Monday 5 March 2018

Give us today our daily bread

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
March 4 2018 - 3rd Sunday in Lent

'Give us this day our daily bread.'

Exodus 16.1-12  
Deuteronomy 8.2-3
Matthew 4:1-4 

How were you affected, I wonder,
            by the great ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken Crisis’ of February 2018.
Do you even know what I’m talking about???
            Some do… Some don’t…
OK, well to bring you up to speed, KFC,
            (and may God Bless the Colonel’s unique blend of 11 herbs and spices),
            decided to switch their delivery company
                        from a specialist food transport company to DHL,
            well known to most of us for the little cards they pop through our letterboxes
            telling us they’ve tried, and failed, to deliver something.

As you may have guessed by now, things didn’t go quite according to plan,
            and KFC shops started running out of chicken;
            which, considering it’s basically all they sell,
            meant that they closed their doors.

At the height of the drama, a couple of weeks ago,
            about two thirds of KFC outlets were closed.

Apparently, according to the Daily Mail,
            ‘Panicked customers resorted to calling the police’
            because they feared they might lose out on their ‘Daily Bird’.[1]

Well, so far, so ridiculous.

However, if you happened to be one of the zero hours contracted employees
            of a KFC franchise that was forced to close,
            things were rather less amusing.

The gig economy of hand-to-mouth employment,
            exemplified by organisations such as Uber and Deliveroo,
            means that that if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.

And an estimated 10% of the KFC workforce lost out
            on their expected earnings that week,
while many others were required to take annual leave to cover the closure.[2]

It is very likely, given the demographic
            of your typical worker in a fast food restaurant,
            that people went hungry as a result of this fiasco.

And it is in this context of tenuous employment and uncertain income
            that I want us to encounter our passage for this morning from the Lord’s Prayer.
            ‘Give us this day our daily bread’.

The daily reality for many people in our city,
            and indeed for many of those who pass through the doors of this church,
is that the prayer for daily bread has a level of anxiety to it
            that is easily lost on those of us who have enough resources in hand
            to feed ourselves for the foreseeable future.

This is not easily a middle-class prayer.

And for many of those in First Century Palestine,
            to whom Jesus first taught this prayer,
uncertainty about their future ability to feed themselves
            was a part of their day by day existence.

It was only the rich and the wealthy in Jewish society
            whose future was assured.
For everyone else, the only certainties were death and Roman taxes.

There was no welfare state, no minimum wage, certainly no Living Wage;
            there was no trades union movement,
            no standardized terms and conditions of employment.
If you got ill, or lost your job,
            the step from feeding your family to destitution was a startlingly small one.

And it was to disciples facing uncertain futures that Jesus taught the prayer:
            ‘Give us, this day, our daily bread’.

There is an urgent simplicity to it when it’s heard in a subsistence context,
            and I wonder if this is where it’s first challenge to us,
                        in all the complexities of our metropolitan lives,
            might come from.

We live in a society, and a city, of huge disparities of income and security.
            Some of us struggle not to eat too much,
                        while others of us struggle to know where our next meal is coming from.
            Some of us struggle to know how to wisely invest our resources,
                        rightly asking ethical questions of our bankers and pension funds;
            while others don’t have enough income for even today’s needs
                        let alone the needs of an imagined future retirement.

So what does the stark simplicity of a prayer for daily bread,
            say to a city where investment banks and food banks sit side by side?

Well, to me, it says that something has gone wrong.

But first, the middle class caveat:
            I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong
                        with having enough resources in hand for the future
                        as well as for today.

It seems prudent to me that we should, if we are able,
            plan for our retirements,
            and ensure the future wellbeing of our loved ones.

The honest and earnest prayer for the needs of today
            does not negate the honest and earnest planning for the needs of tomorrow.

However, it might challenge us to consider
            whether we have become guilty of the sin of excess,
and it might call us to review once again our own priorities,
            and it might ask us to ensure that we don’t neglect the needs
            of those who are less well off than we are.

But beyond the individual challenge,
            I wonder if the simplicity of the prayer for daily bread
might ask more wide-ranging questions
            of the attitudes and practices
            which drive so much of the economics of our world.

And here, for a moment, I want us to consider
            the current dominant economic system known as global capitalism.

The impact of the internet-driven information revolution
            on the centuries-old system of capitalism
                        has been profound,
            and the basis on which international trade occurs has shifted.

We used to have a world economy,
            with countries linked via trade agreements
                        such as the one we may or may not have with Europe post-Brexit.

