Sermon for 11th Pentecost -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
This Sunday’s gospel lesson is similar to last Sunday’s - one verse, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35) even repeats from last weekend. We are on a string of six weeks of gospel lessons about bread, ones that began with “Feeding of the 5,000” miracle several weeks ago and have continued with Jesus’ teaching about the bread of life.
All this talk about bread got me thinking about the sad reality of hunger and starvation on our world.
I have a story to share with you. It is very personal and one I have not shared often.
And, for the benefit of those of you who are new to our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our World Hunger Appeal, which serves the hungry in the USA and around the world, is able to spend nearly 95% of the gifts given to this appeal to hunger relief efforts, partly because our hunger fund-raising efforts are paid for by our regular benevolence giving. I know of no other charity of any kind that can offer that high, or even close to that high, a percentage of actual help from the gifts given to it.
It was near the end of a long, hard trip in eastern Africa. I was leading a group of Lutheran communicators; visiting areas where our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s World Hunger Appeal and regular benevolence funds are helping feed the hungry and combat HIV/AIDS. We had seen wonderful work with families and villages in Uganda and had been overwhelmed by the Tanzanian church’s work with children whose parents had died of AIDS.
Now we were close to the end of our trip and were visiting Lutheran church projects in Ethiopia. This part of the trip had been harder logistically then our earlier visits in Uganda and Tanzania. Our hosts had tried to cram too much into our short time in Ethiopia and I, as group leader, had had to refuse to visit several additional projects they had wanted us to see.
This day we were at a relief station in Wenenata in southern Ethiopia. There the South Central Synod of the Ethiopian Evangelical Lutheran Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) coordinates food donations for 300 – 400 people each day. At the time we visited, the church was feeding more than 50,000 Ethiopians per year in six feeding stations like the one we were visiting in Wenenata. That was better than the previous year when drought had increased the number needing food support to nearly double that figure. It was an exciting, frantic scene with families clamoring for bags of rice and flour and cans of cooking oil. I was proud to know that our ELCA World Hunger Appeal and regular benevolence funds had helped make this regular food distribution possible. We were surrounded by smiling children, eager to greet and thank us for the full bellies they were anticipating from that day’s food donations. Seeing the children and families getting food made us all smile.
However, it was not long after we left Wenenata that I was overcome by another set of feelings: I found myself weeping rather uncontrollably and for nearly thirty minutes. At first, I could not figure out what was happening to me. I knew that, like the rest of our group, I was tired from this long journey in Africa and the wonderful but heart-rending projects we had seen. But, these tears were more than just exhaustion.
As I reflected and tried to control my emotions, I realized that part of what I was experiencing was related to being a baby-boomer aged person and seeing starvation and food distribution in Ethiopia first hand. For all of my adult life, when I had thought of Ethiopia, I had thought of hunger and starvation. I was struck by this – what is now 40 or more years of Ethiopian hunger and starvation – and the injustice of it all. And I wept uncontrollably.
Something else struck me that day. In 2004 when I made this visit I was serving on the staff at the ELCA churchwide offices in Chicago. At the churchwide offices at that time we were confronted almost daily with a hard fiscal reality – fewer and fewer funds for vital ministries like supporting the Ethiopian Church in their outreach and hunger ministries. My Ethiopia visit occurred before the churchwide assembly in 2005 when the church was scheduled to make some decisions on some controversial matters. I knew that some congregations were withholding funds to the ELCA because they disagreed with how they thought the churchwide assembly was going to act on these controversial matters, even though the assembly had not yet acted and, in the end, did not approve anything controversial at that assembly.
That’s when it hit me – those congregations which were withholding benevolence and, thus, giving our Global Mission unit fewer funds to help the Ethiopian church, those congregations were literally killing people in Ethiopia since fewer funds for Global Mission and fewer funds for the Ethiopian Church meant that there were fewer funds for Ethiopian food aid. It was a pretty simple equation – less benevolence giving equals fewer global mission funds equals fewer funds for the Ethiopian Church equals fewer funds for Ethiopian food relief. And, that all added up to more people dying. It made me angry and very sad. I wept some more.
Maybe this time in early 2004 was the first that I realized that it was time for me to leave the churchwide staff and return to pastoring a congregation where I knew we could make a difference with hunger and benevolence giving. Or, maybe I was just too tired, not only from African travel but mostly from the nastiness we sometimes dealt with daily at the churchwide office from those who disagreed with decisions the church had made, or, in this case, ones they assumed the church would make.
What I was and am sure about it that feeding the hungry IS what the church was and is about and withholding funds for some assumed reason, one which, in this case, turned out to be a false assumption, IS NOT what the church was or is about.
What I was and am sure about it that feeding the hungry IS what the church was and is about.
And let me also be clear – while Jesus spoke often, as he did again in today’s Gospel lesson, about being the “bread of life” he also made it clear that feeding the hungry with food – both real food and spiritual food – was part of his ministry on this earth and part of what we expects of us as Christians. Jesus makes this absolutely clear in his parable in Matthew 25 – “when I was hungry, you gave me food.”
I am hoping that we can grow our hunger-related ministries here at Mt. Olive over the next few years. We have made a good start: This congregation has responded generously to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal, as well as our church’s Disaster and Malaria appeals. More locally, we are currently seeking donations of men’s clothing and toiletry items for the OPCC shelters here in Santa Monica and this is one way we can help the hungry and homeless locally.
In the past our congregation has had monthly local outreach projects for the homeless and hungry. Unfortunately, these have been stalled in the past year because we do not have a person to head up this important ministry. We do still have our monthly movie night which serves a meal and a movie to area homeless folks as well as our elderly neighbors, some of whom may also be without adequate food. And, we will restart our Sunday noon meals on September 13 – I hope we can find ways to invite more homeless and hungry people to those meals also.
Overall, I just hope we can look for more ways to help the homeless and hungry in our community and around this nation and world.
Jesus Christ, the one who is the “living bread of life from heaven,” calls us to be his hands of help for the hungry of this world. There are no excuses, feeding the hungry is what we are to do as Christians.
Thank you for your support of the hunger and outreach ministries of our congregation, both here and around the world. It is what we do as Christians.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Bread and Hunger
Sermon for 11th Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
August 8 / 9, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California