Bread

The breaking of the bread

A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

I wrote this sermon three years ago, for a church in Westchester County, New York.

And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

This is a gently amusing story. We have all been told at the outset that it’s Jesus himself who has fallen in step with these two disciples. They are the only ones that don’t know what is going on. He says, “What are you talking about?” And they stop.

Cleopas says to him “Are you the ONLY ONE who doesn’t know the things that has happened?” If this were a play, I would expect Jesus to take a quick look at the audience, maybe even wink, before turning to Cleopas, “What things? Tell me how you would describe it.” So Cleopas and his companion tell Jesus the story that we have all gone through in the last month, in order that he can understand why they are so depressed, confused, and discouraged. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” So Cleopas is telling Jesus that he’s clearly not the one that is to redeem Israel.

Like many of us, Cleopas knows what he knows, and the things that he expected and wanted didn’t go the way that he wanted and hoped for them to go, so he knows it’s all for naught. So Jesus starts walking with them again—and talking—this one who is to redeem Israel, why is it that he should not suffer? What is the real life of Moses and the prophets, if not filled with both suffering and the Glory of God?

Cleopas and his companion are very real, very understandable—and a lot like most of us. And like most of us, they found it easiest to focus on their own expectations, what they thought should happen, how the good things that they like should continue always in a straight line, always getting better. It’s easy to focus on ourselves, our own problems, and our own solutions. Another way of saying that is that it’s easy to not listen to the Gospel. God has something new and different for us, and we find it in this real world, often not in the ways that we predict, and almost always not by looking for what we ourselves want.

I always wanted to get a doctorate and be a famous professor. At the time I went through seminary, it was fashionable for bishops to require that anyone who was going to be ordained, be first interested in full-time parish ministry, not in primarily an academic calling. So I told him that’s what I wanted to do. I finished seminary and found positions in parishes in the Midwest—with the expectation that I would return to graduate school and become a professor with valuable parish ministry experience informing my scholarship and teaching. The thing is, nothing came out as I expected. I won’t go into the details and personal drama, but the timelines that I had sketched out didn’t work out, the prospects for funding and careers for graduate students in the humanities were quickly drying up, and I realized that the jobs that I envisioned were only going to the superstars and the extremely fortunate, not to those who were just good enough. There weren’t huge scholarships coming my way, or high-powered recruiting.

With three small children, I had to give up that scenario that I had created in my mind. As that was happening, I had the opportunity to watch the work of academic reference librarians and I realized that the work that they did was far closer to my own strengths and the things that I enjoyed than the dissertation writing and classroom teaching of professors. At the time, that meant giving up many things in the story I was telling myself, especially the status that I projected for myself. It also meant giving up employment by the church—it was almost 20 years before I joined the faculty of the General Theological Seminary as the Director of the Library and I never earned that doctorate. There was difficulty in giving up that story I wanted for myself, but I have never regretted it—the enjoyment of doing those things that I was meant to do far outweighs the pursuit of fame and honor.

Of course, after I wrote this sermon, more things happened. My colleagues and I left the institution where I was librarian and I found that I was called to preach the Gospel and minister in parishes from a new perspective, one that is fulfilling to me in ways I had never expected. While I regret the pain that some have suffered, I have no regrets about any of the turnings of my life.

My story isn’t that unusual; almost everyone has their own version of it—either career related or something personal—we have all experienced grappling with disappointments and setbacks and eventually giving up on something we thought was all-important, only to discover something even more meaningful.

God has something new for us, and I certainly never predicted that it would be my being a librarian. These guys out on the road, they thought they knew how Israel was to be delivered, and this Jesus guy seemed like he might have the stuff to be the right kind of leader. Maybe, finally, there would be one person who would wield power justly—but Jesus didn’t wield power at all.

It was not an instantaneous thing for the followers of Jesus to realize that his crucifixion was the source of their hope, not their utter defeat. You can see the church struggling to come to terms with this, not just in this story, but in the whole of the New Testament. Giving up this story about ourselves and how great and powerful we are, and accepting this even more exciting story about how God brings life to the humble, and defeats death with love.

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…

Let us share bread, and perhaps our eyes, too, will be opened.

