Sunday, July 28, 2013

Reflections on Healing and Hope

Scripture can be found here...

As some of you know, my daughter has recently gone through the process of having her wisdom teeth extracted. And the surgeon was really thorough, so we were given lots of printed information in advance about what to expect on the day of the procedure and in the days afterward, we had a good sense about how to prepare.

Except, when you get right down to it, it’s pretty hard to pin down the whole process of healing. Bleeding may persist for up to 24 hours. Swelling may occur immediately, and increase gradually over 24-48 hours, and maximize between 48-72 hours. Nausea may result… you get the picture.

In fact, when we started talking to other people who’d had the procedure, we heard amazing variations on stories of recovery. We heard from one person who went to camp orientation the very next day, and from another who was in pain for almost three weeks. One person was incapacitated by nausea, and another had absolutely none. One person had no swelling, but remembered the pain; another had no pain but remembered the swelling (and had the pictures to prove it).

Healing is an imprecise and unpredictable process. It is as individual as, well, individuals. What is one person’s healing process is not necessarily another person’s healing process.

The same is true of communities. As many of you know, eleven of us from Union Presbyterian Church went to the Jersey Shore this past week to take part in the recovery process from the devastation of “Superstorm” Sandy. We spent a lot of our time in one particular house on Oak Street in a little beach-front community called Keansburg. A walk up and down Oak Street showed the varied pace of healing. One house was already up on stilts—homes there now have to conform to a new code in terms of elevation, or they risk not being able to have homeowners insurance. The house we were working on was in process of preparation for being raised. Another house right across the street from us looked ok on the outside, but on the inside still was filled with sand and debris from the storm. A few blocks away we saw a house that was so utterly ruined, it looked like a toy that had been stepped on. It made the heart hurt.

Our readings today show two different points of view with respect to healing. In the reading from Ecclesiastes, the writer seems to throw up his hands. All is vanity… uselessness… and days full of pain are pretty much what we can expect.

The reading from Luke’s gospel stands in powerful contrast. In it, we see Jesus, who is being pursued by people in pain because he is known to be a healer. He is known to have compassion on those with days and nights full of pain, and so people seek him out.

The two who are healed couldn’t be more different. One is a girl, a child of twelve. The other is a woman whose age is unspecified, but the nature of her ailment leads us to suspect she might be well into middle age. The younger is on the point of dying, and we have no idea how long she has been sick. The older has suffered from her hemorrhages for twelve years. The younger has family to intercede for her: her father seeks Jesus out. The older seems to be on her own, probably a result of her physical condition, which would render her a kind of untouchable in her family and community. The girl is passive, the woman is active. The girl’s father asks Jesus to heal his child; the woman reaches out to take her healing herself, by simply touching Jesus’ garment.

And… here is perhaps the most important detail. Jesus speaks directly to the woman who reaches out for healing. “Daughter,” he says, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” If we had only this story, the tale of the woman with the hemorrhages, we might be left with the impression that our healing is up to us. If only we had the faith, we would be healed.

But we have the other story as well, the story of the girl. She is not healed because of her faith. She is dead, past healing, past hope when Jesus comes to her. Jesus’ miraculous touch is not connected in any way to her faithfulness. If anything, it is connected to the faith of her father, someone who loves her, but even that is a stretch, because Jesus doesn’t identify it that way. As far as we can tell, it is sheer gift, sheer grace.

Healing comes when it comes. We cannot rush it. We can try not to stand in its way… not to impede or disrupt it. The only thing we know with certainty about healing is that God wills it: God wants us to be whole. But we don’t necessarily know what wholeness looks like. In our longing for wholeness we may at times feel like the writer in Ecclesiastes: that all is vanity, all is useless. But there is another witness in scripture, and that witness tells us to hope, to reach out, to seek out the healing we need. And if we aren’t able to do it ourselves, it tells us to lean on those who love us, and allow them to hope, and to reach out, and to seek on our behalf.

