Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Five Thousand Fed. 795 Million Starving

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
- Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, Archbishop of Olinda e Recife, Brazil.

Millions of sermons have been preached over thousands of years about the feeding of the five-thousand. Most of them stress how utterly miraculous it is to feed five-thousand hungry people. 

Naturally we are in awe of the man who could instantly multiply a few crumbs into a banquet. For the rest of us, that requires strategic planning and a substantial fortune, as anyone who has planned a wedding reception or a bar mitzvah knows.

Few sermons ask why the crowd was hungry. Why did so many people leave home that day without adequate provisions for snacks? Was it an epidemic of poor planning?

And even fewer sermons ask why people are hungry in the first place. Of course, Jesus was concerned about the poor and hungry and he talked about them all the time. But when Jesus stuffed his sizable congregation with loaves and kefelta that day, was he also making a point about endemic poverty and systemic hunger?

That’s an interesting question. Some will say no. At the same time, when the sermon of the loaves and fish is preached in Christian churches this Sunday, worldwide hunger will be the specter at the feast. As we meditate about the careless five-thousand, 795 million persons live on the edge of starvation. 

Many of those persons live in South Sudan. Writing in 2015 in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof painted a chilling picture of one woman dying of hunger. 
One gauge of the famine looming in South Sudan is that people are simply collapsing from hunger. 
As I was driving into this city, a woman was lying inert on the road. She was Nyanjok Garang, and she said she hadn’t eaten for three days. She had set out to look for work, maybe washing clothes, in hopes of keeping her two children alive. After a day of fruitless walking she had collapsed. 
“My children are hungry,” she said. “I’m hungry. There’s not even a cent left to buy bread.” Her husband is a soldier in the government forces fighting in South Sudan’s civil war, but she doesn’t even know if he is still alive. So she left her children with a neighbor and set out in hopes of finding work — “and then I blacked out.” 
Multiply that woman by five-thousand, and are we closer to the point Jesus was making when he multiplied loaves and fish?
What should we be thinking about as we read these 21 verses in John 6? Many puzzling passages are included, beginning with the fabulous feeding and climaxing with Jesus’ flamboyant feat of walking on the rolling waters of Galilee.

Some theologians speculate that the walking-on-the-water scene appears out of chronological order, that it is more likely something that happened after Jesus’ resurrection. Their reasoning is that this feat of aqua-levitation matches the abilities of Jesus’ post-corporeal body, which walked through walls. 

Regardless of when the disciples witnessed this astounding event, it is certainly a tale they would have told and retold for the rest of their lives. Theologians speculate that evangelists writing about Jesus three centuries on, looking for ways to illustrate his godliness, may have dropped the story into their narratives without regard to its context.

Interesting. But the pleasant thing about theological speculation is that no one really knows for sure and everyone gets to do it.

That goes, too, for the miracle of the feeding of the five-thousand. Again, millions of sermons attempted to offer miraculous or logical explanations for the event.

One possible explanation, of course, is that Jesus caused the existing bread and fish to replicate miraculously. This is the theory my Sunday school teachers embraced, and it is heartwarming to imagine: mundane food stuffs replicating supernaturally as hungry people stuffed their mouths. 

Other theologians look for a more practical explanation. In their view, people in the crowd were so moved by the generosity of a little boy who offered his lunch that they followed his example. As Jesus blessed the food and offered the meager helping of bread and fish, a handful of people pulled out extra morsels from their own packs and offered them to their neighbors. Soon scores followed suit, then hundreds, then thousands were sharing their lunch, from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

That explanation does make logical sense, but this level of impulsive generosity would require a miracle far greater than supernatural fish splitting. In the long history of the world, the miracle we humans have failed to accomplish is the miracle of sharing our wealth so no one will starve. 

Many have tried.

One of the stranger events at the outbreak of World War II was the formation of a Federal Council of Churches commission aimed at preventing war from happening again. The Federal Council’s Program for a Just and Durable Peace called for a democratic redistribution of power and wealth to guarantee future peace. The program called for a controlled international bank to make money available worldwide “without the predatory and imperialistic aftermath so characteristic of large-scale private and governmental loans.” 

