Sermon: Hunger Has a Cure
Texts: Zechariah 11:15-17; John 5:1-9; Psalm 103:1-6
Date: May 26, 2019 (BFW Offering of Letters)
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
A few weeks ago we met Jesus on the beach and listened in as he rehabilitated Peter as a disciple, giving him a new role as a leader who is like a shepherd, caring tenderly for the flock. Remember? “Peter, do you love me?…Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs…Feed my sheep.”
The Scriptures often use the metaphor of shepherd for various kinds of leaders—kings, priests, teachers. Sometimes they are good shepherds, sometimes they are failing in their shepherding duties. In the dusty corner of the Bible named Zechariah, we hear a brief, searing indictment of a worthless shepherd who has come to power. This worthless shepherd that has been raised up to a position of influence does not care for the perishing, or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the healthy; but instead devours those they have been called to tend, chewing up their flesh right down to the hoofs. We don’t know specifically who the prophet speaking this indictment had in mind; but it can serve as a general description of a worthless shepherd. The uncompromising monotheism of the Hebrew people at the time interpreted the coming to power of this worthless shepherd as God’s will, as the prelude to further punishment and suffering. Having to endure such worthless shepherds is seen as one consequence of the people’s failure to keep God’s commandments.
We’re not in the same kind of political or social situation as Zechariah’s people, but we may share across generations some frustration at having to endure the leadership of those the prophet might have described as worthless shepherds–those who seem to care far more for satisfying their own greed and need for approval than for caring for those who are perishing, wandering, maimed, in need of nourishment. We would prefer shepherds (leaders) who were compassionate toward all those who are in their charge, shepherds who seek justice and righteousness.
One of the happy differences between us and the folk who had to endure greedy, plundering monarchs in the past is that we still have some say over who leads and how they lead. Our constitutional republic was created with the understanding that the leaders are servants of the people, not the other way around. I know it doesn’t seem like it always works that way, but that’s our system. We are not powerless, even between elections. Therefore, if our “shepherds” seem to be acting worthless it is our privilege and obligation to instruct them about the will of the people. We take on a role similar to the biblical prophets, reminding those who have been raised up as leaders, as shepherds, that they have a responsibility to be just and compassionate—to feed the sheep. We entreat them to use the resources we have provided through our taxes to work righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. That’s why we participate in this annual offering of letters.
We may get caught up in the endless drama of our elected leaders, which sometimes feels like a three-ring circus. As God lovers and Jesus followers, however, we have to disenthrall ourselves from the Worthless Shepherd News Hour and attend, as Jesus did, to those who are hurting. One of the commentaries I read about our gospel story points out that Jesus makes a deliberate choice to go to where the truly desperate people were. “Jesus bypasses all the centers of power of Jerusalem and goes to a place where no one has power. This hospital-like place around the pool is dank and smelly and filled with people lying around, waiting for a miracle, hoping for wholeness and new life.” The legend was that when the water in the healing pool was stirred up (ostensibly by an angel of the Lord), the first one into the troubled water would be healed of their disease. “The Bethesda Spring attracted a crowd of the destitute who knew they had come to the end of their rope, and the end of their hope. Bethesda was a mass of humanity at its lowest point of hopelessness. Everywhere Jesus turned, there were voices of despair crying out for one last chance, one moment of hope. It was, in many ways, a place of final hope.” Into this crowd of the destitute—among those who could afford no physician—Jesus strides.
The crippled man’s story about his long wait for healing, rendered for us in one sentence, is heartbreaking. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” I wonder how many times he had been through this helpless scenario in the thirty-eight years he had been waiting and hoping for a cure? Watching others who had help or who were not so disabled get to the healing water ahead of him? He could not help himself enough to get what he needed.
In a similar way, the good shepherds leading the Bread for the World education and advocacy group remind us, there are millions of hungry people are waiting long years for someone to come and assist them, to respond to their need for help they cannot access without aid. Poverty is crippling, both in this country and around the world. Simple-minded folk like to think that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they were just willing to stand on their own two feet and work—“Why don’t you just get a job?” But once you are educated about the crippling effects of poverty—a wicked mix of poor nutrition, substandard or non-existent education, inadequate wages for work when it can be found, racism, sexism, rotten housing, deficient health care, and so on and so on—you know that it’s not so simple to just stand up and walk out of hardship. Those who have power, privilege and networks of folks to help them are always ahead of you in the scramble for what folks need to get by.
I’m sure we wish we had the power of Jesus to instantly heal those we meet of all that ails them. Since we don’t, perhaps we can see ourselves as those who, with Christ-like compassion, engage with those who are crippled by poverty, and try to assist in every way we can. We carry the needy to a pool of financial resources when we advocate for just and generous uses of the federal budget.
