What Can One Person Do?

Sermon to be Preached at St. Mary's, Stone Harbor on Sunday, May 25, 2008
Pentecost 2A

As I read this morning’s gospel with its easy moral, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, clothing] will be given to you as well” I began to imagine how very differently it must be heard in places around the world who have so very much less than we do.

Earlier this week, UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro spoke to the Economic and Social Council special session on the global food crisis. Due to the increase in the price of rice and wheat over the past 12 months – an increase of 74 per cent for rice and 130 per cent for wheat – another 100 million people will be driven into deep poverty bringing the total number of persons facing acute food shortages to more than 930 million.[1]

Eight years ago, at the 2000 UN Millennium Summit, 189 heads of states (including the United States) committed themselves to a set of eight time-bound targets – the Millennium Development Goals - that, when achieved, would end extreme poverty worldwide by 2015. In 2008, we are just beyond the half way point to 2015 and all progress made to date on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger – the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals – all progress, according to Secretary-General Migiro, will be “virtually wiped out” because of this food crisis.

I wonder how 930 million hungry people might hear Jesus’ words today? Do not worry about food or thirst or clothing but strive instead “for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” How do the guests of the food program in Wildwood hear those words today? And in light of these 930 million hungry people how are we to hear Jesus’ words anew?

Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation’s Executive Director, Mike Kinman, reflected on this question in his newsletter column this week. Father Kinman’s words struck a chord with me and I’d like to share them this morning. He writes

“'Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.’ Well, thanks a lot, Jesus! Easy for you to say. In fact, easy for me to say! Even in the worst case scenario I can imagine for my life, the truth is I am never going to starve. Because even if I lost everything, I have family and friends with means and privilege who would never let that happen to me or my family.

But I am a person of privilege. What about the 854 million people who suffer from hunger every day. Where is the Good News for them? Aren’t these words of Christ’s just a slap in the face? And then it hit me: The answer to that is up to us.

There are times when the words of Christ are for our ears, and there are times when the words of Christ are for our lips. And there are times like this, where they are for both.

‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.’ These words convict and liberate me at the same time. They convict me in the life I lead surrounding myself with much more than I need to survive. They convict me of my life of wasting energy and resources worrying about tomorrow. They convict me of not trusting the abundance with which God has surrounded me.

At the same time, Christ’s words liberate me. They free me to recognize that I don’t need to lead a fearful life. That I don’t need to spend my time, energy and resources building up security for myself. That I can live a life of joyfully letting go of my wealth knowing that if I ‘strive first for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, all these things will be given to (me) as well.’

And freed by Christ’s words in my ears, I can go to the world’s hungry with Christ’s words on my lips and say, ‘Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will drink -- because I’ve got your back!’ ‘Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will drink -- because I have enough for both of us.’ ‘Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will drink -- because God has charged me with the joyful privilege of fulfilling that promise in your life.’

This Sunday's Gospel only makes sense if we hold it in one hand and the stories of rampant hunger in the other. It's the difference between feel-good, pop religion and a call to conversion that will open our hearts and heal the world.

Christ's words are difficult to hear, because they do convict us. Christ's words are beautiful to hear, because they will liberate us. But most of all, when we let Christ's words enter through our ears and change our hearts and finally emerge on our lips, they are a song of hope ... for us and for the world.”[2]

“I’ve got your back!” “I have enough for both of us.” “God has charged me with the joyful privilege of fulfilling that promise in your life.” What can one person do? What can one congregation do? The answer to those questions – What can one person do? What can one congregation do? – form the backbone of the ONE Episcopalian Campaign to be active participants in the fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals.

Many of you took part in our Lenten series that looked at the complex issues of poverty in depth. During that series, each session concluded with the question, “What can you do?” and the answers were provided in 4 categories: (1) organize; (2) advocate; (3) pray; and (4) educate.[3] One of the items of feedback we received after the series ended was that folks felt that there were not enough concrete ideas or that it didn’t seem like some of the suggestions – like writing a letter to the editor – would really making an impact on the problems. And perhaps that is one of the areas where we often get stuck. My small action will do so little. . . so, why bother?

Why bother? Just ask Aubrey Clark. She is a six-year old girl in Georgia wanted to help the children she had heard about at St. Marc’s School in Haiti who went to school hungry each day. At first she thought about sending food but quickly realized that the packaged meals might be inedible by the time they arrived in Haiti. So she decided it was better to send money. Aubrey and other children from her church now sell hot cider on the Parish Hall porch on the first Sunday of each month. On the very first Sunday in business, Aubrey’s cider project raised $60 - enough money to feed three children for an entire school year.[4]

