Monday, October 26, 2015

October 25, 2015 The Lord's Prayer: Overcoming Temptation

For some reason, I’m always excited about getting the mail.  When I was young, I would make the long walk up our driveway to the mailbox with great anticipation, even though I seldom received anything in the mail.  As an adult, that anticipation continues to exist, although it’s generally bills and junk mail that await me in the mailbox.  But there are two times each year when I get extra-excited about the mail, because I know what will soon arrive. 

Every spring and every fall this catalogue – the Sweetwater Pro Gear catalogue arrives in the mail.  It is a musician’s wish book, and for me, it is 600+ pages of pure temptation.  While I was on sabbatical I traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana to visit here, and while there was able to meet a few of my musical heroes, one of whom is Paul Reed Smith, founder of Paul Reed Smith Guitars.  PRS is the largest guitar manufacturer, after Gibson and Fender, and they are wonderful, beautiful instruments.  I was very excited to meet Paul Reed Smith and to have my picture taken with him.  He was very kind and gracious to me, which made it more embarrassing for me to realize – after he left – that I was wearing a shirt that said, in big letters – Fender Guitars.

Each of us has something that provides a regular source of temptation.  Maybe you have a catalogue that comes in your mail, or a store that you cannot pass without your feet carrying you through the door.  As we continue our series of messages from the Lord’s Prayer, our topic is temptation, as we come to the phrase and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 

When we talk about temptation today, there are two common reactions people will express.  Some people hear the word temptation as a product of a bygone era, as little more than a quaint reminder of a time when people worried about such things.  Or, temptation is viewed as a rather benign force that doesn’t have all that much power in the world or over our lives.  To them, temptation is little more than a question of whether or not we should have that second donut in the morning.

But like the other phrases in the Lord’s Prayer, the words we study this morning are neither simple nor easy, and they serve as a reminder that temptation is far more serious than admiring a guitar in a catalogue, desiring a piece of clothing in a store window, or being able to walk away from a plate of donuts.

Let’s read the Lord’s Prayer, and a parallel passage from the book of James, and then we’ll talk more about our topic.

Matthew 6:5-15
“Pray, then, in this way:
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

James 1:13-17
13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.
15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters.
17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

1.  Temptation is a manifestation of the evil that seeks to destroy our lives.
Notice that Jesus connects two words in this sentence – temptation and evil.  Some people see this sentence as containing two separate and unrelated phrases – And lead us not into temptation as one phrase and but deliver us from evil as another.  But these are not two separate phrases; they are a single, powerful reminder given to us by Jesus, and it is this – temptation is something far deeper and far more destructive than what we often think.  Temptation is a manifestation of the evil from which we should pray to be delivered.

It is a mistake, a very serious mistake, to see temptation as something that is relatively mild, as though it is little more than trying not to eat a donut or staying out of a store that will tempt us to spend money.  The truth is that temptation is a force that is bent on destroying our lives.

Genesis 4:6-7 tells us part of the story of Cain and Abel. In these verses, God comes to Cain and speaks to him, noting the anger that has welled up within him.  God says to Cain, Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.

I find the words – sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it – to be both fascinating and troubling.  Fascinating because of the manner is which temptation and evil are portrayed – as an active force that is aggressive in its attempts to wreak havoc on our lives – and troubling because we are reminded that temptation is always working against us.

2.  Temptation is subtle.
At one of the Louisville hospitals there is an elevator with a button that has had me wondering for several years.  I can’t understand the logic of why this elevator has been designed in such a way, but when you look for the button to call the elevator, it’s actually a bit hard to find.  But just above it is another button, very easy to find, and it looks like the button you should push to call the elevator.  But the button is labeled Code Blue.  I stood there looking at that button the other day, like I have many other times, and wondered what is a code blue?  I think I know a way to find out.  Push the button.  I have a suspicion that it doesn’t do anything; it’s just there to tempt people like me. I think that, if I push it, a big gotcha sign will pop out (thanks to the people who reminded, after the services, that a code blue means that someone’s heart has stopped.  So I guess if I push that button the hospital staff will come after me with a crash cart, so on second thought, I don’t think I’ll yield to the temptation of pushing it!)  It’s just a button, but it intrigues me to the point that it stays in my mind and I think about it.

