September 4, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
As I write this, I am breathing in the delightful scent of bread baking in the oven, a smell that returns me to my childhood. Every Saturday morning my mother would bake enough bread to feed our family of seven throughout the coming week. She would mix up a huge bucket of dough, let it rise, kneed it and pound it on the kitchen table, shape it into half a dozen loaves, and finally bake them filling the house with a delicious aroma. The bread wasn’t fancy — it was ordinary white sandwich bread — but it was our sustenance. We treated store brought bread with disdain, calling it “plastic bread”, and putting it in the same category as store brand cola or powdered milk, something you might eat it in an emergency but never to be confused with the real thing.
My mother baked bread because it helped provide real food to a large family on a tight budget. I bake bread because I love the feel of the dough in my hands; I love shaping it into baguettes, couronnes, or slipper shaped ciabatta; I love the perfect crackling crust; I love the taste of focaccia dipped in rosemary sprinkled olive oil, or a slice of peasant bread fresh from the oven, butter melting into its warm freshly baked interior. Even those of you who may not enjoy the same love affair as I do with bread still probably appreciate the aroma of baking bread because that scent has wafted through homes for thousands of years. In 2010, scientists discovered traces of starch in prehistoric tools shaped like mortar and pestles suggesting that even hunter gatherers sometimes ground out cattails and ferns to create a flour like substance which they baked over coals. 1 Egyptians started adding yeast to the process as early as 4000 BC. 2 Whether made from wheat, barley, rye, corn, or even potatoes, whether baked in an oven, over coals, or fried in a pan, whether served at a table with wine and prayers, or eaten on the run escaping from the chariots of an angry Pharaoh, bread has been a staple of human life since the dawn of history.
Does all of this talk about bread make you hungry? If it does — if it sets your stomach rumbling and you are suddenly aware of the emptiness gnawing inside of you, then you have begun to enter into the place from which Jesus said our prayers should arise. When the disciples asked Jesus for appropriate words to say in prayer, he said, “Don’t pile up self-satisfied words trumpeting your goodness and worth to God but instead, begin with your hunger. Confess the hollow places of your life and pray that God may fill you where you are empty.”
What do you hunger for? What is it that you most need to simply get through the day before you?
Pray like this, Jesus said, “Give us each day our daily bread.”
The great preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “If you want to give a hungry man a [religious] tract then wrap it up in a sandwich.” Jesus instructs us to begin our prayer acknowledging that we cannot contemplate higher spiritual truths if the most basic necessities of life have not been met. We are physical beings who are sometimes trapped by the limitations of these bodies — by our need for food, shelter, and relief from disease or pain. We shouldn’t be ashamed, he says, to admit to God that there are times when our bodies hurt too much to think about anything else, or when our fears over whether we will be able to feed our family overwhelm all other considerations. Jesus tells us that God will hear our cries of distress, and answer them by helping us to focus on the day at hand, giving us the strength we need to live our lives one day at a time.
And so we pray, “God, get us through this day. Give us what we need to get through this day because so many of us here don’t know that if we can make it through on our own.”
And notice the plural in that prayer: the Lord’s Prayer is a communal prayer that describes the needs not just of the individual who prays but of the community gathered before God. Bill Moyers said, “When I was growing up, I never heard anyone pray, “Give me this day my daily bread.” It was always, “Give us this day our daily bread.” That stuck. We’re all in this together.”
“How shall we pray?” the disciples asked. Jesus replied, “Begin with God and remind yourself that God, the holy God who is bringing us into God’s Kingdom, and then ask that loving God to relieve our hunger and bring us strength for this day.
And so today we pray for the people of Louisiana that they may find shelter, that our nation may come together in our efforts to re-house the homeless and help people rebuild their lives following the terrible flooding there.
We pray for those who have lost homes and loved ones in earthquakes and storms around the world that their grief may be tempered by the caring of neighbors and strangers in their need.
We pray for the victims of war, and terrorist bombings. We pray for refugees and the people of Syria that they may have the strength to cope with today’s grief and know that they have not been forgotten.
We pray for those in our congregation who cope with the pain of chronic illness, cancer, grief, weak hearts, bad backs, bum knees and hips, mental decline, for those who struggle from the debilitating sorrow of depression or fight to stay sober. We pray that they may receive good care from compassionate health care workers, and loving attention and encouragement from friends and church members so that they may find this day bearable, perhaps even beautiful.