That is what the people in New Jersey are doing. They are working for recovery and they are leaning on the help of friends like us. Healing is an imprecise and unpredictable process. We can help one another to heal, but we have to offer our help in a way that honors the experience of those seeking healing. In closing, I’d like to share with you the wisdom of a pamphlet: It’s called “A Volunteer’s Guide to Offering a Ministry of Presence.”

As a volunteer, you are Christ’s Hands and Feet and Eyes and Ears for the survivors. The most important gift you give them is your very presence. Your being there gives them hope, connection, and love… The key is tuning your heart to the Holy Spirit and the survivor, listening with the ears of your heart, and seeing with the eyes of your heart.

In the process of healing we tune our hearts to God, and to one another. For the healing of individuals, families, communities, nations, even the world, we open our hearts with hope to the imprecise and unpredictable process that brings us closer to God’s vision of wholeness for our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Lord's Prayer 5: "And Lead Us Not Into Temptation, But Deliver Us From Evil"

Scripture can be found here...

Here’s a question for today: Do we trust God? Is God trustworthy?

I’ll be honest. Arriving at the last petition in the Lord’s Prayer, here’s my first thought. Every one of us hearing or praying it would be totally justified in saying, “Wait. Hold on. Just a minute there. Are we actually praying with the understanding that God might lead us into temptation? And so we are just going to give God a little reminder, a little nudge, that, we’re not really so cool with that? What on earth is this all about?”

I recall learning the Lord’s Prayer as a little girl. I remember how this line in the prayer frightened me: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” I remember sensing a kind of implicit threat that this request was attempting to ameliorate. It made God seem so menacing. It made God seem so unpredictable, so untrustworthy.

Do we really think that God is not trustworthy? In his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” John Calvin provides one possible definition of faith: “…[Faith] is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.”[i] In theory, at least, at the heart of faith is a “firm and sure knowledge of divine favor towards us.” We claim confidently that God loves us, that God wants what is best for us, that God wants us to thrive. So why on earth would God even consider “leading us into temptation?”

A peek at the language can help. You may have noticed today that I read the Authorized Version of our scripture (also known as the King James translation). Or you may not have noticed, since it is identical to the Lord’s Prayer as we pray it together week after week. The New Revised Standard Version, on the other hand, has a different slant, and a more accurate word-for-word translation: “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” To me, and I’m willing to bet, to most of us, “temptation” and “trial” may be related, but they are still two distinctly different things. The Merriam-Webster definition of “temptation” is “the act of tempting or the state of being tempted, especially to evil; enticement.” “Trial,” on the other hand, is “the action or process of trying or putting to the proof; test;” or even, “a test of faith, patience, or stamina through subjection to suffering or temptation.” The word “temptation” suggests a God who might be inclined to entice us to sin. The word “trial” suggests a God who wants to see what stuff we are made of.

The better translation suggests that there might be times God would try us, or test us. This is still not a palatable notion. For one thing, it comes into conflict with all sorts of other things we believe about God—that God loves us, that God wills only the good for us, that God is there encouraging us and strengthening us. It also comes into conflict with the idea that God is omniscient. The psalmist prays,

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.  ~Psalm 139:1-4

Why would God, having such complete understanding and intimate knowledge of our hearts, feel the need to test us anyway? Under this scenario God comes off as a kind of insecure lover, checking our emails, stealing a glance at our text messages, to make sure our hearts are true.

Still wondering about this whole notion of God “testing” us, we can turn to scripture, and see whether there are any instances of God testing God’s people. And, wow. There’s a pretty big one. I present, for your consideration, Matthew 4:1: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Not only are we pretty confident that God loved Jesus and was on Jesus’ side. Here we have the witness of scripture telling us, pretty unequivocally, that God ‘put Jesus to the test.’

But let’s look closer, to see exactly what God was up to when God handed Jesus over to be tested. Here are the exact temptations: First, Jesus is tempted to break his 40-day fast by miraculously changing stones into bread. This is a temptation to use the power of God, not fur others, but for himself, and in a showy display as well. Second, Jesus is tempted to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, testing to see whether God would send angels to catch him. This is a temptation to put God to the test. And third, Jesus is offered all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor in return for worshipping the tempter-devil himself. This is a temptation to gain worldly riches and power in return for abandoning worship of the one true God.

