Sermon for 17.04.16 in Lord’s Prayer series: Give us today our daily bread
Sara Miles, an American journalist, has written a book that Mark and I both love and often quote from. It’s called Take This Bread and it starts like this:
One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.
Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food – indeed, the bread of life.
Sara Miles goes on to describe how being fed by Jesus led her to her life’s passion of feeding others, running food banks and distributing groceries from the very same altar where Communion was celebrated every Sunday. Her book about her spiritual journey tells the story of a very practical response to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer that we have come to today: Give us today our daily bread.
What Sara Miles discovered was that being fed in Communion and praying the Lord’s Prayer led her to feeding hungry people with real food. Christians so often run the risk of over-spiritualizing our needs and forgetting that we are physical beings, made from the earth.
I’ve been away for most of the past fortnight on two trips that have helped me to focus on this truth. First a group of us from St Mary’s, and a neighbour from the South Hampstead Synagogue, went to Calais to help sort and distribute donations given for migrants living in the Jungle. I should give a quick word of explanation about why it is called that. You might think it suggests that the place is lawless and full of danger. But in fact the nickname “Jungle” comes from a word in the language of the Afghani migrants, jangla, that simply means woodland, and they called their original encampment that because it was in a wooded area near Calais.
If you have ever wondered what it would be like to be in a prison camp, you have only to visit the Calais Jungle to find out. Even though the migrants are free to come and go in theory, the camp is an illegal settlement, closely guarded by French police, where they stick together in the hope that they will find a way to get to the UK, legally or illegally. Daily life is very quickly reduced to staying warm and dry and getting enough to eat. Sanitation, water, electricity, heating, medical care, legal advice, education, entertainment and personal privacy are all luxuries and not the basic things that we in our privileged world take for granted.
Whenever our team of volunteers drove into the camp and set up the distribution of clothes from the back of a container, a queue of several hundred would immediately form. Men waited quietly and patiently for an hour or more to be given 30 seconds to choose between a couple of donated garments. Although some of the more enterprising migrants had set up rough and ready food shops or restaurants, most people have no money and are wholly dependent on charitable meals. Keeping clean and warm and dry become the overriding daily concerns. They live on hope in a way that simply astonished me, considering the hard reality of their lives and the slimness of their chances of achieving asylum in the UK.
Give us today our daily bread. If we woke up every day in a shelter made of plastic and stepped out into a sea of mud to go to a latrine that was used by scores of people, I think the words would take on a very immediate and physical meaning for us. Our daily bread might be the hope that life would someday improve, but it would also be the food we hoped to receive to sustain us through another day of wind and rain in a disgusting slum on the edge of a rich country.
Just two days after returning from Calais, I flew to Rome for a conference about women’s leadership in the Church, both in the earliest centuries and today. Our programme involved visiting churches where the lives of early women leaders are commemorated. Cecilia, Sabina, Paula, Marcella, Agnes, Perpetua, Felicity, Monica, Catherine of Siena and Francesca Romana – some of them familiar names, some not – were all real Christian women who lived inspiring lives from the 3rd to the 17th centuries and who are remembered and venerated in Rome.
The remembering is rooted in the physical reality of their lives. One of our guides remarked on the Italian fondness for visiting shrines where the bodies of the saints are laid. She said people liked to feel close to them, to be in real physical touch with them. Despite all my Anglo-Saxon reserve in this matter, I can tell you that as the week progressed it became increasingly powerful to pray by the tombs of some of these remarkable women. It is not particularly appealing to me to look at a dressed-up skeleton in a glass case, but the sense that the body of the person who lived and worked and worshipped in that same Eternal City was right there touched something in my psyche. We were sister earthlings, if you like, though separated by many centuries.
Later our group had a discussion about the importance of the Eucharist and the hunger we feel for the sacrament. I am sure it was influenced by the earthiness of our experiences in Rome. The Christian faith is incarnational, which means enfleshed. It is not abstract but rooted in the place where the divine and the human intersect.
We saw some truly remarkable frescoes and mosaics from the earliest centuries. One showed the Virgin Mary holding her child in a mandorla, which is a frame around the entire body to indicate the radiant background from which a divine figure emerges. In this fresco, the Madonna and child were accompanied by named figures who were attending a real synod at a historic place and time, where the doctrine of Christ’s divine and human natures was being hammered out. There was something about this matter-of-fact grouping of Mary, the infant Jesus, and a gathering of church dignitaries that proclaimed wordlessly the belief that in Christ, God has truly come among us.
When Jesus walked on earth, his concern was not doctrine or abstract theology. His business was to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the sick, and proclaim liberty to captives. The night before he died, he gave his friends a meal as the place in which they would continue to encounter him. When he appeared among them after his death, he was recognised at Emmaus in the breaking of the bread, and on the beach in his invitation to come and have breakfast.
Give us today our daily bread. Feed our bodies as well as our souls. And what we seek for ourselves, we must share with others. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminding ourselves that if people are hungry, it is up to us to feed them from the abundance that we receive from God. We are also remembering that our comfortable lives are rooted in the security of our basic physical needs being met. If a sudden disaster put us into the situation of refugees, we would not be tempted to think that the Lord’s Prayer is purely about our spiritual state.
Every time we come to Communion and reach out our hands for the real bread and the real drink that are offered to us, we can take a moment to be thankful that God came among us as a real human being. God meets our physical needs as well as our emotional, intellectual and spiritual longings. And so we greet Jesus in the sacrament with the word of recognition: Amen.