April 30, 2017 Luke 23: 13-35; Acts 2: 42-47; I Corinthians 11: 20-22
Prayer: Dear Lord, May we live out the words of our last song:
In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.
One Step Forward…
Some of you have read The Weight of Mercy, a memoir about my earliest years at Triune. One of the themes of that book was how we would make a little bit of progress, only to slide back.
It wasn’t one step forward, one step backward. It was more like one step forward, six backward.
Someone gave us a car, which we, in turn, gave to someone we trusted. He used it in a liquor store robbery.
We gave a homeless woman a job. She traded our food pantry items for cigarettes.
My associate Alfred got five men jobs building a Wal-Mart on the Eastside. Two of the men behaved so badly that the project manager said he didn’t want anyone else from Triune.
It wasn’t Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill only to see it roll back down. It was Sisyphus getting flattened by that rock.
Recently, I have felt a sense of déjà vu about those days.
I am part of a group called the Greenville Homeless Alliance which is trying to determine the best way to build affordable housing in Greenville. We attended the recent United Ministries luncheon in which author Matthew Desmond spoke about the vicious cycle of rising house prices and the wasteful process of eviction.
When someone is paying far too high a percentage of her income for housing and utilities, inevitably she’s going to fall behind and get evicted. She then loses all her possessions and has to start over. I cannot tell you how many times we see this played out.
Desmond pointed out that eviction is not so much a result of poverty, as it is a cause of ever-deepening poverty.
So the Greenville Homeless Alliance is committed to creating housing that the folks we work with can actually afford. Well insulated housing and utilities that take 30 percent or less of a family’s income.
Toward that end, the Alliance urged City Council to designate
$2 million for affordable housing, which it did.
On Wednesday, we are driving to Charlotte to see a big Housing First model that was driven by non-profits in that city.
I foresee churches, including Triune, contributing to a Housing Trust Fund, to aid construction.
Meanwhile, our associate director Pat Parker and facilities manager Don Austin work hard to keep five residents or families in affordable housing units we already co-own with Homes of Hope.
I really thought that affordable housing was where our energies would go in the next few years.
But then some neighbors in the areas around us began complaining about the Salvation Army. And then they began complaining about the fact that the Greenville Rescue Mission, Gateway, Salvation Army and Triune are all in one rather small area.
So we find ourselves going into mediation with the neighbors.
I think mediation is a good idea because the neighbors have a valid point about bad behaviors -- stealing and break-ins and trespassing on their property. Those things need to stop.
But at the same time, it feels like we’re slipping backward. Bad behaviors on the part of a few are forcing us to defend our very presence in the neighborhood. And that’s discouraging.
I imagine that’s how our partner, Bread for the World, feels about now. In 1990 the United Nations laid out a plan to cut in half hunger and extreme poverty by 2015.
Amazingly, all the hunger-fighting agencies worldwide actually met that goal. Millions of people were pulled above the line of having enough to eat. That is astounding.
Still, that left another 795 million people hungry or chronically malnourished, especially in those countries threatened by drought: South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. But at least we knew that significant improvement was possible.
So the United Nations set an ambitious new goal that was adopted by the World Bank and the Gates Foundation and Bread for the World. That goal is to end hunger by 2030. To end hunger in our lifetime.
But now Congress is looking at possible cuts to the 2017 and 2018 budgets of those bedrock programs that have helped make those strides – SNAP or food stamps, WIC for women and infants, refundable tax credits and global nutrition programs. Any threats to those foundational programs will not only prevent us from ending hunger by 2030, but may force us into a backward slide.
One step forward, six backward.
As Christians, hunger relief is in our DNA. I’m not sure there is a more consistent storyline in all of Scripture, from the Old Testament to the New. From God providing manna from heaven to the Israelites to ravens feeding Elijah to Jesus feeding the 5,000, we see food, sustenance, as a gift from God.
Since we are still in the Easter season, we are going to look at what happened concerning food on the heels of the resurrection.
First of all is Luke’s story about the walk to Emmaus. We won’t read it this morning, but it tells about that first Easter night.
Two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, saddened by the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, disheartened by the loss of the leader they thought would break the back of Rome.
On the road, Jesus joined them but they did not recognize him. When they reached their destination, they invited Jesus – in the guise of a stranger – to eat supper with them. And when he broke bread with them, they realized the stranger was Jesus.
He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Luke’s story is why we practice an open table at Triune. Because we believe that our communion table – where we say “the body of Christ broken for you; the blood of Christ shed for you” – might be the first place someone recognizes Jesus.
Fifty days passed after that first Easter evening. Jesus ascended to heaven and was replaced by the Holy Spirit, coming with a great whoosh at Pentecost.
And Peter and the other apostles founded Jesus’s church. If you’d like to read along, please turn to Acts 2: 42-47.
