“Great serve” – October 21, 2012
Sermon - Robin Wardlaw
Pentecost 21, Year B World Food Sunday
Readings: Job 38:1–7, (34–41); Psalm 104:1–9, 24, 35c; (Hebrews 5:1–10); Mark 10:35–45
Some of us have been hungry, really hungry in our lives. Others have not been so lucky. Those who have had food regularly, predictably don’t know the feelings that go along with real hunger. We have a harder time relating to Job and the psalmist who speak so movingly about the simple fact of food for creatures and people: “Can you... satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens?,” God asks. (Job 38:39-40a); “...living things both great and small,...all these look to you to give them their food in due season,” says the psalmist. (Ps. 104:25c, 27) We also have a hard time relating to the billion or so people for whom hunger is a very present reality for part of every week, or month or year. To be truly hungry is to lose some trust, some faith in the world, in God. It’s a bit like having a close call, but in slow motion. It is a spiritual experience as much as a physical experience.
I suspect most people think it is a shame if anyone goes hungry, in a general sense, so people have responded over the years, in many ways. Who knows how many agencies, organizations and groups are trying to do something about world hunger. We had a Green Revolution a couple of generations ago that was supposed to put food security into everyone’s hands. But the fertilizers ran out and there was nothing to replace them. The beautiful tractors and other equipment stopped working right in the field and there were not parts or mechanics to fix them. There were some improvements, many improvements over the years, but hunger has not exactly slunk off the world stage. Or even the local stage.
On World Food Sunday, we’re asking questions about food and status, food and peace, food and dignity. We have a funny relationship with food here in North America. The winner of a competitive eating contest in Florida died the other day. He was to get a python as a prize. The thirty competitors were eating cockroaches and worms. The cause of Edward Archbold’s death was a mystery, at least at first. Maybe an allergy. Perhaps they’ve figured it out by now. He was going to sell the snake to a friend.
Competitive eating contests can feature almost anything edible it seems. Competitive eating. Does any of the footage of these events make it to television sets in parts of the world plagued by hunger? What must other societies think of us?
I just got mail from the Canadian Hunger Foundation. The Foundation tells me about Gabriel Githua, a farmer with a little bit of land in rural Kenya. His wife died eight years ago, and the two children were very young then–one just four months old. They could eat during the growing season, it sounds like, about five months of the year. There are public schools in Kenya, but also fees that would have been prohibitive to Mr. Githua, so his children were both hungry and uneducated, I suspect.
The Canadian Hunger Foundation then goes on to tell how a farming project started with donor dollars has turned around Mr. Githua’s life and many others in his community. They have food security all year.Turns out the Foundation helps about six thousand people in Kenya, and thousands more elsewhere. But there are those other nine hundred million who are hungry. There are something like seventy-two million people displaced from their land and homes by violence and climate change. I’m not sure charitable projects, or food banks, are the real answer, (but I have left the appeal from the Foundation at the back of the church if you want to have a look).
Let me tell you a couple of food stories with a common theme. In rural Newfoundland, when the cod fish were coming in to the fish plant each day during fishing season, anyone could get a free fish. There was a tradition of looking after people who had no boat, or no one who could get out to the fishing ground. If you saw someone standing on the wharf when you got back with your fish, you offered him or her one fish. Enough for today. This happened to my father, by accident. He went out for a morning walk before breakfast and came back with a fish dangling from his finger.
The other story is from Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, a wonderful First Nations story teller, and professor at the University of Toronto. She tells about the stingy box, and how it has changed First Nations society. Time was, if I went out to hunt and the Great Spirit sent me an animal or birds, I rejoiced when I got home, and then the whole community had something to eat. I shared out the carcass till it was gone. Good times if there was game to eat, and no waste. Then a change came. I could get a box that plugged into the wall and froze everything I put in it. Now I could cut up that carcass or those birds and keep the everything for myself and my own family in the box. A stingy box.
Ancient traditions of sharing were based partially on largeness of spirit it seems, and partly on practical realities about preserving food in times gone by. It doesn’t seem to take much for stinginess to make its appearance. Or competition for scarce resources. Ask an itinerant rabbi about what his companions started to ask for when he began to grow a bit famous.
It gets messier when other companions find out what has been going on. The others are angry. They imagine a scarcity–there are only two places of honour, after all, one on the right and one on the left, and they may have missed out. And the notion that we might miss out on something scarce has that effect on us. The rabbi then slices right through their assumptions about scarcity their false conception of worthiness. Greatness doesn’t lie in acquiring the brass ring, making it to the top. To be great is to serve.
This is still a radical notion all these generations later. As I exit the supermarket I am obliged to run a gauntlet of glossy magazines featuring shiny, thin, beautiful people with more everything than I have. More lovers, more breakups, more personal assistants, more expensive food, more diets, more houses, more fame, more shame. To be great is be on the cover of a checkout magazine. Meanwhile, I am invited to feel badly about myself, and glee about their heartaches at the same time. And that’s just the checkout at the food store.
When I’m waiting to pay for groceries, I try to remember Jesus’ words, and say a little prayer for all the people known by their first names, that they may have some real happiness in the midst of all the glitz and non-stop photography, that they may keep some perspective. I think about the bags of food hanging heavy from my arms. Where did it come from? What forests or meadows were levelled to make giant fields for these things? What hands picked the lettuce or dried the figs? Do those people eat well as they harvest or prepare food for me? Are they to be considered great if they didn’t choose to serve others, but are forced to breathe in the pesticides or stoop over the rows all day because it is the only way to feed their children?
We’re all connected. What happens in order to squeeze out a bit more profit at a food processing plant thousands of kilometres away affects me when I go to eat that food. Deadly chemicals last sprayed forty years ago to control pests are still accumulating in Arctic fish, marine mammals, bears, and the breast milk of Inuit women.Food is such a pleasure, especially when we have some company when we eat. Can it be a pleasure for everyone involved in its production, processing and transportation as well as its consumption? Food helps us celebrate that we are not souls who happen to have a body. We really are made from everyday stuff. Food makes us aware of how much we are part of the vast web of life, from the microscopic to the leafy to the kind that moos or oinks or clucks. How and when we will get over the unfortunate thinking that we are somehow superior to everything else, I’m not sure. When you say thanks for food, do it in profound humility and ask again how you can serve alongside the servant Christ. World Food Sunday. A lot to chew on.