Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Preaching on Hunger... for the First Time

So here's my first attempt at including blogging as part of my sermon prep process... and thanks so much for the help ahead of time.  What follows is a very rough manuscript (which I'll later boil down into an outline so I can preach w/o notes) of hunger sermon I'll give on October 23rd.  Having never preached on hunger before, in particular I'm finding it difficult to preach what is essentially a topical sermon while not diving too far into eisegesis on the lectionary text for that day (the gospel reading is Matthew 22: 34 - 46).  Preaching the gospel while also encouraging the congregation to a specific action is also a chief concern.  I'd greatly appreciate all of your suggestions.  Thanks again!

A few weeks ago I attended an absolutely amazing retreat organized by the ELCA’s World Hunger office. While I learned a lot about ending hunger from the various presenters, forums, tours of organic farms and the like, my greatest learning came from a simple response to the question, “Why do we advocate for feeding the hungry?” Folks in our group offered a variety of very good answers: “We’re called to serve in baptism,” one person exclaimed. “Christians can’t bear the full burden of feeding the hungry on their own” said another. Near the end of our discussion however a close friend sitting next to me a gave a simple, one word answer, “Jesus!” We advocate for feeding the hungry and we serve our neighbor because of Jesus… I didn’t say anything out loud, but I reacted to her answer with judgment. After a whole weekend talking about hunger, I thought she should be able come up with something with a little more detail.

Boy was I being silly though, because my friend was absolutely correct… she was in one word articulating the same response Jesus gives to the Pharisees in today’s gospel reading: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself… On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets…” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Friends, whether you have ever felt physical hunger or not, as people of faith we all feel a different sort of hunger. Not to earn God’s favor but rather out of a spontaneous love for God, out of a spontaneous love for God’s saving grace through Christ, we are all hungry to love and serve our neighbor.

There are a wide variety of ways we serve our neighbor as Christians, and feeding the hungry is only one of them. Up until quite recently hunger wasn’t really my thing… I had done an Eagle Scout project about the ELCA’s World Hunger Appeal back in high school, but since then, outside of occasionally donating a can of tuna or throwing a few dollars into a collection plate, I choose to focus on other issues for a couple reasons. First, I was sick of the guilt trips. So often when talking about hunger we’re bombarded by statistics to make us feel bad… 1 in 6 folks are hungry right now in America, and in my city of Philadelphia, that number changes to 1 in 4. Those numbers might make us feel bad, they might guilt us into giving a donation, but they don’t empower us to action. The same thing goes for all those children with distended bellies and flies on TV. On one level, that sort of thing can be an important reminder, but it never empowers us. On another level, as it did for me, all that guilt simply freezes us… we panic, we think that hunger is too big a problem to tackle… we begin translating “you will always have the poor among you” into “you will always have the poor among you, and whole lot of them will go hungry…”

That brings me to the second reason hunger was never really my thing… all that guilt, all those news stories had turned feeding the hungry into a clich√©. Could I feed individual folks who needed a meal? Yeah, but I thought that no matter what I did, no matter how many meals I paid for, there would always be more. I felt my spiritual hunger to serve others could be used a lot more effectively in other areas than well, hunger. It was only in the last couple months as I began learning more about the issue because of my field placement with Lutheran Advocacy Ministries of PA… LAMPa that I realized with God’s help, hunger could be eradicated in our world. There of course will always be a few individual cases, but as a wider societal problem, hunger is solvable. Not only is hunger solvable, but in a number of places, it’s already been solved. While it was a bit before my time, I’ve learned that under the Nixon administration actually, a number of federal programs were tweaked enough to make sure nearly everyone was fed in America… in our country at least, it’s already happened. If hunger has already been solved in America, surely we can do it again. On the international level, despite the economic downturn, we’ve made enormous progress… Under the Bush administration foreign aid to Africa was nearly quadrupled. If we continue on current trends, by 2015 there will be half as many people in extreme poverty worldwide as there was in 1990. Hunger is solvable… empowered by the Spirit’s work in past successes, we can feed the hungry, we can love our neighbors as ourselves… and we do it all not out of guilt. Rather, as my friend put it, we do it because of Jesus.

What then, does feeding the hungry look like? How can we make it happen? First of all, celebrate how far you’ve already come. I heard from Pastor that through your support of a local food pantry, fifty kids had lunches all summer that wouldn’t have otherwise. I heard St. Michael’s also participates in the local CROP walk, in the Souperbowl of Caring and donates homegrown tomatoes. All those things are absolutely amazing, and need to be rightfully celebrated. Second, though, we need to realize that as people of faith we cannot eradicate hunger on our own. Even if every church member in the US gave a full additional tithe towards feeding the hungry, it wouldn’t be enough. We can eradicate hunger, but it takes collective action… and as people of faith, we need to advocate for that action. It would never, ever be appropriate to officially support one political candidate or another as a church, but we can advocate for specific policies that help feed hungry people.

As Lutherans, we already have social statements and organizations like LAMPa to help guide our advocacy efforts. Signing up for alert emails from LAMPa might be a good start, and if the internet isn’t your thing, join an organization like Bread for the World to find out what issues you could lend your voice to. I might even dare to guess that Pastor Bergdahl might be able to help get you started. Then, take a few minutes to send an email, handwrite a letter, make a phone call, or as you gain confidence, visit your state or federal representative’s office. Equally important, begin talking to others in your community about hunger or write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.

In the second half of today’s gospel reading, Jesus asks Pharisees who the messiah is… and they don’t realize that in fact, the messiah is standing right in front of them. They don’t realize that Jesus Christ in fact has come to save us all from our sins. Thankfully, we don’t need to save ourselves by serving our neighbor, and we couldn’t if we tried anyway… Christ takes care of it for us. Rather we serve our neighbor out of love for God… we serve our neighbor, we feed the hungry, because of Jesus.
God's peace,

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