Temptation is very subtle.  Temptation is sometimes very obvious, but it is many more times very subtle, just sitting there, quietly drawing us in.

Reading the gospels, I often feel sorry for Peter.  He gets a lot of things right, but he gets a lot of things wrong as well.  In Matthew chapter 16 we read of the time when Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, and there asked them the question who do people say the Son of Man is? (verse 13).  Peter, in a moment of great insight, answered with his famous confession, you are the Christ, the Son of the living God (verse 16).  After Peter’s response, Jesus went on to tell the disciples these words - 

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”

Doesn’t it seem reasonable what Peter said?  It does, in one sense, but Peter didn’t understand what he was really saying to Jesus, in spite of his earlier flash of insight that Jesus is the Son of God.  I’m sure Peter felt he was doing what was right, but he wasn’t.  Peter was not helping Jesus; he was standing in the way of the mission of Jesus.  Temptation can be so subtle that it often presents itself as not only a good option, but the correct option.

3.  Temptation draws us slowly in.
I don’t remember sermons very well, including my own.  But there are a few that have stayed with me over the years.  One of those was a message about temptation, and though I can’t tell you many of the details, the outline has stayed with me for many years.  It’s a very simple outline, but serves as a powerful reminder of what temptation does to us – temptation always takes us further than we want to go, keeps us longer than we want to stay, and costs us more than we want to pay. 

The classic example of this, I believe, is the story of David, in particular, the story of David, Bathsheeba, and Uriah.  David, for all of his virtues, had some great struggles in life.  For all of his accomplishments, David had some great tragedies as well, and some of them came as a result of temptation that slowly drew him in.

In II Samuel 11 we find this story, and it tells us of how David found himself very much drawn into the reality of the fact that temptation always takes us further than we want to go, keeps us longer than we want to stay, and costs us more than we want to pay.  One step at a time, David walked further and further down the road to temptation, until he eventually found himself in a place where so many lives had been hurt.  From the first step of watching Bathsheeba, to becoming involved with her, to the point of having her husband put to death, David was drawn slowly into the trap of temptation.

The danger of temptation is that we sometimes don’t see it coming our way, and we find ourselves in the position where we ask how did I get here?

4.  Temptation is a test of our faith.
I only played one year of organized football, and that was way back in junior high school.  I still remember, though, our coach telling us that the key to building muscle was resistance.  Resistance is the basis of many exercises, and certainly the basis for building physical strength.  In a sense, temptation is how spiritual muscle is created, as we face resistance on a spiritual level.

Interestingly, the word the Bible uses for temptation can be translated as test.  When Jesus was led into the wilderness, after his baptism, it was a time of testing.  To be tested in such a way is not just temptation, but a way of testing the depth of our faith and character, so we can call it a test of character and faith.  The book of James tells us that God does not tempt us, but temptation is certainly a test of our faith, and as we push back against those tests and temptations, it helps us to build a stronger faith.

Sermons are often a work in progress, sometimes right into Sunday morning.  For me, the hardest part is the conclusion, finding a way to wrap up the thoughts I share and to make a final emphasis on the points.  I will often remark to Tanya during the week that I can’t find my way out of this sermon.  Last night I told her I couldn’t figure out how to get out of this one, and she said she would try to think of an idea.  This morning, she told me that she hadn’t come up with anything, and in the early service I could only manage to sum up a couple of thoughts.  As I sat in the early part of this service (our 11:00 worship), I continued to think how do I get out of this?  It suddenly struck me that those words – how do I get out of this? – are words we often mutter to ourselves when we have yielded to temptation.  Temptation, after completing its destructive, subtle work, brings us to a place where we are surprised to be, and where we say how do I get out of this?  The simple answer, of course, is to keep ourselves from arriving at such a point.  In order to protect ourselves, never forget that temptation is a powerful, powerful force, active and seeking to destroy our lives.  But remember also that we love and serve a God of life, who is always seeking our best and provides the strength to resist temptation!

