Justice and Joy

Passage: Isaiah 25:6-10
Date: October 7, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Last night in Portland, hundreds of children went to bed hungry. Last night across these United States of America, hundreds of thousands of children went to bed hungry. Right now, in Yemen, five million children are at risk of famine.

While it is World Communion Sunday today, and while you and I and Christians around the world will feast on this simple meal, and then go have lunch, or wait till it’s dinner time, there are too many of God’s children who know no such feast, who are hungry, who are not welcome at those places where they can be fed.

So I think that today, with the image of a feast in our heads and right here on the chancel, we should consider the aspirational goal of a feast where everyone is welcome. To get there will take some mighty justice; to be there will be to know joy.

The prophet Isaiah gives us this image, and the book that bears his name is a great and complex thing, and so often we lift out beautiful words and poems and songs from it with barely a glance at the context for those words.

This passage, with its image of everyone experiencing abundance, is made all the more powerful by remembering the situation in which Isaiah wrote. The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah were likely written in the 5th century B.C., when the people of Israel experienced political turmoil and the temptation not to follow the ways of God. The prophet warns his people of the consequences of their infidelity, of a judgment that is to come. They will be marched out of their homeland to live as refugees in Babylon. They will be forced to worship different gods. All that they love will be lost. Today’s passage takes a much needed break from the doom and gloom and offers hope.

What Isaiah says here is unique to the entire Old Testament. He talks about a time beyond history, a new age ushered in by God. In this new age yet to come, everyone will gather and share a feast. It’s a vision captured by the title of one of today’s anthems: For everyone born, a place at the table. 

In this lesson, the prophet lifts up the vision of all people feasting and experiencing abundance. We might also understand that ever-so-subtly, the prophet warns against leaving people out, against people going hungry, against people hoarding so much that others go without. 

This morning I’d like to look with you at some situations of doom and gloom around the world, and offer some words of hope. We’ll be looking at this mostly through the lens of hunger, but also through the lens of war and peace and prejudice.

On Friday morning I spoke with Eileen Parfrey a little bit, catching up after their group returned from Guatemala. Good friend that she is, she asked what I was preaching on, and I shared this passage from Isaiah. She said in light of having just returned from Guatemala, she hears this passage differently. Not everyone in Guatemala experiences abundance; if you are a woman, if you are of indigenous (Mayan) descent and not of Spanish descent, you don’t have as much.

In Guatemala, as in other places around the world, when a woman earns money, 70% of what is earned comes back to the family; in Guatemala, as in other places around the world, when a man earns money, only 30% of what is earned comes back to the family – the other 70% is spent on something else. 

Because of larger economic and political forces, and because of a pervasive machismo culture, there is not a place at the table for most Mayan Guatemalan women. The microloan project that Westminster has joined is funded in part by monies raised in our capital campaign. Those microloans are helping to clear the way for some of these women. I don’t want to steal the thunder of next week’s report on the Guatemala trip, but I hope I’ve whetted your appetite to attend that presentation next Sunday at noon in the chapel.

Westminster is one of the founding congregations in the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, and over the last year or so at the monthly meetings, I’ve become deeply aware that so many of Portland’s crises are seen in two of poverty’s children: homelessness and hunger. 

The topic of housing and homelessness in Portland deserves a sermon unto itself, but what I have learned is that part of the problem is that we simply do not have enough low-income and affordable housing. To use today’s metaphor, there aren’t enough tables where people can sit.

Hunger in Portland can help us understand hunger worldwide. It boils down to two things, basically: people can’t afford to buy food, and they don’t have access to healthy food. Why is that?

Part of it is economic. Here in the U.S., while the cost of living has gone up over the last three decades, wages have not kept up. While productivity has increased over the last three decades, wages have not followed the same line on the graph. Corporate profits have skyrocketed, while wages have remained stagnant. The dollar does not stretch as far as it used to. Grocery shopping becomes an option, not a necessity.

Because of the congregation’s work with Northeast Emergency Food Program, we know something about our hungry neighbors in the Cully neighborhood and beyond. NEFP finds among its clients families – 40% of food recipients are children. Their clients are also the unemployed and the underemployed; people with special needs, including the disabled and the elderly; immigrants and refugees; and people experiencing a crisis, like those displaced by the auto scrapyard fire in Cully last year.

Across the globe, politics often play a role in hunger and food insecurity. It’s not that there’s not enough food, it’s that those who need it can’t get it. War plays a huge factor in hunger and always has. I am grateful for those in our armed services who – officially and unofficially – provide food to the people in the countries where they are stationed.

Bad politics and unjust leaders too often keep part of their population at levels of starvation. According to a 2017 United Nations report, “Civil conflict is the driving factor in nine of the 10 worst humanitarian crises, underscoring the strong linkage between peace and food security.” In 2017, over 800,000,000 people worldwide faced chronic hunger. For these people, there is neither a table nor a feast.

Still, things are not utterly hopeless, as The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reminds us. His father was an immigrant from Eastern Europe and was sponsored by First Presbyterian Church of Portland. As the child of immigrants, Kristof has a heart for the marginalized people of the world. He often writes about the bleak and inhumane conditions, but occasionally he reminds us of the good that is also happening.

Last January he wrote a column entitled “Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/06/opinion/sunday/2017-progress-illiteracy-poverty.html) He said that “2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity. A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell.

“Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations [by Oxford University economist Max Roser]. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.

“Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone. After thousands of generations, they are pretty much disappearing on our watch.

“Just since 1990, the lives of more than 100 million children have been saved by vaccinations, diarrhea treatment, breast-feeding promotion and other simple steps.

He concludes, “F. Scott Fitzgerald said the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. I suggest these: The world is registering important progress, but it also faces mortal threats. The first belief should empower us to act on the second.”

When you are feeling powerless or hopeless, it’s often therapeutic to get outside of yourself and do something for someone else. If the events of the past few weeks have gotten to you, I challenge you today to think about what you might do to provide a place at the table for someone else. That might be by feeding someone, or advocating for better laws, or by welcoming someone who is left out.

I am grateful that Westminster is doing some things about all this, particularly through the mission activities of the capital campaign. We’re providing microloans to entrepreneurial women in Guatemala so they might provide for their families. We’re helping Caroline Kurtz and others bring solar energy to rural Ethiopia. We’re helping leaders in the Cully neighborhood put aside monies to buy land while it’s still affordable.

And you? What will you do to provide a place at the table?

In closing today, I would like to offer a prayer by Jan Richardson. I invite you to let these words describe our present and our future hope. Let us pray.

To your table you bid us come.
You have set the places,
you have poured the wine,
and there is always room, you say, for one more.
And so we come.
From the streets and from the alleys we come.
From the deserts and from the hills we come.
From the ravages of poverty and from the palaces of privilege we come.
Running, limping, carried, we come.
We are bloodied with our wars,
we are wearied with our wounds,
we carry our dead within us,
and we reckon with their ghosts.
We hold the seeds of healing,
we dream of a new creation,
we know the things that make for peace,
and we struggle to give them wings.
And yet, to your table we come.
Hungering for your bread, we come; 
thirsting for your wine, we come;
singing your song in every language,
speaking your name in every tongue,
in conflict and in communion, in discord and in desire,
we come, O God of Wisdom,
we come.
© Jan L. Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season