Can I Get a Witness? Faith & Global Hunger Part 4

Today's text picks up after the crucifixion of Jesus. It picks up after he had been raised from the dead, after he continued to appear to his disciples and teach them. Now it is time for Jesus to return into the fuller presence of God. But before going away, he has one last conversation with his followers.

"So when they had come together, they asked, 'Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?'" In other words, Lord, when will God set things right? Lord, when will the oppression of the Romans end? Lord, when will the suffering and the troubles of the world conclude? When will hunger be abolished? When will war cease? When will suffering be passed? When will justice be realized? Lord, when?

And Jesus answers, "That's not your business." I'm not giving easy answers. How God's kingdom, God's reign, God's rule comes, how God's will gets done, how God's dream is fully realized is not your concern. God's will, will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. But the how and the when is not yours to figure out. There are in life, my friend, for whatever reason, some questions for which there are no answers. The poet is right; sometimes you just have to live the questions. My own grandmother used to sing a song in church that said it well, "We'll understand it better by and by, by and by, when the morning comes." The when and the how of God's kingdom, God's reign, God's will, God's dream--this is not our concern.

But it occurs to me that underneath their question there seems to be an interesting assumption, an assumption that Jesus is going to do it all. "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus' response is not just a caution about predicting the coming of the kingdom; he was saying, I suspect, "Hold on my brothers and sisters, this is a partnership. God has God's job to do, and you have yours. We're in this together." South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu often paraphrases the words of St. Augustine of Hippo on the mission and work of the church when he says, "By himself, God won't; by ourselves, we can't; but together with God, we can!"

Jesus has his job and we who are his disciples and follow in his footsteps have ours. And ours is to witness--to witness and point to God's kingdom of love and justice and compassion. Witness to it, work for it, pray for it. Work and pray to end poverty. Work and pray to end hunger. Work and pray for a clean creation. Work and pray for an end to preventable diseases. Work and pray for gender equality. Work and pray for universal education for all God's children. Work and pray. Do the Gospel's work. Put your hand to the gospel plow. WITNESS!

Witness to the love of God that we have known in Jesus. Witness to God's rule and reign. God has God's job to do, and we have ours.

Can I get a witness?

There is an old Negro Spiritual that sings, "My soul is a witness for the Lord." As the song is arranged, the successive stanzas and verses beginning with "My soul is a witness for the Lord" call to mind various biblical persons. Methuselah, who was mentioned in Genesis as having lived quite a long life, is introduced, "Methuselah was a witness for my Lord." Noah was a witness for my Lord. Abraham and Sara are witnesses for my Lord. David, a witness for my Lord. Moses and Deborah and Miriam and Queen Esther and Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel in the lions' den and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Martha, witnesses for my Lord. And then, after going through the various Biblical characters, the singer comes to the last verse and asks, "Now who will be a witness for my Lord?" It wisely builds slowly and successively from the biblical past to the biblical present. Who will be a witness for my Lord?

The old preachers, born of this tradition, used to sometimes pause in the midst of the preaching moment, when a point of some life-changing import had been made, and they would ask, "Now can I get a witness?"

Now, to be sure this was a rhetorical device on their part, making bold a point critical to life and the message. To be sure, the asking of the question was a call, summoning a response from the congregation. But on a deeper level, when the old preachers asked, "Can I get a witness?" they weren't talking about a shouted witness in the midst of worship, but a daring witness lived in the world. They were talking about moving from mere membership in a church to real and radical discipleship for Jesus in the world. Can I get a witness?

Witness to Jesus whose ministry began with the words: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." (Luke 4:18,19)

Can I get a witness to the Jesus who said, "Whenever you do it to the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it unto me." Witnesses to the Jesus who said, "Blessed are the poor, blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the merciful, the compassionate. Blessed are those who hunger and work that peace might break out, blessed are those who dream and work and labor and pray and thirst that God's righteous justice might prevail." Witness to the Jesus who said you shall love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself. Can I get a witness?