However, I have a suspicion that all the wrangling
            over trade and customs unions
            is a bit like shutting the door once the horse has bolted,
because nations are now linked financially at far more organic levels
            through the transnationalism of production processes,
            through the internationalization of the finance markets,
            and through the global accumulation of capital.[3]

Even so-called ‘closed’ countries are unable to opt out fully,
            and no nation can exist immune
                        from the social, political, and cultural impacts of global capitalism.

This creates a largely unregulated context
            for global inequality, domination, and exploitation.

The upshot of which is that if you want to solve hunger or poverty in one nation,
            you immediately find yourself doing battle
                        with global powers of oppression
            that will always act in the self interests of the global elite who constructed them,
                        to the disadvantage of the global poor.

And so, worldwide, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Last year, the nine richest men in the world
            held more wealth than the poorest 4 billion people,
and most of those men are rich
            because they own the companies that control international trade.

The richest person on that list is Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon;
            who are of course well known for their excellent employment practices
            and scrupulous corporate tax payments.[4]

These systems that we have created
            are highly sophisticated in their mechanisms,
            but surprisingly simple in their objectives.

They exist to make money, to acquire wealth, to generate profit.

And because one person’s profit is always another person’s loss,
            they therefore also exist
            to impoverish, exploit, and dominate.

Unchecked and unchallenged,
            global capitalism causes vast suffering across the world,
            and to colludes in ecological destruction on an unprecedented scale.

So where, we might ask, will the challenge come from?

Well, I want to suggest that it’s here,
            in our little verse from the Lord’s Prayer:
            ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

Do you know the parable of the fisherman?

The rich industrialist from was horrified
            to find the fisherman lying lazily beside his boat, smoking a pipe.
"Why aren't you out fishing?" said the industrialist.
"Because I have caught enough fish for the day," said the fisherman.
"Why don't you catch some more?" asked the industrialist.
"What would I do with it?" replied the fisherman
"You could earn more money" was the reply.
            "With that you could have a motor fixed to your boat
            and go into deeper waters and catch more fish.
"Then you would make enough to buy nylon nets.
            These would bring you more fish and more money.
Soon you would have enough money to own two boats . . . maybe even a fleet of boats.
            Then you would be a rich man like me."
"What would I do then?" asked the fisherman.
"The you could really enjoy life." came the reply.
“And what”, said the fisherman, “do you think I am doing right now?"[5]

The challenge is clear:
            what if we focus not on what we could acquire,
            but simply on what we need?
What if we were to decide, personally and communally,
            that enough is just that, enough?

Firstly, it would release resources for others,
            but also it would begin to release us
            from the continual pressure to acquire wealth, status, and success.

If we ask for, and receive, our daily bread,
            then we have enough for today.

This was the lesson that the Israelites had to learn
            in the story of the manna in the wilderness,
            which is clearly in the background to Jesus’ words in his prayer.

If they collected too much, and tried to keep more than they needed,
            it went rotten by the next day,
                        except on the sixth day when they had to collect enough for two days,
                        so they could rest from their labour on the seventh day.

And what if, rather than worrying about the question
            of what this mysterious manna actually was,
we simply take this ancient story at face value
            as a parable of idealized economics?

Here we have a story, much like the parable of the fisherman,
            which speaks of simple living,
                        where enough is enough,
                        where unnecessary accumulation is pointless,
                        where rest is sanctified,
                        and where people can be content
                                    and stop complaining about their lot in life
                                    because they simply have enough.

Of course, the question of ‘how much is enough?’
            is always going to rear its head,
            and be open to interpretation and, dare I say it, abuse.

The teaching you meet in some churches,
            often known as the Prosperity Gospel,
            says that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing;
and one of its most well known proponents,
            the preposterously prosperous pastor Benny Hinn,
                        has been in the news this last week,
            having apparently decided that,
                        even for someone whose whole career has been built around prosperity,
                        sometimes enough is enough.

In an interview reflecting on the ministry of Billy Graham,
            Hinn acknowledges that he has been guilty of taking prosperity teaching
                        a bit beyond what the Bible teaches.[6]
            Which may possibly be the understatement of the century.
Anyway, Hinn has now apparently given up his private jet, poor chap.

But I do think the question
            of what we think we’re asking for
                        when we pray for our daily bread
            is an important one.

Is it just a prayer for food,
            or is it for shelter, warmth, security,
                        love, self-determination, mobility,
                                    a car, a private jet…?
Where do we draw the line?