Monday, October 19, 2015

October 18, 2015 The Lord's Prayer: The Power and Challenge of Forgiveness

Matthew 6:5-15
Luke 23:32-34

Donald Trump received a lot of attention several weeks ago for saying this about whether or not he has ever sought forgiveness from God – I am not sure I have.  I just go on and try to do a better job from there.  I don't think so.  I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture.  I don’t.

My first reaction upon hearing those comments was to shake my head, but perhaps he was expressing the feelings of many when he uttered those words.  Forgiveness is tough, it is difficult, and, if we are honest, it is also something we would often rather ignore.

As we continue through the Lord’s Prayer we come to the phrase forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  Or forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Hear again, the Lord’s Prayer, and a passage from Luke’s gospel that provides the ultimate testimony of forgiveness.

Matthew 6:5-15 –
“Pray, then, in this way:
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, (leave out next phrase ) as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Luke 23:32-34 –
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed.
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.
34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

Did you notice that I left out part of a verse?  I skipped the line as we forgive our debtors.  It wasn’t an oversight; I did it to make a point.  If we’re honest, we might admit that we would prefer to leave out that part of the Lord’s Prayer, because of the difficulty of offering forgiveness.

Jesus taught about many subjects, and there are certain themes he returned to on multiple occasions.  One of the regular themes in the preaching of Jesus is that of forgiveness.  The words Jesus spoke about forgiveness are some of the most radical and challenging words he offered throughout his earthly ministry.  It was not just that he pronounced God’s forgiveness for sins – which did offend some people, because they could not accept who he was – but because so many did not want to see forgiveness granted to others, and in that respect, human nature has not changed much in the ensuing two thousand years.

Forgiveness is one of those topics that make us squirm, because we recognize how incredibly difficult forgiveness can be. I think that if we are really honest, we will admit that forgiveness comes neither easy nor natural to us.

When we talk about forgiveness, we also have to say a few words about what brings about the need for forgiveness, which is the brokenness of humanity and our sin.  The New Testament uses five different words for sin, whereas in English, we have only one.

1.  Hamartia – this is the most common word used for sin, and it means a missing of the target.  It is a failure to be what we were created to be.  This is different from committing a particular action; it is being satisfied with how we are rather than how we could be.  It is not unusual to be tempted to be content with our lives, thinking well, I’m just as good as anyone else and therefore, good enough.  The real question, however, that we must ask ourselves is this – are we everything God desires us to be and created us to be?

2.  Parabasis – which means a stepping across.  This is an action that steps over a clearly marked line of right and wrong.  It’s the concept of a line in the sand, where there is a clear distinction between right and wrong.  Sometimes we eye that line for a long time, and then make a conscious decision to take that step across the line.  It is a very willful, obvious act of disobedience.

In our congregation, we use the version of the Lord’s Prayer that contains the words trespass and trespasses.  The word trespass means there is a line you don’t cross.  To forgive those who trespass against us is an acknowledgement that someone has crossed a line of what is right, what is good, and what is acceptable and have done something that causes some kind of hurt to us.  It acknowledges there has been real hurt that has taken place. 

3.  Paraptoma – which means a slipping across.  This is similar to slipping on ice, where an action is not as deliberate but comes more from carelessness or neglect.  We often use language to describe these types of actions, such as saying we have slipped up.  There is no thought or plan in this type of action; it just seems to happen, causing us to ask, how did that happen?  How did things go this far?  We don’t go from point A to point B in a single step, but one small, sometimes unknowing step at a time, slipping further and further down a path that so often leads to heartbreak.

4.  Anomia – which means lawlessness.  This is when a person knows what is right, but very specifically does what is wrong.  It’s the kind of action that reflects an attitude of I really don’t care what anyone thinks.  I’m going to live how I want and I don’t care who it hurts.

5.  Opheilema – this is the word used in the Lord’s Prayer, and it means a debt, specifically, a failure or inability to pay what is due. Some churches use the version of the Lord’s Prayer that contains the words debts and debtors, which express this idea. We usually think of the word debt as a financial word – someone owes a debt to someone else.  That’s how we sometimes see forgiveness.  When someone hurts us, we believe they owe us something.  They owe us an apology, they owe us an explanation, and they owe us restitution.  It is easy to hold the offense of the other person over their head and to place them in a position of being a debtor to us.