Teach us to pray

A sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

Today’s gospel lesson features the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer has been the characteristic prayer of Christians since the very beginning. Early Christian writings say that every Christian should say it three times a day—before Morning Prayer and Evensong were invented, the Lord’s prayer was the daily Christian liturgy. The Lord’s Prayer exists in a few slightly varying forms in ancient documents, and the form we have today in the Gospel of Luke is the simplest and shortest. This can help us to understand the longer version of the prayer that we sing every Sunday and which we hold in our memory.

The spirituality of Jesus and the followers of Jesus are quickly outlined: Simple reverence for God—Father, hallowed be your name; Your kingdom come—the Kingdom of God among us, life in the Commonwealth of God is the most distinctive part of the teaching of Jesus. I’m often puzzled when people suggest using this prayer as non-sectarian and appropriate for groups that are largely non-Christian. There is nothing more Christian than to pray for the Kingdom of God to come.

The Kingdom of God is very different from the Kingdom of this world. It is not about power; it is not about intimidation or fear. It is not about one group gathering all the power and wealth it can to itself at the expense of others. You see the Kingdom in Jesus healing the sick from disease and from being oppressed by those demons that distort the lives of individuals and society. You see the Kingdom in Jesus, the servant of all, who encourages everyone to be neighbors to one another.  You see the Kingdom in him as he faced those powers of the world and was killed by them and yet was raised by God from the dead.  In saying, “Your kingdom come,” we pray for the resurrection of the dead in Jesus Christ.

And it is in that vision of that Kingdom of God that we pray the next sentence: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Bread Nourished. Each day.  In God’s commonwealth there is enough. Enough to share, but not enough to grab and keep for ourselves. Life with Jesus is simple, it is an ordinary experience of peace. In his prayer, what we request is the basics of real life, not the fantasies of what we might want, or the violence of what we might take.

The way that the next petition is phrased is somewhat ironic—it points up something we want to ignore: Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  This is a dangerous prayer—by entering into it, you end up giving up all claims you have to what others owe you. Of course, God’s forgiveness of our sins is much larger than that, but still, it’s a pretty audacious prayer.  It’s costly to be Jesus’ disciple. The bounty of God’s overwhelming love, forgiveness and free grace flows to us all, in pure generosity. In the Kingdom of Christ, we live from God’s generosity and we live in God’s generosity, and it only costs us …. Everything. It costs us our fears and our selfishness. It costs us our self-righteousness and judgement. It costs us our smugness and our complacency.

And that’s why the prayer ends— “Save us from the time of trial.” The trial is the temptation to turn our backs on the Kingdom of Peace and accept the world of violence, fear and anger, as we see just about every time we turn to the national news recently. The time of trial when the only way forward for everyone seems to be to hold on to the despair of anger and to give up on the hope of forgiveness. Save us from the time of trial when the way to Jesus’ resurrection seems totally blocked by that stone sealing the tomb, and those soldiers blocking the way.

The Gospel lesson continues, and Jesus continues to teach about prayer. Usually the experts observe that these stories are about persistence in prayer. That’s true. But I think Jesus is also playing with us a bit. He taught his disciples and us this simple prayer of the Kingdom. But how often do we get bogged down in being all religious about that? “Oh yes. We must be grateful and generous and forgiving.” “Oh yes, we are the faithful disciples.” “Oh yes, we never give in to the temptation to be fearful.” So Jesus tells a story about his followers and their friends and neighbors who are probably also Jesus’ followers. One goes to the other and asks for a cup of sugar or something, because guests were coming. And Jesus tells it like it actually happens (or the way that people sometimes feel)—that friend says, “No, go away! You’re always bothering me and I don’t feel like helping you out!” In this real world, people don’t always cooperate, not everything goes smoothly and not everyone is nice. Jesus is teasing us. It is not because you are perfect, or because you feel good that you are part of the Kingdom of God, it is because you are God’s child. And look! What’s in my hand? Is it an egg for you to eat? Or is it a scorpion to sting and hurt you? It’s possible to think of people who might play that trick, but not a loving parent, not the God and Father of Jesus Christ, not in the Kingdom of God, the Commonwealth of Peace. Jesus’ stories tease us out of that fearfulness and anger that are that trial that can tempt us. He forgives us and directs us to our daily bread.

