Closing the Great Chasm: Faith & Global Hunger Part 2

A few years ago a woman named Sara Miles walked into a church, and she has never been the same since. She talks about that day in her book Take This Bread:

One early, cloudy mourning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans--except that up until that moment I'd led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything...The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food--indeed, the bread of life...I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going...[1]

She surely did! She kept going at that very church, St. Gregory's in San Francisco--distributing groceries to hungry people. On Sunday people gathered around the altar to pass the bread and share the cup. During the week, Sara and her friends passed out food from the very same altar where she'd first tasted the bread. Within a few years she and the people who had received food started nearly a dozen food pantries in the poorest parts of their city.

Can we believe this story? Was it really that moment of tasting the bread after all those years distaining the church? I can only go by what she says, but she opens up a larger question: what changes us? What could move us or awaken us to believe that communion with Jesus means feeding people who are hungry?

In today's gospel Jesus tells a parable about a man who refused to be changed. It's a sad story that ends with two men dying--one rich, the other poor. The rich man is in torment and begs the poor man for water to cool his tongue. But Abraham, cradling the poor man to his side, tells the rich man it's impossible because "a great chasm has been fixed" between them. There is no way to get from here to there or from there to here. The great chasm was already there while the two men were alive. 

Jesus paints the contrast in painfully clear images as the parable begins...

...a rich man dressed in purple and fine linen

...a poor man covered--not with fine linen--but with sores

...a rich man who feasted sumptuously

...a poor man who longed for crumbs from the rich man's table

Why? Why was there such a great chasm between the rich man and Lazarus while they were alive? We could quickly answer that the rich man was hard-hearted and selfish. He was mean. Yet, Jesus paints him as a man with great compassion for his family. He pleads with Abraham on behalf of his five brothers--don't let them come into this place of torment! But Abraham replies, "They have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them." 

Here we come to the heart of this parable . What does it mean to listen to Moses and the prophets? It was possible to read Moses and the prophets in many different ways. The rich man could have believed he was following Moses and the prophets. Indeed, it may be true that his interpretation even caused the chasm between himself and Lazarus. It's possible that certain interpretations widen the great chasm even in our own time. Jesus is interpreting scripture with this parable. How do we rightly understand Moses and the prophets? Just read the Bible, some would say! But it's not so simple. In Deuteronomy 28 we read these words: "If you will obey the Lord your God...these blessings will come upon you." And the verses that follow describe wondrous blessings in city and field, fruits of the ground, increase in cattle and flocks--a glorious prosperity gospel! The rest of the chapter is filled with curses, curses that will come upon those who do not obey God. These curses are direct reversals of the blessings--devastation and destruction, blight and mildew, pestilence and plague. Listen carefully to one particular curse: "The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head."  (Deut. 28: 35) 

And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores...even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

Jesus draws this picture carefully, calling attention to the sores. He's drawing this picture on purpose: Lazarus looks exactly like the one who is cursed by God. Thus, according to one interpretation of Moses and the prophets, the great chasm is the poor man's fault. He must have disobeyed God. The rich man doesn't have to do anything for the man lying at his gate.

But Jesus' will not let this interpretation stand. He argues directly against this interpretation, for he knew there were other words in scripture. In the same book of Deuteronomy, God tells the people: "You shall open wide your hand to your brothers and sisters, to the needy and to the poor..." (Deut. 15: 7-11) This was not a weak voice, but one that was steady and strong, reminding people to leave grain at the edges of the fields for the poor, the widow, the sojourner. This voice became even stronger in the writings of the prophets such as Amos and Jeremiah and Isaiah. "What does true fasting mean?" asked Isaiah:

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58: 6a, 7)

And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus covered with sores...

Which reading of Moses and the prophets will we choose? It's no secret where Jesus comes down: "The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham." Poverty is not a sign of disobedience and wealth is not a sign of faithfulness. It was poor, hungry Lazarus--not the wealthy man--who was embraced in the bosom of Abraham.

But Jesus didn't tell this parable to scare the hell out of us. Jesus told this parable to change the way we are living this side of heaven! We're feasting sumptuously and Lazarus is still hungry. Of course, there isn't only one man named Lazarus. There are millions of men, women and children who long for even a crumb that falls from our tables. Many of them are far beyond our gates or our front doors--we will never even know their names. Every 3.6 seconds another person dies of starvation. That means about 250 people will die while I am preaching. But I won't see them--most of us won't see them. There is a great chasm between us and the millions of people who are starving. 