Jesus asks us to release that person from the position of being a debtor.  We are called to remove the shackles of guilt we want to fasten to them and we are called to release the other person from any sense of indebtedness to us.

Now, allow me to offer a few brief words about forgiveness –

1.  Forgive others.
Someone once said that we are most like God when we forgive.  I hope, then, that we are often like God.

But there are some very important considerations to make when we speak about forgiving others.

Very shortly after the shootings at the Immanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, early in the summer, some of the families quickly, and publicly, expressed their forgiveness to the shooter.  But not everyone agreed with this sentiment.  More than one editorial column said it was too soon to offer forgiveness, and one writer expressed this in very blunt language – Recently, I wrote that I believe in forgiveness.  I do. It is necessary to move on. But this was too fast. Too soon. Too quick.  This was instantaneous forgiveness of the unfathomable kind where the wounds were still fresh, the bodies unburied, the echo of that horrible sin still ringing. Forgiveness, depending on what one is forgiving, should come over time.  How much time?  Not this soon. Not this soon.

I can understand that sense of withholding forgiveness, but I think it is an incorrect view.  The writer of the editorial equated forgiveness, I think, with overlooking a terrible action.  To forgive quickly, he seems to imply, is to fail to adequately acknowledge just how terrible this tragedy was.  But others had a different view.  Listen to the words of an editorial offered by another writer –
When we suffer injustice, the human heart craves revenge, vindication and retaliation. These are also desires Christ came to save us from. Christians are commanded to respond to injustice with forgiveness. This principle is central to Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12). Immediately after this prayer, Jesus tells his disciples, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14–15)
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21–22) In other words, you cannot forgive someone enough.
The swift forgiveness offered by the victims’ families, as hard as that must have been, is what Christianity is all about. Forgiveness is an extension of love. Christians extend forgiving love to those who have wronged them — including their enemies — because this is God’s disposition toward them. God is love, and he calls his people to love. God forgives first and expects his people to do the same.
The grace of forgiveness, in turn, empowers forgiven people to forgive others.
Allow me, then, to make a few brief observations about forgiving others.  

First, it is important to understand that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same.  In an ideal world, reconciliation would come after forgiveness, but we do not live in an ideal world.  We live in a world where some people see the possibility of a reconciled relationship as an opportunity to continue inflicting their bad behavior and bullying upon the other person. That is neither wise nor healthy.  The reality is that some relationships contain such a toxic level of brokenness that the amount of pain and hurt caused make reconciliation all but impossible.  In such cases, reconciliation might never be possible, but forgiveness is. Forgiveness can come even if reconciliation never does. But we must understand that offering forgiveness does not mean that the hurt and pain caused by others are in any way acceptable, and it does not mean that we are asked to overlook them.  Forgiveness, in such circumstances, is very much an act of the will, and in situations where the hurt and the pain is so deep, it is necessary to call upon every ounce of our will to forgive.

Second, because forgiveness does not mean we must accept bad behaviors, enter into dysfunctional and codependent relationships, or overlook unacceptable actions, we are freer to make a conscious decision to forgive, which helps us refuse to allow the poison of bitterness to build up within our hearts and souls.  I am convinced that some people cannot offer forgiveness because they believe that in doing so they are admitting that their pain does not matter and that the actions of the other person are in some way excusable.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  To forgive someone does not mean that we cannot condemn their actions, nor does it mean that we cannot acknowledge the deep pain and hurt that it has called.  Forgiveness is sometimes confused with overlooking hurtful actions and pretending that nothing happened.  What forgiveness, and the offering of it, does is to release one from a desire for revenge as well as releasing the pain and bitterness that seeks to fester within our hearts.

Third, we should also forget everything we’ve ever heard about forgiving and forgetting.  I don’t know where the saying of forgive and forget originated, but it is both bad advice and bad theology.  We do not always forget hurts and offenses, but that does not mean that forgiveness has not taken place if we have not forgotten them.  We have so connected those two words – forgive and forget – in our minds that people believe forgiveness has not taken place unless they have completely removed the offense from their memory.   Human nature being what it is, our emotions constantly remind us of our painful experiences.  While we do not forget those experiences, we must be careful not to nurture their memories, with the end result being bitterness and resentfulness, but the fact that one does not forget them does not at all mean forgiveness has not, or cannot, take place.    