The ancient Didache, or Teaching, of the Twelve Apostles, instructs us to pray this prayer three times a day. Before we come forward and share in the heavenly bread of the Eucharist (our Great Thanksgiving), Let’s pray in the words that our Lord taught us:

 

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.

Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Go now to Zarephath

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”

Where was Elijah when God told him to go to Zarephath?  I looked it up.  Elijah was out in the desert east of the Jordan River. Zarephath was a long way west of there on the Mediterranean coast. Elijah was hiding in a wadi. That is a kind of a creek bed that you get in the desert, which usually has dug down into the ground in sort of a canyon or ravine. A lot of times the creek is dried up, sometimes water is only in the wadi when a rainstorm causes a flash flood. Other times there is a creek at the bottom that flows, but might dry up in a drought.  Desert dwellers know that water gathers in these wadis, and even when there is no flowing water, sometimes you can dig down and discover some water in the moist underground soil. Elijah had predicted a three year drought when he confronted King Ahab, and he had been on the run from him ever since.  The thing is, the drought was real, so real that the wadi that gave him shelter and water dried up completely. So, though he had been guided to that wadi by God, Elijah had to listen to a new word from God, adapt, and move to the new place, even though it was outside the Kingdom of Israel, among the pagans, the worshippers of Baal.

When he arrives at that village, there is that widow, gathering a little fuel for a meager cooking fire.  “Bring me water, and while you’re up, a little cake of bread too.” The woman didn’t question the appropriateness of his demands. Giving water to a traveller was basic hospitality, something that anyone in the region would do. But when he asked for bread, her response was to explain that she had nothing. Or rather, how she had nothing to give him. It is very important to listen to this conversation: “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal and a little oil in a jug. I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

“Eat it, and die. “ This woman had been driven to the point that every alternative for her, even nourishing food, led toward death. She could not see any way to life.  Elijah said to her, “Do not fear.” Remember, Elijah came to this village because he was out of water and food. The Lord sent him to another place, but that place had run out, even of water. Elijah, and the Lord take privation seriously. But our God and Elijah’s God is the God of life. When we eat, we eat for the sake of life, not for the sake of death.

Now, we should respect this woman. She had suffered much and she had lost much. We can’t say she should have known what to do. But the worst thing that she had lost, living there in Zarephath, a town right in the middle of the land of Baal, the rain god, living there in the midst of a long drought, the thing that she had lost was the path to life. Even the meal that was supposed to nourish her had become a way station on the way to death. But the man of God, who knew about privation, and who knew that you need food and water to live, also knew the word of life for her. “Do not be afraid. Do as you have said, but first…”  But first, extend hospitality; welcome your guest; give away your fear and accept life.

The miracle is not just some random magic act. The flour and the oil lasted as a token of God’s presence, of the gift of life in the real world. The widow had been wrapped in fear, and it’s not that there was nothing to fear but the God of life was with her and brought her through. It was not then easy street, she was still impoverished, she still had barely enough to get by, but she got by, because the God of life was with her and gave her hope.

It is the same with that other widow this morning. Jesus didn’t do anything but watch her and explain. Most people, when they experience a lack of something they need, get worried, and then they decide to hold on—“I’ve got to take care of myself first, and not do anything for others until I’m taken care of.” How many times have you heard that said, or thought it yourself? That’s fear, and it cuts off our connections with others, and it lessens our life, our vitality. The widow put her two cents into the treasury. Jesus didn’t feel sorry for her. He said she gave all she had, all she had to live. And in giving that she gave away her fear, and gained life. So what do we do with this?  We could all double our tithes; that would help the church. You can check with our warden, I’m sure you can still update your pledge. But I think more to the point is to give away our fear and rejoice in the life that God has given us.

Jesus starts the Gospel reading by warning about those ecclesiastical types who look for honor and attention, with their long robes who say long prayers. Seeking comfort for themselves they devour widows’ houses. Jesus is saying, don’t follow that way of self-concern, it is wrapped in death. The real abundance is in the life of that nameless widow who gave away her fear and received the Kingdom of God in return.