I know this is overwhelming. I'm overwhelmed when I hear these numbers. I feel guilty and maybe you do, too. But guilt won't feed anybody. Jesus didn't tell us exactly how to close the great chasm between rich and poor, but he surely thought there shouldn't be one. What could have changed the rich man? What will change us? We need to be converted. We need to see the connection between the bread on the altar and daily bread. Sara Miles describes her conversion this way: "I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome...And so I became a Christian..."[2]

She passed the bread and kept going, but she didn't keep going alone. We don't have to go it alone either. You and I are part of powerful communities--churches, neighborhood organizations, a wonderful country, an abundant world where there is plenty of food to go around. Ten years ago, the United Nations approved the Millennium Development Goals. The United States along with 188 other countries signed on to these goals to eradicate extreme poverty around the globe by 2015. The first goal is to reduce by half the number of people living in poverty and with hunger. This goal means not only distributing food, but providing agricultural support and fairer trade practices so that people will someday be able to feed themselves. Even in the midst of our own difficult economic times, we need to urge our president and congress to keep our commitments to these goals. We have been a very generous country when measured by total dollars given in aid. But the percentage of our giving compared with our wealth is very tiny--it's two tenths of a percent of our Gross National Income. This puts us near the bottom of the list--20th out of 22 developed countries.[3] Now that changes the way I look at our generosity.

We can do better as a country. I can do more as an individual. If we listen to Jesus, we have no choice--we're called to feed Lazarus, even if we don't see him at our gate. The actions of ordinary people have brought miraculous changes in the past twenty years: the number of children dying before their fifth birthday has been cut almost in half throughout the world. That's five million children every year saved from starvation. How did this happen? Largely because thousands of people like you and me sent letters to Congress urging our country to do more as part of the global community. Lazarus is longing for more than crumbs that fall from our communion tables. We can sit down today and write a letter urging our leaders to keep our commitments to the Millennium Development Goals. You and I can join Bread for the World, a citizens' organization that has already changed the politics of hunger in this country. Jesus knew long ago what economists and hunger advocates are telling us now: we have everything we need to end world hunger. It would take an additional $13 billion per year. That's just 2.2 % of our defense budget.[4]

I know that hearing these statistics isn't enough to change us--nothing will change us without conversion. We can even read our Bibles and not be changed--unless we listen to Jesus. If we try hard enough, we can find almost anything we want in scripture. We can find verses that proclaim wealth as God's blessing and poverty as God's curse. But the Hebrew prophets had a radically different vision, and so did Jesus. People are dying of hunger in a world with more than enough food. Do we need more statistics? more courage? more time to volunteer? Perhaps most of all we need more faith. Jesus' parable ends with these ironic words: "Abraham said to the rich man, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

Someone has risen from the dead. What more do we need? The risen Jesus is calling us to give Lazarus something to eat.

Let us pray.  Come, O Jesus, be our guest and let your gifts to us be blessed. Feed us with your living bread that all creation may be fed. Amen.


[1] Sara Miles, Take This Bread  (New York: Ballentine Books, 2007), xi

[2] Sara Miles, xiii

[3] U.S. Contributions to Reducing Global Poverty: An Assessment of the U.S. and the Millennium Development Goals, 59

[4] Office of Management and Budget: The defense budget for 2008 was $623.1 billion, not including care for veterans of current wars. '            



Crosstalk--Opening Interview:

**Peter Wallace: Today we bring you part 2 of Faith & Global Hunger: A Special Day1 Series in support of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Last week we examined the scope of the problem with noted statesman, journalist and educator Hodding Carter III. This week we'll explore the biblical foundation for God's call to serve the poor from one of our most popular Day1 preachers. The Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad is the Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, New York. Barbara, thank you for being with us.

Barbara Lundblad:  It's great to be here, Peter.

Wallace:  Last year you preached on Day1 about Jesus' feeding the 5000; and you said, "Jesus knew long ago what economists and hunger activists tell us now: we have everything we need to end world hunger." But there seems to be a chasm of awareness. Many people simply don't know about the depth of the need or the ways it can be addressed. How do you think we can bridge that chasm of awareness?

Lundblad:  I think it's very hard, because every now and then we'll hear of a crisis, I mean, say the earthquake in Haiti, which the devastation was caused as much by poverty as the earthquake itself. But I think those pictures only last in our mind for a little while. I think one thing that's helpful is we need other people--to be part of a group even--to just be our partners in doing this because I think it's very hard to sustain this all by ourselves. That's why, I think you know, groups like Bread for the World have done amazing things and they're very much working with the UN Millennium Development Goals program too. But, I think, if you look at the numbers of texts that come in the church year, you would have more than enough texts to motivate people if we really listen to what the Bible itself is saying.

Wallace:  And if there is awareness, sometimes there seems to be a resistance to meeting these needs. A well-known commentator told people a few months ago that if the words "social justice" appeared on their churches' websites, they should run from those churches as fast as they can. How would you respond? Why this resistance to following the Bible's teachings?

