Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity 2018

What is the fantasy business you would set up if you could give up your day-job and throw caution to the wind?

The Reverend Justin White Priest Vicar

Sunday, 5th August 2018 at 11.15 AM

What is the fantasy business you would set up if all other constraints were taken away … if you could give up your day-job and throw caution to the wind?

A bakery is one fantasy I have entertained from time to time. Typically, I’ve spent more time thinking about the name above the shop-front than about its business model, or the fact that bakers have to get up at 3 a.m.

‘The Bread of Life’, perhaps? Or ‘Risen Indeed’? Or ‘Kneads Must’? Or ‘Leavens Above’? Or ‘Manna-fest’? Or ‘Somewhat a rye’?

Or, more straightforwardly, borrowing from the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Our Daily Bread.’

So atavistic and trans-historical is bread in human civilisation and consciousness that it is one of the things that helps us to bridge the divide between our world and the sitz im leben of the Bible. 

So it is, I think, that we can relate to the visceral complaints of the Israelites in this morning’s reading from Exodus: “We’d have sooner had our fill of bread, and died at the hands of the fleshpots of Egypt, than be wandering free in this wilderness without so much as a crumb!”

And so the Lord supplies manna. Like hoarfrost, we are told; white like coriander seed, with the taste of wafers made with honey. Recipe not supplied.

Incidentally, have you noticed that the Lord’s Prayer is the story of the Exodus – but in reverse?

Take each petition from the bottom up: ‘Deliver us from evil’ – or deliver us from slavery, as were the Israelites delivered from Egypt. ‘Lead us not into temptation’ – as were the Israelites tempted to fall back during their long walk to freedom through the wilderness. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ – as were the Israelites forgiven when they turned to golden calves and false idols in the desert. ‘Give us our daily bread’ – as were the Israelites fed in the wilderness with manna from heaven. ‘Thy will be done’ – a reference to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. ‘Thy kingdom come’ – as did the Promised Land where God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. ‘Hallowed be thy name’ – as was the name of YHWH in the Temple of Jerusalem where He caused his name to dwell. Our Father –the Israelites are sons and daughters of their one heavenly Father.

If the Lord’s Prayer is the story of the Old Testament in reverse, it is also our story, the story of Christian discipleship in reverse.

‘Deliver us from evil’ – as were we at our baptism, when we were delivered from the slavery of sin and the power of death. ‘Lead us not into temptation’ – as are we, sharing in the all-too-human temptations that our Lord endured during his journey through the wilderness. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ – as are we, reconciled, and now commissioned to share in the Church’s ministry of reconciliation; bidden to forgive those who trespass against us. ‘Give us our daily bread’ – as are we given sustenance for the daily round, the common task. ‘Thy will be done’ – as we do whenever we carry out the New Commandment to love one another. ‘Thy kingdom come’ – that kingdom whose advent we both anticipate and already inhabit. ‘Hallowed be thy name’ – as we do whenever we give voice to the Church’s paean of thanks and praise in this and every act of worship; echoing the song of the Kingdom of Heaven. ‘Our Father’ – we, by adoption, are sons and daughters of our one heavenly Father.

Looking at it that way has certainly changed the way I pray the Lord’s Prayer.

But today’s readings causes us to focus on that most familiar (one might say, most quotidian) petition: ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

When I hear that, my thoughts go straight to material things. This is a prayer that I might be well supplied with material sustenance – food and water and the other necessities of life.

If that’s where my mind goes, it seems I’m not alone. For that seems to be the sense in which the crowd that pursued Jesus across the lake in this morning’s Gospel took it. Yesterday (or last week for us) Jesus miraculously fed 5000 from just a handful of loaves and fishes. Little wonder they pursued him. They were having their material needs met. It was as if, through Jesus, God was on tap to meet their needs. This divine dispensing machine needs to be co-opted; this needs to be patented!

“Very truly, I tell you,” says Jesus (which, incidentally, is Bible-speak for ‘Listen up!’), “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw miracles, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” As always, Jesus cuts to the quick of the crowd’s motivations.

“You don’t want me, you want what I can do for you. That is your mistake. You are materialist, utilitarian and pragmatic.”

And so are we, I suggest … materialist, utilitarian and pragmatic. That is what we want from our religion. It must make the life we know and want, work.

Unfortunately, when Jesus sees this in us, he has a tendency to get into a boat and sail away.

I wonder, incidentally, whether this hasn’t much to say about our approach to Christian evangelism. Let us apply the economics of the market. Marketing theory suggests that we should create a perceived need in our customer base, and then offer something to fill that hole. The difficult question we need to ask ourselves is: In our materialist context, when people have everything that they need, and more, why would you bother becoming a Christian? What attraction is there in a God who is simply on tap for our own needs and wants, when the market can already sate our appetites?

Give us our daily bread.

That word we translate in rather quotidian fashion ‘daily’ is ‘epiousios’ in the Greek of the New Testament. Epiousios is a hapax legomenon – a word found nowhere else in the Bible. ‘Epi’ means ‘beyond’; ‘ousios’ means ‘substance’. Epiousios, then, is ‘beyond substance’, ‘beyond stuff’.

“Give us our bread which is beyond substance – beyond stuff; give us our supersubstantial bread.”

“I am the bread of life,” says Jesus. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

At the beginning of his most famous work, The Confessions, Saint Augustine gives away his conclusion. “Thou, O Lord,” he writes, “has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

C.S. Lewis calls it ‘Joy’. “An unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. . . I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”

These two Christian authors, separated by many centuries, are trying to articulate an insatiable craving, an unsatisfied desire, a deep longing – something atavistic and trans-historical which points to and finds fulfilment in God alone, despite our many failed experiments with all sorts of substitute stuff.

The Kingdom of God, which is the end of all our desiring, isn’t materiality, or utilitarian ethics, or pragmatic problem solving. It is a transcending, gratuitous, unreasonable domain where God is foremost. In this domain you have to trust in the mere mortal incarnation of Jesus from Nazareth – homoousious, of the same substance, as God the Father. Whereupon your human sufferings of hunger or thirst, poverty or humiliation, grief or loss are merely the context for the deepening of that trust, and the loosening of your addiction and dependence on the quick-fix, crowd-pleasing, junk-food, ersatz materiality, that so much religious activity devolves into.

Much to the disappointment of the crowds that pursued him, Jesus is not promising an eat-all-you-can buffet of material goodies. He is offering himself as the spiritual food that will sate our deepest hungers, and slake our deepest thirsts. 

Lord, give us our daily bread. Lord give us the bread which is beyond substance. Lord, give us this bread always.