Elijah stayed with that widow in Zarephath. They ate together, they were with one another when her son became sick and died, and the prophet prayed with all of his being to God, and the child was restored to life. They had enough, barely enough, throughout that drought, and then God called Elijah to return to Israel. To preach the truth, and God brought rain and restored life to the earth.

Let us pray:

O god, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life; Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he his pure; that , when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you

A sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 9, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.

I love Elijah, the prophet. We don’t have his writings, but there is a whole cycle of stories about him in the First Book of Kings.  Some of the most memorable miracles in the Old Testament involve Elijah.  The story in today’s lesson is when Elijah is on the run after one of the most memorable miracles.

Elijah was the only prophet of Yahweh, the Lord God, left. And the Kingdom of Israel was turning to Ba’al, so Elijah throws down against the 500 prophets of Ba’al and challenges them to a burnt offering contest to see whose God was real. The catch was that it was a burnt offering contest but nobody could light a fire. Elijah was quite a showman—he had water poured all over his sacrifice. And while the prophets of Ba’al went on for hours, doing all sorts of extreme things, Elijah calmly made a prayer over his soaking wet sacrifice.  Of course fire came down from heaven and consumed Elijah’s sacrifice and the prophets of Ba’al were all put to death.

The thing is, triumph doesn’t stay triumphant. Queen Jezebel was quite a devotee of Ba’al and she was not pleased. So we pick up the story and Elijah is on the run. Out in the desert, and he comes to a solitary tree and sits down: “It’s enough. I have had enough of this. Let me die, take away my life, I’m no better than my ancestors.” He gave up, he was in despair and he lay down under that tree, thinking, or hoping that he would die.

Sometimes what happens in life can be overwhelming.  The prophet Elijah was speaking on behalf of God, but he also was the kind of person who would be not too retiring, stand up to authority and get into trouble for it. It’s not like he had no responsibility in the whole thing.  But still he was exhausted, physically, mentally and emotionally. He could see no good way forward.  He had no idea of where to go or what to do. He wanted out.  In his prayer, that’s what Elijah told the Lord.

tortillasBut lying there under the tree, a messenger from God woke him up. There was a cake of bread and a jug of water by Elijah’s head. Baked on a hot flat stone, the bread was nothing fancy—more of a camp bread, improvised in the wilderness—but nourishing. So Elijah got up and ate, and drank the water, and then … collapsed again and went back to sleep. Then the messenger came again and woke him up again. “Eat, or the journey will be too much for you.”ironage_pitcher

Sometimes the stresses of the world are too much.  Too much for the great prophet Elijah, too much for any of us.  And sometimes we feel we can’t face things, we collapse and fall down.  And sometimes … we try to get up and it doesn’t work the first time … or even the second time.

But the messenger of the Lord says, “Eat and drink.” “Drink the cool, clean water that refreshes you, rehydrates you. Eat the nourishing bread, even if it is plain, whatever you have out there in the wilderness.  People need rest, refreshment and nourishment. We should not pretend that we can tough it out and get by without them. Yet, when we look at Elijah, after those two days rest and two nourishing loaves and two jugs of water he did more than anyone could imagine—he crossed the wilderness for forty days until he reached Mount Horeb for his encounter with God.

God provided enough bread for Elijah’s journey, but it wasn’t some sort of “Poof! Everything is now fixed and easy!” kind of magic. The miraculous bread put Elijah in the midst of the real world, fully alive, yet with none of the difficulties gone.

When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” this is exactly what he means. Whoever believes in him has eternal life, not unending “Poof!” magic, not a life free of difficulty or discouragement, but a life of hope that brings us through and beyond despair.

“This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus, fed by the food from his Father and the living water of the Spirit, indeed had the courage to make his journey to Jerusalem for us, to sacrifice his life for the life of this world. In him, God brings us bread for our journey just as he did for Elijah.

Let us pray.

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

 

 

What sign are you going to give us then?

A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 2, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

What sign are you going to give us then?