Lundblad:  I mean, one of the things that I say in the sermon is that there are just many different ways to read the Bible. I mean, I think that you can look at the Bible, listen to the Bible, and hear it affirming wealth; and I think this has been a particular problem in the United States, where we have that kind of background where we, you know, hard work will get you some place--if you don't get some place, it means that you haven't worked hard enough, you're too lazy, or even that God is punishing you. And then, I think, you know, now the kind of rise of a prosperity gospel where people are really promised that if they give to this church or this minister, they will be rewarded with a certain amount of return--a new car, a new job, a lot of money, a raise in salary--you know, that mitigates against any kind of concern for those who don't have enough. And you see this, really, in this Luke text--I mean, this parable is so powerful, because I think there was that kind of feeling in Jesus' time too.

Wallace: Earlier you mentioned the Millennium Development Goals, and all of the denominations that Day1 works with are involved in working towards fulfilling those Goals, the eight historic and transformative goals developed by leaders from 189 countries and the United Nations. Do the MDGs accurately reflect the calling of God to serve the poor and needy, do you think?

Lundblad:  Oh, I think so. I mean they weren't written, you know, directly from the Bible, but if you look at them, particularly the first one, which is really to cut in half the number of people living in poverty, I mean that, you see that from the beginning to the end of the Bible, including the Book of Revelation, which so many people have misread. But, I mean, that book itself is really, really hard on the kind of wealth that was being built up by the Roman Empire; and, if anything, that book is about the great chasm between the rich and the poor more than it's about, you know, sex or any other thing. So I think those goals, if you look at all of them, you know, great concern for women and children, and some of them great concern for education, things that would actually bring people over the long haul out of poverty. It isn't just like handing out food, but it's looking at things over time so that people can actually not live in poverty for the rest of their lives.

Wallace:  And, in fact, the MDGs have wide, nearly universal, support among all the world's primary religions, leaders of countries all around the world, and they are highly effective.  So there's hope.

Lundblad:  Oh, there is hope. Not long ago, I heard Art Simon, you know, who founded Bread for the World, give some hopeful stories about the things that have actually changed. I mean, I think we need to remember that things have actually gotten better, you know, I mean, I think when FDR was president, he said that two-thirds of the world's people were hungry; and when Bread for the World started in '74, that was down to 35 percent, and now it's down to something like 17 percent of the world's people are really hungry, so things have happened to really change things. I think people need to know that, not only the need, but that there are possibilities for things getting better; otherwise, you would throw up your hands in despair and go your merry way. But things have really, have really changed around the world.

Wallace:  Well, Barbara, your sermon today is entitled "Closing the Great Chasm." Thank you for being with us.

Lundblad:  Thanks, Peter.


Wallace:  Barbara, we really gave you a major assignment to capture the biblical foundation for serving the poor in one sermon--but you have taken us to the heart of the matter with Jesus' teaching in Luke, chapter 16. The poor are at the very heart of God. And there is a great chasm between the rich--us--and the poor. You said Jesus didn't tell us exactly how to close this great chasm, but he surely thought there shouldn't be one. First of all, are there some attitudes and assumptions that we need to change before we start to work?

Lundblad:  Well, I use the word conversion in the sermon and I don't mean just, you know, the sense that we usually think of being born again. I really mean we have to see that connection between the Communion table and the tables that people are eating at in their daily lives. I think that we also have to get away from the idea that there will always be poor people and there's nothing you can do. Probably one of the most harmful interpretations in all of Scripture is that verse "The poor you will always have with you," and I think some people have used that as an excuse because, well, even Jesus said the poor will always be with you. He also said, "The poor you will always have with you and you can do good to them whenever you want." I mean, he was not saying don't do anything, and I think this is why a parable like this--like Luke 16 or what he says in Matthew 25 about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to those who are thirsty--I mean, he said these kinds of things all the time. And those who have ears to hear, I mean, we really do need to listen to this. It is at the heart of what Jesus was about.

Wallace:  Early in your sermon, after you described the change Sara Miles experienced, you asked, "What changes us? What could move us or awaken us to help meet the need of those who are hungry?" What are some ways that we can intentionally wrestle with that question for ourselves?

Lundblad:  I think, again, find out as much as we can about the Millennium Development Goals. I mean, they're very thoroughly laid out. This is not the time to be asking, you know, whether or not we agree with everything the United Nations has done, but an organization like UNICEF has made huge strides in terms of the wellbeing of children. I think we need to just look around sometime at the children in our lives, you know, in our communities, and say, "Would we want these children to go hungry, to go to bed every night with nothing to eat?" I think we have to somehow see the faces of people. They're not statistics. I think, also, the other piece of it is that we need to remember that things do make a difference. There are far less hungry children now than there were 20 years ago, and it's all because people have really made a commitment to it, and one person can do a lot, because you add that up and pretty soon, you have thousands of people hopefully listening to this program who will say, "I'm going to make a difference. Today I'm going to do something today."

Wallace:  Barbara Lundblad, thank you for being with us.

Lundblad:  It's good to be here, Peter. Thanks a lot.**