Today I want to continue to talk about the Lord’s Prayer and focus on these two petitions: “Give us this day our daily bread” and “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Both of these petitions deal with what it means to be a spiritual person.
We live in an age of deep spiritual longings. Right and left, people are turning to prayer and meditation. There’s a remarkable interest in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has become an international media star. People speak openly and matter-of-factly about encounters with angels. Daily on network television people consult mediums to learn about the well-being of their departed loved ones.
For the most part, I think this interest in spirituality is a good thing. I think that only good can come of learning to meditate and pray, and the Dalai Lama seems to be a genuinely good and holy man.
The problem is the way people define spirituality. People seem to think that spirituality is confined to the realm of prayer and meditation, that it is about angels or conversations with departed loved ones.
A second problem with the current fascination with spirituality is that people fail to recognize the dark side of spirituality, that there is darkness as well as light in spiritual places.
But the biggest problem is that people divorce spirituality from everyday life. The Lord’s Prayer has the antidote to this in its central petition: “Give us today our daily bread”. So far everything the Lord’s Prayer has said sounds nice and spiritual: Our Father in Heaven – that’s good because it puts God in heaven at a safe distance from us and where God cannot interfere too much in our lives. Hallowed be your Name – that’s also good. We are perfectly prepared to hallow and praise God’s Name as long as it doesn’t get in the way of our pleasure and self-centeredness. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven – even this is OK. Presumably, God’s kingdom will not come and God’s will will not be done any time soon.
And then, the Lord’s Prayer throws a monkey wrench into our plans: “Give us today our daily bread.” Suddenly, we’re not praying nice spiritual thoughts. We’re asking God for something that we really need. What’s spiritual about bread?
Here the Lord’s Prayer exposes the fundamental mistake of so much new age spirituality – the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material is false. It is just as spiritual to hunger for bread as it is to meditate for hour after hour. It follows that everything we do with our bodies is spiritual. Thirst is spiritual. Sleep is spiritual. Sex is spiritual. What we do with our bodies matters.
So much of modern spirituality is Gnostic. Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy. The Gnostics taught that spirit was good and matter was bad. They assumed an absolute division between the spiritual and the material. But this is not what the Bible and the Christian faith teach. They teach that God created the world and declared it good and never changed his mind. To be sure, the world is a mess. It is broken and flawed. It is the arena for fire, flood, earthquake, famine, and plague, but it is still God’s good creation.
And so in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread. Bread means bread. It is not a metaphor or code word for spiritual sustenance. When we pray for our daily bread, we are praying for nourishment for our bodies, and we are learning that taking care of our bodies is a spiritual act.
Secondly, I want to point out that the Lord’s Prayer exposes the terrible fragility of human life. David Read, a great Scottish preacher who was for many years the pastor of Madison Ave. Presbyterian in New York, was a prisoner of war during World War II. In his autobiography he tells the story about sitting down to a beautifully prepared French meal in a small country restaurant in Normandy in the summer of 1940. Ten days later he was a prisoner of war begging for bread. Read goes on: “When in our first camp the ration for the next day was issued every evening – one loaf to be divided among eight men – the words ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ took on new meaning…. If I were to ask God for anything at all at that time, my first thought would be bread. It was the immediate need for us all. Lofty thoughts about not considering material things and asking only for spiritual strength.were, I confess, not in the picture. This was a need, a desperate, all-consuming, really humiliating need.” (Holy Common Sense, p. 51)
Human life is terribly fragile. And if we needed to be reminded that life is fragile, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, taught us that lesson anew. But we could already have learned from the Lord’s Prayer not to take anything in life for granted, even our daily bread. The day could come as quickly for us as it did for David Read when there would be only one prayer on our lips--“Give us today our daily bread” – and we might find ourselves praying that phrase with a fervor we’d never known before. For that matter, we might find ourselves praying for water or even the air we breathe. Life is God’s good gift, but the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that it is indeed a gift.
Finally, think carefully about what we are praying for. Jesus teaches us not to pray for MY daily bread but for OUR daily bread. Praying to “Our Father” reminds us that we never pray alone, so praying for “our daily bread” reminds us that we never eat bread alone. “Bread is a communal product…. The farmers in Iowa, the bakers in New York…” The drivers of the trucks that deliver bread to Smith’s or Albertson’s make bread a corporate endeavor. None of us eats or lives alone. (Willimon and Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us, p. 76)
One of my favorite prayers is a table grace by Samuel Howard Miller, a former dean of Harvard Divinity School: “O God, if we thank you for bread and meat, for home and family, for work and friends, for comfort and security, and have no pain of heart, no anguish that others are homeless, helpless and starving, then leave us without your blessing until we learn the ways of mercy. Deliver us from the sin of indifference and bless to us what we now enjoy by the courage and kindness with which we share it.” It is a false spirituality that would teach us to pray for bread for others without actually doing anything to provide that bread for them.
Have you heard the story about the man who dropped into an Episcopal Church one morning just as the congregation was reciting the words from the General Confession? “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done…” And he exclaimed, “These are my kind of people!”
Well, they are our kind of people, too. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
I want to make three points about this petition: First, what is this sin for which we are seeking forgiveness? Secondly, why do we pray for the forgiveness of OUR sins rather than MY sins? And thirdly, is Jesus telling us that forgiveness is conditional on forgiving others?
We usually don’t have much trouble admitting that the world is not as it ought to be and we are not as we ought to be.
But we have a problem with the word sin. It has an unpleasant, off-putting, old-fashioned sound to it. It is something we associate with fundamentalists who seem to almost revel in cataloging sins, usually others, not their own. Do you remember the now infamous remarks made by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the days following Sept. 11, to the effect that the terrorist attacks were God’s punishment for the sins of abortion, feminism, and homosexuality. In other words, the Christian fundamentalists Falwell and Robertson were pretty much agreeing with the Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden on that point.
