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Bread for the World!

October 21, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost, October 21, 2012: Observing Food Action Week and Bread for the World Sunday.


Psalm 104 (read responsively)

The 104th Psalm is a magnificent psalm of creation. Echoing the stories of creation in Genesis, the psalm portrays a God who loves what God creates, and is the expression of a people who love both creation and its creator. Bearing witness to the greatness that is God, the world is made so that all the parts work together: the garments of sky, water and cloud give beauty to the foundations of earth, mountain and valley; land, seas and sky are filled with wild beasts and birds with all the means to nurture life – grass for the cattle, water for trees, bread and wine to gladden the human heart. Everything has a place to call home: the birds in their nests, the storks in the trees, there are mountains for goats and crags for the coneys.

In our home we have an evening prayer which I wrote when August turned two: we still recite before bedtime. It goes like this:

Thank you for the light of day, in which to work, in which to play;

And thank you for the dark of night, for resting until morning light.

In our psalm, the day is indeed the time for human labor – “People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening.” But the night is not only the time of human Sabbath, it is the time when forests are alive and predators seek their prey.

As my grandmother might say, in God’s creation “everything has a place and everything is in its place.” Even death has its place, as all things thrive while God gives them breath, and all return to dust when God takes their breath away. But while life remains, to all things are given food in due season; when God gives they gather it up, and when God opens God’s hands we are filled with good things.

This was not the world the Psalmist knew. It was a dream, or a fantasy. The song-writer who composed this piece did not know the plentitude and peace which it portrays. The community that sang this song in service did not see all things working together for good. No. This psalm, and indeed the whole Psalter, was written by the Hebrew people after everything they believed in – the communal leadership of the rulers and the judges and the priests – turned to rubble in the Babylonian invasion. Their Temple was destroyed. Their leaders hauled off into exile. And the peasant common folk who were left to till the land were forced to pay extremely high taxes (known as tribute) to their Babylonian captors.

They did not live in the Garden of Eden. They knew no earthly paradise. They lived in a world not simply of God’s making but one made by human hands to serve human needs – or at least human pride, ambition and greed. It was a world of human fear in which security for some was sought without regard to justice for all. It was a world that pit the few against majority, a world of sin, suffering and scarcity rather than justice, peace and abundance.

But this is a world we can still recognize, right? In recent months we’ve heard sermons describing this world. We’ve had sermons on fear, violence and religious bigotry after watching our Muslim neighbors attacked; a sermon on how unjust trade agreements and non-transparent corporate negotiations foster economic exploitation and ecological disaster. We’ve begun observing Orange Day on the twenty-fifth of each month because of the widespread prevalence of violence against women and girls, and have begun to examine policies to better regulate guns after witnessing an epidemic of gun violence. Not only can we not say in the words of the psalm that “all go out to work by day and labor until evening,” but we know that way too many people are unemployed or underemployed, or unfairly and unequally compensated. In part, our presidential election in two weeks hinges on which policies we think will create more jobs and which will make things worse.

And on this first Sunday after World Food Day, which was this past Tuesday, and at the end of what the Presbyterian Church observes as Food Action Week, we are called to be particularly aware of the global food crisis.

Today, approximately 854 million people in the world go hungry, and with rising food prices another 100 million people are at risk of starvation. Every day nearly 16,000 children die from hunger related causes. That’s one child every five seconds. In the United States, nearly one in five children lives in a family that struggles to put food on the table. This is not the world God made.

The world in which the psalmist lived is a world we still recognize – but it does not reflect God’s intention. So how did he, and how did they, sing this song of creation’s wonder and beauty in such a foreign land.

They sang it because within the sinful and unjust world that they knew, in their own history and in the midst of injustice, they still glimpsed God and were from those glimpses and stories able to imagine a world aligned with God’s intention for it. I am reminded of one of my favorite stories:

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”

There is enough – the Hebrew word here is dayenu – enough for all. Enough bread, enough land, enough justice, enough love, for all. God has made this world for all to thrive in; the earth continues, despite all we have done to it, to provide all that we need; but our priorities must be made to reflect people over profits and the common good over individual achievement. Singing this Psalm while living in a very different world served to remind the Hebrew community, and should remind us, that God is faithful – we know this! – and as a result we can turn from our sinfulness and toward the fullness of life our Creator has intended for us and all of creation since the beginning of time. This is a world that we must construct with God knowing full well that there are forces working against that vision.

Imagine: children could sleep through night with hope because they slept with bread. Now, imagine 854 million hungry people with a piece of bread in their hands as they lay down to sleep tonight.

Today after worship we will participate in Bread for the World’s Annual Offering of Letters. Bread for the World is a national, non-partisan, anti-hunger organization with which your session has recently renewed a covenant membership – making ours part of a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. We have the knowledge and resources. But our nation’s decision makers must be persuaded to lead the way in changing policies and allocating resources to end hunger. By making our voices heard in Congress, we make our nation’s laws more faithful and compassionate to people in need.

What can we do? What are we being asked to do?

Our Mission Commission would like each one of us this morning to write a letter to Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, and Representative Nita Lowey, urging them to form “a circle of protection” around programs for hungry and poor people in the upcoming budget decisions. The fiscal choices before congress are difficult, but we must not balance the budget on the backs of vulnerable people.

Programs for hungry and poor people are a lifeline for millions of families. In 2010, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) lifted 4.4 million people out of poverty. The Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit lifted 9.3 million people out of poverty. Last year, emergency food aid helped 46.5 million poor people. Over the last decade, foreign assistance programs provided safe drinking water for nearly 1.3 billion people around the world. Time and again, these programs have proven effective in addressing hunger and helping families move out of poverty.

Although every previous bipartisan deficit reduction package over the past 25 years has followed the principle that deficit reduction should not increase poverty, we’re now seeing severe threats to programs that address hunger and poverty. Sixty-two percent of the $5.3 trillion in cuts in the House’s FY 13 budget are to programs vital to poor and hungry people, while much of the savings goes to trillions in new tax cuts. The budget slashes SNAP by more than $130 billion, which could kick more than 8 million people out of the program. It cuts funding for international programs such as food aid and poverty-focused foreign assistance by another 11 percent for next year and calls for further cuts that would endanger lives and allow global hunger and poverty to persist. We want our leaders to stand up for a different vision.

Leslie M. and members of the Mission Commission will be in the church house immediately after worship with packets of letters ready for your signature, pre-addressed envelopes ready for your return address. There are at least 95 people present in worship this morning. Imagine the impact of 285 letters to congress. We join at least thirteen congregations in Westchester who are holding similar offerings of letters today. Now imagine more than 3700 letters –  and possibly many more. By making our voices heard in Congress, we make our nation’s laws more faithful and compassionate to people in need. Thus is renewed, the song of creation.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

May my meditation be pleasing to God

For I rejoice in the Lord.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Praise the Lord.

Letters can be submitted online through the website of Bread for the World. Please take action right now.

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