So let’s be very clear about what constituted Jesus’ testing, about the temptations God allowed to be placed in his way. God was not exposing Jesus to the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent of girlie magazines, nor was God trying to get Jesus to cheat on his diet with a Bloomin’ Onion or a Sweet Frog sundae. God was permitting a test of Jesus’ most basic spiritual orientation. Had Jesus fully placed himself in God’s care and power? Was Jesus willing to use the power of God for impressive display or self-preservation or even enrichment? These are not trivial matters. When we pray, Do not lead us to the time of trial, I would suggest that we are, in effect, remembering the trial of Jesus in the wilderness, we are remembering the allure of power and wealth and the tradeoffs that put self-interest above the service of others. I would suggest that we are trembling in the face of that recollection, and praying that we might not be tested as Jesus was tested. We when pray, Do not lead us to the time of trial, I would suggest that we are reminding ourselves of Jesus’ complete and utter union with God, dependence on God, trust in God, and remembering that that is where the answer to temptation and testing can be found.

“Deliver us from evil,” we pray, or, “Rescue us from the evil one.” Oh, to have an instantaneous snapshot of the images that pop into all our heads when we pray those words. What comes into your head when you hear “evil,” or “deliver us from evil,” or “rescue us from the evil one”? As a child, I had a child’s picture of the devil—pitchfork, pointy tail, horns on his head, the whole deal. But in our age of hyperbole and fiery rhetoric, it’s open season on pretty much all well-known individuals, and the word “evil” is part of our arsenal. There are staggeringly large numbers of Americans who literally believe our President is the Anti-Christ, and therefore evil. The word “evil” has been applied to individuals, groups, and items as disparate as the Aurora and Sandy Hook shooters, Osama bin Laden, Wayne LaPierre, the members of Westboro Baptist Church, the Harry Potter books, Nancy Pelosi, and Rush Limbaugh. And the list goes on. Some of these names we can probably all agree with. Several would cause real disagreement, even here, in this loving community of faith. With the use of the word “evil” applied to such a startlingly wide array, there is a legitimate question that can be raised: Is “evil” a useful word? Or has it lost its meaning?

There are philosophers and psychologists who would argue that no person is evil; rather, actions are evil. Adolph Hitler, for example, would be described as a deeply disturbed, psychologically damaged individual who was responsible for unspeakably evil actions. But this leaves us somewhat unsatisfied, because it places our whole notion of justice in jeopardy. If people are not evil, then we are on the hook to try to help them. We can’t punish them in the way we would like if they are damaged or flawed.

What are we praying when we pray “deliver us from evil” or “rescue us from the evil one”? What if we looked again to those things used to test Jesus? Can we define evil as anything that causes us to turn away from God, or threatens to replace God as our first love? Can we recognize evil in anything that tempts us to use our power to harm others, or causes us to withhold our help to others? Is “evil” anything that stands in the way of love?

If you were to place the King James (i.e., our familiar) version of the Lord’s Prayer side by side with the version in your pew bible, you would notice a glaring omission: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.” This closing doxology—this statement of praise—is something that was typically added on to the end of Christian prayers in the 17th century. It is not found in the original Greek of the Lord’s Prayer, because Jesus apparently didn’t say it. But, oh, he certainly implied it. From the opening words of the prayer, invoking a God in heaven and on earth; a God whose name is all holiness; a God whose kingdom is already unfolding in and all around us; a God who is the giver of all that is good; a God who forgives and forgives; a God who is trustworthy…every line of the prayer leads us to this closing ascription of praise, this closing statement of the reality of what is. We pray to God, that we will honor who God is, and that, steeped in that knowledge, we will get through this day, and our final words must recognize the deep truth. Everything that is, comes from God.