2.  Forgive ourselves.
Over the course of my ministry I have encountered scores of people who struggle to forgive themselves. As I sit and listen to people struggle to find a way to forgive themselves, I struggle over what to say to them.  In all my years of ministry I haven’t been able to find the words to help people find self-forgiveness.  The best I can seem to do is to say you need to forgive yourself.  But how does one do so?

All of us, perhaps, carry guilt over something we have done or something we have said. Perhaps there were words spoken that could never be taken back.  Perhaps it is guilt over missed opportunities.  Perhaps it is guilt over a broken relationship.  Perhaps it is guilt over an action that one deeply regrets. Whatever the cause, so many are desperate to find a way to forgive themselves, but they cannot do so.  

And, regrettably, some people sense that guilt and use it as a tool for manipulation.  Guilt is such a destructive force.  Let go of the guilt and offer yourself forgiveness.

3.  Forgive God.
This one may sound strange, but there are people who are angry with God and they cannot move past that anger.  Now, when I say that some people need to forgive God, I’m not saying God has done anything wrong.  What I am saying is that some people are angry because God has not done what they asked of him, what they hoped of him, or what they expected of him, and they are disappointed in him, and that disappointment has turned into anger.

Maybe it is anger because of praying so hard that someone would be healed, and they were not healed.  The person knows God could heal, but he didn’t, so disappointment sets in and then turns to anger.  Or, perhaps, life just didn’t turn out the way one has hoped, and they are angry about their life, and that anger is then directed at God.

I wonder if God might get more blame than credit.  Perhaps people are quicker to blame God when things go wrong than they are to credit him when things go right.

And when we talk about forgiving God, we should include the church as well.  There are a lot of people who have suffered hurt in churches and have joined what one writer has called the church alumni society.  Any person who has been involved in a church for long has most likely experienced some kind of disappointment and hurt, but some of it runs very deeply.

Forgiveness is incredibly difficult, but if we want to be like Jesus, if we want to be the people he asks us to be, that is what we are called to do.

The author Robert Louis Stevenson made it a practice to say the Lord’s Prayer every morning with his family.  One day, in the middle of the prayer, he got up off his knees and walked out of the room without saying a word.  His wife followed him out and asked what was wrong.  Referring to the verse we will study this morning, he said, I am not fit to pray the Lord’s Prayer (The Gospel of Matthew, Volume One, The Daily Bible Study Series, William Barclay, page 223).  

This is both the power and the challenge of forgiveness.  The power of forgiveness is how it can forever change a life, but the challenge of forgiveness comes from understanding all that is involved in its offering.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

October 11, 2015 The Lord's Prayer - Finding Contentment

Many of you know that I’m kind of a strange eater (actually, maybe I’m normal and everyone else is strange).  Some of that is simply because I don’t like some foods, such as cheese, but some of it is because I quit eating certain foods because I no longer have to eat them.  When I moved to Louisville in 1981 to attend seminary, I had very little money.  My savings, which I believed would last much longer, quickly ran out, and food was one area where I could save some money.  My goal was at the time was to spend $15 or less each week on food, and even in 1981 that wasn’t much money for a week of groceries.

The Kroger down the street often had $0.79 pizzas, which meant you actually ate the box with a bit of pizza sauce.  Not very appetizing, but you could survive on them.  And on Ramen noodles.  And bags of white rice.  And three for a dollar frozen pot pies.  And some meals were plain popcorn and nothing else but a glass of water.  It was near the end of my second semester before I could buy an eight-pack of bottles of Coke, so one day of the week I could have two Cokes.  It was usually on Sunday evening, and I can’t describe what a big treat that was, to sit down for a few minutes and drink that cold bottle of Coke.

