Sermon Text: Matthew 6:11
Click this link to download the .mp3. Otherwise press the play button below. (Please note that due to a technical problem, the first minute of the sermon was cut off. Sorry!)
What follows is my original manuscript for this sermon. It includes a link to a wonderful Youtube video of Elvis Costello and the Attractions performing “New Lace Sleeves.”
There is so much about living in our world that is phony. Our political leaders lie—or at least fail to tell us the whole truth; fail to level with us; fail to be candid. Other people we look up to lie to us: Remember the first cover story that came out after the Tiger Woods scandal began? Did we believe that his wife was using that golf club to rescue him from his smashed-up vehicle? Or two weeks ago, when former slugger Mark McGwire broke the “news” that we already knew: He had indeed used performance-enhancing steroids that year he was chasing and surpassing Roger Maris’s single-season homerun record in 1998. Sort of anti-climactic, huh? In his interview with Bob Costas, his anguish and remorse seemed real enough, but he still maintains, against all logic, that the drugs didn’t contribute to his record-breaking year. Right.
And, of course, we lie—we lie by what we say, more often perhaps by what we fail to say, and by what we’re unable to admit, often even to ourselves. One of my favorite songs is by Elvis Costello. It’s called “New Lace Sleeves.” It’s addressed to a person who is quick to see how other people have lied to her but is unable to see the ways she lies to herself. The refrain goes: “And you say the teachers never taught you anything but white lies/ But you never see the lies that you believe.” And so we often lie to ourselves. We keep up appearances. We put on airs. We put up a front. We put up our guard. We pretend to be something or someone we’re not. It’s not because we’re bad people; it’s because we’re sinners. We’re insecure, and we’re afraid. We’re afraid other people won’t love us or accept us if they knew the truth.
How desperately we need to open the locked doors and shuttered windows of our hearts and let the daylight of God’s truth shine into them! It begins with this petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” When Jesus teaches us to pray in this way, he is, among other things, giving us permission to be honest—with ourselves and with God. To drop our guards. To drop the pretenses. To be real. To be vulnerable. What is really going on in our lives? How do we really feel? What are our deep desires? What do we really need God to do for us? We can tell the truth!
You know that cliché about beauty pageants—the question-and-answer portion, in which the host asks the contestant about their hopes and dreams? We don’t really expect honesty and full disclosure here, do we? We know—and everyone watching in the audience or on TV knows—that the contestant is supposed to give not the truth but a highly polished, well-articulated version of whatever she hopes the judges want to hear: “I really want to work for world peace.” It’s like in a job interview being asked to describe your greatest fault or weakness: don’t be completely honest. “I would say my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist. I really just can’t be satisfied until the job is done right.”
Needless to say, we don’t approach God this way. We don’t say the words that we think God wants us to say. It is a false piety that says we shouldn’t trouble God with our selfish or self-centered concerns. I had a pastor once who was always praying for little things—for example, even a parking space in a crowded hospital parking deck. Another pastor thought that was just silly and trivial. I don’t know how I feel about praying for a parking space, but I know that we often put off praying because we second-guess our need to pray. We think, “I shouldn’t pray right now. I’m not in a good frame of mind—I’m not in a spiritual place right now. What would God think of me if I asked for something so trivial, petty, and unspiritual as that? How could I even give a thought to my own selfish interests when people are suffering in Haiti!” And before you know it—while we wait to be in a more “spiritual” place—we end up not praying at all. Isn’t that just what the devil wants! Read C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters some time for more insights about this phony kind of spirituality.
Praying, “Give us this day our daily bread,” frees us from all that. It frees us from having to be so spiritual all time! It frees us from a phony and destructive kind of spirituality—a Gnostic kind of spirituality—that looks with suspicion on anything physical and of this world. Notice that this petition is first of all a very earthy petition. It’s down to earth—like the rest of the prayer. In the first part of the prayer, which we talked about last week, we’re not praying that God would transport our spirits up into the third heaven, far from this world, so that we could fly among the angels—we are praying that God’s kingdom would come down here, so that this earth, this present world, would become more and more like heaven above, where God’s glory is perfectly reflected in his creatures. We are asking God to give us something very humble and basic: not world peace—although if we could live this prayer out, we’d be a lot closer to it—but our daily bread.
You know what I like about praying for our daily bread? It is an achievable prayer. Think about it. In my line of work, I’m inundated with prayer lists: people I don’t know; people who are related to people I don’t know; people who are often just names on paper with countless illnesses and crises. I confess I often know how to pray for them—I don’t know what to pray for them. I don’t know them or what they’re going through. I don’t know what they need.
But daily bread… I can understand that! Let’s start there! Before moving on to world peace. Don’t misunderstand me: As we pray more and more, God’s Spirit will teach us how to pray more effectively, and our prayers will become less self-centered. But praying for our personal and physical needs is a place to start. Think about this: If I could learn to trust God with these simple needs—to depend on God, to see all the ways in which God is faithful to me in ways that I too often take for granted, wow! What kind of difference would that make in my life? To see that everything that I have in life—including this moment of life, this breath, this heartbeat, these wonderful friendships, the love of this family, this freedom to worship without fear, this hot meal, this warm and safe home—is a gift. What gratitude I would have!
I would be changed if I learned to really pray for my daily bread and not take it for granted. This may give us one clue about why we petition God for anything—seeing that, as Jesus says in v. 8, God knows both what we need and what we’re going to say. We pray in part so that the Lord can shape us and transform us through prayer. So when we pray for a friend in need, we may come away from that experience with a desire to call or visit. We may get some insight or intuition to enable us to help them. Then, by responding to God in prayer, God is also answering our prayer. When we pray for the Haiti, God may show us a way we can help—perhaps by giving money to UMCOR or organizing a drive for needed rebuilding supplies. Or maybe we’ll go on a mission trip there or to a Third World country—where we can minister in a more direct way. It begins with prayer. So God is using us to answer that prayer.
By the way, on Wednesday night I was talking to a parishioner about some insights I’d gleaned on this part of the prayer, and I was telling him about how there’s a real spiritual component to asking God for bread. He said, “I thought when we prayed for our daily bread, we were only praying for something spiritual.” Ugh! Just what us affluent American Christians would think! I’m sure that our brothers and sisters living in the global south, in places like Honduras and Paraguay have a strong appreciation for “daily bread” as something first of all very physical.
But praying for our “daily bread” is also spiritual—in the sense that Jesus Christ meets our deepest, most profound human needs. Jesus is our true “Bread of Life,” our source of lasting happiness and peace. As he told the devil in the wilderness, “Human beings do not live on bread alone,” so he reminds us. One of the most controversial things Jesus frequently did in the gospels was to sit down at tables and break bread with people considered by others to be “sinners”—people of ill-repute, people shunned by proper society, outsiders. This was his way of announcing that God’s kingdom was open to them as well. They didn’t have to wait to become perfect and spiritual first, before God accepted them.
Neither do we! By coming to the Lord’s table for this meal, we are coming to be nourished spiritually, in the deepest recesses of our hearts.