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September 28, 2008

Food For Thought

Sixteen thousand (16,000) children die every day in our world from hunger related causes; 854 million people across the globe are hungry. In our own city of Indianapolis it has been estimated that 18,000 children go to bed hungry every night. 1.1 billion people live on less than a $1.00 a day; 2.7 billion people live on less than $2.00 a day. If people had $2.00 a day to live on most world hunger problems could be solved.

How do we respond to sobering statistics like that? What does our faith tradition tell us? The prophet Isaiah tells us to share our food with the hungry, to provide shelter to the homeless, to clothe the naked-to spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and to satisfy the needs of the oppressed. That is what God's people are called to do. But do we do that? And with our nation's financial institutions in the toilet we are all a little anxious about our finances right now. That is why we need to think in terms of not just charity, but working for justice. Charity gives to others, but justice changes lives. It's also time to adjust our outlook on life from one of scarcity to one of abundance.

Everyone probably remembers hearing Mother Goose stories when they were children. These stories help us sort out the world. The tortoise keeps going and beats the hare in a race-perseverance and determination over pride and laziness. The third little pig uses bricks, a superior building material, to thwart the wicked fox and keep him safe. Quality construction materials win out over home invaders. In many stories for children good wins out over evil through hard work, determination and even a little cleverness.

But how can we explain real poverty and hunger to our children-it's not just the issue of good and evil. How can we explain situations where there is no clean water, there is no safe place, there is no food, and disease or war might strike at any time? Hard work and cleverness are not enough to win the day.

So how do we help the poor and the hungry? How do we change the life of someone in need so they no longer need our help? Isaiah says it's acts of justice, mercy, compassion and sacrifice. It is acts of compassion for those less fortunate. It is the challenge to honor God by actively helping those whose most basic human needs are not being met. And it's a call to community and relationships. Compassion, action, relationships and community.

And then Jesus tells us the story of the prodigal son-a story with many angles for reflection. Luke tells us that the younger son traveled to a distant country and squandered his property in dissolute living. There are many ways to squander an inheritance. Are we thankful, caring stewards of all that has been given to us? Or are we complicit in consumeristic patterns of dissolute living that leave many destitute? Am I a careful steward of the gift of citizenship, exercising my right to vote? Will I squander the opportunity to influence the choices of Congress and a new administration? Or will I use my voice and vote to demand policies that work to radically reduce hunger and poverty?

Jesus' parable is ultimately a story of compassion and hope, because after the younger son squanders his property a famine strikes. It is a time of reckoning. The younger son began to be in need. He went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods (also known as corn husks) that the pigs were eating, and no one gave him anything. He tried to satisfy himself with the husks. In times of economic distress it's tempting to settle for the leftovers. It's tempting to conclude that, given our own diminished harvest, we have little left to share. We imagine that our giving must be cut back, our expectations curtailed. We convince ourselves that we must be resigned to the husks of justice.

But then we hear that the younger son came to himself. And this is where our story can turn-when we can come to ourselves. We can recognize the consequences of governmental choices that leave many at death's door. Our story can turn even more as people feel their own famine of loss and suffer their own gnawing emptiness. It's a terrible thing, yet as more people come to themselves and feel the famine of justice and peace, the story begins to turn.

The moment the prodigal son came to himself was the moment he realized that there was an alternative, that the far country in which he found himself was not a place he had to remain. There was another possibility-a place with bread to spare-where no one need die of hunger. For while he was still far off, his father sees him and is filled with compassion. He embraces his son and kisses him. He covers his son's shame with a beautiful robe, places the ring of inheritance back on his finger, puts sandals on those wayward feet and prepares a feast to celebrate his homecoming!

Do we deserve another chance too? Do we deserve another opportunity to turn away from dissolute policies that leave even the poor of our own nation nothing but the crumbling husks of democracy? Perhaps we don't deserve a second chance-but our faith tells us we get it anyway. This is the good news of the gospel. Because of Jesus, the Son who was faithful unto death, God extends another chance.

The famine of justice and mercy can become a prodigal feast. We are offered the ring as a sign of our renewed role as stewards of God's good gifts. We are given the sandals to remind us that we are not barefoot slaves bound by the status quo. We are invited to the thanksgiving feast spread out so that all God's children, in every corner of the globe, many know the abundant life intended by their Creator.