In my second year of seminary, I could, on occasion, afford to go to a fast food restaurant.  At the time, there was a Burger King coupon in the Friday editions of the Courier-Journal that was a buy one Whopper get one for free, and if I was fast enough, I could get to the library before anyone else made it to the newspaper rack and tear out that coupon, and drive into the middle of St. Matthews, across from Trinity High School and enjoy a meal that seemed better than a trip to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse!
I am happy to have moved beyond that struggle, but it was very good for me to experience that part of life.  You don’t forget struggle, and in that sense, struggles can remind us to be grateful.  When I sit down to a meal now, I am very cognizant of what a blessing it is to have a pantry and refrigerator full of food.  I am grateful to be able to eat, and to enjoy meals that are more than a plate of popcorn or a small package of noodles.

As we continue a series of messages from the Lord’s Prayer, this morning we come to the phrase give us this day our daily bread.

We’ll read the passage from Matthew that gives us the Lord’s Prayer, and also a passage from the book of Philippians, where Paul describes his contentment, as we talk about Finding Contentment.

Matthew 6:5-15
“Pray, then, in this way:
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Philippians 4:10-13
10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.
11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.
12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.
13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

We live with such an abundance of stuff that, on the surface at least, we hear the words of Jesus to give us this day our daily bread in a far different way than those who were in his audience on the day he first spoke them.  How often do we worry about our daily bread?  In our pantry we have today’s bread, tomorrow’s bread, and in the freezer, bread for more days.  It’s not having daily bread that concerns us as much as it is having too much daily bread!

Even though we have our daily bread, it does not mean we are free from the anxiety of what we need in the days ahead.  We live in very, very anxious days and that anxiety can drive us to a crippling sense of worry and it can drive us into an obsession with accumulating money and belongings in an effort to find a sense of security.

So let’s consider what it means to pray for our daily bread, and how we find the kind of contentment of which Paul wrote.

The call to pray for our daily bread is an invitation to simplicity.
Jesus was talking to people whose lives were the very model of simplicity.  They led simple lives because there really was no other choice.  While we can stockpile food in freezers and other storage methods, the people in the time of Jesus were unable to do so.  They were people who lived on a day-to-day basis and struggled to have enough for each day.  For most people in that time, getting one’s daily bread was a literal truth.  They led lives of simplicity because of their circumstances.  They lived barely subsistence lives, working each day to earn, hopefully, enough money to feed their families.  The far majority of people lived in a grinding poverty that left them wondering if there would be enough bread for that day, let alone the next day.

For the most part, we have so much more than the average person in the day of Jesus, but I’m not sure were any freer of worry.  Perhaps it’s because we search for security in the things we own, and our sense of security has been greatly shaken in recent years.

Jesus invites us to a life of simplicity by asking us to pray simply for our daily bread.  It is his invitation to ask for what we need rather than all the extras we either think we need or that we desire to have.  It doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned with our needs, or that God isn’t concerned with our needs; it means we have learned to be content with simpler lives.

You remember, I’m sure, how God provided for the Hebrew people as they wandered through the wilderness after being freed from captivity in Egypt.  God provided them with manna, a bread-like substance they collected every morning.  It was, quite literally, their daily bread.  They were only to collect what they needed for the day, and no more.  It was a very dramatic lesson about learning to trust God.

Paul writes in Philippians 4:11-12 I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or in want.

But there is another reason why simplicity becomes important.  As the population of our world will cross the 7 billion mark at any time, and the estimates of growth for the next generation are staggering, simplicity with either be voluntarily adopted or enforced by a scarcity of resources.

To ask for our daily bread reminds us we are not as self-sufficient as we think.
I remember on Christmas Eve, when I was in the fifth grade, our neighbor’s house burned to the ground.  One of the kids was my age, in my class at school, and my friend.  The flames lit up the night sky and the glow from the fire could be seen from quite a distance.  It was hard for me to imagine the experience of losing everything you own in a matter of minutes. 

We work hard to bring a measure of security to our lives.  We work to save money, we invest money, we purchase insurance, and search for other ways to prepare us in the event of disaster or to bring a sense of security in life.

But the economic downturn has brought home to us the reality that financial security is more precarious than we want to imagine.  Stock value can evaporate very quickly.  A 401K can be wiped out in a single trading session.  A job loss or emergency can eat away at our savings.  A medical crisis, even with insurance, can stretch us to the limits financially and remind us in very vivid terms of our own mortality.  I don’t say this as a way of generating fear or pessimism, but as a reminder that we often search for a measure of security in places and things that are not as secure as we believe them to be.

