Friday, October 5, 2012

The Hunger Games?

Ok. I’ll admit it. I’m a U2 freak! One of my bucket list items is to sit down with Bono and discuss U2 lyrics and the Kingdom of God. I say that because I’ve been so intrigued by his apparent connection of faith with the real-world problems, which the Bible reveals Jesus came to address when He inaugurated the Kingdom. Hunger is one of those problems. Listen to these statistics that Richard Stearns presents in his transparent and insightful book, “The Hole in our Gospel:” •Roughly 1 of 4 children in developing countries is underweight •Some 350 to 400 million children are hungry •About 1 in 7 worldwide—854 million people—do not have enough food to sustain them •Approximately 25,000 people die each day of hunger or its related causes— about 9 million people per year. These are NOT just statistics…they are PEOPLE who share the same longings, dreams and love for their children and for life as we. You need to know that as a pastor, I have often failed to educate and equip my congregation to help the world face this problem. Bono says, “How in a world of plenty, can people be left to starve? We think, ‘It’s just the way of the world.’ But if it is the way of the world, we must overthrow the way of the world. Enough is enough.” That statement is so in line with the revolutionary heart and words of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God… Jesus said He came to earth to “proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus taught that at the end of the age, when the fullness of the Kingdom of God will finally visit earth (Matt. 25:31-46), one of His main concerns will be whether or not we fed the hungry (and gave clean water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and diseased and visited the oppressed). Jesus taught that IF INDEED we have been impacted by the Good News, that IF, in fact, we have been gripped by grace, one of the telltale signs of godliness will be a sensitive social conscience. World Food Day, celebrated on October 16 of each year, “is a worldwide event designed to increase awareness, understanding and informed-year-round-action to alleviate hunger.” My aim in this brief paper, is to help preachers and teachers in the church equip their congregations to become more aware of the problem of hunger and to consider what it means to usher in the Kingdom of God through doing our part, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to alleviate hunger in the world. Surely one responsibility we have as pastors and Christian workers is to teach on this critical subject. We are asking you to make the focus of your sermon/teaching time in your churches on October 14, alleviating hunger as a Kingdom Value. Specifically, THIS year’s Focus for World Food Day is on Agricultural Cooperatives and Agricultural Development as critical to alleviating and eventually ending hunger. Clearly, our Creator calls us to care for the Hungry of the Earth. God even lays out multiple methodologies for us to consider as we seek to address the issue: First, in the Old Testament, God commands the Church to NOT make an idol out of efficiency, productivity and profit, but rather to care for the hungry by actually NOT harvesting every single grape (Lev 19:10), and to leave them for the poor. When we reap the harvest of our crops, we are not to reap right up to the very edge of our land (how inefficient!), but instead we are to leave them for the poor to glean—that is, to obtain food through the work of their own hands (Lev 23:22). Second, in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul takes up an offering of cash from less-needy churches during a severe famine and delivers it to the suffering so that they could buy food (Acts 11:27-30). Jesus seems to leave it up to our God-given creativity and imagination concerning the various ways we might alleviate hunger: He simply says to the “sheep” who were consistent in living out the Amazing Gospel of Grace, “I was hungry and you gave Me food.” Jesus doesn’t go into any detail as to HOW the sheep feed Him through feeding the hungry…it could be through providing work (Lev 19; 23); It could be through sending money or food (Acts 11:27-30). The point Jesus is making is that if we have been gripped by grace--if we have been shown favor in our desperate spiritual hunger--we will, in turn, SHOW GRACE to those who are both spiritually and physically hungry through a variety of means. In Acts 6:1-7, the very issues of food supply and distribution (the emphasis of World Food Day this year) confronted the early church. The apostles faced the delicate situation of meeting both “spiritual” and “physical” needs with wisdom and grace. The solution was that the elders would give their primary attention to the ministry of the Word and to prayer; deacons would be created and organized to make sure that there was proper supply and distribution of food. Notice that an entire group of officers/leaders in the church was created SPECIFICALLY to address peoples’ physical needs. The Bible knows nothing of a church that is only focused on the so-called spiritual needs of the soul while neglecting the “real life” needs of the body. As James points out: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘God in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for body, what use is that?” (James 2:15-16) Again, this focus on supply and distribution is the focus of this year’s World Food Day. