The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE LAST SERMON EVER ABOUT STARVING CHILDREN

Delivered 10/19/08
Text: James 2:14-17; Deuteronomy 15:7-11
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Children's Sabbath today. Interesting juxtaposition since this past Thursday, October 16, was World Food Day. In 1979, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization set aside that day each year as a time to focus on the global plight of hungry people. The observance has grown to the extent that over 150 nations around the world mark the event. In the United States, over 400 national organizations (including the Presbyterian Hunger Program) call attention to the observance - there are educational events scheduled, Soup Kitchen Open Houses, and so on.

Obviously, that is appropriate. Fully one-third of the world's population go to bed hungry every night; 800-million live in abject poverty with an income of less than $1.00 per day. According to UNICEF, some 30,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they "die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world." There are 2.2 billion children in the world and 1 billion live in poverty, almost every other child. (1)

Years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the courageous theologian who died opposing Hitler's holocaust, said the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children. Sadly, we in America score rather poorly on that test considering that, in this country a child is abused or neglected every 36 seconds, is born into poverty every 35 seconds, is born without health insurance every 41 seconds, is killed by a firearm every 3 hours (8 kids a day). (2) So what kind of grade would you give us on the test?

With observances like Children's Sabbath and World Food Day coming so close together, I knew what direction this morning's message would have to take. I also knew that coming up with texts would not be difficult. The Bible, after all, says more about the poor than it says about the resurrection. It talks more about the poor than it does about prayer. Over 200 passages deal directly with our responsibility for taking care of the poor. The one in James: "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" Or the one from Deuteronomy: "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." Those verses lend themselves to some rather spectacular preaching, and in some pulpits this morning, they probably will. But, probably not here. You see, I have trouble with this.

Why? Well, I will confess honestly that I am exceedingly tired of being beaten over the head with sermons about starving children. True, the stories are heart-rending: listless babies with distended stomachs and bones so brittle they break like dry twigs. But how many of those can you hear before finally tuning them out? It is as if I have been vaccinated - they have had just enough impact on me over the years that now I am, for all practical purposes, immune to any real force from the message. After the thousandth time, they get to be like one more political commercial.

I confess that I am also exceedingly tired of some of the questionable theology I hear in connection with the problem of hunger. Several summers ago, while I was at the annual Bible Conference at Montreat, I heard a preacher one night telling about the trip she and her confirmation class took to a soup kitchen in her city. The youngsters saw the work that was going on and heard about the growing crisis of homelessness that was exacerbating the hunger problem. They heard that the fastest growing segment of the homeless population was children: six times as many kids are becoming homeless today as adults. One youngster exclaimed, "That's AWFUL!" The preacher credited that reaction to the fact that this boy grew up in church - he had learned there that people ought to care. Well, I am sorry, that is sentimental GLOP! There is nothing uniquely Christian about not wanting children to have sleep in doorways.

I will confess something else. I am tired of being made to feel guilty because I do NOT go to bed hungry at night. I am tired of the implication that, because I am not poor, I have somehow gotten what I have at the expense of starving babies. I do not buy that. That may be the case with some folks, but unless you go to some rather Olympian long jumps, you and I cannot be BLAMED for having a roof over our head and three squares a day. The Bible surely comes down hard on our responsibility to the poor - no problem - but nowhere does it ever say that none of us should have anything. Frankly, if none of us had anything, we would have nothing with which to help the poor anyway.

Yes, I am tired of this whole subject. I would very much like this to be the last sermon EVER about starving children. Let us get the problem solved and be done with it.

Can it be solved? Yes it can. We HAVE enough food. For most of the past 50 years food production has outpaced rising demand. World population has doubled since World War II, but food production has tripled. The increase is due mainly to the Green Revolution -- adoption of crop rotation, the mass production and use of petroleum-based fertilizers and chemical pesticides, expanded irrigation, and the introduction of genetically superior, disease-resistant crops. (3) We DO have enough. The problem is in the distribution.

One approach could be that which was proposed for ancient Israel and alluded to in our lesson from Deuteronomy: a regularly scheduled time when all debts would be cancelled (once every seven years) and all land returned to its original owner (once every fifty years). The ancient law was designed to prevent the formation of a permanent underclass. Even if your grandfather had made some stupid deals and run up a massive debt, you would not have to spend your entire life paying for his mistakes. Even if you had done it, there would at least be some hope that eventually you would get out from under. It was a great idea. Unfortunately, sinners that they were, the Israelites found ways of avoiding the law, so the justice of such a system was never tried. We would have to confess that we probably would have done the same thing. Anyway, in the global economy of the 21st century, that sort of proposed solution would never get past the church or synagogue door.

Is there then an alternative for the modern world? Absolutely. The problem CAN be solved. Let me give you a shocking figure. According to the World Bank, all it would take to eliminate malnutrition world-wide is a reallocation of TWO PERCENT of the world's grain harvest...TWO PERCENT. Can that be done? Of course it can. All it will take is politicians deciding to do it.

I will admit that I do not have a great deal of hope that the world problem will be solved though, simple as it is. We have all heard the horror stories of tons of food given by good-hearted people rotting on docks or being dumped from trucks to serve some ill-conceived partisan interest. Third-world politicos have gotten down to a science the use of food as a weapon. I doubt that that will change.

