Monday, March 23, 2015

"Pray in This Way" - A Lenten Exploration of the Lord's Prayer

For the season of Lent we will be focusing on the Lord's Prayer.
Give us today our daily bread
In many ways this petition is the heart and center of the Lord’s Prayer.  This petition acts as a kind of railway switch that moves us in a different direction from the “thou” petitions (hallowed be THY name; THY kingdom come; THY will be done…) to the “we” or “us” petitions (give US today our daily bread; forgive US our sins; save US from the time of trial; deliver US from evil).  But while noting this, it is still important for us to recognize that this is only a slight change in focus.  This prayer continues to be a Kingdom prayer that is concerned with both affirming the values of the Kingdom come and recognizing that these Kingdom values have direct consequences for us, how we live our lives and how we relate to others.  As we ask God to help us keep God’s name holy, recognize the Kingdom come into our midst and allow God’s will be done in our lives now and always, we at the same time are also expressing the practical implications of these opening petitions in the prayers for bread, forgiveness, deliverance and protection.  In other words, the Kingdom is about God’s action here in our midst, because God loves people, is committed to the creation and cares passionately for you and me and all of God’s human children.
But exactly how then does this prayer accomplish all of this.  Quite frankly, how we understand this petition centers around how we translate and understand one particular word: the Greek word that stands behind the word that is rendered as “daily” in English.  I suspect that it will be surprising for many of you to learn that this particular word is not so easy to translate and in fact appears in the New Testament text only in this one place.  The phrase “daily bread” has become so familiar to us that I suspect we don’t give it much thought.  But this phrase is actually very complicated and can be translated in several different ways.  And so, I would like to explore briefly 3 different ways of translating and phrasing this petition.  This will allow these different understandings then to show us 3 different dimensions of meaning for this petition.
First, the traditional – “Give us today our daily bread.”  This tradition translation of the petition is valid and important.  In order to live we all need nourishment, we need food, we need clothing, home property, work, income, family, an orderly community, good government and the like, just as Luther expresses in his explanation of this petition in the Small Catechism.  And we need this each and every day.  What would it be like to go through one day without, say the love and presence of our family, or without food or good government?  It would be difficult, to say the least.
In the Gospels, Jesus himself is very concerned with “daily bread” for those who travel with him and also for those whom he encounters.  Sometimes it almost seems that the only thing Jesus did was to eat.  He is constantly sharing a meal with different folks, mostly outcasts and sinners.  And he becomes notorious for this, so much so that some of Jesus’ opponents begin to refer to him as a glutton and a drunkard.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus feeds the crowds twice, and on the last night of his life he sits and dines with his disciples at the Last Supper.  And even after the resurrection Jesus dines with his disciples on the beach.  Jesus is very concerned with daily nourishment.  And, please note, there is no division between the spiritual and earthly, or sacred and secular in Jesus’ concern for the health and physical nourishment of his followers.  In fact, Jesus links his concern for the physical needs of those who he encounters with their spiritual needs.  Jesus’ concern is with wholeness, all dimensions of our lives together.  “Give us today our daily bread.”
The 2nd way of translating and understanding this petition is: “Give us today the bread that we need.” Not more – not less – but what we need for today.  Looking at this petition in this translation brings up all kinds of issues for us, especially as regards the question of needs verses wants.  We Americans in particular seem to struggle a lot with this and we have a hard time sometimes discerning what are needs and what are simply wants.  Consequently this raises issues of justice.  For in the midst of a society that uses more than its fair share of the earth’s resources and has a tendency to hoard, this petition calls us to account.
In the Old Testament book of Exodus as the people of Israel are wandering in the wilderness God is so concerned with their well-being that God sends Manna to provide nourishment. But it is not an unlimited supply.  The people of Israel can only take what they need for that one day, if they try to hoard the excess will rot.  This then requires them to trust that God will supply what they need each day.  The key to this story is trust and it raises the trust question for us. Do we truly trust God to give us what we need from day to day?  Or are we instead more like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable who works and works and works to fill his barns with grain, more grain than he will ever, ever need and is destroyed in the process?
“Give us today the bread we need.”  Give us today!  This petition brings with it a global consciousness as well.  The pronouns are US and WE – not ME or MINE – but rather US, all of us are one family of God’s children.  And as we take only what we need we are thus enabling others to receive what they need as well.  This petition is a prayer for justice. To quote one well-known theologian: In “asking for daily bread we are asking for a change in the modern social order, which rests on exploitation and profit.  We are asking for the overcoming of greed and fear, for fair pay for fair work, for the ending of unemployment, for the disappearance of alcoholism and prostitution, for adequate health care being available to all, for the saving of nature from destruction by a technology that works in the service of false gods.” (1)
In short, this petition is a prayer that God would give bread to those who hunger for bread; and that God would give to those who have bread and are full a hunger for justice.
The 3rd way of understanding this phrase is this: Our bread for tomorrow, give us today.”  Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” In the simple nourishment of the Kingdom meal of Holy Communion we receive none other than Jesus, himself.  In this ordinary taste of bread we receive a taste of the Kingdom come.  For “the bread which Jesus proffered when he sat at table with the publicans and sinners was everyday bread, and yet it was more: it was the bread of life… Every meal Jesus’ disciples had with him was a usual eating and drinking, and yet it was more: a meal of salvation, a messianic meal, an image and anticipation of the heavenly banquet of the Kingdom come.” (2)  Our bread for tomorrow – give us today!  Give us, today an experience of the Kingdom.  Let us see the light of Christ burning in the darkness of this world.  Grant to us, O Lord, a foretaste of the feast to come.
The bread and wine of the Sacrament of Holy Communion are the 1st answer to this petition.  For in the Eucharist, we today receive our bread for tomorrow.  We come as honored guests to the heavenly banquet.  In receiving ordinary bread in our hands we are also given the bread of life – none other than Jesus our Lord.  And in this way we are nurtured, nourished and empowered to bear the light of the Kingdom of God to others in our daily ministry.  This is why the Sacrament is not optional for Christians – we need it, or we will starve spiritually.  We need this taste of the Kingdom of God regularly.  For in the Sacrament we are embraced by Christ as he tells us he loves us and bids us to love others. 
“Our bread for tomorrow, give us today.” “Give us today the bread that we need.”  “Give us today our daily bread.”
Ultimately this petition is a prayer of thanksgiving for, in the words of the Psalmist, “the eyes of all look to you, O Lord, for you give them (us) their (our) food in due season.  You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”
Or in the words of the hymn: “O living bread from heaven, how well you feed your guest!  The gifts that you have given have filled my heart with rest.  O wondrous food of blessing, O cup that heals our woes!  My heart, this gift possessing, with praises overflows.”  Amen.
1. From "The Lord's Prayer" by Jan Milic Lochman, Errdman's 1988, page 98
2. From "The Lord's Prayer" by Joachim Jeremias, Fortress Press, 1964, page 26
An audio recording of the preached sermon can be found on the media page at wartburgparish.com

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