Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
Rev. Gary Cook
Bread for the World Sunday
Sometimes, sermons seem to require a disclaimer, acknowledging the preacher’s self-interest.
When the Worship Council asked me to preach on Bread for the World Sunday, I felt it was one of those times.
Bread and I go way back.
Forty-five years ago, Art Simon, a Lutheran pastor from the lower East side in New York decided to create an ecumenical organization to combat hunger through public policy advocacy and sent out a letter asking other ministers to join. As a young pastor getting a first-hand look at hunger in Appalachian Ohio, that made sense to me, so I sent in my $15.
Nearly twenty years later, when I came to Louisville to work on domestic hunger for the Presbyterian Hunger Program, I was asked to serve on Bread’s board.
Then, twelve years ago, when I joined others here as one of the people the PC(USA) could no longer afford, I was asked to come to DC to be Bread’s director of church relations. Bread for the World calls itself a “collective Christian voice, urging our nations decisionmakers to end hunger at home and abroad.” My team’s job was to collect that collective voice.
And since I retired, nearly five years ago, I have worked part time as a consultant to Bread’s management. I spent most of this past week in Chicago, working with a new generation of Bread organizers, helping them work through how they will track their efforts to engage Christian congregations and activists in effective advocacy for government policies that alleviate hunger and poverty.
CHPC’s history with Bread for the World is also long. Our first gift to Bread is dated 1987; and our first recorded “Offering of Letters” to Congress was in 1996 – although I believe we were writing letters to Congress long before that. Along the way, several of our members became sustaining member of Bread, and CHPC itself became a Bread for the World “Covenant Church,” a congregation that commits to
- integrate hunger concerns in its prayer, worship, stewardship and educational activities.
- participate in Bread for the World’s annual Offering of Letters and engage in advocacy on other legislation in Congress.
- make an annual financial contribution to Bread for the World, but also to
- support local anti-hunger efforts and its denomination’s hunger program.
So, the covenant we acknowledge today is not just to support Bread’s efforts, but a commitment to pray and to work for an end to hunger – in our world and in our community. Bread for the World Sunday is a time to remember that we have decided to work in many ways so that all God’s children have enough to eat.
- Public policy advocacy is part of that,
- but so is our support of the UCHM food pantry,
- and the accompaniment of immigrant families, and our relationship with the Coalition of Immokolee Workers,
- and our youth leading us in the Hunger Walk
- and our support for the Presbyterian Hunger Program through the One Great Hour of Sharing,
- and our helping people learn English, so they can have the tools needed to support themselves and their families.
For CHPC, today is also the day that we mark Children’s Sabbath, giving thanks and praying for both our own children and the children of the world. In that context, we are reminded of
- how hunger hits children especially hard –
- of how difficult it is for hungry kids to learn at school,
- how critical good nutrition is in the thousand days between conception and a child’s 2nd birthday,
- how beautiful it to see a well-fed child thrive,
- and how painful it is to glimpse an image of a child near starvation.
With that context in mind, let us turn to scripture. And let us pray:
Bread of Heaven, as we listen to scripture, help us feed upon your Word, so that we might grow to be the people Jesus calls us to be. Amen.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
There’s a lot that could be unpacked in this brief passage, but the short version of it is quite simple: If you want to hang with Jesus, you need to pay less attention to your own desires and pay more attention to the needs of others.
There are many dimensions to Christian conversion –
- from doubt to faith;
- from despair to hope;
- from self-justification to a dependence on God’s grace,
- but the one that may be toughest – the one that requires life-long effort – the one that is most susceptible to backsliding — is the conversion from self-centeredness to servanthood.
Admit it. Becoming a servant is not an attractive thing. Forgetting yourself is not easily accomplished, and it can even be dangerous if it leads to neglect of your own well-being. The needed balance doesn’t happen naturally. I can assure you that it doesn’t come naturally with age.
As the workshop that Karen will be offering starting next Saturday reminds us, compassion — the driver of voluntary servanthood – is a spiritual discipline. For most of us, it comes only gradually as we live intentionally with Jesus and learn from him. As we learn to trust that God’s grace is sufficient. As we live in community with God’s people. As we intentionally, and regularly pray for it. And even then, and I speak from my own experience of myself, we are only partially converted, and often drawn back into the calculating self-interest demonstrated by the Sons of Zebedee.
We may cheer on the compassionate one in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, but, honestly, when a stranger’s need shows up on my radar, I am just as likely to “pass by on the other side of the road.”
And when I don’t, it is most likely because of this community. Because a Ben makes us realize that I can do something about the fact that JCPS kids are sleeping on the floor. Or some grannies remind us that we have the ability to show exhibit kindness and hospitality to terrified refugee families passing through our city.
This is one of the greatest gifts of community, one of the strongest arguments for “showing up” at church, because together, we help each other see beyond ourselves.
But even then, most steps toward the servanthood that Jesus calls for are accompanied by a pull back toward self-centeredness by experiences as simple as turning on the TV or balancing the checkbook or contemplating a retirement budget.