We can trust in God. This does not mean that we will not experience our own times of trial and testing. My own belief is that God does not put us to the test, but does allow life to do that. We can and do experience ourselves to be in the midst of challenges that make us wonder where we will find the strength to go on.

This afternoon a bunch of Union Presbyterians will climb into cars and trucks and vans for the trip to the Jersey Shore, to help with the effort to rebuild homes damaged by ‘Superstorm’ Sandy. Two years ago, and seven years ago, it was our own homes and basements and lives that were inundated with disastrous flooding. But the sorrows and tragedies that change our lives are not necessarily the stuff of headlines and wall-to-wall CNN coverage. We, all of us, suffer losses, some well known and some in the quiet of our own homes.

And still: we can trust in God. If all these losses and challenges are times of testing and trial, the Lord’s Prayer shows us where we find that strength to go on. We find it in God, and we find it in one another. We find it in the future hope of God’s vision—God’s great cleanup of the whole world—and we find it in the grace of God’s daily provision—weeping in one another’s arms, breaking our daily bread together, working side by side, and praying, praising, affirming that the kingdom and the power and the glory are God’s. Thanks be to God. Amen. Amen. Yes, it will be so. Amen.

[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.2.vii,

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Lord's Prayer 4: "And Forgive Us Our Debts, as We Forgive Our Debtors": Sermon on Matthew 6:9-13

 Scripture can be found here...

We are in our fourth week of very slowly praying the Lord’s Prayer together, and we have reached the part of it about which I am going to make a rather bold claim:

This is where it gets hard.

Let’s start with that word, “debt.” Literally speaking, to be in debt is to owe someone something, because, presumably, they gave or loaned something to you. Underlying Jesus’ concern about debts and debtors was a world in which to be in debt could land you either in prison or in bondage… literally, debt slavery, and that’s what our reading from Deuteronomy is all about. According to the law described there, debts could only be held for six years. In the seventh year, all debts were to be forgiven. Period. And if someone’s debt caused them to be sold into slavery, that person could only be held as a slave for six years. In the seventh year, they had to be freed. Period.

Jesus breathed the religious and spiritual air of the Hebrew Scriptures, and there, debts and indebtedness were always viewed in the light of that central experience of God’s people: once, they were slaves in Egypt. That was their defining experience as a people, and that experience led them to believe that no one should be permanently made slaves. So, the Sabbath, that seventh day of rest, is established by God as our weekly reminder that we are not slaves. And therefore, the forgiveness of debts in the seventh year, and the freeing of slaves in the seventh year, stands as testimony to how seriously we take that memory and that Sabbath commandment.

I look around me and I see a world that views Sunday as a day to cram in more work. I see a world in which debt loads on homeowners and students have been cruelly used as political and economic playthings, with no regard of the human toll that is taken. I look around me and I see that cities and counties that are hurting for cash are throwing poor people in prison for failure to pay legal debts; and so, in the year 2013, we once again have debtors’ prisons in our nation.[i]  It looks to me as if we don’t take God’s commandments to remember what it is to be slaves all that seriously.

As I said, this is where it gets hard.

When we try to interpret the words of Jesus, we always need to remind ourselves of that: we are translating. And although this prayer comes to us in Greek, Jesus himself did not speak Greek but Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew. In Aramaic, the word Jesus would have used had a double meaning. It meant “debt,” and it meant “sin.” And of course, when we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” most of us are thinking, not of debt crises or mortgages or student loans or car payments, but of just that: sin.

And here, for better or for worse, our being forgiven is tied to our forgiving others. Jesus is pretty emphatic about this. In verses 14 and 15, he drives the point home: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” As I said, this, is where it gets very, very hard.

So, I would like to veer off in a somewhat different direction for the remainder of this sermon. I would like to offer you letters from a father to two of his sons. I think you may recognize this father. One of his sons has hurt him… sinned against him, you might say. The other son has been exemplary, no son could be better. The father is writing to his sons on this subject, forgiveness.

Here is the first letter.

My dear son,

I cannot express to you the joy I felt when I saw you today, walking towards me. It had been such a very, very long time since I saw your face, that face I used to see every day, and watched change and grow, from the blank beauty of babyhood to the fine featured young man. Your face, your beloved face.