The Gospel story from last week continues. It looks like some of the same people who wanted to make Jesus a king chased him across the lake. It’s this odd thing, they know he’s special and they want a piece of him. He can do something for them, and they want it.  And Jesus is having none of it. They want to talk scripture with him, but they want to argue for their own ends. They have an idea of Moses and of miracles, and they want that from Jesus.  They say, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness …”  Basically, Jesus’ response is, “Wait a minute. You’re making both me and Moses into magic bread vending machines … you just want the bread, and you are ignoring the whole point: God is the source of life, not just getting that bread.”

In our Epistle lesson from Ephesians today, it says: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”  We see that in these people in the Gospel lesson who are arguing with Jesus.  The problem is not so much about false assertions, or big heresies. What is going on is that they are defending their prerogatives and asserting their selfish rights. “Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, what work are you performing for us?” These people contesting with Jesus were Jewish, but in Ephesians Paul is talking about gentiles, who are also more preoccupied with manipulating the good news (“craftiness and deceitful scheming”) than with listening to Jesus.  So there is equal opportunity selfishness being displayed throughout the Bible. It is people who are stuck on their selfish schemes and their narrow view of their own importance—like children. But what is expected in children, is no longer acceptable once we are ready to take up our adult place in a Christian community.

Which is why Paul exhorts the church: “Being truthful in love we must grow up.” Grow up into Christ who is the head of the body, the Bread of Life. The version of the Bible we are reading translates that phrase differently—it reads “speaking the truth in love.” That’s not inaccurate, but the word “speak” isn’t in the Greek original. What the word in Greek means, literally, is “doing truth.” Which means the emphasis is not on the talking part. The emphasis is on being truth and honesty in love as being the way to grow into Christ.

That honesty in love is a good definition of Christian humility, and that is what this entire Epistle lesson is about. It starts, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility…” Humility, especially Christian humility, is not about thinking of yourself as unworthy or not good enough—it’s not about that at all. It is about that honesty in love.

Here’s the problem with being honestly who we are, however. Sometimes, our personality traits can have their positive sides and their negative. Another way of saying this is that our virtues are often closely linked with our besetting sins. For example, intelligence and arrogance—those often come in pairs, we might notice. Kindness may be linked with fear of confronting others over wrongdoing. Passion and impatience is another duo I have noticed—I’m sure there are many others you can name in yourself and others. So how do we, as Christians, have that honesty in love that lets us balance out our strengths and our weaknesses?

I want to suggest that that line that opens up today’s epistle is the way.  “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility…” Humility is about being honest about both sides, recognizing strengths while acknowledging shortcomings. It takes courage to be humble, and a person who recognizes her strengths also discovers the calling of God to give those as gifts to his service, and the person who honestly sees his shortcomings emerging out of his strengths may well be surprised at them. I would go so far as to say that those who say, “I am not much good, I just have weaknesses and sinfulness” are not humble at all, but avoiding seeing their real shortcomings along with their strength and God’s calling.

Our Epistle lesson today is one of the most extraordinary chapters in the Bible.  “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” The life to which you have been called is to recognize the Bread of Life in Jesus and to follow him.

This chapter outlines the Christian life; it is worth taking the text of this lesson home and meditating on it for a long time. We don’t stop being the difficult people that we are by being baptized or by attending church. We don’t have a magic solution, we have a calling.  It starts by encouraging us all to humility and gentleness, bearing with one another in love. Because Paul knew that we would have a lot to bear.  There is plenty of non-gentleness and non-humility among Christians, and each of us needs to go a little further in patience than we think we should have to, in order to get along.  We don’t get along by being small factions of like-minded people, because, “There is one body and one Spirit”—our calling has one and only one hope, that is: One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  We have one hope, which brings us all together, and that is Jesus, the Bread of Life. We are brought together, not by agreement, but in Jesus, the head of the body.

We are called to live lives worthy of our calling—worthy of our best selves and worthy of Christ. Our Old Testament lesson ends this way:

manna and quails“there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance…When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

We are called to partake of the Bread of Life, humbly, honestly knowing Jesus.

“Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ from whom the whole body, joined and knit together  by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

What are you discussing while you walk?

