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Preaching ‘Daily Bread’ in a Culture of Excess

Most of Jesus’ listeners lived hand to mouth. What if ours have plenty?
Preaching ‘Daily Bread’ in a Culture of Excess
Image: photo by carlosgaw | getty

When I went on pastoral calls with my dad as a little girl, I’d see the same picture in many homes: a white-bearded man praying over a loaf of bread, a bowl, and a very large Bible. A caption often accompanied it: “Give us this day our daily bread.” This petition from the Lord’s Prayer is deeply pastoral. Not in the seminary sense, but in an older understanding of the word pastoral, bringing to mind scenes of grazing sheep near fields of wheat. This line resonates with people who grow and produce their own food, but not necessarily with American suburbanites who live within a stone’s throw of five grocery stores.

My suburban congregation prays the Lord’s Prayer together each week. Historically, this prayer has had a foot in the liturgy and a foot in the catechism, as it’s often used as a jumping-off point for teaching (for example, in Luther’s Shorter, the Heidelberg, both Westminsters, and the new Anglican Church in North America catechism). Using the prayer within a sermon series is a wise way to unpack these familiar words of Christ and point God’s people to our Father who art in heaven. This is a prayer that prays, teaches, and preaches.

In a team sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4), I assigned this particular line to myself because I love the biblical theme of food. But once I was in the weeds of sermon preparation, the challenge of this line became evident. While the rest of the Lord’s Prayer easily captures the felt needs of congregations, this line doesn’t, at least not as readily.

It’s easy to observe the need for God’s name to be hallowed in a rapidly secularizing society. We want God’s kingdom to come in its fullness as we witness the violence and pain of the world. We seek God’s will to be done. We yearn for forgiveness and for the ability to forgive. We long to be rescued from temptation and evil. These petitions can capture the minds and hearts of listeners in many times and places.

But “Give us this day our daily bread”? Looking out at the well-dressed congregation at the corner of Fourth and Garfield is certainly different from Jesus’ view of his disciples and the crowds when he first taught these words. Around 90 percent of Jesus’ listeners lived hand to mouth, while most of my congregation has high-end pantries full of food and memberships at Costco.

Today, almost 90 percent of the American population is food secure. Yes, food deserts exist and many Americans do experience hunger; for pastors serving in those church contexts, the connection to this petition is apparent. But in congregations where this petition has, seemingly, already been answered, how ought we preach this passage?

More Than Spiritual

One historical tack for preaching this text is to emphasize the spiritual nature of bread. “Break thou the bread of life,” we may sing, opening the pages of the Bible to be fed. We can also connect it to Christ who said, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about” (John 4:32) and to Jesus’ identity as the Bread of Life (John 6:35).

But within the contexts of Matthew and Luke where the Lord’s Prayer is recorded, Jesus tangibly cares for the physical needs of hungry people. He feeds the 5,000 and the 4,000. So though this text can rightly be spiritualized—emphasizing Christ as our daily spiritual nourishment—there is also an essential earthy reality to this prayer: Our Father in heaven, provide for my daily needs! This message of physical provision must go hand in hand with the emphasis on spiritual needs because of our embodied reality of being human. Our Father in heaven cares about our souls and our bodies, and this prayer points toward both types of provision.

Because a sermon can’t be about everything, when I preached on this passage, I decided to point toward the theme of physical sustenance. I did so by emphasizing different words in the petition: “us,” pointing to the participatory nature of God’s provision; “this day,” underscoring the quotidian nature of our needs; and “bread,” emphasizing the simplicity of the request in a world of excess. All these emphases can help lead a congregation who experiences excess to begin to view their own provisions through a new lens: God’s.

Us: An Invitation for Participation

In preaching the Lord’s Prayer, we can emphasize its plural nature: us and our, not me and my. When we pray this, we’re praying with our brothers and sisters around the world. This isn’t just for me and my family; this is about the family of God. And so we pray in concert with our brothers and sisters in the majority world where the luxuries of suburban life are distant and unimaginable. This petition can lead us to ask how we’re serving as the hands and feet of Jesus, participating in God’s work by providing food for the hungry to meet the physical needs inside and outside the church.

When I preached on this text, I connected it to a church we’ve partnered with in Chopda, India, inviting the congregation to participate as the body of Christ by helping to provide food and medicine for the physical needs of our brothers and sisters across the world. After our congregation responded generously to this invitation, we received video reports about how the Hindustani Covenant Church experienced a miraculous multiplication of food and medical kits. It has served as a powerful example for us of praying for our daily bread.

Perhaps, as we preach this prayer, the Spirit will engage our hearts toward compassion for those who pray this when their cupboard is bare. God might call us to participate by partnering with him in answering others’ prayers.

This Day: An Invitation to Focus on Needs

In preaching, we can also emphasize the difference between needs and wants. We trust our heavenly Father to provide for all our daily needs, not our desires. In a world that teaches us to confuse wants and needs for the sake of marketing, this line of the prayer can lead us to wisdom to know the difference.

Martin Luther summarized this petition in his shorter catechism, stating:

Daily bread is everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.

There is much on this list that we truly need that we can’t provide for ourselves. As we pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re interceding for the true daily needs of ourselves and our neighbors: clean air, water, food, shelter, sleep, love (relationships), and purpose. And we entrust all these needs to our good Father.

Bread: An Invitation to Simplicity

Bread is simple food. It’s food of the everyday. In a sense, we could fill in the word bread with any healthy staple a community of people depends on for food, such as rice, millet, or corn. We all need daily sustenance. Not fancy food, just food.

In emphasizing bread, this prayer points us toward the Christian practice of simplicity. We need to be reminded of this in a world where we can easily spend less than a minute on our phones ordering pad thai or fish tacos to be delivered immediately.

When we say “Your kingdom come,” we are joining King Jesus’ mission of the proclamation of the kingdom of God. This is an upside-down kingdom where we—sons and daughters of the most high Lord—seek daily bread. Not extravagant or fine foods, but simply food for life.

Preaching on simplicity can lead to clear applications for people whose cupboards are full, including the practice of eating simply and reducing or avoiding food waste. In Matthew 15:37, after Jesus feeds the 4,000, his disciples collect the leftovers! Imagine what they did with these: passed them out to those with longer journeys home, gave some to widows, snacked on some for several days. Nothing was wasted.

In preaching, we can invite listeners to consider: How might we embrace simplicity and wisely steward food as a gift of God?

On Earth as it Is in Heaven

When I preached this message, I baked flatbread to distribute at the end, inviting the congregation to eat, recognizing bread as a gift of God, and remembering the 4,000 who ate food Jesus provided in Matthew 15. Eating when hearing a passage about bread helps capture our hearts’, minds’, and bodies’ attention, so that each act of eating will ultimately lead us back to our God who daily gives us all types of bread. My hope is that as we open ourselves to the Spirit’s leading, whatever our economic context, this prayer will transform us and help us to eat and share in alignment with God’s coming kingdom.

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence is associate pastor of spiritual formation at Hinsdale Covenant Church. She has studied at Regent College (Master of Christian Studies) and Calvin Theological Seminary (MDiv) and lives with her family in the Chicago suburbs.

[ This article is also available in Português. ]

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