In these two little parables from Matthew 13, Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven starts with little things - a dad helping his child learn how to write her name, someone really listening to her friend, a group of people getting together to solve a problem. God uses little things to do big things. Jesus talked about leaven: it takes half a teaspoon of yeast to make two big loaves of bread. And he said that our loving God uses our faith, even if it's just a little bit of faith - the size of a mustard seed - to move mountains.
That's been the experience of Bread for the World, the Christian advocacy movement that I lead. We organize people and churches of all stripes across the country to influence Congress on issues that are important to hungry people in our country and around the world.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Bread for the World's network contact their members of Congress, usually by email or phone. It's a simple act. You wonder whether your email is going to make any difference, especially when the evil we're trying to counter is as daunting as hunger in America or even world hunger. But we have learned from experience that members of Congress of both parties do listen to people back home.
Almost two decades ago now, a young mother in Birmingham, Alabama, Pat Pelham, was saying her morning prayers and suddenly felt called by God to help Africa. She had no idea how she could do that, but her minister suggested that she get involved in Bread for the World. She and several other people in her church connected with their member of Congress, a conservative Republican named Spencer Bachus. Many of the poorest countries in the world were at that time struggling with impossible debts. Bread for the World and other church groups were urging debt relief, and Spencer Bachus chaired the congressional committee that would need to approve U.S. participation in international debt relief.
Pat and her friends travelled to Washington to meet with their member of Congress. I think Pat won over Representative Bachus with the first thing she said. She said that, as a mom, she was pained by the hunger of so many children around the world. "I have never been able to figure out a way to do anything about it," she said, "but I think debt relief could lead to improvements in health and education for lots of children."
Spencer Bachus became a powerful advocate for debt relief legislation. Debt relief for poor countries with relatively good governments became a reality. By all accounts, it was a successful program. Most of the countries who received debt relief used the resources that it freed up to expand primary education. So, roughly 50 million more African children were able to go to school. A whole generation of African girls learned to read and write. Looking back, it was a turning point in African development. And I don't see how it would have happened if Pat Pelham had not been attentive to what she heard during her morning prayers.
It seldom happens that one person's actions lead to a big change in this way, but working together, Bread for the World's members have again and again helped to achieve far-reaching changes. Bread for the World helped to build strong bipartisan support for the WIC (Women, Infants, Children) child nutrition program in this country. WIC has reduced premature deaths and improved child nutrition. We've also helped to reform and protect SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) - that's food stamps.
When President George W. Bush proposed to expand aid to Africa, we helped to get members of Congress from both parties to support him - and, partly as a result, about half the countries of Africa have achieved rapid progress against hunger, poverty, and disease. When President Obama proposed an international initiative to help struggling farmers in poor countries raise their productivity and incomes, Bread for the World and other advocacy networks made this, too, a bipartisan program.
Bread for the World does not have a PAC (Political Action Committee). We're always up against powerful political forces, and we're often surprised when we win in Congress.
What's even more surprising is that our country and the world have achieved substantial progress against hunger and poverty. U.S. hunger and poverty have declined over recent decades and again over the last three years. Globally, the progress has been dramatic. According to the World Bank, there were two billion extremely poor people in the world in 1990. Now there are one billion extremely poor people in the world. Global poverty has been cut in half.
Surely, we should be thanking God for this. Hundreds of millions of people are escaping from hunger and poverty. It's like the biblical exodus, but much bigger - an exodus from hunger. Surely, this is an experience of our loving God in our world.
And faithful people have helped to make it happen. Your financial contributions to overseas relief and development have helped. Your volunteer work in community ministries have helped. And the emails and calls that faithful people like you have made to Congress have had a big impact.
We are living in an unsettled time. President Trump thinks our country is in terrible shape, and millions of Americans voted for him. Now, he is trying to shake things up, and millions of Americans are frightened about what he's doing. President Trump and the Congress are pushing to cut many of the programs that have helped us make progress against hunger and poverty, and Bread for the World is focused on protecting hungry and poor people.
For example, we have urged that our country respond to the famine that has struck four countries in Africa and the Middle East - the worst famine in decades. When Congress was considering a budget bill this Spring, the President urged them to cut humanitarian assistance by $1 billion despite the famine - in order to help pay for a big increase in military spending. But Bread for the World members and others pushed back. And in the end, Congress increased humanitarian assistance by $1 billion. That decision will save hundreds of thousands of people from starving to death and give these countries a chance to reestablish peace.
I invite you to check out Bread for the World and help us maintain progress against hunger in our country and worldwide. Or, if you have a different perspective on our nation's problems, I urge you to take action to address our problems as you see them.
In today's gospel lesson, Jesus says that God will use our efforts, however modest they seem, to achieve God's purposes in ways that we cannot now imagine. Jesus himself was a young religious teacher in an unimportant province of the Roman Empire. He healed the sick, he forgave sins, and he taught people that the Kingdom of God was coming into the world. He died a brutal and lonely death, but God then raised him from the dead.
Beginning with Jesus' death and resurrection, word has spread through the whole world and also to us - that God loves everyone, that history and the cosmos are pregnant with love, and that God offers to use even the little things we do to achieve great things.
In our time, God is offering us the chance to make dramatic progress against hunger - perhaps even to end hunger.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, we thank you for your presence in our lives and in the world. We thank you for the progress that is being made against hunger, poverty, and disease in our time - and for the opportunities you give each of us to advance your purposes in the world. We pray in the powerful name of Jesus. Amen.