The 2019 Offering of Letters is about continuing the progress the global community has made in reducing poverty and malnutrition. Malnutrition is still an enormous global issue. “Malnutrition is linked to 45 percent of all preventable deaths among children younger than 5—about 2.6 million deaths every year. Women also die from malnutrition-related causes; malnutrition in the form of anemia is the cause of 20 percent of maternal deaths during pregnancy and childbirth. Children who survive early malnutrition are likely to suffer from stunting. In 2017, approximately 151 million children under 5 were stunted because of chronic malnutrition during the 1,000-day window between pregnancy and age 2. The most visible sign of stunting is that children are far too short for their age, but malnutrition also stunts children’s futures by causing lifelong, irreversible damage to their health, growth, and development…Wasting, or underweight due to acute malnutrition, affects approximately 51 million children. It is a deadly condition: children with severe acute malnutrition are up to 11 times as likely to die as well-nourished children. These individual and family tragedies hinder a country’s development and undermine its stability.” That’s the bad news. But there’s good news: “Affordable investments in nutrition can help increase workforce productivity, reduce healthcare costs, and break cycles of intergenerational poverty. Research shows that every dollar invested in nutrition produces at least $16 in economic returns, largely through the increased economic productivity and lower healthcare costs just mentioned.”
The U.S. has been a leader in reducing malnutrition. Great progress has been made in recent years in reducing the number of desperately hungry people, and we want to encourage that hopeful trajectory. Listen to Bread for the World’s leader David Beckman tell us a bit about what has already been achieved:
The goal of this year’s offering, as you heard him say, is to accelerate the progress already made. “Current funding is not enough to reach our global nutrition goals, and powerful political forces are pushing to curtail poverty-focused assistance.
All children deserve the opportunity to live a healthy life and reach their full potential…Congress should pass legislation to establish a new, scaled-up approach to global nutrition. Passage of a bill or resolution will strengthen U.S. commitment to global child nutrition and will lead other countries to join us in the global effort to end hunger. We must urge Congress to protect and increase funding for global nutrition. At the same time, our government—through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in particular—should strengthen its capacity to address malnutrition.” That’s the invitation from the good shepherds at Bread for the World–that we would participate in advocating for scaling up our nutrition efforts.
If you’d like a specific bill number to mention, the activist corner of the BFW website asks us to ask our representatives to co-sponsor bipartisan H.Res.189, which was introduced by Reps. Roger Marshall (R-KS) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) on March 8. The legislation recognizes the importance of continued U.S. leadership to accelerate global progress against maternal and child malnutrition—including improved access to nutritious foods, vitamins and minerals, clean water and sanitation, promotion of breastfeeding, and treatment of severe malnutrition.
Put a human face on what the programs our government finances can do: A Ugandan woman named Esther was drawn into a program our country supports called Harvest Plus while she was pregnant. “Harvest Plus raises the nutrient levels already in staple crops, ensuring that more vitamins and minerals enter the diets of poor farmers. Esther and her husband, both smallholder farmers, planted the new Harvest Plus crops: orange-fleshed sweet potatoes rich in Vitamin A and beans with more iron. Come harvest time, Esther included the two vegetables in nearly every meal. She had a healthy pregnancy and delivered a robust baby boy named Rodgers. Once he began eating solid foods, the sweet potatoes and beans became Rodgers’s favorites. As he grew, Rodgers was clearly beating the odds of a child in Uganda: his development was outpacing the growth charts, and he was neither malnourished nor stunted. After turning three, Rodgers joined the nearby nursery school. He loves singing songs and chanting the alphabet; his teachers say he is an eager learner.” Esther and her husband have great dreams for their son, as all parents do. How delightful to see some of our tax revenues offering healing for hunger to such families.
Hunger and malnutrition are lingering diseases in our global community. But there is hope that our “shepherds” in Washington—both the apparently worthless and the worthy—can be part of the healing, as we encourage them to be compassionate leaders. We carry those who have long waited for help to their attention, confident that we can increase healing compassion even in government. Listen to this verse based in the gospel story about the healing we seek:
His illness he had long endured:
Years of dark waiting,
Days of longing to bathe in healing waters,
Seeking a path with no obstruction,
A hand extended to support,
A heart opened to compassion.
But there was no one
Hunger, too, has long been endured:
Hunger, too, yearns to be lowered into the cleansing pool
And to be restored.
Hunger waits for our nation’s leaders to respond
And to work justice.
Hunger bears the stark face of our neighbor.
It is time to heal.
Hunger has a cure.
 Wendt, Fritz “Addressing Poverty When the System Fails” https://politicaltheology.com/addressing-poverty-when-the-system-fails-john-51-9/>
 Author unknown; quoted in a past Bread for the World Offering of Letters resource packet.