Participation by people of faith in the work to abolish poverty and hunger through the accomplishment of the Millennium Development Goals is doing precisely that. It is witness--witness to the gospel. This is not a utopian fantasy or a vain hope. For if the nations of the world, religious communities and peoples of the earth of goodwill would truly commit to using 0.7% of our financial resources to support international development, the numbers of people suffering because of hunger, poverty, disease, gender inequalities and inequities in education and access to needed human resources, those numbers could be drastically reduced to the point that poverty itself would be on the endangered species list. Poverty, as U2's Bono often says, could become history.

This is not a pipe dream but something that can be done. Children don't have to go to bed hungry in a world like this. We can do this.

A few years ago a book was published entitled: What Can One Person Do? Faith to Heal a Broken World. In very practical ways the authors outline what individuals, church groups, youth groups, institutions, and others can do to heal a broken world.

It is easy enough for us to be so overwhelmed by the enormity of the needs and the problems that we simply give up. But we are not condemned to a perpetual purgatory of the way things always are or have been. If I may borrow from the words of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, we can't do everything, but we can do something. And if we do something, God will do something and something will happen. We can make a difference!

And if you think about it, that's why we are here in the first place, to make a difference. I don't remember the precise circumstances, but I was probably about 13 years old when in the midst of a conversation with my father, he just blurted out, "You know, the Lord didn't put you here just to consume the oxygen."

Now, again, I don't know what I said to provoke that comment, whether it was a considered theological or philosophical response or a parental response to 13-year-old hormones, but he was right. "The Lord didn't put me here just to consume the oxygen."

Now let me offer a brief exegesis of that statement. The operative word in the sentence is just. "The Lord didn't put you here just to consume the oxygen." The thought pattern sort of resembles the words of Moses cited by Jesus in the story of his temptations. The operative word there, for our purposes, is the word alone. "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Deut. 8:3)

You do not live by bread alone, but you do need bread. Bread is important, but is not ultimate. Jesus taught us that when he said, "Is not life more than food; the body more than clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow." We are not here "just" to consume the oxygen. That is not our sole purpose, but it is part of it. Part of the reason we are here is to consume oxygen. We are part of the created order.

Let me go back to elementary high school biology. Is it not true that we who are part of the animal kingdom, mammals if I remember correctly, we are among those who inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. The plant world takes in the carbon dioxide that we have exhaled and then gives oxygen that we need. There is a kind of complementary relationship, a symbiotic relationship, between us and the rest of the creation because we are part of the creation. That is not an accident. We are here to play our role and to care for creation, but we are also here to inhale and exhale. We don't have to wait to exhale. We are here to both inhale and exhale--to give and to receive, to bless and be blessed, to do justice and to be justly done unto, to love and to be loved. The Lord didn't create us just to consume the oxygen. We've got a mission, to heal and restore the creation, as the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam teaches us.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is right. By himself, God won't. By ourselves, we can't. But together with God, we can. We can make a difference. We can make poverty history. We can abolish hunger. We can prevent preventable diseases. We can have clean air and pure water. We can make sure that all of God's children, women and men, share equally in God's world of bounty. We can make sure that every child born has a chance to live and grow. We can lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside and study war no more. Lord, will you restore the kingdom of Israel at this time? It is not for you to know the times or seasons. But you will be my witnesses.

God bless you and God keep you and keep the faith. Amen. 


Crosstalk--Opening Interview:

Peter Wallace: Today we bring you part four of Faith & Global Hunger: A Special Day1 Series in Support of the Millennium Development Goals. In the past three weeks we've heard from statesman and educator Hodding Carter on the scope of the problem, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad on the biblical foundation of serving the poor, and the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, on ways to address the need. This week we'll hear a call to action from the Episcopal bishop of North Carolina, the Right Rev. Michael B. Curry. Born in Chicago, Bishop Curry graduated from Hobart College in Geneva, NY, and earned a master of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School. He served parishes in Winston-Salem, NC, Lincoln Heights, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland, before his election as bishop. Bishop Curry, welcome to Day1.

Michael Curry: Thank you, Peter.

Wallace: You were elected the 11th bishop of North Carolina in 2000... give us an overview of your diocese and its work.