And for these past many months, ever since you left, the thought of your face had filled me with pain. The look of shame and defiance when you asked me to give you your share of the inheritance. The anger… I couldn’t understand your anger. The memory of your face was a like a wound to my heart, open and bleeding, for the longest time.

Eventually, though, I thought of your face and remembered, instead, the joy of the four-year-old who had planted some seeds and was delighted to see a bud and then a bean. I saw the pride and satisfaction of a thirteen year old as your read the Torah portion in the synagogue, and carried on our family’s covenant relationship with G-d. I saw your face illuminated by firelight at table, and reflecting starlight on a bright summer evening. And I realized, even after the hurt, in spite of the very real effects of the wound: I still loved that face. I still longed for that face.

And I forgave you. It wasn’t even a decision I made. It was a road my heart had to take. I had to know I could still love that face, and could still hold you dear, even though you had hurt me.

And my beloved child, you did hurt me. I know that I was not a perfect father. I know I may have been overly harsh or critical, and I know that, at times, it wasn’t even in service of your best interests. But I always asked your forgiveness when I knew I had crossed that line. And then, you hurt me, truly… it felt as if you had thrown in my face all the years of love and care, protection and teaching. And now, you ask my forgiveness…no, not even that. You declare that you have no right to ask.

Who among us has the right to ask for forgiveness? Who among us is perfect? I leave the pondering of that to deeper, wiser minds than mine, and I say: my son, I do forgive you. I forgive you completely. I welcome you back into my home and my embrace. You are my child forever, my beloved child. Welcome home.


Your loving Father.

And now, the second letter.

My dear son,

You are my beloved child, and I am grateful beyond my own power to express for the man you have become. No father could want or imagine a better young man to carry on the family name. You are loyal. You are hard-working. You are honorable, filled with the conviction of what is right and what is wrong. You always choose the right.

And, oh how this grieves me. Now, in choosing what you believe to be right, you are unwilling to offer your brother forgiveness for his sins.

You of all people know what they are. You watched as your brother insulted me and our family by claiming his inheritance even while I still lived and breathed… while he said, in effect, that I was worth more to him dead than alive. You saw the effect on me…months of anger and grieving, soul-searching and heartache, as I struggled to come to terms with a betrayal that felt like a death.

You of all people know how badly your brother hurt me.

But you of all people know, too, the depth of love I have for my sons—both of them.

You saw the look on my face when your mother presented me with another son.

You saw the look on my face at each stage of growth… when he spoke, when he walked, when read, when he ran.

You saw the look on my face when he became a son of the law at his Bar Mitzvah. You saw the look on my face when he worked side by side with you in the fields.

You saw the look on my face when he lifted the cup of wine at our Sabbath table.

And you saw the look on my face through his long absence. You saw the prisoner I was of my own anger and grief.

And I dare to guess that you also saw the look on my face when I had found peace, even before I dreamed he might return.

My son, that peace flooded through me the moment I found forgiveness in my heart for him.

Don’t you see? For the rest of his life, your brother will have to live with what he has done. I hope and pray that he will not become a prisoner of his guilt, a slave to his memories.

Without forgiveness, that is exactly what I would have been: a slave to my anger. A prisoner of my own pain.

I forgave your brother because he is my beloved son, just as I would forgive you.

But I also forgave your brother because to live in my anger and hurt made me a slave and a prisoner, as I fear it might make you one.

My beloved child, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. And I beg you. Find forgiveness in your heart. Don’t be a prisoner. Don’t be a slave.

Set your brother free.

Set yourself free.


Your loving Father.

