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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, August 14, 2005
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to the memory of Alan Ayres, father of Kevin Ayres, and always to the glory of God!
Give Us and Forgive Us
Part III of V in the sermon series: "Teach Us to Pray: The Lord's Prayer in our Daily Lives"
Romans 11:1-2, 29-32 and Matthew 15:10-28

"...Give us this day our daily bread . . . " How simple. Jesus knew how to keep things simple. He knew that finding something to eat was a serious problem that literally consumed and still consumes much of the daily energy of most of the world's population. Jesus knew that without bread and water in your belly, the rest of this message makes no sense. It will never reach you. Without bread, you become distracted and disoriented. Without bread, your energy is depleted and your body breaks down. Basic human needs must be met for the kingdom to become real.

Daily bread is essential for life, breath, and daily existence. Beyond simple existence, Jesus knew that eating together was a sign of God's love and justice. He knew that bread broken and shared was the greatest communion with God and humanity, linking heaven and earth.

He also knew that the lack of daily bread was more a reflection of greed and neglect on the part of those who "have" resources than laziness on the part of those who "have not." So, when the hungry poor pray for daily bread, it is out of immediate need. When those who have food pray, it becomes a commitment not to merely find food for yourself, but to provide bread for the world. So, our prayer becomes a prayer for justice, not merely for our next meal.

"Give us this day our daily bread" must cause each of us to reflect on our core values. In an hungry world, how have I provided food for another one of God's children this day? If we ignore or spiritualize Jesus' command outside of His prayer, to "feed my sheep," then we become the shepherds that the prophet Ezekiel warned of in Ezekiel 34:3-4, "You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, or bound up the injured." By doing this, we care for ourselves and let the rest of the world suffer.

Think of this another way. If we were to shrink the world's population to a village of 100 people with all the ratios remaining the same, there would be 59 Asians, 15 Europeans, 9 Central and South Americans, 11 Africans, and five citizens of the United States and one is from Canada. There would be 52 females and 48 males. Thirty people would be white, 70 people would be of other races. 30 people would be Christian and 70 would be of other religions. 30 would be able to read and 70 would be illiterate. Although we in the United States represent only five people in this global village, we possess 59% of the village's wealth. We, who fewer than five people in the village use 54% of the village's expendable resources, including food. Put yourself in the place of the other 95 villagers. As we own so much and consume so much of the village's resources, is it any wonder that the other 95 villagers feel jealous, defensive, hateful, and resentful of the way we relate to them?

When we left for church this morning with food in our refrigerator, clothes on our back, and a roof over our heads, we were already wealthier than 75% of the world's population. Hot water, indoor plumbing, SUV's or Saturns, televisions, telephones, and computers are all extravagant luxury items in a world where 500 million people are starving to death today. We must ask, what does it mean to pray "give us this day our daily bread," when we are so blessed? (Statistics drawn from Praying Like Jesus, James Mulholland, Harper, San Francisco, CA, 2001, pp.75-76). It is time to live the Kingdom values of Jesus. When he said, "for those to whom much has been given, much is expected in return," he was speaking to us.

I recommend we get out of our comfortable five homes in the village of this world and visit the other 95 villagers. We can start in the Caribbean. Our neighbors in Jamaica digging out from several years of hurricane hits are ready for our visit. How about a stop in Haiti, the poorest nation in our hemisphere? Our nearby neighbors in Central and South America, in places like Honduras and El Salvador are hungry for daily bread. Let us share ours. In Central Africa, especially in northern and southern Sudan, and the Darfur region, where genocide has claimed whole towns of people, our neighbors are dying for daily bread. The search for daily bread has turned into civil war for daily bread. In India, our missionaries in Deep Griha see so many sick and dying in a day that we can't even fathom the truth of their suffering and much of it is caused by the lack of daily bread.

Do you see how this prayer of Jesus works? It does not invite us to close our eyes and pray in private. It compels us to get up off our knees and open our eyes to the other 95 global villagers who need bread today. Some of them are knocking at our doors. Most of them are too weak to stand. All of them need bread today.

Ironically, this "clause" of the prayer is different in Matthew and Luke's version of the prayer. The Greek is tricky, but Matthew seems to mean, "Give us today our bread for tomorrow." Luke clearly means, "Give us each day our daily bread." While scholars tangle about the spiritual meaning of "Bread for Tomorrow" versus "Bread for Here and Now," I move on with this thought - perhaps each writer had it right. Prayers for tomorrow's bread are only possible when we have eaten today. Prayers for reconciling heaven and earth through the breaking of bread, are in the end, the true meaning of Jesus' reconciling words. In essence, he is saying, "Feed my people here and now, and I will feast with you at the banquet table in heaven."