Curry: Well, the State of North Carolina actually has three Episcopal dioceses, one in the East, one in the West, and we're the one in the middle. I'd like to say we're sort of everything in between Interstate 95 and 77. That's the Diocese of North Carolina for the most part. We're located in 118 churches. We have ten campus ministries and worshipping communities, and so there are 128 worshipping communities that are part of the diocese, about 49,000 baptized folk and some 300 clergy. So it's a large diocese in a remarkable part of the state of North Carolina.

Wallace: North Carolina encompasses both extreme wealth and extreme poverty--what are some of the ways that your diocese and its parishes are reaching out to the neediest around you?

Curry: You'll find congregations doing everything from soup kitchens to public advocacy on issues of public policy that impact people's lives. We've got one congregation, for example, that has adopted senior citizens, elders who are living in the neighborhood, and they provide some primary care and support for them so these folk can live in their homes. Another congregation that operates a major soup kitchen in the city of Raleigh. Other congregations are engaged in global ministry--everything from every kind of mission trip conceivable. And then folk are involved in public policy, not only as their life vocation, but actually as members of church participating in the public policy network of the Episcopal Church Office of Governmental Affairs, in other ways. And so the smorgasbord is there. People are very much involved both on the congregational level and as individuals out in the world.

Wallace: Your diocese has been focusing on the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which we've been examining throughout this series on Global Hunger. That's the set of eight historic and transformative goals adopted by leaders of 189 nations in the year 2000 with an aim to improve the lives of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters around the world by the year 2015. What are some specific ways your diocese is working to fulfill those goals, not only in North Carolina but around the world?

Curry: One, we've encouraged people to encourage our leaders on a national level, to encourage our government to be one of the governments that does set aside 0.7 percent for international development. Secondly, we as a diocese adopted a provision in our diocesan budget that 0.7 percent of the budget of the Diocese of North Carolina, over and above what we were already doing, would be set aside for international development to accomplish the Millennium Development Goals. We've asked our congregations to do the same, and most of them have done it, and have maintained it, even in a difficulty economy. We've asked individuals to do the same. We're not asking the government to do anything that we're not willing to do ourselves. And so when we speak to our public officials, we're asking them to do what we are willing to do. So that's on that level. Then on an additional level, we actually have various projects and activities: people involved in micro-financing and micro-credit, partnerships with church people in other countries. We have a companion dioceses relationship, which is a pairing of an American diocese and a diocese some place else in the world. And so we have two companion relationships, one with the Diocese of Costa Rica, Bishop Hector Monterroso, and another with the Diocese of Botswana, Bishop Trevor Mwamba. And through those relationships, we're involved in actual specific projects. We've had folk building everything from bathrooms to schools and churches, participating in ways that help provide economic stability, cottage industries, and that kind of stuff. All that kind of stuff is happening in small ways where little groups of people are actually able to do something together with other people of faith and goodwill around the world and actually make a difference.

Wallace: Well, it's interesting that experts from different disciplines and political viewpoints are reaching the same revelation that human action can end poverty in our generation. I assume you buy that?

Curry: Yes, it's a fact. There's no question about it.

Wallace: We have good reason to be hopeful too. The global Millennium Development Goals effort is working, but we still have a long way to go.

Curry: No question about that. The long way that we have to go is the will to do it, because if the will is there, it will happen. And if the will becomes a global will that transcends our various national differences and our political self-interests, if there is a global will to make poverty history, Peter, it will happen.

Wallace: This coming September 17-19 is the weekend before world leaders gather for the Millennium Development Goals 2010 Review Summit, people of faith in congregations around the world will be taking part in the "Stand Up, Take Action" initiative. What are some ways that you would suggest churches could take part in this effort?

Curry: Well, I think churches could begin some thoughtful and intentional teaching about the Millennium Development Goals and ways people can be involved. And a lot of that has actually happened, I'm sure. But there could be a period of time leading up to that time in September where prayers are offered, where sermons are preached, where special adult studies and that kind of thing go on, all leading up to that and invite people to participate. One of the nice things about the world in which we live now--you can sometimes participate in something and you don't even have to be there. Just go online.