Why bother? Just ask Jane, a parishioner at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Honoye Falls, New York. Inspired by a sermon preached by The Rev. Dahn Dean Gandell in which he said, “Nobody has to do everything, but everybody needs to ‘do something’” and that it costs only 37 cents a day to feed a person, Jane went to a local Chinese take-out restaurant and asked if she could purchase carry out containers. She labeled each with a reminder that 37 cents a day can save a life and gave a container to each family at her church asking them to put 37 cents a day into the container and return the container to the church at the end of the summer. The money that was collected was shared with Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation and Joining Hearts and Hands, a group the parish supports in Kenya.[5]

Why bother? Ask Gail and Dory from St. Barnabas who bought 10 hoagies at our sale yesterday and wanted none of them. They wanted us to give them to people who were hungry in our community. Why bother? Ask the volunteers who came to St. Barnabas at 6 a.m. yesterday to make 480 hoagies – including those 10. Why bother? Ask Gail at St. Mary’s who had the idea of distributing them to families living at a Rio Grande motel. And why bother? Ask Anthony, a volunteer at the Furniture Annex, who agreed to deliver the hoagies to tenants at the motel. A handful of people, working together, for just a few minutes, fed 10 people one meal.

Why bother? Because one person, one congregation can perform a relatively small action that will have a dramatic impact on the lives of others. One person, one congregation at a time, we can help the world get back on track with the Millennium Development Goals, ensuring that poverty and hunger are, indeed, eradicated by 2015. As Father Kinman wrote, “There are times when the words of Christ are for our ears, and there are times when the words of Christ are for our lips. And there are times like this, where they are for both.” Let our prayer be that one day soon, all will be able to say that what we eat, what we drink, and what we wear is enough and to know that all has been provided by the grace of our God who works wonders of abundance in the smallest of human actions. What can one person do? What can one congregation do?

[1] “Progress towards Millennium Development Goals at risk of being wiped out, warns Deputy Secretary-General in remarks to special meeting on global food crisis,” ReliefWeb 20 May 2008, accessed online on May 24, 2008.
[2] Mike Kinman, “"Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink," What One Can Do -- The EGR Newsletter‏, May 23, 2008 (received via e-mail).
[3] The curriculum we used for the series was The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations and The ELCA Washington Office, God’s Mission in the World: An Ecumenical Christian Study Guide on Global Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2007). It is available online from Episcopal Books and Resources.
[4] “Haitian Hope Project,” St. Francis Episcopal Church in Macon, Georgia accessed online on May 24, 2008 and John Mark Parker, “Aubrey Cells Cider,” Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, November 14, 2007 accessed online on May 24, 2008.
[5] Dahn Dean Gandel, “What One Person Can Do,” Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, August 24, 2007 accessed online on May 24, 2008.


Creation and Evolution: Do We Have to Take Sides?

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas, Villas
Trinity Sunday, May 18, 2008

Where do babies come from? It’s a well-known truth that babies are delivered by storks. And not just human babies. If you’ve ever seen the movie Dumbo then you know that even baby elephants are delivered by storks. According to a National Public Radio report, this legend about storks bringing babies goes back to pagan times – a time when civilizations depended on high birthrates for their survival. It seemed that when the storks’ returned in the spring, there was an increase in the number of births and so the two events became linked. “Many people in Europe still associate storks with good luck and look forward to the birds’ return each spring.”[1]

The question of where babies come from is linked to that other question – where did we come from? Or, how did the world begin? The story of creation that we heard this morning is one of multiple biblical attempts to answer that question (another creation story appears just one chapter later in Genesis, there is a reference to creation in the book of Job that implies creation occurred in one morning, another in the book of Proverbs where Lady Wisdom creates at God’s side, and still another in the opening chapter of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”). But the creation story that opens the book of Genesis is perhaps the most well-known account and the account which is so frequently at the center of school board debates and court cases despite the myriad ways in which the story has been contradicted by scientific theories since at least the 18th century when Carl Linnaeus realized that the animal kingdom appeared to be a family tree and developed the system of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species to classify animals by shared characteristics.

Now let’s back up for a moment. How can a scientific theory contradict a story? Unless we consider story-telling to have the same social role as scientific theory – that is, unless we assume our stories are attempting to answer the same question that our scientists are trying to answer – then we are dealing with apples and oranges. Going back for a moment to our question, “Where do babies come from?” Depending on the age of the person asking the question and our relationship to that person our answer may vary. For example, we might say to a 4-year old, “you came from your parents who love you very much” or “you came from the hospital,” or “you came from inside your mother’s belly.” Each of these could be considered truthful answers to the question, “where do babies come from.” And yet, we would all agree that none of them are scientific answers. None of them include a biological explanation of human reproduction.[2]

When we look to a text like this morning’s creation story and expect it to answer a scientific question – or worse – assume it is, in fact, a scientific account (despite all evidence to the contrary), we have missed the point. Harold Schulweis sums up the situation this way:

“The Bible is not geology. The Bible is concerned with the spiritual implications of an event, not with its physical cause and effect. . . . There is hardly a verse in the Bible taken verbatim that is exempt from embarrassment. Take the statement: ‘And God said, ‘Let there be light.’’ If God speaks, does it mean that God has a larynx? In what language or dialect does He speak? Did He speak these words before the creation of the universe took place? How could light have been created before the fourth day when the sun and moon and stars in the firmament of the heaven were created? Blinded by the literal text, the symbolic meaning of light and of the spoken word is invisible.”[3]

If we would spend even a fraction of the time and energy that is spent arguing creationism vs. evolution at school board meetings and in courts of law, instead discerning the spiritual implications of a story about a God who creates with the word and who chooses to set human beings apart from all of creation to be made in God’s likeness, then we might be a bit closer to understanding the reason for which the story of creation was recorded in the book of Genesis in the first place. Briefly, let’s consider these two implications: Creation by the Word and Humanity Created in the Image of God.

Creation by the Word. The creation myth which perhaps had the greatest impact on those who wrote the story in Genesis was the Babylonian myth, Enuma elish. In this Babylonian creation story, the great God Marduk fought the great God Tiamat and out of the dead remains of Tiamat, Marduk formed the heavens and the earth.[4] Instead of this understanding of the created order coming out of war and anger and instead of the heavens and earth being formed out of the dead corpse of a fallen god, the ancient Hebrew story of creation found in Genesis makes clear that God – the One God – created the universe out of harmony, out of simple words – “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” God said it, it became, and it was good. That is the Judaeo-Christian formula for creation and it leads us directly into the next spiritual implication of the creation story.

Humanity Created in the Image of God. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It is such an easy thing to look at one another and assume that we are learning something about the nature of God. We often speak and act as though the text says, “humankind created God. . . in the image of humankind.” And it comes as no surprise then that our children draw pictures of God with a nose, hands, arms, eyes, and flesh. But, my friends, we have it backwards. The text clearly says, “God created humankind . . . in the image of God.” And what do we know about this God? At this point in the text – in these first verses of Genesis – we know that God creates and that what God creates is valuable and good. We learn something important about humanity created in God’s image – we are, at our best, valuable and good and we are called to create – to be co-creators with God. Moreover, that which we create, when we create out of our godlike-ness, ought also to be valuable and good. Other stories throughout Scripture will remind us of the many, many ways in which we can and do fall short of this goal; but this story of creation makes it very clear that, at our created core, we are valuable and good in the words of God.

Has our scientific knowledge come so far that the spiritual truths contained within this story of creation are all but invisible - lost in the incongruities between a cosmology of the 4th century BC and that of the 21st century? Can a new creation story be written that maintains the spiritual implications of the old in a casing that is more relevant to today?

John Polkinghorne is a noted theoretical physicist who played a significant role in the discovery of the quark [qu-ork]. Polkinghorne was ordained as an Anglican priest on Trinity Sunday in 1982 by the Church of England. In 1986 he wrote a book called One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology. And this is his attempt at a creation story for today:

In the beginning was the big bang. As matter expanded from that initial singularity it cooled. After about three minutes the world was no longer hot enough to sustain universal nuclear interactions. At that moment its gross nuclear structure got fixed at its present proportion of three quarters hydrogen and one quarter helium. Expansion and further cooling continued. Eventually gravity condensed matter into the first generation of galaxies and stars. In the interiors of these first stars nuclear cookery started up again and produced heavy elements like carbon and iron, essential for life, which were scarcely present in the early stages of the universe’s history. Some of these first generation stars and planets condensed in their turn; on at least one of them there were now conditions of chemical composition and temperature and radiation permitting, through the interplay of chance and necessity, the coming into being of replicating molecules and life. Thus evolution began on the planet Earth. Eventually it led to you and me. We are all made of the ashes of dead stars.[5]

As for me, I’ll take the scientific inaccuracies of Genesis for the wealth of spiritual implications that continue to instruct my faith. But I will also remember that the question, “where did I come from?” has more than one answer and that perhaps our role as grown-ups is to make sure we remember both the story of the stork and the story of human reproduction when we talk to our children.

[1] Frances Wood, “Storks Bring Babies,” BirdNotes®Transcript-592 (© 2008 Tune In to Nature.org 02/22/06 (Revised Nov. 2007) accessed online on May 17, 2008).

[2] The use of this technique to introduce learners to the notion of “types of truths” comes from Carla E. Fritsch, “Workshop 5: In the Beginning,” Understanding Scripture: Adult Workshops (The Center for Learning, 1992), 27.

[3] Harold M. Schulweis, For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith, (New York, Harper: 1994), 66.

[4] Virginia Hamilton, “Marduk, God of Gods: Apsu and Tiamat the Creators,” In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World (San Diego, HBJ Publishers: 1988), 78-85.

[5] John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (London: SPCK, 1986), 56 in Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 43-44.