Sunday, October 14, 2018

"God's Hands and Feet in the World." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"God's Hands and Feet in the World"

Mark 10:35-45

The twelve disciples had been going around with Jesus for some time.  He’d been teaching them about the way of self-giving love.  But they don’t seem to get it.  Mark tells us that James and John “come forward” to Jesus, pushing ahead of the other disciples. 
            “Teacher,” they say, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
            Jesus says to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  And they say, “When you come into your glory, grant one of us the privilege of sitting at your right hand…and one at your left.”
            Now, some people dismiss the Zebedee brothers.  They see them in this conversation, at least, as pushy, ambitious seekers of a place of honor and power. 
            But I think it’s obvious that James and John had great faith in Jesus.  They believed in him, and their personal hopes were completely woven into his destiny.  They loved Jesus.   But what Jesus is trying to teach his disciples about being a suffering servant is hard!  It’s hard to understand-- and harder to live.
            One of the reasons that the Christian message has been twisted and distorted and misunderstood—is that it’s so paradoxical.  The Christian paradox is that our Lord and Savior came as a suffering servant to save us… and to show us the WAY.
            Jesus defines greatness very differently from the ways we’re used to thinking about it.  When we follow Jesus, as his disciples, we need to struggle with the paradox that—in God’s kingdom—we gain by losing.  We become great by serving.  And we get to be first by being last.  In the kingdom of God, things look very different than they do in the world.
            “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be a servant.  This teaching is so critical to understanding Jesus’ ministry…and such a key to being a disciple—that the gospels record it no less than eight times.
            What does it mean for us to follow a servant savior?  
            Among other things, it means setting aside self  in order to take up the cause of others.  It means serving our neighbors.  It means living out our faith in terms of kindness, openness, empathy, and compassion.    Never perfectly, never fully—for we’re not capable of perfect servanthood.           
            As part of Christ’s body, when we’re at our best, we are a servant church.   When we’re not at our best, we’re an organization filled with people each trying to get their own needs met…  trying to get something out of church… and trying to get the church to be the church we want it to be.
            When we’re being the servant church, we’re feeding the hungry, calling on the sick…visiting the home bound.   We’re serving those in the community who are needy and hurting, through friendship and practical kinds of help.  When we’re being the servant church, we share in Christ’s ministry in the world by generously supporting the mission of the church with our tithes and offerings.
            Today has been designated as Bread for the World Sunday.   This Tuesday is World Food Day. 
            This is a time when we who have plenty to eat are reminded that many people don’t… and many of those who are hungry or food insecure are children.  On Bread for the World Sunday, we are challenged to consider some facts about hunger.  More than 41 million Americans, including 13 million children, lived in households that struggled to put food on the table in 2016. More than 40 million Americans lived below the poverty line in 2016; 1 in 3 were children. [1] Many of these children have parents who have jobs and work hard, but their wages aren’t high enough to cover the high costs of rent, transportation, and utilities and daily meals.[2]About two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, elderly, or disabled.[3]
            Our federal government’s feeding programs serve as a lifeline for vulnerable children and families. Because children are hit especially hard by the effects of hunger and malnutrition, nutrition programs aimed at children are particularly important. 
            A healthy start in life — even before a child is born — pays off for years-- not only for individual children and families, but for communities and our nation as a whole.
Locally, and in the short term, we are helping to alleviate hunger as we contribute to Blessings in a Backpack…when we give to the Presbyterian Hunger Program through our Cents-Ability Offerings… when we support Church World Service…when we support the mission of the Open Door…or Zaman…or  Gleaners.
            But we also need to work on the systemic causes of hunger.   Only one out of every 20 grocery bags that feed people who are hungry come from church food pantries and other private charities.  Federal nutrition programs, from school meals to SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), provide the rest.   Our government’s child nutrition programs serve millions of children each year.  It’s one of the ways we work together as a society to care for those in need.
            In the toolkit for Bread for the World’s Offering of Letters, I read about Stephanie Rice, the mother of four boys ages 3 to 10 in Ohio.   Stephanie and her husband have always had to plan carefully as they raised their family on modest wages.