The Just and Durable Peace Program also called for worldwide freedom of immigration, the elimination of tariffs and quota restrictions on world trade, and a universal system of money controlled to prevent inflation and deflation.

Any one of these radical proposals could have prepared the framework for a program to eliminate world hunger.

But the proposals were too radical for most, and it’s tempting to wonder what kind of left-leaning socialists could offer such sweeping proposals in the dark opening days of global conflict. Surprisingly, the chair of the conference was an active ecumenist and Presbyterian layman named John Foster Dulles – the same who, a decade later, would be named Secretary of State by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Other members of the conference were Harvey Firestone the tire manufacturer and John R. Mott, Methodist layman and future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

It’s no surprise is that the Just and Durable Peace Conference was a failure. The New York Times and TIME magazine excoriated the conference and suggested it was both unpatriotic and socialist. There was no impetus then or now to reorganize the world’s governments or its economies to provide greater safety, justice, and opportunity for all people. 

If the five-thousand of Jesus’ day were fed because every heart was opened to share with others, that was a greater miracle than the Justice and Durable Peace Conference could manage. No one will ever know if its ideas would have made future wars less likely.

But still the world asks: will the miracle ever happen?

Both the five-thousand persons on the hill and the dramatic walking-on-water scene point to Jesus’ readiness to use his moral authority and divine power to serve persons in need. 

I'm curious what we would learn if we could organize the five-thousand into demographic categories. Except for the boy with the basket of food, we don’t know the age or economic classes that were present that day, although we can deduce they were all male. Even the most open-minded gospel writer would not have seen the need of counting the women present. When both genders are factored in, its possible Jesus fed ten-thousand that day.

Whoever they were, we know beyond doubt that Jesus never turned his back on any one in spiritual, mental, or financial need. 

And we can be certain that, because society in Jesus’ day was organized much like ours – that is, 1 percent of the people held most of the wealth – Jesus’ primary concern was for persons living in poverty.

In that sense, the five-thousand were a microcosm of the world we live in today. The difference is that today, when we ask ourselves how we are going to feed hungry crowds, we’re facing millions, not thousands.

We tend to put those millions of hungry persons out of our thoughts because we don’t see how we can help them. We take comfort in Jesus’ observation that the poor will always be with us because it almost makes poverty seem like an acceptable reality. We share Philip’s despair as we count all the mouths to be fed and wonder where the bread was coming from.

But God had a way then. And God has ways to feed the millions who are hungry today, assuming we don’t let the complications of domestic and international politics get in our way.

In 2000, for example, most of the nations of the world signed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations to among other things, eradicate extreme poverty and hunger worldwide. The eight MDG set specific targets on poverty alleviation, education, gender equality, child and maternal health, environmental stability, HIV/AIDS reduction, and a “Global Partnership for Development.”

The Millennium Development Goals, though tacitly supported by the U.S. Government, never made it to the mainstream of presidential and congressional campaigns. Candidates tended to champion the needs of the struggling middle class, where the votes are, and ignore those who dwell in extreme poverty.

The Millennium Development Goals did make some progress. The goal was to end extreme poverty in the world by 2015 but by then the goal was only partially achieved.

The target of reducing extreme poverty by half was reportedly reached by 2010, was has the target of halving the proportion of people who lack dependable access to improved sources of drinking water.  Conditions for more than 200 million people living in slums were ameliorated—double the 2020 target.

So we know it can be done, but so what? Sadly, no one seems to be talking about the MDG these days. Even the United Nations official website for the goals has been frozen at 2015.  The current surge of nationalistic tendencies in the U.S. and elsewhere have virtually eliminated any altruistic impulses of eliminating poverty. Only a miracle can revive them, and it will take the kind of miracle Jesus effected on that long gone Palestinian hillside.

The feeding of the five-thousand was the result of a management miracle by the God of Love and the Prince of Peace, working through the Holy Spirit to convince single persons in a crowd that they are intimately connected to the individuals who surround them. 

The feeding of the five-thousand illustrates the power of the Greatest Commandment, to love God with all our might as we love our neighbors the way we need to be loved.