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Luke, the author of Acts, paints an idyllic picture of the early Christians, of how they behaved, how they got along, how they shared so that no one went hungry. A lot of people might stop right there and lament the fact that we don’t behave that way anymore.
But apparently the early Christians didn’t behave that way for very long either. While Peter and James and the apostles were establishing the church among Jews in Jerusalem, Paul set out to establish satellites of this new church among the Gentiles.
Paul founded a church in Corinth, a great trading city. But as soon as he left to set up more churches elsewhere, he began hearing stories of socioeconomic division entering the church body. He began hearing of a breakdown in the sharing of food.
If you’d like to read along, this passage is from I Corinthians 11: 20-22. It is Paul scolding the Corinthians for their selfish behavior.
20When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.
22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
We think the Corinthians were combining the Lord’s Supper and a community meal. So this meal Paul was referring to was not the morsel of bread and tiny cup of wine that we associate with communion.
Apparently some members were eating everything they brought without waiting for everyone to assemble. So the poorer members, without food to bring, ended up with nothing to eat.
The empathy among members of the church in Jerusalem didn’t survive the institutionalization of the church as it spread. How discouraging for things to go downhill so quickly!
In a very short time, we moved from the excitement of meeting the resurrected Jesus during a meal … to the shared meals of the early church in Acts … to a division of who gets to eat and who doesn’t in the church at Corinth.
One step forward, six backward.
Now, I’m going to sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth today. That’s because the problems in our neighborhood are not the same problems people face elsewhere.
The issue of hunger is a major one, both nationally and globally. But if you have spent much time at Triune, you know it’s not an issue in this neighborhood. Greenville has an enormous number of free meals and free food pantries. People here are generous. And for some reason, food is always the first thing they want to share.
In fact, our view is that too often food is the wrong answer to the question. When we have our homeless members as guides on Back Yard Mission Days, that is what they tell visitors: We don’t need more meals.
We need jobs, transportation, elimination of old felonies. But not more meals.
Food can’t solve addiction. Food can’t solve unemployment. Food can’t solve homelessness.
And yet, I sense that one of our big problems with our neighbors is that they mix us up with groups who pop up, serve a meal and leave.
I do not doubt people’s sincerity in wanting to help exactly those people our Scripture instructs us to help. But I do doubt the wisdom of treating addiction with food. Of treating unemployment with food. Of treating homelessness with food.
One of the very first people David Gay sent into rehab was a man named Bobby Thompson. When we met Bobby, he had been on drugs for 30 years, and homeless for six.
After getting clean, he got a job at Buncombe Street UMC which he holds to this day. He speaks at middle schools, high schools and colleges. He’s been on numerous mission trips.
And after going into Mexico and Haiti, he told me that Greenville’s homeless population eats like kings compared to the poor in those places. Nowhere, he said, is food as plentiful as it around here.
And more of it will never solve addiction, unemployment, mental illness or homelessness.
But the problems in this neighborhood by no means represent the problems in other areas. And in many, many areas lack of food is the problem.
It’s the problem in Idaho, where Dawn Pierce, a mother with a teen-ager at home, lost her job as a paralegal. She collected unemployment benefits as she looked for work. But this was near the end of the recession, and she couldn’t find anything.
So she drove to the Boise office for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that used to be called food stamps. She sat in her car for an hour, unable to believe that hunger had struck so close to home.
When she finally got up her courage and applied for her SNAP card, it allowed her to buy groceries for herself and her son until she found another job. She now works as a nurse in Boise.
But Dawn Pierce never forgot how our nation’s safety net protected her at a time she was most vulnerable. She is now on the national board of directors for Bread of the World – along with our own Susan Stall.
In many areas, lack of food is the problem. It’s the problem in the Philippines, a nation of 7,100 islands that are being swamped by increasingly violent typhoons, floods, landslides and droughts as one of the top 10 countries endangered by climate change.
Mercedita Cubar is the president of a farmers’ federation trying to diversify crops to react to the natural disasters.
The World Bank – largely supported by the United States – funds development programs in the Philippines, helping Cubar and her neighbors to forecast the weather and diversify from the rice crops that have been repeatedly wiped out.
Both SNAP nationally and the World Bank globally are programs under consideration in our federal budget. That is what today’s Offering of Letters will address.
We are asking Congress to fully fund these programs and others like them that have proved so successful in attacking hunger. That’s all. It’s entirely voluntary and entirely your choice.
If you do want to sign, volunteers will be at all our doors and in the Ezekiel room next door to help you.
From the beginning, the church of Jesus has recognized the sharing of food as an integral and intimate ministry. It has recognized that for one to go hungry while another eats violates our most basic doctrine to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Dear Lord, may you feed a hungry world through us. One step at a time.