            Early in their marriage, James worked at Babies R U and made $7.25 an hour. Stephanie earned $9 an hour as a cashier at Wal-Mart. The Rice’s were raising James’ daughter from a previous marriage and had a baby on the way. There just wasn’t enough money to put food on the table. They applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to fill in the gaps.
            “If that had not been there, I wouldn’t have been able to pay the bills,” Stephanie said. It was a situation where every penny had to be accounted for. Even the slightest interruption in food stamps would have completely upset the balance.”
            SNAP is just one of many anti-poverty programs funded by the federal government. Other programs include the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, Children (WIC), and school meals.
            These food assistance and child nutrition programs are a lifeline to millions of Americans every year.   How the federal government decides to spend taxpayer money has real-life consequences.
            It’s common for families receiving food assistance to have one or more adults earning a paycheck. Most benefits go to the working poor.
            Stephanie and James are doing better than during their hardest times, like the winters when they couldn’t pay the gas bill and their gas was shut off. Or the time their car was stolen and it took them a year to recover from the loss.
            These days, James and Stephanie’s family doesn’t need as much food assistance, but Stephanie is worried about potential cuts to food assistance to others in need. She’s majoring in social and political science, and has a goal of one day running a nonprofit for homeless people, giving back to those in need--just as she received help when she needed it the most.
            In the meantime, on her to-do list is calling her members of Congress. She says she has her senators and representative “on speed dial,” so she can tell them what it’s like to have a hungry family and receive temporary help to put food on the table.[4]
            Bread for the World is a faith-based education and advocacy organization that I’ve belonged to for some years.  The reason I support Bread for the World is because, over the years, they have had a remarkable record of helping win passage of bipartisan legislation that addresses hunger.   As a result of this advocacy, children in the United States receive vital nutrition.   Emergency food reaches refugees from famine and conflict in Africa and elsewhere.  Agricultural development is enabling hungry people in various parts of the world to grow enough food to feed their families.
            In the Hebrew scripture passage we heard today, we heard God speaking through the prophet Isaiah, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making  widows their prey and robbing the fatherless… [5]
            The scriptures teach us that God loves justice and requires us to do justice and love kindness.[6]  Our individual actions and societal structures should enable all to share in God’s provision. Deuteronomy commands, “do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.”[7]
            In Exodus 16:13-19, God instructs the Israelites not to take more many each day than they need. In Leviticus 23:22, the Israelites reserved a corner of their fields for those who needed food. Jesus spoke of the importance of justice as an element of faithfulness: “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God. It is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”[8]  
            The community in Acts 2 “had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” In Matthew 25, Jesus taught that the nations would be judged according to how they treated “the least of these”-- those who are marginalized and in need.
            When we support Bread for the World through our donations, when we call or write our elected representatives to advocate for those who struggle to feed their families, we are living out our calling to do justice.

            As Teresa of Avila famously put it, "Christ has no body now on earth but yours… no hands but yours…  no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which God’s compassion will look upon the world.  Yours are the feet with which God will go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which God will bless others now."

            We are called to serve—to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
When we respond to Christ’s call and work together, we can help to change the conditions and the policies that allow hunger to persist. 
            We are called to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our house… to care for basic needs of those who are marginalized.
            Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God promises us that we will not have to do this alone.  When we call, the LORD will answer.  When we cry for help, God will say, “Here I am.”[9]
            And that, my friends, is good news!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 14, 2018

   [1] Income and Poverty in the United State: 2016, U.S. Census Bureau.  
   [2] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. policy-basicsintroduction-to-the-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap
[3] USDA, Women, Infant, and Children Program Participation and Costs. les/pd/wisummary.pdf 
[5] Isaiah 10:1-2.
[6] Isaiah 61:8; Psalm 99:4; Psalm 33:5; Micah 6:8; Amos 5:22-24.
[7] Deuteronomy 15:7-11.
[8] Luke 11:42.

[9] Isaiah 58

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