Matthew 6:7-13; Philippians 4:10-14
April 25, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Spring is finally arriving here in western NY and the birds are returning to my property. Although I put out seed all winter, I’ve had to increase my offerings in order to accommodate the additional traffic. Over the winter, I hosted chickadees, nuthatches, and red polls, but the red polls have flown north and purple finches, gold finches, juncos, and mourning doves have taken their place. The finches and juncos were actually here all winter but they only visited my feeder periodically. Now, however, they are practically living at it as they try to fuel their bodies to prepare for the rigors of child rearing. This time of year is actually one of the most difficult for animals because the dried berries and seeds that sustained them throughout the winter months are mostly depleted while the warming earth hasn’t yet produced enough new growth for them to eat. In earlier times, when people lived closer to the land, human beings faced the same problem and this time of year — after the winter stores were running low but the new crops hadn’t yet come to fruit — was traditionally known as “the hunger gap.” During the hunger gap, families would supplement their meager supplies by foraging for early spring wild plants and so they added the leaves of young nettles to their soup and watched the woods for wild leeks. They would gather dandelion greens for salads, grind up the dandelion roots for coffee, or pop the flower heads into vats to ferment for a horrible tasting “dandelion wine.” I speak from experience: my father loved to experiment with wild edible foods and he put all of his children to work in the spring collecting dandelion heads for the wine he brewed in our basement. This is one family tradition I am frankly happy to forego.
In fact, after a childhood of sampling milkweed, burdock, lamb’s quarters, chickory, arrowroot, wood sorrel, clover, and cattails, I developed a great love for cultivated vegetables that you can buy in the grocery store. Knowing how to forage for edible plants is undeniably fun; I don’t begrudge those years of taste testing with my Dad at all. It gave me an appreciation for the earth around us, but it also left me acutely aware of how rigorous life was for humanity before the development of agriculture. Feeding yourself back then was a full time job, and a late spring could mean starvation. How comforting it is to be able to walk into Wegmans, no matter the time of year, and choose from an abundance of crops. While some of us might like the occasional challenge of trying to survive in the woods with only a jackknife and our wits, few of us would actually want to make a lifestyle out of it because, as much fun as we might find it for a short time, we also like to have time for things other than physical survival, like playing baseball, or reading a good book. The development of agriculture allowed human beings the luxury of engaging in activities that feed our minds and our spirits as well as our bodies, and it is those activities that separate us from most of the animal world. Even if chickadees had brains big enough to read a book, they wouldn’t have time for reading because survival requires all of their attention. A chickadee eats a third of its weight every day and has to eat about every half hour just to keep its body warm and functioning, so without a Wegmans to supply its needs, a chickadee’s whole day is filled with the search for food.
For chickadees and for most creatures on earth, the purpose of life is simply to survive long enough to pass on your genes to the next generation who will also spend their days surviving. And for some human beings trapped in poverty or fleeing from the devastation of war their lives too are reduced to the fundamental level of trying to physically survive another day. It is only those of us fortunate enough to have our physical daily needs met with dependable certainty who have enough time and resources to spend on mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. And therefore, every moment you spend not hunting for food is a gift; every dollar you spend on something beyond securing your survival for the next day is a blessing.
How are you using that gift? Are you squandering your time and money on things that don’t last, on meaningless pursuits or empty possessions, or do your choices augment your life and the lives of others? Are you using this blessing to create a life of blessing in the world?
In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray and in verse 11, he says, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The word “daily” can also be translated as “sufficient” — “Give us this day bread that is sufficient for our needs.” When the disciples heard these words, they would have immediately remembered the story that formed the central narrative of their identity as Jewish people, the story of the Exodus when God freed the people from slavery and led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. During those hard days in the wilderness, God provided the Israelites with manna to meet their daily needs. Every morning, the people would gather the white substance from the ground and bake it into bread for the day’s meals, but if they attempted to gather more than they needed for the day and hoard it overnight, the manna would spoil and maggots would fill the storage jar. The wilderness was a hard place to survive and God wanted to ease the Israelites’ fears about their daily physical needs in order to give them the mental space that they would need to concentrate on the spiritual work they had to do there in the wilderness. In the wilderness, God was transforming a motley group of slaves into an independent nation who would see themselves as the people of God. This was a tremendous shift in identity and it was not easily accomplished. It takes a lot of mental and spiritual energy for human beings to learn to think differently about their world, to learn to see ourselves in new ways; It takes a lot of mental and spiritual energy to become different people. God knew that the Israelites couldn’t make the changes that they needed to make to their lives if they were constantly using all of that energy just to survive and so God provided sufficient food for their daily needs in order to free them to do the spiritual work of becoming the people of God.
