Fasting from Complacency — A Rant For World Food Day


First, watch this.

This is a rant I’ve been sitting on for a while.

It is a rant I’ve been sitting on, and yet its essence continues to creep into my sermons and conversations, bubbling up in my dreams, and sometimes hitting me on the head when I least expect it.

Today is World Food Day. And all I can think about are my brothers and sisters in Africa, many of whom will starve to death this winter.

In Malawi, the crops totally sucked this year due to the weather.

And in South Sudan, a place I had the privilege to see with my own two eyes in January, the crops were never planted at all because of the on-going civil war that continues to rage in the country. When bullets are flying, it’s tough to get shit done, you know?

My friend Rev. Dave Carver posted this quote on his Facebook page yesterday, and I’ve been chewing on it:

“It is not customary that an intelligent person clothes and cares for one part of his body and leaves the rest naked. The intelligent person is solicitous for all his members. Thus it should be with those who are the Lord’s church and body. All those born of God are called into one body and are prepared by love to serve their neighbors, not only with money and goods, but also, according to the example of their Lord and Head, Jesus Christ, in an evangelical manner, with life and blood. . – Menno Simons, 1552

As a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a member of Pittsburgh Presbytery, I am ashamed and embarrassed for us.  Because we are intelligent people who profess to believe we are part of the Body of Christ, and we’re walking around butt naked. Or at the very least, we’re wearing really stunning shoes, but the rest of our body is exposed and starving to death.DSCN0045

You see, here in my own little corner of the Presbyterian world in Allegheny County, there are more than 140 individual Presbyterian congregations. That’s at least 140 separate buildings for a rapidly dwindling group of people (around 31,000).

And many of those congregations are sitting on endowments, chunks of money given to the churches over the years. Some endowments are very modest. Others are massive. Like millions of dollars massive. Some congregations consider those endowments as insurance against a “rainy day.” Some congregations can’t even touch the money because those who gave it to the church restricted the use to certain things like organ repair or stained glass maintenance.

Well, I would venture to say what is happening in Africa and in many other parts of the world is way beyond a rainy day. It is a major deluge calling for something beyond scraping together a few dollars and calling it “sacrificial giving.”

Meanwhile, at the higher denominational levels, it seems the money for world mission has run out. The reasons for this financial crisis are many and varied. One reason is there are simply fewer Presbyterians giving money to mission than there used to be. I won’t go into a long explanation for why the PCUSA is shrinking, but with fewer people in the pews, there’s fewer dollars flowing upstream to fund mission work. And, of course, many churches have left the denomination, or withhold funding from GA because…well…everyone knows that story.

And of course, there’s the many hundreds of small congregations spending most of their money on keeping the lights on. Not much left for mission after that.

Presbyterian World Mission recently announced it will have a funding gap of a little less that $1 million dollars in 2016, which means we will lose nine mission co-workers.  In 2017, the gap will be $4.5 million dollars, which will result in the loss of 40 missionaries.  Right now we only have 165 mission co-workers.  Only 165 people to cover the entire globe.

Once upon a time, this would not have bothered me very much because I had pretty much no idea what mission co-workers do.  When I was in South Sudan, however, I had the privilege of meeting the entire team of mission co-workers serving in the country.

And let me tell you about these people serving Jesus in South Sudan.  They are fearless. They are committed. They are Faithful with an intentional and emphatic upper case “F.” They are kick ass Christians, working as hard as anyone I’ve ever met in the one of the most deeply challenging parts of the world.IMG_3504

And we don’t have money for them.

We don’t have money for folks like Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mathers who are doing the hard work of teaching and preaching and equipping others for teaching and preaching peacemaking in a country in which the only hope — and I do mean the ONLY hope — is peace. You can read more about what we don’t have money to support right here:

I’m telling you our mission coworkers are extraordinary people doing extraordinary work for the sake of the Gospel. They are doing their best to make sure the Christ’s Body in Africa isn’t naked, riddled with bullets, raped, kidnapped, dehydrated, illiterate, or starving to death.

But we don’t have money for them anymore.

I look around my own presbytery.  And what do I see? It’s embarrassing.

So many largely empty buildings.

So many rainy day funds.

So few people hoarding so many resources.

We should be embarrassed. Ashamed. And, frankly, fearful of having to explain it all to God someday when God asks us how we prioritized our use of the incredible abundance God has entrusted (perhaps foolishly) to the North American church.

God may point to Grace Presbytery, who seems to get the idea that the purpose of being church is not to maintain our buildings or focus on our own survival as a denomination. Look at what they did at a recent presbytery meeting:

Thanks be to God for the saints at Grace.

So what are we doing, friends?

I am going to quote myself from a recent sermon because this is the essence of my rant:

“Here’s what I think. What is at work in the PCUSA is not a literal poverty, but a poverty of spirit.  The denomination is on its knees because we have all the things just like the man who kneels before Jesus in Mark 10:17-31. We have buildings, investments, polity and structure — all of which we’ve worked hard to accumulate and all of which we really, really like.

And Jesus says, you know what? I don’t really care. Sell it all. Give it away and follow me, even unto the ends of the earth.

The PCUSA does not have a money problem despite all evidence to the contrary.

We have a spiritual problem.  A enormous spiritual problem.  We give lip service to resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit when the truth is we are too worried about our own survival to even imagine letting go of things that couldn’t matter less to Jesus.  But they are things that matter beyond our imagining to people in places like Malawi and South Sudan who are probably going to starve to death this winter.

If we keep going as we’re going, we will indeed lose the message of the Gospel entirely and be nothing more than a nice group of people with all the things in a rapidly shrinking social club who will not be missed by anyone when we finally disappear for good.”

So today, on World Food Day, I am fasting from complacency and calling for my brothers and sisters in the PC(USA) and in Pittsburgh Presbytery to think about this…

If the situation were reversed, our brothers and sisters in Malawi and South Sudan wouldn’t hesitate for one second to sell everything and take care of us. I am absolutely convinced of this. Just ask anyone who has traveled to be with our ministry partners in that part of the world.IMG_3511

Don’t take my word for it. If you are in Pittsburgh Presbytery, ask Dave Carver. Ask Ken White. Not for one minute would our brothers and sisters in Malawi and South Sudan allow any of us to starve to death if it were within their power to stop it. They would not allow us to be naked, because they consider us part of their body.

And the really great thing is this — we Presbyterians KNOW how to do this. We KNOW how to get stuff done. We KNOW how to do the things that make for peace. We KNOW how to get food where it needs to be. We have great partners with whom we work all over the world. We have young people, eager to make the world a better, more just, more educated, more Kingdom-like place.

We just need to get over ourselves. We need to open our damn hands, shake the dollars out of our buildings and endowments, and begin to look and act like the people of the Resurrection.

A couple of years ago when the presbytery announced that the money was running out and there was a budget crisis, I quipped somewhat glibly and probably unadvisedly to our Executive Presbyter  that it was the best possible situation for the presbytery.

Because when the money runs out, you figure out what really matters and what you really believe. Do we truly depend upon Jesus Christ? Do we really believe in an abundant and generous God? Do we really trust the Holy Spirit to move us into a grace-filled future?

If we don’t, then we have absolutely no business calling ourselves the church.

In closing, I will steal another quote from Dave Carver:

“In a quote attributed to an Australian Aboriginal woman, this idea is spoken well: ‘If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.’ Our liberation and wholeness in Christ is bound up with that of the Malawians and with people throughout the world, including our own neighborhoods here in Pittsburgh.”

Peace and grace to you.