July 9, 2017/ Summer NL Lord’s Prayer 4// First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Teach Us To Pray: Mundane Need”: “Give Us Today Our Daily Bread” by Michael Joseph Brown, Sojourner’s Bulletin; Luke 11:1-13; Sarah Dylan Breuer version of Lord’s Prayer
In the 1965 film Shenandoah, Jimmy Stewart plays a Virginia farmer, a patriarch who is trying to keep his family out of the Civil War while it rages all around and encroaches on his land. He is trying to keep his land and his family. He is a widower, and he is not a religious man. But he promised his dying wife that he’d do his best to raise good Christians. So, in a scene early in the film, he takes his place at head of the dinner table and gestures to the 8 children and their spouses around the table to bow their heads. Then he prays:
Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eatin’ it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked Dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel. But we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food were about to eat. Amen. (Pause)
I love that prayer. I admire that prayer for its honesty. Anyone can tell that food does not just appear on our tables from invisible hands in the sky. It arrives there by human effort, and sometimes by the lack thereof – whether that is people’s inability to find a job with a living wage that provides enough food for the table, or because of the systems that keep the abundance of this planet all constrained and limited to only certain populations when we know full-well this planet could feed us all. I appreciate this prayer because it is honest about these things. But this is not the only time in the Shenandoah story that Charlie prays. Interestingly, the prayers of this atheist or agnostic frame the film’s storyline. Much, much later, near the end of the film, Charlie presides again at the table to say grace. By this time the war has done terrible damage to his family, and four more seats at the table sit empty. And though he begins the very same prayer, he can’t finish. When he gets to the line “if we hadn’t done it all ourselves…” his voice trails off. He pushes back from the table, stands up and walks away. We preachers are prone to seeing nice, tidy sermonic illustrations in moments like this. More than one of us has observed that scene and tried to tie it up with a spiritual bow, concluding that ole’ self-reliant Charlie finally realized his need for God. I think that may be reading more into the storyline than the characters allow. It is clear that in that moment Charlie feels the weight of his need, that naked human need we each carry every single day: the need for bread, daily, and loved ones to make it and break it with. (Pause) In that moment, Charlie is every human being in need.
To ask for daily bread – as we do every time we pray Jesus’ Prayer – is to admit our mundane need. Jesus’ Prayer is peculiar. It puts that need in the mouths of each of us, and not only those of us who’ve found ourselves shopping at a Food Bank. Jesus’ prayer puts that need in the mouths of all of us, and not only those of us who have received a hot plate in the basement of a church or community center. Jesus’ prayer puts that need in the mouths of all of us, and not only those of us who have depended for our Christmas week meals on a box of processed food that our parent’s co-workers secretly collected for their Christmas good deed. (That last one comes from personal experience.) Jesus’ prayer puts mundane need in all of our mouths. That can be tricky for us Americans who’ve swallowed more than the recommended daily allowance of that toxic mythology of self-reliance. One of the more irritating aspects of prayer in general and of Jesus’ Prayer in particular is the way the prayer unabashedly admits our dependence: “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Pause) It can be embarrassing to say, really, to say, “We need.”
It was embarrassing for Sara Miles the first time she recognized her need for bread, a particular bread. Sara Miles was raised faithfully secular, the child of missionaries and preachers who were adamant that she have no religious indoctrination. She went on to be a cook in New York and front-line journalist covering insurrections in Central America and elsewhere in the world. But on one of her Sunday morning walks through her San Francisco neighborhoods, she wandered into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church with all the curiosity of reporter observing the strange details of the people and space around her. She opened her mouth and accepted a piece of bread, and immediately began to cry. As she reflects later in life, trying to make sense of this moment, she does acknowledge that in all those other jobs – as a restaurant cook in New York and as journalist interviewing resistance fighters hidden deep in jungles in Central America – she writes that she understood the world first, and best, by putting it in her mouth. She writes in her memoir Take This Bread that she still can’t exactly explain it, except that when she accepted that first crumbly piece of bread and a goblet of sweet wine, from the people saying the words, “the body of Christ” and “the blood of Christ,” something outrageous and terrifying happened. “Jesus happened to me.” And it was embarrassing. This conversion did not suddenly sort out Miles’ life. In fact, it was an embarrassment for a good long while, making life socially and politically awkward as only one friend in her circle practiced any kind of religion outside of the spirituality of the 12 Steps. She did not suddenly understand the truth. She did not suddenly understand the doctrines like the Trinity that we talked about two weeks ago. “If anything,” she writes, as she tried to make sense of what was happening as she kept going back for this bread, “I was just crabbier, lonelier, and more destabilized… All that grounded me were those pieces of bread. I was feeling my way toward a theology, beginning with what I had taken in my mouth and working out from there.” She kept coming back for bread… to receive it herself and, eventually, to share. Those pieces of bread keep grounding her as she opens first one food pantry connected to St. Gregory’s and then a whole network of food pantries throughout the city… finding herself eventually on Fridays with 25-30 volunteers who eat meal together before they open up the pantry, often only two of them being members and all the rest people who had first come hungry, to be fed. (Pause)
We expect religious folks in some way to believe God provides human beings with food, despite the logistical implausibility of how it gets from those plants onto our tables. Charlie Anderson’s Shenandoah prayer illustrates well enough that. Dependence on God is challenging enough. But there is an even deeper layer in this Prayer of Jesus. Michael Joseph Brown goes further. He writes in that excerpt we heard from Sojourner’s that God giving us bread is only part of the meaning because God and human beings have to work together to make bread.
“the creation of bread is a complex process involving both divine and human cooperation…. embedded in this petition is an ethic which recognizes that for human need to be met, humanity must not only depend upon God’s cooperation but must also depend upon the cooperation of other human beings. This is why the bread is identified as “our bread.”
“Our bread.” There’s that radical first person plural again. Wheat is not bread. Jimmy Stewart’s character Charlie Anderson character is partly right. If the family hadn’t worked with nature to make the food on the table, they wouldn’t be eating it together. Bread must be made, over and over again, like love. (Pause)
Give us this day our daily bread. I wish just praying that line together would magically fix all of our challenges with hunger. I wish saying that line together could be like an incantation that helped us solve and meet all of the need of the folks camped out in our parking lot this morning with their bare human need for shelter. I wish praying that prayer could have helped us be everything we needed to be as the Body of Christ for them, and we weren’t this morning. I wish praying that line of Jesus’ Prayer could have fixed the challenges of the man at the food bank last week whose shopping was limited by the fact he had no refrigerator, no stove, no microwave, no way even to boil water. I wish this petition magically fixed all of that. It does not. This line of Jesus’ prayer does put us here in our need, together. It does open our eyes to our dependence on God’s gifts, but also our need to look around and see that part of God’s gift is these other human beings of flesh and hunger and need right here with us. Praying that prayer helps us realize these two gifts are indistinguishable from one another: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Whether that prayer takes you this week to the gathering for women in our social hall tomorrow, where they set out a fabulous spread as a way to nourish one another, to share their gifts, to share their wisdom. Whether it takes you there or somewhere else this week, I invite you to embrace the need, the bare need of Jesus’ prayer. Somewhere and somehow in this week, I invite us to open our mouths. Taste. Receive. Share. And let Jesus happen.
May it be so.
 Charlie Anderson, played by Jimmy Stewart, in the film Shenandoah, 1965.
 Sara Miles, Take this Bread, (Ballantine Books, New York: 2007), p. 58.
 Miles, p. 70.