When one of my younger sisters was four, she spent the summer with two of my great aunts, Blanche and Georgia, and their brother, Jake. Jake told the story about taking Beth with him to the grocery store one evening so that he could shop for Blanche. When they passed by the marshmallows, she grabbed a bag. “Beth,” he said, “Blanche didn’t put marshmallows on her list!” “I know,” she replied. “But we’re out!” Those three childless adults learned that a four year old had a very different idea of what needed to be on a grocery list. Beth told Jake that they needed marshmallows because they were out. (Of course, I suspect that they weren’t out. Marshmallows had never been in that house – until she helped with the shopping.)
What do we need? A colleague, years ago, said that he worried that Christians often couldn’t tell the difference between wants and needs. I always think of that Janis Joplin song, “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” (As a little aside, I started to put that phrase in a search engine…Lord, won’t…. and an ad for Mercedes appeared!) Beth wanted marshmallows – and declared to Jake that they needed them.
We live in a consumer society. We are often told that it helps our nation if we go out and spend money. Advertising tells us that we need certain things to be happy or successful. Years ago there was a commercial, I think for Rubbermaid, that showed a house full of junk. The owners shopped for storage containers so that everything was neat and orderly. The commercial ended with them declaring, happily, “Now we can go out and buy more stuff.”
Our consumer society depends on our wanting more, more and more. So, we assume that what we buy will wear out or break, and we will throw it away. And one way of engaging us is to tell us not that we might want something, but that we actually need a particular thing. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish between that which we might want and that which we truly need.
“Give us today our daily bread” is a central phrase in the Lord’s Prayer. So, as we hear it, as we pray it, we need to ask, “What is our daily bread?” Perhaps it is, or should be, a clarifying phrase that forces us to ask, “What do we need?” What do we need to sustain life? The phrase “One thing is needful” kept running through my head this week, so I looked it up. That’s what Jesus said to Martha when she complained that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet – and not helping her. “One thing is needful. Mary has chosen the better part.”
We might begin to wonder. Was Martha’s focus on what she wanted – to be recognized as an outstanding host—instead of on what she needed – to be in the presence of Jesus? Had she convinced herself that her want was, in reality, her need? Her culture might have led her to such an assumption. Hospitality was understood to be of extreme importance. And the women in that culture had responsibility for preparing the food and making it available to guests. Everything in Martha’s world would have told her that she needed to be busy with the tasks that befell one offering hospitality.
“One thing is needful,” Jesus said to her. It was not condemnation. It was an invitation for her to discern what mattered. She may have wanted to be the loving host who offered this treasured guest hospitality that bore witness to her adoration. But what she truly needed was to be nourished by Jesus – spending time in his presence and listening to what he had to say.
“Give us today our daily bread.” This is basic. That colleague was right when he fretted that Christians often get caught up in the world’s inability to distinguish between what we want and what we really need. We know that inability exists. Otherwise there wouldn’t be T-shirts that say, “Lord, I’ll prove to you I’m not selfish. Let me win the lottery!” How many things do we think we might need?
Even the church – congregations—get caught by that want masquerading as need. Almost every congregation has, at one time or another, looked for the perfect pastor. I don’t know if it’s true anymore, but the standard ideal was, “We want a married young man (whose wife will play the organ). They should have two children.” Many of my male seminary classmates were desperate to find wives before they started looking for jobs. (Granted, some of that desperation was driven by the denomination’s fear, at the time, of homosexuality. None of them wanted to appear to be gay.) Churches have other “needs” – members, bank accounts, particular music styles --- the list can go on and on.
“Give us today our daily bread.” We are reminded that one thing is needful – needed. We need Jesus, the Christ. Jesus is the one who told the crowds, “I am the bread of life. If you come to me you will never be hungry. If you believe in me you will never thirst.” Ellsworth Kalas says that the prayer reminds us that our human needs aren’t to be the first thing on our minds. We are to put God’s realm and God’s will first. That provides the structure for our living. We remember that the true bread that we need is God’s life-giving presence in our lives.
It is, maybe, one reason why liturgically this prayer comes after the prayer of thanksgiving when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We are to connect this phrase, “Give us today our daily bread,” with our “eating” the Lord’s Supper. In this meal we receive our daily bread – we are nourished by the presence of the living Christ who gave of himself that we might know life in its fullness.
“Give us today our daily bread.” One of the primary things to remember about this prayer is that it is communal. In that way, it is a reminder in our very individualistic society that we are called into the Body of Christ, into communion and community with others. It doesn’t say, “Give me bread.” It says, “Give us our daily bread.” We are to look beyond ourselves, as broadly as possible. It is a prayer for the world. In it, we remember all who struggle to find food, to eat adequately. We remember those who work two or three jobs so that their children may have food to eat. We cannot seek for ourselves alone. We pray on behalf of the world – that all its inhabitants may know that which truly gives life.
The good news is that God knows our need for “bread,” for that which sustains us – and even for that which gives us joy. The God to whom we pray is a God of abundance! That does not mean an abundance of stuff – but abundance in life that leads us toward rejoicing in the gift of life. There is a wonderful movie, Babette’s Feast, which critiques a faith that is without joy. Spinster sisters think that serving God means rejecting any form of pleasure. Babette, a French housekeeper, prepared a sumptuous feast for them – giving them a taste of God’s love that they had not known. The feast became an opportunity to know God’s abundance that leads to joy!
What do we need? What do we need to be God’s joyful people? The world’s answers are not satisfying. If we are always striving toward what the world says will make us happy, make us fulfilled, we will be disappointed. What if, instead, we find joy in all the opportunities we have to share in God’s abundance, to share in it in our own lives, in our life as a congregation in this place, and in our work and witness to the world?
It is our daily bread to be able to gather together, to worship, to share the feast of the Lord’s Supper. It is our daily bread to share a meal together, to share our lives. It is our daily bread to stock a little food pantry so that those who are hungry may have something to eat. It is our daily bread to be able to send a teddy bear to someone who is in need of knowing God’s love. It is our daily bread to participate in the CROP Walk as a visible sign of our concern for the well being of others and as a sign of our commitment to serve them. It is our daily bread to be invited, by God, to be part of God’s redeeming and transforming work in this world.
“Give us today our daily bread!” God awaits our asking, our intent. For when we ask, God offers us the banquet of that which nourishes our souls for daily living and for eternal life – participation in the work and ways of God.