"...Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us . . . " Years ago, I was part of an interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service. For some strange reason, the Rabbi in town had been given the "Lord's Prayer" to lead. While this prayer is composed completely of thoughts and elements of Judaic prayer forms, it appears no where in Hebrew Scriptures. And Jesus is not "Lord" in Judaism. I was a student in ministry at the time and I wondered what the rabbi would do when he delivered this prayer. Taking off his glasses, he looked at us and spoke to the room filled with expectant (and mostly Christian) worshipers. He said, "Now, I know that is the prayer of your Messiah. It is a beautiful prayer. I rarely read. I have never before spoken it in public. However, I do know that you Christians share a great deal of confusion about the prayer. And so before I begin to pray this prayer, I need to know, "are you sinners, debtors or trespassers?" As we laughed, I thought to myself - aren't we all three?

Having been fed bread, our petition reaches another level of life - to receive God's forgiveness and to be people of grace who forgive one another, at the same time. Why are we so troubled by this double-edged sword of forgiveness which cuts through the pain of continuous resentments and anger? When you reach this place in the Lord's Prayer, do you do so with sense of relief and release? Do you feel liberated by knowing that God forgives you? Or do you feel judged as you are reminded of your own failings and inabilities to forgive and thus reawakened to your own resentments as you have not forgiven others?

Have you ever gone into an area with briars covering the ground? From a distance, it looks like you could step gently on these briars and walk on through to the other side. But, once you step in, you realize your pants are caught, your legs are bleeding, and you're stuck in a painful ground-cover through which you must continue or you must exit as you entered. I feel like getting through the pain of our unforgiven mistakes is like this. We get stuck in the briar patch of hurt pride, our poor choices, our mistakes, insults inflicted and received, regrets, offenses, injuries, guilts, and betrayals. But, the briars are the least of our worries. The ground beneath us is quicksand which slowly sucks us in. We must move on or we will become entangled in that painful, sinking space forever.

Forgiveness is our way through the briar patch. It is as if God is cutting away the prickly ground-cover and pulling us through to safety when we say, "Forgive us our debts, sins, trespasses." God forgives us. Why can we not forgive one another? God moves on past our screw-ups and failed intentions. Why can we not do that for one another?

Each one of us gets all caught with our own egos. Can I forgive? Will I forgive? We get stuck on me. We think to ourselves: I have been wronged, I overlooked, I forgotten, I forsaken, I unjustly accused, I unappreciated, and I unrewarded. But, Jesus reminds us that this universe into which we have been born is ties us all together. Jesus frees us from our self-absorption in this prayer: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive one another." You can choose to suffer by your refusal to forgive. That is a choice. Or, you can enter into the awakening force of forgiveness. You can make that choice, too.

William Sloane Coffin writes in Credo,

"The consequences of the past are always with us, and half the hostilities tearing the world apart could be resolved today were we to allow the forgiveness of sins to alter these consequences. Let's go further: All the hostilities in our personnel and planetary life could be ended were we to allow the forgiveness of sins to act as a lightening rod grounding all these hostilities; if we were to say to ourselves, `the hostility stops here.'"

In Lewis B. Smedes' 1996 book The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don't Know How, Dr. Smedes lays out a road map to forgiveness - for those of us who do better with maps! His contents include: What We Do When We Forgive, Why We Forgive, Whom We Forgive, and How We Forgive. At the very end of his book he says this (Words I have quoted often):

Forgiving is the only way to heal the wounds of a past we cannot change and cannot forget. Forgiving changes a bitter memory into a grateful memory, a cowardly memory into a courageous memory, an enslaved memory into a free memory. Forgiving restores a self-respect that someone killed. And, more than anything else, forgiving gives birth to hope for the future after our past illusions have been shattered. When we forgive, we bring light where there was darkness. We summon positives to replace negatives. We open the door to an unseen future that our painful past had shut. When we forgive, we take God's hand, walk through the door, and stroll into the possibilities that wait for us to make them real.

Remember this: forgiving is essential. Talking about it is optional.

Remember also: When we forgive, we set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner we set free is us. When we forgive, we walk in stride with the forgiving God. (Smedes, pp. 176 and 178).

None of this is easy. Whether seeking ways to feed the hungry poor or forgive another as God has forgiven us, it is challenging, often tiring work. However, we are never alone. We needn't see this as individual effort against all odds. Seek each other out. Talk of the pain and struggles. Talk of your cynicisms and your doubts. Then, after talking, pray the prayer Jesus gave us. Pray it as if it were new to you. Pray it with a deep and abiding sense that it will deliver you - for it will! Amen.

Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church