I listened to an interview recently with one of the wealthiest individuals in the world who had recently experienced a life-threatening situation.  It was very interesting when the discussion turned to faith.  When asked if he believed in God he said no, but added how he wished he did have belief and faith because of the comfort and sense of security it would bring in life.  Here was someone who had the resources to buy anything he wanted, to travel when and where he wanted, and yet he was still looking for a sense of security in life.

Jesus reminded his audience that our hearts long for security, that we expend a great amount of energy searching for security, and that means we should look for security where it can truly be found.  It is a sense of security that gives us a peace and confidence in the face of life’s greatest challenges and will see us through the most precarious of moments.

To pray for our daily bread is a reminder that we need to remember those who struggle to find their daily bread.
Have you noticed what Jesus did not say in this line of the prayer?  Jesus did not say give me my daily bread.  We should listen to our prayers to see how often they are filled with the personal pronouns of I, me, and mine. 

Jesus says us and our.  It is a reminder that we are part of the human community.  It is a reminder that the question asked by Cain am I my brother’s keeper (Genesis 4:9) is not just a rhetorical question, but has a very specific answer, and the answer is an affirmation that we do have a responsibility to those who struggle to secure daily bread.  Almost a third of the world’s population fails to find enough daily bread for their families.  That’s more than 2 billion people.  That number will only increase as the population of the world escalates and as environmental stress and degradation becomes more acute.

In the 6th chapter of Mark’s gospel we read the story of Jesus and his disciples arriving in a remote area and a large crowd had gathered in anticipation of their arrival.  The disciples told Jesus he ought to send the crowd away and into the surrounding villages to buy food.  Jesus told his disciples you give them something to eat (Mark 6:35-37).  Perhaps the disciples were simply concerned and believed sending the crowd away was the best solution, or, perhaps they didn’t want to be bothered by the needs of the crowd.  Jesus forced them to confront the need of the crowd.

I’ll confess that I often don’t know what to do with the needs that confront us.  They can be so overwhelming and so deeply entrenched that I want to throw up my hands and say there’s nothing we can do.  But maybe that’s my own way of doing what the disciples sought to do – send the people away.  I don’t always have an answer, but I know we are called to never forget those who struggle to have their daily bread.

Even when we eat alone, we never really eat alone.  Every bite of food we take is a communal act.  Someone raised the food I eat.  Someone brought the food to market.  Someone delivered it to the store.  Someone sold it to me.  Food is one of the few things in life that bind us together, and even when I think I am buying and preparing my own food, it is not a solitary act.  If that bond of community is broken, we do not eat.  If a farmer cannot raise food, we do not eat, and so on down the line.  It will matter not how much money I have to buy food, if the community of food production is broken down, I will find very quickly I cannot eat my money.

To pray for our daily bread is to be called to a life of gratitude.
I often find myself thinking of what I don’t have rather than thinking of what I do have.  And when I look at my life, there really is very little that I don’t have.  It’s not that I have too little, but too much.

And yet our culture will continue to present me with message after message that I need more, when there is nothing else I need in life.  And those messages slowly and unknowingly soak into my mind and heart and gradually turn my gaze away from what I can do for others and cause me to think about myself.

Samuel Wesley was a minister and the father of John and Charles Wesley, who wrote many of the hymns that we sing and also founded the Methodist Church.  When John was five years old his family’s home caught fire, trapping John on the second floor.  The neighbors quickly came to their aid to help fight the fire and also to form a human ladder that allowed one of the neighbors to reach John and to pull him to safety.  The house was a total loss, along with all of the family’s possessions, but they were all safe and together.  Samuel Wesley was reported to have said, come neighbors, let us kneel together and give thanks to God.  He has given me all my eight children.  Let the house go.  I am rich enough.

It’s a very simple phrase – give us this day our daily bread.  At least it seems simple at first glance.  In reality, it is a huge acknowledgement we make to God of our dependency upon him and upon one another.  It certainly asks us to be grateful for what we have been given.  It could very easily be us who are struggling to find daily bread.  May our gratitude bring us to help others to find their daily bread.