However, at its heart sin is more than an infraction of a divinely created list of rights and wrongs. Sin is the state of alienation and estrangement from God, from one another, and from our deepest and truest selves. Sin is a network in which we are all involved from the moment of birth.
My friend Rabbi Jonathan Miller and I have an ongoing friendly argument about original sin. I believe in it; he doesn’t. Now, by original sin, I do not believe in original GUILT. I don’t believe that we are all guilty of some crime or misdeed committed by our original ancestors. But, I do believe that all of us are part of a web or fabric of alienation and estrangement.
I remember hearing ministers in the church I grew up in challenging us to try to spend a single day never doing anything wrong – never going over the speed limit, saying an unkind word, lustfully desiring an attractive woman or man. That might be a useful exercise, but I think it would be more instructive to try to spend a single day loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves. For that matter, we might even try to spend a day loving ourselves as we should – exercising, eating healthy food, and getting enough sleep. I feel pretty sure that none of us can spend an entire day either doing those things which we ought to do nor refraining from those things which we ought not do.
Under the conditions of human life as we know it, sin is a permanent condition. Therefore, in the midst of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Traditionally Episcopalians have prayed “Forgive us our trespasses” and our neighbors at First Presbyterian have prayed “Forgive our debts”. The New English Bible translated the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive the wrong we have done as we have forgiven those who have wronged us.” “Debts” is closer to the actual meaning, but modern liturgists have settled on “sins”.
Like the prayer for bread, the prayer for forgiveness brings us down to earth and grounds us. Praise and worship bracket the Lord’s Prayer: First we bless God’s Name and implore God to rule on earth as in heaven, and at the end we acknowledge the divine glory: “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours.” But in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus reminds us that we are not angels but creatures made of the dust of the ground. We need bread, we need to forgive and be forgiven, and we need to be protected from evil.
Secondly, why do we ask to forgive OUR sins, not just MY sins? From first to last the Lord’s Prayer is the prayer of a community, not just an individual. It is a prayer we pray with others, even when we pray it in the isolation of a hermitage. We pray to “Our Father”; we pray for OUR daily bread; and so, too, we pray that God would forgive OUR sins.
We do this because sin is inescapably corporate. It is not just about cheating on our taxes, being unfaithful to our spouse or partner, or saying four letter words. We do plenty of wrong as individuals, both those things of which we are aware and those casual cruelties we may do unconsciously. But the truly enormous wrongs are those we do corporately, with or without conscious awareness.
In the 1930s Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the classic account of corporate evil in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. Niebuhr’s point was obvious but it bears repeating. Good people with good intentions can do very bad things indeed. Individually, most of us are pretty good. We try to raise our children with advantages, take care of our elderly parents and lend a hand to our neighbors.
In the Review Journal this morning I read of the investigation of a couple of foster homes in Las Vegas. When we hear terrible stories of children being mistreated or abused, we think, “How awful! How can people do things like that?”
But think of this. These foster homes are located in the middle of our neighborhoods. They are surrounded by other homes. Did no one in these other homes wonder about how the children in these foster homes were being treated? Have we become so isolated that we nothing of the lives of the homes right next door to us? And what of the foster care system? Did its representatives fail to give adequate oversight because their budget had been cut? You and I are not personally responsible for foster children being mistreated, but we are responsible for a system which allows such evil to take place. And if that is the case, what is that but alienation, estrangement, or, in a word, sin?
Sin is never just an “I” problem; it is always a “we” problem. The best example is probably slavery. Slavery was never just a Southern sin. The railroads transported goods produced by slaves. Even the endowments of Harvard and Yale are founded on fortunes amassed by families who benefitted from slavery.
Thirdly, when Jesus tells us to ask God to forgive our sins as we forgive others, is he saying that forgiveness is conditional? Is he saying that God will forgive us if we forgive others? In our more realistic moments we know that no one would ever receive forgiveness if forgiveness were conditional.
Why then the apparent condition? I don’t believe that God’s forgiveness is conditional, but I believe that it is terribly difficult to receive forgiveness, maybe impossible, if we stay stuck in our anger, our inability to forgive others.
Forgiveness is hard, terribly hard. In his book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis remarks, “Today I succeeded in forgiving someone I have been trying to forgive for twenty five years.” I can identify with that. At my 25th college reunion a friend who had hurt me deeply asked me for my forgiveness. I had been unable to forgive him, so his offer of reconciliation felt like receiving a “get out of jail free” card. Another story in the gospels tells us that Peter wanted to know exactly how many times he had to forgive his brother before he could finally let him have it. Thinking he was being magnanimous, Peter asked, Would it be enough to forgive him seven times? Jesus replied, “No, Peter, but seventy times seven.” God has forgiven us seventy times seven trillion. Do you think we might eventually learn to forgive each other at least a couple of times?
The great theologian Karl Barth once remarked that too much Christian preaching speaks about an obligation which must be met in order to receive a gift, whereas the real message of the New Testament is about a gift which then leads us to an obligation. (quoted in William Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, p. 23.) But “Jesus told us about a God whose love contains no "ifs" at all.” (Willimon, p. 27)
The rhetoric of sin is one of the things that makes the church such a strange place. Someone has been spreading the rumor that the church is a bunch of good people who want to do nice things for others. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us otherwise. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that we are so destitute that we must beg for our daily bread, that we are in a state of alienation and estrangement from God and our neighbor, and that without divine aid we would be overcome by the darkness around us.
Our Father in heaven… give us today our daily bread and forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.