We have a part to play in making sure we get the bread we need for today. And we means all of us.
Forgive us as we forgive others
When we take praying lessons from Jesus, the next words we learn to pray are: Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us. There’s a reason why we pray that God will forgive us as we forgive others right after praying for our daily bread. Praying these words teaches us that everything is grace—bread as well as forgiveness are gifts of a generous and forgiving God. We pray as those who confess our debts to God. Those debts are as real as the food we eat. To confess that truth in prayer means that our survival and well-being don’t depend on our calling in the debts of others—be they material, psychological, or emotional. We survive and we thrive because God is generous and forgiving.
Now we are actually committing ourselves to something difficult when we pray. We’re telling God that we will be forgiving people. We don’t pray, God, if you’ll forgive me, I’ll think about forgiving this person who has wronged me! You can’t treat this petition as a bargain with God. When we pray these words, we are telling God that, as people he forgives, we will extend forgiveness to those who wrong us.
In the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story about a king who’s settling accounts. During the audit, it’s discovered that one of his servants owes him an astronomical debt. The amount the servant owes comes to more than 160,000 years’ wages! The servant is brought before the king, unable to repay. So the king ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. The story continues:
But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, “Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.” The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, “Pay me back what you owe me.”
Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.” But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
Jesus concludes his story: My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart (Matt. 18.23-35).
The point of this story isn’t that God can forgive everything except us being unforgiving. The point is that the only way that makes sense for people God has forgiven to live, is to forgive one another. The point is that when we choose not to forgive, we’re burning the very bridge we all must cross. The point of the story is that, in the end, we get what we choose.
Jesus said, Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy (Matt. 5.7). But it cuts the other way, too. In James’ letter, he says: There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy (James 2.13). Like I said, we get what we choose.
Mercy and forgiveness don’t mean overlooking the harm that others do to us, those we love, and God’s good creation. The way of mercy and forgiveness isn’t a way of conflict avoidance. Sin and its consequences must be named and acknowledged. But how we deal with sin, and offenders, is crucial. The story Jesus tells warns us that if we don’t understand ourselves first as sinners who need to be, and have been, forgiven by God, we will not deal with sin as God would have us. Our judgments will be as cruel and arbitrary as the man who wouldn’t forgive his fellow servant. But God has given us another way. In one of his letters, Paul names the way God has given us: Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ (Eph. 4.32). God’s way of forgiveness is found in the cross and resurrection of Christ. Through the death and resurrection of his Son, God has shown us our sin. We have been judged. And God has vindicated the victim of our sin, his Son, through resurrection. But God refused to let that be the end of the story. Though the cross judges us, it does not destroy us. Rather, God reaches out through the death and resurrection of Jesus to redeem, restore, and transform us.
Bread and forgiveness
Bread and forgiveness are joined together in the Lord’s Prayer. When we take praying lessons from Jesus, we come to know ourselves as people who are fed by our Father God, and forgiven by our Father God.
Bread and forgiveness were also woven together in Jesus’ ministry. Look through the four Gospels, and time and time again, you’ll find Jesus at a dinner table. More often than not, he’s sharing bread with a ragtag band of disciples, tax collectors, sinners of various stripes, and even the occasional Pharisee. In fact, Jesus told one of his most famous parables from the dinner table. If you look closely at Luke 15, you’ll find some Pharisees and other white-picket-fence church folk just scandalized that Jesus is sharing a meal with tax collectors and sinners. So Jesus tells them a story about a young man who left home, wasted his birthright, and found himself starving to death and feeding pigs for some foreigner. That young man stands for the tax collectors Jesus was sharing bread with. The boy returns home in shame, but his father runs to meet him and assures not only his wayward son, but the whole village, that this boy is fully forgiven. He does this by throwing a fabulous dinner party, and inviting all the neighbors. Jesus wanted the scandalized church folk to see that this was what he was doing when he shared a meal with the ones they thought weren’t worth saving. He was living out the Father’s forgiveness by sharing a meal with these forgiven children. This was how God’s Messiah expressed forgiveness—by inviting people who need to be forgiven to eat with him. So bread and forgiveness were also joined in Jesus’ ministry. Just as they are in the prayer he taught us.
So it should not surprise us that bread and forgiveness are also joined together in the life of the church. Jesus taught us to pray for our bread; and to pray that we will be forgiving as well as forgiven people. But he also gave us a meal—one we share every week—that binds the story of our forgiveness to the bread we eat. And of course, that’s the Lord’s Supper. On the night before he died, Jesus gave us a simple meal of bread and wine. The bread and wine tell the story of how Father God has forgiven us all, through the torn flesh and spilt blood of Jesus on the cross. We believe that Jesus meets us in this meal, at this table. That the one who gives us the bread is the one whose hands were pierced for our forgiveness. We are reminded each week through the sharing of bread that we are forgiven. Just like the prayer Jesus gave us, the meal he gave us teaches us that we are fed by Father God, and forgiven by Father God. Our Father’s forgiveness of us is as real as the bread we eat. And also as necessary for our lives. So as children of our heavenly Father, may we also feed and forgive others whenever they need it.