It's a feast where we can thank God even while we are still far off -far from where we need to be as a nation, far from where we need to be as a church, far from where we need to be in our work for justice. But even while we are far off, God is running towards us to gather us into the feast where bread abounds. We can turn to the welcome table. We can cherish our citizenship and call our elected officials to accountability regarding poverty and hunger. This is an election year and our elected officials are listening. It is time to raise our voices. It is our responsibility to protect the future of every citizen, especially the children.

It's not too late to leave the husks behind and recommit ourselves and our churches to work for justice. It's not too late to put on the rings and shoes of our inheritance and step into the halls where decisions are made. It's not too late to seek changes that will not only feed the hungry but that will also eliminate the conditions that generate hunger and grieve our God. Instead God calls us to compassion, action, relationships and community.

Northminster has already started to take action. Our Session has approved our participation in the covenant of the Interfaith Hunger Initiative. By signing this covenant, we have pledged to become more aware of the causes and extent of hunger. We have resolved to stand with our neighbors who are hungry. And we have pledged to increase our financial support and actions to end hunger. We join in this covenant with other religious traditions here in Indianapolis (other Christians, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs) because all these traditions expect us to care for the hungry.

You can read more about the Interfaith Hunger Initiative in the October News & Views, but our efforts and financial support will go to support food banks here in Indianapolis through Gleaners and to fund school lunch programs in Kenya where many children are orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. A schedule of events for world food week is on the Mission bulletin board across from the choir room. If you work downtown I invite you to participate in the Unlunch event on October 16 on the circle. Anne Ryder will be hosting this event and instead of eating lunch that day, participants are encouraged to contribute to the Interfaith Hunger Initiative. You can also help support this hunger initiative through your pledge giving to Northminster's 2009 operating budget which gives 10% of your offerings to missions. As Isaiah reminds us-compassion, action, relationships and community.

You can walk in the CROP Walk on October 19 or sponsor someone who is walking. The money raised in this walk goes to help the hungry in Indianapolis and around the world. There are CROP Walk posters around the church for directions on getting involved. You can sign up today to help build a Habitat for Humanity House called House of Abraham-once again we are partnering with other Abrahamic faith traditions to work cooperatively to help the homeless in Indianapolis. The sign up sheet is across from the choir room. We need folks for the morning and afternoon shifts of October 25 and November 1. You can continue to bring food for our food barrels that support the food pantry of Westminster Neighborhood Ministries. Compassion, action, relationships and community.

Northminster is also a contributing partner to the Bread for the World partnership. We have written (and will write again) letters to our representatives in Congress that the advocate that the United States participate in the Global Poverty Act-a bill that our own Senator Lugar passionately endorses. You can find out more about Bread for the World in the narthex after worship.

I know this is a scary time financially for many of us. But in comparison to others here in Indianapolis and all over the world, we are truly blessed-the harvest is abundant and fruitful. Compassion, action, relationships and community.

Since I preached a sermon on heaven this summer, I hope you will permit to share one more story about heaven.

A Jewish story goes like this-I went up to Heaven in a dream and stood at the Gates of Paradise in order to observe the procedure of the Heavenly Tribunal. I watched as a learned Rabbi approached and wished to enter. "Day and night," he said, "I studied the Holy Torah." "Wait," said the Angel. "We will investigate whether your study was for its own sake or whether it was a matter of profession and for the sake of honors."

A Righteous Person next approached. "I have fasted much," he said. "I underwent many ritual cleansings; I studied the mystical commentary on the Torah day and night." "Wait," said the Angel, "until we have completed our investigation to learn whether your motives were pure."

Then a tavern-keeper drew near. "I kept an open door and fed without charge every poor man who came into my inn," he said. The Heavenly Portals were opened to him.

Thanks be to God, AMEN.


A great deal of this sermon is taken verbatim from A Prodigal Feast by Rev. Heidi Newmark and is found in the "Bread for the World Sunday 2008 Reflection Resource."

Other parts are paraphrases and quotes from Charity Gives but Justice Changes by Brett Blair with Leonard Sweet and found in the One Sabbath section of
Hunger and Poverty statistics come from the Interfaith Hunger Initiative website


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