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul says that the church then and the church now must remember the poor (surely including the hungry). So, what does it really MEAN to “Remember the poor”? It can’t mean to merely send money or temporary food supplies, so that they can eat today and starve tomorrow. It can’t mean entitlement programs that often put only a Band-aid on their deep hunger-wound without addressing the real disease. Surely “remembering the poor” MUST include remembering them not only in prayer, not only in giving, but also in equipping the poor themselves SO THAT they can feel and experience the full dignity of reflecting their Creator through work and productive contribution. We must teach our people about the REAL NEEDS and the REAL SOLUTIONS…and not mere band-aids. Remembering the poor must involve agricultural development; it must include practical mechanics and education: knowledge, wisdom and training that will help the impoverished become productive “image bearers.” This is the “glory and honor” of being human (see Psalm 8, especially verse 5-6). When it comes to humanitarian service, we must guard against dehumanizing others in seeking to salve our own consciences. I must confess that for too long I have responded as a pastor to Christ’s call to show compassion toward the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and the naked by merely encouraging our congregation to give money. Thankfully, we are now looking at supporting agencies and teams that are more geared toward helping the hungry learn how to feed themselves, and others as well. In Genesis 1:26-28, God says that He made humans in His image. What does it mean to be an “image bearer?” It means to be able to reveal, reflect and represent the glory and honor of the Creator God. God also says in this passage that He gave humanity dominion over the planet (not ruling out of selfishness and self-indulgence; but ruling out of wisdom and care and concern). What methods and strategies remember the poor, feed the hungry AND do so in a manner consistent with enabling and empowering image bearers to rule and subdue the earth, allowing them to experience the full dignity, honor and glory of reflecting and representing their Creator? Surely equipping them to work and provide for themselves, enabling them to alleviate their own hunger AND the hunger of those around them, is critical. In Genesis 2:15, the Scriptures present work as a pre-Fall element of a purposeful and significant life that honors and reflects God. After the Fall of humanity into sin, work, like every other area of life, became corrupted; work is now accompanied by sweat, difficulties, “weeds” and troubles. But part of experiencing the significance of being image bearers is the privilege and responsibility of engaging in redemptive, restorative work. The apostle Paul emphasized this privilege and responsibility when he wrote that “if anyone is unwilling to work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess 3:10). If in our “remembering the poor” and “feeding the hungry,” we fail to keep in mind our responsibility to others in not hindering them in their call to productive work, we fail completely! It is those who are UNWILLING, not those UNABLE, to work who should not eat. The world is filled with folk who are willing to work. How can we make them able? I am so thankful for books like Roger Thurow’s “Last Hunger Season” which help me as a pastor understand what is being done and what can be done. Recently, our church sent a group to India as an “Advance Team” to investigate how our church can help meet both the spiritual and physical needs in a particular city. They came back with ideas on how our congregation can help these people by equipping them in the areas of business practices, health-care and agricultural development. It was a “mission trip” in which folk in our church who don’t typically see themselves as “missionaries” felt incredibly useful in meeting some of the real needs of the world. Paul also wrote that one of the ways followers of Christ are to adorn the Gospel of the Kingdom with beauty and attractiveness before the watching world is through “working with our hands” (1 Thess 4:11). Surely we are to do all we can to empower all our brothers and sisters in Christ to adorn the gospel they dearly believe with beauty and attractiveness. We are not merely to relieve suffering; we are to relieve suffering IN THE MANNER that most preserves the dignity, the glory and the honor of fellow image bearers. We are not to relieve suffering to soothe our guilty consciences or to take pride in our “do-gooding.” We are to relieve suffering in a way that honors God, dignifies His creation and most redeems and restores the cosmos. Finally, the Gospel also surely calls us to political engagement. We are called to honor the King—the government and those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-4; Titus 3:1-2). Part of honoring those in authority is engaging