The feeding of the five-thousand is a timely reminder that though the poor will always be with us, God doesn’t expect us to ignore them.

And the feeding of the five-thousand is the scriptural impetus to keep pushing ourselves and our politicians to end the poverty that kills throughout the world.

It’s tempting, always, to share the despair of Philip and Andrew, to look at the enormous needs of the world and the small basket in our hands, and ask, “But what good is this for so many hungry people?”

But Jesus’ plan is as workable now as it was then.

The end of killing poverty throughout the world is an achievable goal.

God grant us the faith and the will and the political courage to make it happen.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Baptizer: History's Greatest Deacon

Mark 6:14-2

This Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary urges us to meditate on the death of John the Baptist, one of history’s best-known second bananas.

It has occurred to me that if Ted Sorensen had not been a Unitarian, he would certainly have embraced John as his patron saint. 

Sorensen, who was President John F. Kennedy’s speech writer and unofficial chief of staff, was paid to pave the way for JFK and make him look good. He was the actual author of most of President Kennedy’s best remembered speeches and he was certainly – although he denied it – the actual writer of Profiles in Courage

Sorensen was content to fade into the background while historians recognized JFK as a beloved figure in whom they were well pleased.

I loved President Kennedy, but in the years after his death I took comfort in the fact that JFK’s best impulses and stirring eloquence still survived in the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in Manhattan, where Ted Sorensen was counsel until his death in 2010. 

I had a brief email exchange with Sorensen a year before he died when he and I and dozens more were addressed in a spamming email from an eccentric blogger who believed an extrapolation of the statistics of the World Series would reveal the timing of the end of the world. I had been ignoring this man’s emails for years, but this time Ted Sorensen replied to all on the list to ask, “Who is this man?”

I responded immediately to Sorensen and explained the man used to stand outside the Interchurch Center in Manhattan to pass out mimeographed copies of his eschatological calculations and in recent years he had upgraded to emails. I then subdued my blushes to tell Sorensen he had been my idol for years because I was also called to write speeches and press releases for public figures, namely church and ecumenical leaders. His response, which employed his famous rule of never using a big word when a small one would do, was simple: “Thank you for your lifetime of service.”

Naturally I treasured that response and reminded myself that being a second banana was also a service. 

John the Baptist was not only a second banana, he was history’s greatest deacon providing support and diaconal service to history’s greatest figure.

I’ve meditated frequently over the years about John and the service he provided, and also about the consequences he suffered. Looking back on some earlier reflections, I offer them again to all who will be thinking about John during Sunday services July 15.

John the Baptist: Second Bananas and Comical Sidekicks. 

If there was ever a religious or political leader qualified to think of himself as number one, it was John the Baptist. He is one of a small handful of bible characters who appear in extra-biblical accounts. He is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus and he plays a prophetic role in the Qur’an. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, Yahya ibn Zakkariya, Sufi Muslims hold John in high regard because of the Qur’an’s account of his astute wisdom, unfailing kindness, and sexual purity.

John the Baptist: Getting A Head

And, most significant of all, it was John who came prepared to turn his back on fame and influence as soon as his cousin, Jesus, arrived on the scene. That’s not a common attitude. It’s like Steve Jobs telling everyone, “but even more important than me is Tim Cook, who must increase as I decrease.” Not bloody likely.

And finally, my favorite because it involves the singular insights of Oscar Wilde: Salomé of the Dance

No one knows what Salomé looked like or what her dance actually involved. If it really involved seven veils, as latter day pundits suggest, you’d think a dancer entwined in so much cloth would wilt in Palestinian sweat. Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite artists (bless their hearts) imagine Salomé discarding every stitch of veil early in the dance, although more conservative Victorians prefer to dress her in billowy bloomers modeled after Ali Baba’s winter wardrobe. 
John the Baptist played Second Fiddle with an exquisite loveliness neither Ted Sorensen nor I could have managed, nor would we have chosen his ultimate fate. 

But he remains history’s ultimate model of deaconship, and it’s right and meet to honor him this week with gratitude and devotion.