We pray that all of us here may find in God’s presence and in the help of one another, the strength to face each day, one day at a time.
Give us each day our daily bread.
To hunger for bread is to hunger for that which sustains us but for human beings, bread is symbolic of not only our physical selves but also of the need we have to be in relationship with one another. We gather at tables for our meals, and all of our holidays center around food — the turkey at Thanksgiving and the plum pudding at Christmas — because we don’t just eat to nourish our bodies; we eat to nourish our relationships with one another.
Think about how human this is. I have two dogs and as much as Cody and Zack enjoy one another’s company, the last thing they want to do is eat together. Instead, I have to place their bowls of food at separate ends of the kitchen and their meal time is punctuated with warning growls as they keep a watchful eye on one another lest one stray too close to the other’s food. We humans, however, like to eat together. The social aspect of eating is so written into our DNA that some studies have linked eating disorders to loneliness because when people are lonely, they either lose interest in eating, or they go in the opposite direction and eat too much confusing their need for company with a physical need for food.
In the words of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus moves us from our need for physical sustenance to our hunger for whole and life-giving relationships. We want to love and be loved. We want to know that there are people out there who care about what happens to us, who are interested in the trivia of our lives, and who will stand by us when times are tough. And we need to know that we matter to others as well, that we have something to give to others that is valued and cherished. You might be an introvert who needs only a few close friends or you might be an extrovert who never met a person you couldn’t spend a whole day with but all of us require the company of other human beings to make life complete. We hunger for relationships.
Nevertheless, we have a way of managing to mess up these most vital relationships. Our personalities clash, our opinions irritate one another, and we don’t always know how best to navigate the daily conflicts we encounter. Someone once said, “Everyone is lovable but not everyone is bearable,” and sometimes the unbearable one is us. Every day, then we need to remind ourselves to be gracious and patient with others and to admit as well that we are in need of the same grace from them.
And so we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Drench us in mercy, most gracious God, for no matter how many times we have tried to hold our tongue, we still have said things that have caused others pain. Or we have chosen to remain silent when someone so need to hear a word of gratitude from us, a kind word of attention, or the words, “I love you.”
Forgive us, God, for being quick to criticize the weaknesses of others and slow to admit our own failings. Forgive us our jealousies and our pettiness and our stubbornness and our apathy and all of the tiny ways in which we have managed to fracture the bonds with the people that we care about.
And God, we pray also that we may have the humility to forgive the slights of others and not tally the wrongs done to us. If our wounds are deep and the relationships have become life- draining instead of life-giving, may we have the strength to separate from those people, move on with our lives, and let go of our need to hurt them back. Restore us to wholeness by grounding each day in forgiveness.
Forgive us our debts, Lord, as we forgive our debtors.
We hunger for the assurance that our physical needs will be met, and we hunger for the healing of our relationships, and finally, Jesus says, each of us hungers for God. We want to believe that we are worthy of God’s trust and that we will not disappoint the one who has loved us with such a deep and steadfast love, and yet we are afraid that we are not deserving of such love. Jesus tells us to pray, “God, lead us not into temptation. Lead us not to the time of testing.” This is a pleading prayer, a meek admission of our weakness before God. “Don’t lead us, loving God, into any place where there are temptations we cannot manage, or tests that are beyond our capacity to pass. We don’t want to disappoint you because we so need your love.”
Why would Jesus tell us to end our prayer with such meek words? Maybe because the disciples to whom he gave this prayer were anything but meek. The disciples were strutting down the road to Jerusalem certain that they could take on the powers of Rome itself, but in the end, they fell away. Their cowardice overcome their hearts and they deserted Christ in the moment of his greatest need.
Maybe if they had prayed, “God, I’m afraid I will disappoint you; please don’t ask anything too tough of me,” they would have heard God’s voice respond, “I will be with you. I will give you strength for the day.”
Frederick Buechner said, “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God …. is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”
And so we come to the Table to pray to gather as a people to satisfy the hunger of our bodies and the hunger of our hearts.
I invite you to come forward to partake of the bread and the cup. Come, and eat, and be satisfied.