Wallace: Right. So we have a goal, we have effective means to reach that goal, but frankly, it's going to take a lot of effort and energy. Why should we commit to this?

Curry: The late Shirley Chisolm, an incredible person in and of herself, once said of the different peoples who are a part of this country, "You know, we all came over here on different ships, but we're all in the same boat now." We are all in the same boat now. What Dr. King once said, "What happens to one directly affects all of us indirectly." The reality is that poverty and hunger and dispossession and disenfranchisement is the source of trouble in the world, and if we're going to have a world where there is room for all of us, where there will be a world that is habitable for all of us and for generations yet unborn, abolishing poverty is a key to us having a continued history together.

Wallace: Your sermon today will help us wrestle with the whys and the hows of meeting this need in Christ's name. It's entitled "Can I Get a Witness?" Bishop Curry, thank you for being with us.

Curry: Thank you.



Wallace: Bishop Curry, thank you for your stirring message to be a witness for Jesus in word and deed to the neediest in the world. As you pointed out, Jesus commissioned his followers to be his witnesses in the power of the Spirit, not only in Jerusalem but to all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. That's local and regional and global. It's easy for Christians to sit back and say, well, my church is doing that, or my denomination is sending missionaries. How do you respond?

Curry: Well, we can always do more. If most churches are like most of us as people, we're capable of far more than we're already doing and the more of us who do more, the more will be done. I mean, when Edmond Burke said of the tyranny of evil, "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing." Well, the only thing necessary for a world that is truly humane to happen is for human beings to stand up and with their God and with each other, make it happen.

Wallace: So it starts with a personal response?

Curry: Absolutely. For peoples of faith, our faith traditions are very clear, and for those of us who are Christian, it's very clear. You know the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, the parable of the last judgment, it's a rather remarkable parable for a lot of reasons, but one that strikes me is that, you remember, the nations of the world are arrayed before the king on judgment day. And Jesus says to the righteous, "Come and enter the kingdom, for I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, and alone and you visited me." And the righteous then say, "Well, Lord, when did we see you hungry or when did we see you naked and clothe you, or alone and visit you?" And he answers, "Whenever you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you've done it to me." The reality is we are already a family of God, we may be dysfunctional, but we are the family of God, and so our stake is in this as family, the same way I'm passionate about the survival and the life of my children, who are actually my biological children, we are called to be passionate about the life of the world. That's deep in the root of the soil of our Christian tradition. We got that from the Jewish tradition. And the religious traditions of the world at their very best are a call, as the prophet said, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

Wallace: You mentioned the excellent book entitled What Can One Person Do: Faith to Heal a Broken World, published by Church Publishing, and in it the authors encourage Christians to take seven actions in witness to our faith, individually and corporately. I wonder if you'd share those with us and share your thoughts on those.

Curry: Sure will.

The first thing in that list that they talk about is pray, and that's not just a catch slogan. Prayer matters. Prayer changes things. My grandma taught me that, and she prayed about everything. But it does. It does matter. Pray about the conditions of the world and about people in this world and that we might find the resolve and the will to do God's will.

But then beyond prayer is to study. It does help to understand what we are talking about. And this book What One Person Can Do is an excellent starting point. It has a series of online resources as well as other resources that can help us understand the situation in our global community today.

And then that they give. And give 0.7 percent of our income to support efforts of international development. Encouraging our churches, institutions and individuals to do the same.

And then connect. Connect up with others. We need each other. We may not always like each other, but we need each other, and we are stronger together than we ever are apart. And so connect up with other people of faith and goodwill who want to make this world a better place.

Then they talk about raising awareness of the situation, and that's where awareness can make all the difference in the world.

And, my Lord, Peter, if the Christians in this country would do this, and Jews and Muslims, and Buddhists--people of faith--and that people who may not proclaim any particular faith, but are people of goodwill, my friend, the face of the earth could be renewed and changed.

Wallace: Bishop Michael Curry, thank you for being with us.

Curry: Thank you.