The disciples heard in Jesus’ words that identity changing story of the wilderness.
“Give us this day bread sufficient to meet the day’s needs;” Jesus told them to pray, “enough bread that we can put aside our worry about physical survival and focus on our spiritual selves; enough bread that we have the time and energy to do the work of becoming the people God intends for us to be and to create a better world for others as well.” Those seven words of the Lord’s Prayer that trip off our tongue so easily every Sunday – “Give us this day our daily bread” – are there to free us us to consider the nature of our lives. When our physical needs for survival have been met, when we have received our daily bread, what do we do with the blessing of the time and resources that we have left over? Are we using them to become the people God wants us to be?
Over this past year, the pandemic has stripped away many of our routines and the activities that we used to use to fill our excess time and because of it, we have been forced into a greater awareness of which things were truly essential to our spiritual well-being and which were unimportant. Many of us missed the rhythms of the liturgical season and predictable family gatherings. Though we made do with virtual candlelight at the Christmas Eve service and Zoom calls with family, the rhythms of the year felt muted and many of us became acutely aware of the meaning those rhythms give to our lives. Some people went on shopping sprees during the pandemic trying to ease the boredom with toys only to discover with acute sadness that possessions are a poor substitute for people. Some of us found that the pandemic taught us how much we enjoyed spending less time at the office and more time with family while others came to realize that they had been using work to escape problems in their relationships with their spouses and children; problems they were now forced to face in the cloistered space of confinement. The pandemic taught us the blessings of attentiveness to small wonders around us — the blossoming of an orchid on the window sill, the antics of a cat, a beautifully baked loaf of bread, the sun turning new snow into a field of diamonds — things we had not taken enough time to look at before. And we all learned the blessing of seeing a smile on a person’s face, or the warmth of a hand held out in welcome.
The pandemic forced us to consider what Jesus tells us we should be considering every time we pray: When our daily needs are met — when we have received bread sufficient to the day’s needs — what do we do with the blessing of the time and resources we have left to spend? Are we using them to strengthen our spiritual selves or are we just cluttering our souls with time-wasters? And by time wasters, I don’t just mean playing Candy Crush on your phone; I mean the hurts that you collect and the vengeances you nurse, the envies, the empty pursuits, the needless indulgences – all of the stuff that you believe will make you happy but are in the end only carrying you farther away from the whole person God intends for you to be.
A writer, contemplating the nature of his life, told of a lecture he remembered from a philosophy class he had taken years before in college; a lecture, he said, that continued to inform his choices to this day.
“I remember that my professor stood before the class that day with some items on a table in front of him. When we had all assembled, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and filled it to the top with golf balls. He then asked us, ‘Is the jar full?’
“We all said, ‘Yes, it is.’
“Our professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly and the pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He asked us again if the jar was full. We agreed it was, though you could begin to see the questions in some of our eyes. Next, he picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. The sand poured between the crevices of the pebbles and he asked once more, “Is the jar full?”
“We responded with a unanimous ‘yes,’ smiles breaking out on our faces. Finally, he brought out two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the coffee into the jar, effectively filling even the empty space between the sand. He didn’t need to ask us his question; we simply laughed knowing the answer.
“‘Now,’ said our professor, as our laughter subsided, ‘I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things – family, faith, friends, your passions – the things that fill your soul, things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life still would be full. The pebbles are the things that make life a little easier like your job, house, and car. The sand is everything else – the small stuff.
“‘I want you to remember,’ he told us becoming serious, ‘the order in which I filled the jar. If I had put the sand into the jar first, there would have been no room for the pebbles or the golf balls because the sand would have filled up every bit of space. The same goes for life: if you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important. Take care of the golf balls first. Take care of the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.’
“I asked my professor, ‘But what does the coffee represent?’
“Our professor smiled and said, ‘It’s there to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend.’”