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. We pray this prayer together on a morning on which we are reminded again, in the starkest terms, of the distance we have to go as a country in combatting some of our oldest and most troubling demons. There is, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, no “cheap grace,” which he described as “the preaching of forgiveness without repentance.” The father who wrote those letters had one son who repented of his sins, and another who could not and would not repent of his hardened heart. My prayer today is that each of us is able to honestly ask God to search and know our hearts, and to bring us to the knowledge, hard as that may be, painful as that may be, as to what it is we need to repent, as individuals and as a nation. And as we forgive, we are promised forgiveness. God wants us all—all—to be free.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Carl Takei, “Courts Should Stop Jailing People for Being Poor,” ACLU National Prison Project, July 3, 2012, 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Lord's Prayer 3: "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread": Sermon on Matthew 6:9-13

Scripture can be found here...

This morning Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times from Timbuktu, in the West African nation of Mali. There, he says, the Al Quaeda rebels are gone, driven into the Sahara by the French military, taking their “hijacked, extremist distortion of Islam” with them. But, Kristof writes, hunger remains, starvation in an economy that collapsed under the extremist regime, which left people too terrified to go out doors to farm their own land.[i]

“Give us this day our daily bread.” I’ll begin today, not with bread, but with fish, another staple of the ancient near-eastern diet. After all, lots of the stories of Jesus pair those two, don’t they? Bread and fish multiplied for the hungry masses…

On January 24, 1986, Moshele and Luvi Lufan were walking on the shore of Yam Kinneret… that’s the modern day name for what we know as Lake Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Tiberius, or the Sea of Galilee. The two brothers were fishermen and members of a nearby kibbutz. They were also amateur archaeologists. Israel was in the midst of a drought, so the lake had receded, exposing muddy shores that had long been underwater. In the course of their walk, the brothers found exactly what they had been hoping they might find someday: a beautifully preserved first century fishing boat, buried in the mud. They had found the only known surviving fishing boat from the era in which Jesus is believed to have climbed into and out of fishing boats on a regular basis.

One of the most remarkable things about the boat was how extensively and expertly it had been repaired. The keel of the boat was a combination of cedar, from an older boat, plus carob and jujube (also known as Christ’s Thorn). The planks were cedar, the frames were oak, and altogether, there were twelve different types of wood in that boat. In other words, it had been kept afloat by expert craftsmen working with inferior materials over a long period of time. The scientists who eventually analyzed it believe the boat had a useful lifetime totaling about a hundred years. This boat speaks of hardship. It speaks of desperation to stay afloat, in more ways than one.[ii]

Why are the gospels so… fishy? Why does the Sea of Galilee, Yam Kinneret, figure so largely in the gospel narrative? Why did Jesus, essentially, relocate there, leaving his hometown of Nazareth to join fishermen in the north shore town of Capernaum, making that his home? And what does this all have to do with “Give us this day our daily bread”?

To understand all these things it helps to know just a little about the politics of the day. Food and politics are so often inextricably connected. Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee, and, to vastly oversimplify matters, he spent much of his career as a puppet-ruler trying to live up to the reputation of his father Herod the Great. So, be became a builder: he built his capital city of Tiberius, named for his patron the Emperor, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. He renamed the sea the “Sea of Tiberius.” And in order to keep the income flowing, from the people to himself, and from himself to his patron… because that is how patronage and being a client-king worked… Herod took over the Sea of Galilee/ Tiberius in a dramatic way, in a way that was typical for the Roman Empire.

The Sea of Galilee became part of an economy that was designed for the exclusive benefit of those in power. As a result, peasants, including fishermen, were kept at subsistence level by a series of taxes, tithes, and tributes. All wealth flowed to the top of the pyramid. Here are just a few of the taxes fishermen would pay: if they owned their own boats—which was rare—they were taxed on every item used to make and stock the boat, flax for the sails, wood for the hull, stone for the anchors. If they didn’t own their boat—which was far more common—they paid exorbitant fees to lease them. They paid a tax to acquire the right to fish, and they paid a head tax on each and every fish they caught. There were taxes levied on the transportation of the fish and on its processing. And this doesn’t count the tributes—taxes levied by rulers simply because they could, taxes paid to them simply because they had the power to demand it. Tax collectors were legally entitled to publicly and viciously beat anyone who dared to try to evade them, and all this money flowed through tax collectors and right to the top, to client rulers like Herod, to regional governors like Pontius Pilate, to the Emperor himself.[iii]

“Give us this day our daily bread.” We are in the second half of the Lord’s Prayer, the half concerned with us, with people, with our needs and wants. And though the first word in English is “Give,” the first words in Greek are, literally, “the bread of us.” A literal translation of the whole sentence would be something like, “The bread of us, ongoing, be giving us today.” That is what Jesus taught his listeners to pray.