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter at St. Paul’s Church, Ossining New York

And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
This is a gently amusing story. We have all been told at the outset that it’s Jesus himself who has fallen in step with these two disciples. They are the only ones that don’t know what is going on. He says, “What are you talking about?” And they stop.

Cleopas says to him “Are you the ONLY ONE who doesn’t know the things that has happened?” If this were a play, I would expect Jesus to take a quick look at the audience, maybe even wink, before turning to Cleopas, “What things? Tell me how you would describe it.” So Cleopas and his companion tell Jesus the story that we have all gone through in the last month, in order that he can understand why they are so depressed, confused, and discouraged. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” So Cleopas is telling Jesus that he’s clearly not the one that is to redeem Israel.

Like many of us, Cleopas knows what he knows, and the things that he expected and wanted didn’t go the way that he wanted and hoped for them to go, so he knows it’s all for naught. So Jesus starts walking with them again—and talking—this one who is to redeem Israel, why is it that he should not suffer? What is the real life of Moses and the prophets, if not filled with both suffering and the Glory of God?

Cleopas and his companion are very real, very understandable—and a lot like most of us. And like most of us, they found it easiest to focus on their own expectations, what they thought should happen, how the good things that they like should continue always in a straight line, always getting better. It’s easy to focus on ourselves, our own problems, and our own solutions. Another way of saying that is that it’s easy to not listen to the Gospel. God has something new and different for us, and we find it in this real world, often not in the ways that we predict, and almost always not by looking for what we ourselves want.

I always wanted to get a doctorate and be a famous professor. At the time I went through seminary, it was fashionable for bishops to require that anyone who was going to be ordained, be first interested in full-time parish ministry, not in primarily an academic calling. So I told him that’s what I wanted to do. I finished seminary and found positions in parishes in the Midwest—with the expectation that I would return to graduate school and become a professor with valuable parish ministry experience informing my scholarship and teaching. The thing is, nothing came out as I expected. I won’t go into the details and personal drama, but the timelines that I had sketched out didn’t work out, the prospects for funding and careers for graduate students in the humanities were quickly drying up, and I realized that the jobs that I envisioned were only going to the superstars and the extremely fortunate, not to those who were just good enough. There weren’t huge scholarships coming my way, or high-powered recruiting.

With three small children, I had to give up that scenario that I had created in my mind. As that was happening, I had the opportunity to watch the work of academic reference librarians and I realized that the work that they did was far closer to my own strengths and the things that I enjoyed than the dissertation writing and classroom teaching of professors. At the time, that meant giving up many things in the story I was telling myself, especially the status that I projected for myself. It also meant giving up employment by the church—it was almost 20 years before I joined the faculty of the General Theological Seminary as the Director of the Library and I never earned that doctorate. There was difficulty in giving up that story I wanted for myself, but I have never regretted it—the enjoyment of doing those things that I was meant to do far outweighs the pursuit of fame and honor.

My story isn’t that unusual; almost everyone has their own version of it—either career related or something personal—we have all experienced grappling with disappointments and setbacks and eventually giving up on something we thought was all-important, only to discover something even more meaningful.

God has something new for us, and I certainly never predicted that it would be my being a librarian. These guys out on the road, they thought they knew how Israel was to be delivered, and this Jesus guy seemed like he might have the stuff to be the right kind of leader. Maybe, finally, there would be one person who would wield power justly—but Jesus didn’t wield power at all.

It was not an instantaneous thing for the followers of Jesus to realize that his crucifixion was the source of their hope, not their utter defeat. You can see the church struggling to come to terms with this, not just in this story, but in the whole of the New Testament. Giving up this story about ourselves and how great and powerful we are, and accepting this even more exciting story about how God brings life to the humble, and defeats death with love.
breaking-bread

 

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…

L

Let us share bread, and perhaps our eyes, too, will be opened.

Give us this day our daily bread Sermon at St. Paul’s Church, Ossining 7/28/2013

Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.

Give us this day...

The Lord’s Prayer has been around as long as we have.  Since before the Gospels were written, it has been THE prayer of Christian disciples.  Even among skeptical moderns there are those who assert Jesus taught his disciples this prayer as an emblem of their discipleship.  We still repeat this prayer at virtually every service of worship.

