Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shared until all are fed

"Faith, Food, and Money"
Isaiah 58:6-10; Proverbs 13:23; Matthew 25:34-35, 37, 40; Acts 6:1-7

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Faith, Food, and Money—
the economics of food,
the justice (or injustice) of our food production and delivery system,
and how our faith affects our participation in it.

There’s probably no sermon topic I’ve taken on in recent years
that is more complicated, and potentially divisive, than this one.

That being said,
there is probably no sermon I’ve preached in recent years
that has a more simple, straight-forward message
than this one.

This one message has already been articulated, in a dozen ways,
in the scriptures that were read this morning.

And to make the message even simpler to grasp,
the Old Testament readings were read
in the Contemporary English Version,
which is said to be written at a fourth-grade reading level.

Here’s a sampling of what we heard,
in words a fourth-grader can easily understand.
I quote:
“I’ll tell you what it really means to worship the Lord . . .
Share your food with everyone who is hungry,
share your home with the poor and homeless.
The Lord blesses everyone who freely gives food to the poor.
God gives justice to the poor and food to the hungry.
Plant and harvest your crops for six years,
but during the seventh year,
the poor are to eat what they want
from your fields, vineyards, and olive trees.
Every third year, take ten percent of your harvest, bring it into town,
and put it in a community storehouse . . .
Give food to the poor who live in your town,
including orphans, widows, and foreigners.
If they have enough to eat, then the Lord your God will be pleased.”

That’s a small sampling of the nearly infinite number of texts
that speak directly to God’s people about
how God expects us to live in relation to the poor and hungry.

It is clearly, and eternally, God’s will
that the poor are adequately fed and sheltered,
and that food is to be shared with the poor
from the supplies of those who have plenty.
That is an incontrovertible biblical principle.
It is a major and recurring theme in all of scripture,
that those with plenty have a moral responsibility
to see that the poor are fed.
There will be plenty for everyone,
if it is shared,
if there is justice.
That is today’s simple message.

God is grieved when injustice robs the poor of what they deserve.
Our key verse this morning is Proverbs 13:23—
“The field of the poor may yield much food,
but it is swept away through injustice.”
And God is deeply grieved when this happens.

Now, we need to remember that all these verses
about the poor, the hungry, and about sharing
were written in a much simpler time.

It was an agricultural economy.
Wealth was not necessarily in banks.
It wasn’t tied up in some amorphous entity called, “the market.”
Wealth was in land and food.
If you had the legal right, and the resources, to own land,
you would grow good food on it, and you would live well.
But some people—whole classes of people like the Levites,
like widows and other unmarried women,
like orphans,
like foreign-born residents—
were legally prohibited from land ownership,
and were thus put in a position of utter dependence.
They were always a hair-breadth away from poverty,
and potentially, starvation.

So . . . in the laws God gave to the people of Israel,
God made provisions for the care of the poor.
God set up procedures that guaranteed they wouldn’t go without.
Israelite agribusiness operated six years out of every seven.
They had to harvest a seven-year supply of food in six years.
And the seventh year, the Sabbath year,
they let the fields and olive trees
produce whatever they would without interference.
And anything that grew for that year belonged to the poor.
It was theirs to eat, and to store up.

And every third year, the tithe, the ten percent of the harvest
did not get eaten up in the festivals, as in other years.
It went to a community storehouse.
And was divvied out to the Levites, the poor, the widows,
the orphans, and the foreigners.

In God’s economy there would be a range of wealth, naturally,
between the rich and the poor.
But it would not get out of hand, out of normal balance.
The poor would always have something to eat,
because there would be sharing.
They would share until all were fed.

That is how God wants it. Period.
“Is not this the fast that I choose?” God asks in Isaiah 58.
“Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?”

Now, as I pointed out,
we live in more complicated times.
We have a global economy and food system
powered by multi-national economic entities
that are too complex for most of us here to understand.
In a simple family farm economy,
the scriptures explain precisely how the poor can get food:
by picking up the grain that gets dropped during harvest,
or that grows up volunteer in the Sabbath years.
But that doesn’t help us very much today.
We don’t have biblical instruction on
which foods at the grocery store we should buy
and which foods we shouldn’t,
because of the hardship they cause for small farmers
in Mexico or Peru or our own immigrant communities.
We are not given specific moral guidance on how to work
within the environment of a global food system.
We are not instructed on the relative moral and ethical merits
of eating bananas or drinking coffee
produced on a former rainforest,
or eating grapes in the middle of winter,
because they were grown in Chile,
or shopping at chain stores versus independent grocers,
or at what price-point, if any, it begins to make more sense
to buy food at Wal-Mart or Food Lion,
instead of the local farmer’s market.
There are no Bible verses, sorry to say, to instruct us
on particular matters concerning food and money
such as industrial agriculture, discount grocery outlets,
Food Co-ops, and dumpster diving.