with them (across party lines) concerning the needs of others. Honoring those in authority must involve informing them of problems and opportunities and kindly and winsomely “pressing” them to do what governments can do to promote mercy and goodwill in the most effective means possible. The Church MUST be willing to set the pace in ending world hunger; but to think that the governments of the nations should be unengaged and uninvolved is both illogical and detrimental. Old Testament Israel was both Church AND State…and she was commanded by God to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of her citizens…and of the stranger. As pastors and teachers, we must “study to show ourselves approved, handling accurately the Word of Truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Clearly, it is critical that we put aside our commitment to political parties, “camps” and “labels” and get back to the LARGENESS of the Gospel. And in this LARGE Gospel, we must indeed confess that the Work of Jesus Christ is about ushering in the Kingdom of God. Ushering in God’s Kingdom is about inviting people from every tongue, tribe, nation and language into citizenship of the New Jerusalem, but it encompasses much more than that as well. We are to communicate and live out the reality that the Work of Christ and the Call of Christ engages us to nothing less than full restoration of the entirety of creation. We must guard against a “Titanic Christianity” that sees meeting the physical needs of food, clean drinking water, clothing, sanitation and health as “re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.” Godliness and Christ-likeness surely includes personal piety (Christ-like character, engaging in the spiritual disciplines of Bible Study, Biblical Meditation, high moral behavior, offering the Good News to people of all nations, tribes and tongues), but godliness ALSO includes a social consciousness and feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and bringing clean water to the thirsty. For far too long, Christ-followers have neglected either one for focusing on the other. On all sides, from all quarters, our Gospel has been TOO SMALL. This is clearly taught in the prophetic message of the Old Testament. For all the appropriate concern over immorality and personal piety, the Old Testament tends to give us a BIGGER GOSPEL than many Christ-followers hold to in our day. One illustration of this is the difference of perspective concerning what caused the particular fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. In most peoples’ minds today, fire destroyed those cities because they failed to follow the “holiness ethic” of the Epistles and engaged in various sorts of immorality. But when we look at Ezekiel, we discover a different disease: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). How many suffering moms and dads around the globe are indeed crying out to God for help, for deliverance, yet fail to see their prayers answered? How are WE to become the means of God for answering their prayers? How many hungry people in the world are willing to believe, but have not seen the evidence of God’s goodness in the feeding their children? How are WE to be the help they desperately seek from God? We must caution our people against a creeping fatalism that adopts a “let go, let God” attitude. God’s people are His instruments for good and for change in this world. If God is going to end hunger, He intends on moving His people to create or to support the means for doing so. We cannot rest content in grieving the plight of the hungry, yet do nothing (again, James 2:15-16). We must give our money; we must send our food; AND, as we are emphasizing this year, we MUST become aware of, support and engage with organizations that are on the cutting edge of “exporting” agricultural development. Jesus says that He desires MERCY, not sacrifice (Matt 12:7). Simply put, Jesus is not as impressed with as much of our Christian spirituality as we might like to think. Certainly He desires true, heart-felt worship; clearly He enjoys our quiet, reflective, contemplative personal devotional commitments. He rejoices over faithful stewardship as it relates to giving of our money and possessions. But we must remind ourselves that what He truly DESIRES is mercy. He has shown us what God requires of us: but love mercy and to do justly and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Part of loving mercy and doing justly is to do all we can to alleviate and eradicate world hunger…may God establish the work of our hands and establish the work of the hands of those who are hungry as well (Ps 90:17). There is more and more taking place through various agencies that are making agricultural and business development as well as other practical foci some of the means of changing our world. I am confident that there are individuals in our faith families who are very passionate and burdened over the problem of World Hunger. May we identify those people…and engage those people. May we help educate and equip our congregations to get involve in these wonderful and necessary approaches to eradicating hunger in our world.

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