It is the essence of Christian prayer, and as such, almost impossible to approach as a preacher. Thousands of volumes have been written about it, many by people much more learned and wise than me.  But I hesitate even more, because the holiness of the mystery of the Lord’s Prayer repels unworthy additions, ornamentations or deconstructions.   

The prayer is simple and in that simplicity is its profundity.    The prayer as we usually pray it has 9 petitions:   I read the structure as being four parallel pairs—our father; your kingdom; forgive us; lead us not into temptation; and a single petition in the middle: Give us this day our daily bread.   In Luke’s version in today’s Gospel lesson there are five petitions with the same meaning–this petition about bread is in the center of both, but it’s not buried—it sticks out because it breaks the parallelism.

The Lord’s Prayer is filled with terms which are eschatological.  Eschatology is a theological term which refers to “the end.”  It is a whole sub-discipline of systematic theology where things are discussed like heaven and hell, the final judgment and so forth.  When we look at Jesus, the most important image of this sort is the Kingdom of God—the final action of God is brought among us, in this world.  When we look at this prayer of Jesus, there is lots of eschatology there:  kingdom of god, the “trial” or “temptation”—so in this context, how do we understand—Give us today our daily bread?

First, I think we should avoid our churchly inclination to look toward the altar every time bread is mentioned (maybe we should look toward the altar more frequently when wine is the matter of concern).  This central petition of the Lord’s Prayer can’t be understood properly, if we don’t first understand that it is a prayer for actual daily bread.  In the Middle East, bread was the normal way that normal people ate their daily allotment of grain.  And in most parts of the world, for most of history, most of the people make most of their diet from that daily allotment of grain.  And for a huge portion of people, now as well as then, the most important drama in their lives comes from the uncertainty of whether that daily bread will be available.  It may be that there is less starvation in this country today than has been the case in most places historically.  Yet anyplace that I have looked around—in the rural Midwest, in the suburbs, in the city—there are plenty of people whose day to day financial existence is precarious, for whom daily survival is the overwhelming preoccupation.

Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for their daily bread, that in the continuing crisis of human life they would survive to pray for the kingdom.  It is real bread that this prayer is concerned with, and if Christians are not concerned with real bread for the real people who really need it, they have no business approaching this Holy Prayer.  It’s good if some Christians are involved in local and even broader solutions to problems of hunger and poverty, but it is absolutely essential that every aspect of Christian spirituality be involved in the material needs, sufferings and feelings of the people of this world.  Those who are comfortable enough to live the life of the mind are called to humbly listen to those who await their daily bread, with no assurance that it will come.

Through this daily bread, this ordinary bread of ordinary people, the eschatology of the prayer comes into focus:  “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—the kingdom where God’s name is indeed hallowed is where all those who need their daily bread will have it without anxiety or fear that it may not be there for their children.  The Kingdom that is breaking in is radical, because it is comfort for the ordinary workaday people, not for the religious or cultural elite.

“Forgive us our sins as we also have forgiven our debtors”— the Gospel of Luke indeed has debts (not trespasses)In the Jubilee year, which is found in the Book of Leviticus—which may have been honored more in the breach than in the observance , especially by the first century)—all debts were to be forgiven—sort of a universal no-fault bankruptcy.  All those people whose credit cards were maxed out from paying the grocery bill; and the small farmers whose land was in pledge to pay for seed, equipment, and perhaps food, in years of famine, got their land back and were restored to even.  Perhaps this petition refers to a restoration of the Jubilee—perhaps as a component of the eschatological kingdom  … as we forgive our debtors—participation in the Jubilee is not simply getting rewards, but also restoring others to wholeness by giving up our own advantage.

“Save us from the time of trial,” is interpreted many ways, often eschatologically (especially among pre-millennial dispensationalists, who want to talk about the rapture and the tribulation) –and indeed, we may be talking about an overwhelming cataclysm, like persecution, or war, or the end of life.  It might also point to the failure of the daily bread. The trial could be a simple one, however; as simple as the anxiety and suffering of not being able to put food on the table.  People who don’t know where their daily bread is coming from can appreciate how very close and real that trial can be.

We have our daily bread. Now we can turn to the altar and give thanks.