If this dynamic is true in our personal lives, it is ten times as real in our political system.
Every large not-for-profit organization working on social justice issues has a “theory of change.” You have to have one to show your funders how the activities they are supporting are going to make the world better. When I worked at Bread in DC we had a theory of change chart that reminded me of Spaghetti Junction (the new one!). Arrows went from the letters congregations like ours write toward the decisions Congress makes on hunger-related issues. Along the way, parallel arrows representing social media campaigns and traditional press work pointed toward those same decisions. From below came the research and analysis that influenced the drafters of legislation. From above came the timely intervention of lobbyists. From the other direction came arrows showing the similar efforts of partner denominations and organizations; and from another, grassroots advocacy like Letters to the Editor and calls to Congressional offices. All of these, hopefully, converged to influence Congress just enough, so that when the vote came up, it would pass legislation that:
- Expanded WIC benefits so that all expectant mothers and infants have access to healthy foods, or
- Allowed immigrants to access SNAP benefits or kept states from limiting benefits to so-called “Able Bodied Adults,” who are often very damaged veterans, or
- Focused U.S. foreign assistance on efforts that improved nutrition and reduced stunting in the children of the world’s poorest countries
And sometimes, it worked. That theory of change chart – and the similar plans implemented by Presbyterian Washington Office, and the ONE Campaign, or American Jewish World Service, and Feeding America, and a host of others who “work the Hill” for good, were enough – usually “just enough” to convince Congress to ignore the pull of the powerful and self-interested and come down on the side of those most in need.
Now, admittedly, that is a simplistic, if not somewhat romantic, portrayal of the process. It leaves out the targeting of swing votes, organizing their constituents to get them to focus on the issue and to demonstrate some political power back home in their districts. It leaves out the delicate balancing of arguments – the moral ones (because it is right, and God wants you to do it) and practical ones (it will save the country money in the long run) and political ones (it will help you with the Hispanic vote). And it also undervalues the fervent prayer that accompanies the lobby visits made by people like us who always feel like David facing Goliath.
And, just as in our personal lives, there are countervailing forces.
Congress, too, looks at the budget, and decides it can’t afford to be so generous. Congress, too, represents the powerful and privileged who can find a thousand rationalizations for protecting that power and that privilege. And they have their own theory of change charts, and bigger budgets, and lobbyists who wear suits that make them look and feel more like Goliath than David. And they, too can make the moral (it’s the best for the country in the long run), and the practical (it will balance the budget) and the political (out PAC would like to contribute to your reelection campaign) arguments.
But the point is — it does happen.
Speaking of David vs. Goliath, I just spent a few days with Zach Schmidt, a well-scrubbed young Evangelical who loves Jesus and fervently believes that Jesus wants people to have enough to eat. Zach is the Midwest regional organizer for Bread and quietly spearheaded the effort to put the theory of change chart to work to get members of the House of Representatives to sign on to co-sponsor the Global Food Security Reauthorization Act. The act requires the U.S. government to focus its foreign agricultural assistance on the reduction of malnutrition. Success will be measured NOT by increases in GDP, which may mean only the rich get richer, but by the reduction in malnourished children — so this means that the assistance must benefit the small-scale farmers who represent most of the world’s hungry people. It is not a perfect bill, but it solidifies one of the primary foreign policy changes initiated by the Obama administration. There were lots of reasons to expect that powerful forces in the US would want to block this reauthorization – and there was plenty of reason to suspect that the president wouldn’t sign it. But Zach and his colleagues mobilized people like you to visit their Representatives and ask them to co-sponsor it. To visit persuadable swing votes – to pray for them and with them for hungry children around the world. And 132 Representatives – both Democrats and Republicans – yes, including John Yarmuth — ended up sponsoring the bill – enough for it to slip through the House in what amounts to a consent agenda, so that it came to the president’s desk as having been passed unanimously by Congress, and he signed it. He actually signed it.
Of course, you never heard anything about it, because the plight of the world’s 821 million people who live on the edge of starvation doesn’t make news. But I assure you that your prayers, and our congregation’s financial support that helps pay a tiny portion of Zach’s salary, were part of the forces that made the unexpected possible – that let a country that is now so focused on its own self-interest actually – in a small but significant way – measure its “greatness” by how well nourished children in
In shaping our nation’s priorities, just as in our personal lives – the back and forth pull – is a constant reality.
And, just as in our personal lives, where it takes a community of people grounded in Jesus’s call to servanthood to nudge us in the right direction, the tipping point is often prayer — Prayer in which God reminds us of who we are; or God reminds a member of Congress of what is really important, or God emboldens just enough people to boldly speak truth to power.
Jesus said, whoever would be great among you, must be the servant of all.
In that light, as we pray for the children of the world, as we encourage each other in that life-long conversion to servanthood, as we consider what it means to faithfully participate in shaping our nation’s priorities, — let us pray for God to make us – and America — great. Again and again.