Studies have shown that there comes a point,
            and it is lower than you would think,
            beyond which additional wealth does not lead to additional happiness.[7]

The temptation to excess is ever before us,
            just as it was before Jesus in his own experience in the wilderness.
He didn’t wake up every morning of his 40 day Lenten fast in the desert
            to find fresh manna waiting for him.
He starved.
            And then he was tempted to use his divine power
                        to command stones to become bread for him to eat;
            and in his reply to the tempter he quoted words from Deuteronomy,
                        originally written to reflect on the Israelite experience
                        of their 40 years wandering in the wilderness:

This passage Jesus quotes
            tells us that the lesson of the daily manna from heaven
            is not that God meets all your needs and invites you to a life of luxury;
but rather it is that abundant life
            is not found in the abundance of a person’s possessions,
                        or even in the abundance of the food they consume,
            but in obedience to every word that comes from the mouth of God.

The discipline of praying, each day, for daily bread
            is not some ritual to get God to give us what we think we need;
as I said a couple of weeks ago,
            that kind of prayer has more in common with magical incantations
            than it does the articulations of the longings of a humble heart.

No, we pray for daily bread
            for the same reasons the Israelites gathered manna,
to learn obedience to God who guides us
            into works of goodness, humility, and charity.

The prayer for daily bread, you see, is not about me, or even about us,
            lest we think that God especially favours us
                        by answering our cry for food.
It’s a prayer that takes us into solidarity with those who lack,
            and which drives us into action to see the hungry fed,
                        the poor raised up,
                        and the impoverished released from the snares of debt.

It is a prayer that takes us into good works of transformative charity.
            It certainly did for the early Christians,
            as the book of James makes clear:

James 2:15-17  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,  16
            and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,"
            and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  17
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

And similarly in the book of Acts we read:

Acts 6:1  Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number,
            the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews
            because their widows were being neglected
            in the daily distribution of food.

And I wonder, in our complex, interconnected, globalised capitalist world,
            what such good works might look like for us?

I said a couple of weeks ago that we are called, as God’s adopted children,
            to mirror his likeness through doing good works.
So what would it look like if our commitment to good works
            led us to a commitment to good work,
where we become advocates for good employment practices
            where people are paid a fair living wage,
            and receive paid holiday, sickness benefits, and maternity cover?

What would it look like for our prayer for daily bread
            to include a commitment to alleviating food poverty?

I increasingly find myself drawn to the idea of a universal basic income
            in place of the current cruelties of our social security system,
which would mean that every individual would get a basic income,
            sufficient to live with dignity, and unconditionally,
            even when they are not working.

The hungry in our city are not primarily those we see begging on the streets.
            These may be the most visible,
                        but as we have heard recently there are a variety of places
                        you can go for daily food if you are street homeless.

The vast majority of those who are malnourished in our city are in flats,
            in blocks like the tragic Grenfell Tower,
and they include children and the elderly,
            and parents skipping meals so their families can eat.

And what, I wonder, does a prayer for daily bread mean to them?
            And how might we be part of the answer to that prayer?

And so we come to the Communion table,
            and all of the various themes that I’ve been holding before us
            coalesce around the bread before us today.

The first Lord’s supper was the celebration of the Passover meal.
            The story of the manna was there before the disciples
                        that evening in the upper room;
            and Jesus, while they were eating, took a loaf of bread,
                        and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples,
                        and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." (Matthew 26.26).

Elsewhere, in John’s gospel,
            we read that Jesus described himself as the bread of life,
            saying that whoever comes to him will never by hungry (John 6.35).

And in Paul’s story of the Lord’s supper in his letter to the Corinthians,
            he records Jesus as saying that
            ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup,
                        you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11.26).

This is the meal of sharing,
            it is the meal of accountability,
            the meal of sacrifice,
            the meal of abundance,
            the meal of life.

And it is as we share this bread,
            that we will find the answer to our prayer for daily bread
                        taking shape in our lives and in our midst.

It is as we share this bread
            that we discover together what it is to be obedient
            to every word that comes from the mouth of God.

It is as we eat bread together, that we find ourselves motivated
            to good works in our world,
            to share with those who have less than we do,
            to lift up those who are weighed down by poverty,
            and to offer all that we have to the service of the one
                        who calls us to newness of life.

It is not a coincidence that our cash offering at Communion services
            is dedicated to the hardship fund of the church,
                        for the direct alleviation of financial difficulty.
And of course, because we live in a complex world,
            if you want to give to the hardship fund in a more structured way,
            you can do so by filling out a gift aid form if you’re a tax payer,
            or by designating some of your standing order to the Fund.

But in any case, the Hardship fund is just an expression
            of who we are when we gather around the table,
to break bread, to eat together,
            and to pray once again the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray.

Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.


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