I am not an economist, by any stretch of the imagination.
I am no expert on agriculture,
or the environment,
or food sciences,
or international development,
or the workings of the global marketplace.

But I am a follower of Jesus.
I am a person who believes
the scriptures carry some authority for us
as we try to navigate life in a very complicated world,
and do it with some integrity.

So my message this morning
is not to speak to the finer points of argument pro and con
on the various approaches to questions of global food justice.

It is worthwhile talking about those issues in the church,
that’s for sure.
But we first need to be clear, and unified,
in affirming what scripture says
about what God wants for his people to do,
in regard to the poor and hungry.

God wants the poor to be fed. Adequately. And absolutely.
God wants there to be a just sharing
of the essential resources for life.
When some of us have an excess, a food garbage problem,
and others are dying for lack of food,
God is deeply grieved.
It is a grievous sin, according to scripture,
for me to have plenty,
and to have the ability to feed the hungry,
yet fail to do so.

In fact, it’s so important,
Jesus said it will actually be held up to me
as a measuring stick at judgement day.
Matthew 25:
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand,
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you
from the foundation of the world;
because . . . because I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”

It’s so important,
that the very first church business meeting . . . ever,
was called to solve this problem.
In Acts 6, which was read, the twelve apostles called together
the whole community of disciples
to address the issue that some widows were getting neglected
when the food was being shared.
We don’t know all the economic and social dynamics going on there,
and it was very early in the development of the church,
but I think it’s significant
that the very first church committee in history,
the first programmed ministry established in the church,
was a committee of seven deacons,
whose explicit job description was to ensure
a just sharing of food resources within the church,
so that no one would go hungry.

And as soon as that problem was resolved, it says in Acts 6:7,
“The word of God continued to spread;
the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem,
and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
People were coming to faith in Jesus,
because the church concerned itself with food and justice.

You know, I’m really not very concerned that we all agree
on the ideal economic theory
on food production and distribution.
It’s not critical to me that everyone in the church agrees
on the relative merits of capitalism and socialism
and any other isms,
or on the relative moral goodness
of local agriculture vs. large-scale agribusiness,
or on whether it’s more Christian to shop
at a Food Co-op, than at Red Front, than at Wal-Mart.

In the whole of scripture—Old and New Testaments—
there is one overwhelming concern that God keeps bringing up,
over and over and over and over.
Are those who have much . . . sharing with those who have little?
Are the poor getting justice?
Are the hungry getting all the food they need
for a full and healthy life?
Those are the questions that God keeps bringing up.
So those are the questions we ought to be asking, too.

If you want to support a particular economic theory,
or agricultural and food system model, great!
But don’t argue it just on the basis
that it makes for the strongest economy,
or that it’s best for American farmers,
or even that it’s best for the environment.
All those are good things.
But that’s not what the Bible keeps bringing up again and again.

If you want to defend a particular approach to food production,
or a particular economic theory,
defend it on biblical grounds.
Defend it with hard evidence that it is lifting up the poor.
Defend it with evidence that the hungry are getting fed.
Defend it with evidence that the gulf
between the rich and the poor is getting smaller.
If it’s going the other direction,
something has gone wrong spiritually, morally, biblically.
People are not sharing.
And that is clearly not the way God wants it to be.

From a biblical standpoint,
it doesn’t matter how solid the economic theory is.
If the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer . . .
If there are more people dying of starvation and over-indulgence,
it is sinful,
because it is directly opposing God’s plan for human life.

As one of our hymns says,
“For the healing of the nations, Lord, we pray with one accord,
for a just and equal sharing of the things that earth affords.”

And as one of our new hymns says,
“Longing for food, many are hungry
Longing for water, many still thirst
Make us your bread, broken for others
Shared until all are fed.”

Let’s turn to Sing the Journey, the green book, and sing together #54.

—Phil Kniss, June 21, 2009

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