Several years ago in Washington, South Africa's then- President Nelson Mandela, after receiving a $100,000 prize for his leadership in the fight against hunger on his continent, said "Africa faces a terrible food crisis." He said about 34-million people in the sub-Saharan region suffer from food shortages, mostly as a result of civil strife. He called it "the worst humanitarian crisis in modern times." Mandela said international food assistance does not provide long-term answers. He said, "The only sustained solution lies in an end to conflict, a commitment to democracy, sustained economic growth and effective agricultural policies." (4)

In our own nation, though, things are different. We have democracy and economic growth and the best agriculture production anywhere; the only conflict is between politicians. And THERE is the problem. Do you realize that hunger and malnutrition had almost been eliminated by 1977 in our nation because of the large increase in funding for food stamps, school lunch programs, and nutritional supplements for women and young children that had begun in the previous decade. However, with subsequent cuts in foods stamps and nutrition programs as well as welfare regulation changes, malnutrition and hunger once again returned to us.

In response, a group of prominent medical doctors, health experts, and academic and religious leaders formed the Physicians Task Force on Hunger in America to examine the problem. In 1985, the task force reported that hunger was at "epidemic proportions," estimating that some 20 million Americans experience hunger at some point each month, and one-half million children experience malnutrition. The task force claimed that America was becoming a "soup kitchen society" and argued that this crisis was the result of federal government policies. They called on Congress to end hunger, which they believed could be accomplished in six months by strengthening the food stamp program and by strengthening meal programs for schoolchildren and seniors. (5) As we know, that never happened.

Are the politicians just rotten people? No. (Not all of them anyway.) The decisions politicians make are generally based on enlightened self-interest. They worked hard to get elected, and now they will work hard to stay elected. They will propose and vote for legislation that will attract as many people as possible and offend as few people as possible. Who could blame them?

The blame falls on the shoulders of the electorate, you and me. We want health insurance, day care, job training, drug treatment, college loans, a strong defense, help for the unemployed, lobbying reform, and preferably "no new taxes," all the good things that candidates regularly propose, just not enough. We have not raised our collective voice sufficiently to let the powers that be know we are serious.

Concerning the subject at hand - food - the key to success in eliminating sermons about starving children is to let our elected officials know that we are just plain tired of having this problem continue, that, to borrow President Kennedy's phrase, we will "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship" to get this taken care of once and for all. And the way to let them know it is to actively involve ourselves in the political process. If it means writing letters, we write letters. If it means phone calls, we call. If it means marching up and down carrying signs, then we march. If a candidate shows no commitment to ending the dilemma, we will support someone else. But we LET THEM KNOW that we are SICK AND TIRED of having this situation continue, not to mention sick and tired of all these sermons!

Frankly, I wish there were a way the goal could be accomplished without involving the government. But the problem is too pervasive for people of good will to handle on our own without legislation and (bite your tongue, David) an increase in taxes.

I never will forget a story I heard about Fiorello LaGuardia, the ex-mayor of New York. One night he was presiding in Police Court when a trembling old man was brought to the bench for stealing a loaf of bread. He said his family was starving. LaGuardia said, "Sorry, the law makes no exceptions; I have to punish you - I sentence you to a fine of $10.00." Then he added, after reaching into his pocket, "and here's the money to pay the fine. Now I'm going to remit the fine," and tossed the $10.00 into his famous outsize hat. "Furthermore, I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a man has to steal bread in order to eat. Bailiff, pass the hat, collect the fines and give them to the defendant." That little old man left that courtroom with the light of heaven in his eyes...and $47.50 in his pocket. (6)

Of course, what LaGuardia did was to TAX everyone there that night fifty cents. I doubt that any of them really missed it just as you and I would not really miss the few extra dollars it would take from each of us year to year to permanently solve the problem.

The key word there is PERMANENTLY. The Mayor did something to take care of an immediate need, but we all know the time came when that man's $47.50 was gone. Giveaways are fine for the short term, but a long term approach requires something more.

If we really want to have an end to sermons about the starving, our task is to let politicians know that we want it done. We are willing to pay our fair share to help people make a better life. My personal preference is to have the government and the private sector become partners in the task.

It would be nice to say that this kind of approach will guarantee that no one will ever go hungry in America again, that we will soon be able to close all the Soup Kitchens and Food Pantries. But we know very well that such is not the case. Jesus said, "the poor you will always have with you." There will always be folks who have needs. Houses will burn down, people will lose jobs, natural disasters will occur. We will always need the United Way and the Red Cross. There will never be a time when we will no longer need to be reminded of the command to "be openhanded toward...the poor and needy in your land." It would be nice to come to a day, though, when hearing that reminder is the exception rather than the rule and that this would be the last sermon EVER about starving children.

Amen!

1. http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

2. National Observance of Children's Sabbaths Manual, Vol. 17, (Washington, DC : Children's Defense Fund, 2008), p. 33

3. Population Reports is published by the Population Information Program, Center for Communication Programs, The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, http://www.infoforhealth.org/pr/m13/m13chap1_2.shtml.

4. Associated Press, 10/6/94

5. Scott Myers-Lipton, Social Solutions to Poverty: America's Struggle to Build a Just Society, (Boulder : Paradigm Publishers, 2006), p. 262

6. Paul Tan, Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations, (Rockville, Md.: Assurance Publishers, 1979), pp. 422-423

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