Like all the other petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, this is so dense, it deserves to be unpacked.

The bread-of-us: Meaning, our food, the food we, the community, need. Calling it “our” bread tells us that it is food that is shared. The Lord’s Prayer is emphatically a communal prayer. Even when prayed alone in a bedroom or out in the middle of nature, it is still about being in community, and asking for what the community needs.

Consider: one of the first big dustups in church history occurs at Corinth, a controversy about how the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. In his first letter to that church, Paul writes:

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? 
~1 Corinthians 11:20-22a

When the Corinthians gathered for the Lord’s Supper, it wasn’t as we celebrate it, with a small piece of bread and a sip from a cup for all comers. It was a full meal. And those who were well off and with plenty of leisure time arrived early, and brought with them their favorite delicacies and wines, and proceeded to feast and get drunk. Later, after the workday had ended, the peasants arrived—fishermen, farmers, those who were living under the system of taxes and fees that kept them at subsistence level. There was nothing left for them. The food had gone to the wealthy and the poor were left hungry. Paul, to say the least, was not pleased. He refused to recognize it as the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper was not a brown bag affair where everyone brings their own personal supply of food and eats accordingly. It was about food that is shared, so that everyone in the community had enough, so that no one would go hungry.

The essential conflict is this: Who owns the food? Does Herod? Or Tiberius? Or the wealthiest patron of the church? Paul’s answer, Jesus’ answer, is: God owns the food. God owns the lake, by whatever name you want to call it, and God owns the fish that swim in the lake, too. And God’s plan, God’s kingdom vision for creation, is that there is enough for all. When God creates seeds to go into the ground and germinate, and sun and rain to nourish the crops and help them grow, and people to weed and harvest the crops and bring them to markets and homes, there is enough for everybody.

And so, on six separate occasions, as the gospels record it, Jesus found himself in a crowd of hungry people, and on those occasions, despite pressure from his inner circle to send the people away to fend for themselves, Jesus instead invited people to sit for a meal that would be shared. He looked to the food that was available… usually some ridiculously small amount of bread and fish for some ridiculously large number of people. And then Jesus did something to that food. He took the food. He blessed the food. He broke the food. And he gave the food. And in doing that, Jesus said, Look. In God’s economy, there is enough. If we take what God has given us, and if we give thanks for it (instead of imagining we did it all under our own power), and if we break it into sharable amounts, and if we give it away, there will be enough. God has created things in such a way that there will be enough.

Now, it is true that there are powers and forces, from Herod to Al Qaeda to Monsanto, that will tell us that the food is not, in fact, God’s, but their own possession, for their enrichment, and for their benefit. And I am not suggesting that farmers do not have a right to farm crops and take them to market. But I am suggesting that the vision for our provision outlined in the Lord’s prayer has, as its basis, a deeply unjust situation in which the vast majority of the people were being starved so that a handful of the wealthy could feast. I am suggesting that this is precisely why Jesus joined the people of that region, and moved there and lived and taught among them. And I am suggesting that Jesus’ bold assertion, that the earth was indeed the Lord’s, and everything in it, may well have cost him his life.

This week, a photograph appeared on my Facebook feed, a gorgeous picture of lettuce, onions, zucchini, Swiss chard, radishes, yellow beans, and rhubarb from our own UPC garden for CHOW. And so I proudly shared it with my friends, and one of them, Josh Thomas, shared it with the thousands of people who subscribe to his daily prayer page and emails. Here is what Josh said about our harvest:

Firstfruits just a few days ago, from the community garden at the Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York. … they’ve got a whole lot of goodies. I always try to show a special picture on Sundays … Sundays should be special, and here’s a wee example of a church feeding its community. They had the land, they gathered some volunteers, and shortly they got rhubarb and onions, yellow beans and radishes. God is glorious, and all the People have to do is pull weeds. Then we eat!

We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

And we are also praying:

Help us to know that the blessing of food is from you.

Help us to trust that “for today” is enough.

Help us to know that, when we share, there is enough.

Help us to know that the blessing of food is for all, that we are all in this together.

Give us this day our daily bread. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Nicholas Kristof, “Quaeda Rebels Are Gone. Death Isn’t,” The New York Times, July 6, 2013,
[ii] John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), Chapter 6: “Give Us Our Daily Bread.”
[iii] K. C. Hanson, “The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition,” Originally published in Biblical Theology Bulletin 27 (1997) 99-111,

Friday, July 5, 2013

Friday Five: Independence Day Edition!

In honor of the 237th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Indpendence, I invite you to participate in today's Independence Day edition of the Friday Five! We'll be looking at all kinds of "independence," so please join in!

1. How does one typically celebrate your native /adopted land's Big National Holiday?

July 4, Independence Day, is most often celebrated with parades, barbecues, and fireworks... lots and lots of fireworks! I've read that the western United States have bans on fireworks this year because of the drought and the large wildfires they are still working to contain. But family/ friends togetherness makes up for a lack of fireworks, in my opinion. And I know the pets prefer a quieter holiday.

2. How do you personally celebrate the holiday described in #1? Any unusual twists on the typical celebration? Is it something you enjoy or endure?

My family nearly always cooks out, though the threat of thunderstorms means that we didn't yesterday. So, we had cook-out food indoors... hamburgers and corn on the cob (which I serve with chive butter, from my home grown chives) and gas-stove-cooked S'Mores. Our holiday celebrations always include a movie, as well. I remember taking my son to see "Independence Day" as a nine-year-old, the year that came out, and another year we all saw "Men-In-Black." This year none of the current big movies appealed, so we settled in with a DVD of that great American classic (to me, at least), "The Big Chill." What's more American than mid-life crises with a side of college football?

3. What does the word "independence" mean to you, whether in a political or personal mood? How has that understanding changed throughout your life?

Independence means doing what I know is right for me, without regard to the opinions of others, most often, family. At one point in my life, that meant moving from the church of my childhood to the church of my call-to-ministry (even though my mother asked me to wait until she was dead... don't worry, she came around). Independence has also meant, in recent years, learning to be a single head-of-household. (True confession: there may or may not have been a flexing-my-muscles-in-a-mirror moment post my first simple household repair.)
4. When did you first feel that you, personally, had gained independence? Was there a 'rite of passage' you would like to share?

I knew I was independent when, in my twenties, I was working for a living and managing adult responsibilities reasonably well. I believe my personal rite-of-passage involved the first income-tax return.

5. Tell us about your favorite "indie" film, music label, book store...

Film: Too many to name, but recent favorites have included the Brit Marling film, "Another Earth"... It looks like sci-fi, but is really a beautiful meditation on the dreadful mistakes we make and the efforts we put into rectifying them. Thanks to the great podcast "Filmspotting," I've also been watching a lot of Iranian films lately, including the really wonderful "A Separation," about a troubled marriage, and the dominoes that topple, one after another, when life situations change. Music: I am a huge fan of the band Girlyman, now on hiatus, but with so many great albums to sample. Here's one of my favorite songs of theirs, "Supernova."

Bonus Question: Is there a time you remember going "against the tide" of advice or precedent, or in some other way? Or perhaps a time you wish you had done so? Share it here!

Four years ago I decided to share some pretty personal information with my congregation, the fact that I was in a relationship with a woman. To my surprise, I received some push-back from some good friends. But I knew it was right for me and right for my congregation that I should share it, and hopefully, go forward together with a greater level of transparency and trust. I am so grateful that I followed what I believe to be the Spirit's promptings. All relationships involved have only deepened as a result.