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Do Seed Time and Harvest Never Cease ? or Five Myths That Slander God

 

2 Kings 6:25-3        1 Genesis 8:22   2 Corinthians 9:6-15   John 6:27-35

In the course of a food shortage in Hong Kong, decades ago, a British executive of the Bank of Hong found a British soldier staring at him.  The bank executive had come upon a half-rotten orange in the gutter and was about to eat it when the soldier hollered that the food was crawling with maggots and would certainly make him ill.  The man became hysterical, shrieking and crying.  Can’t you imagine the spectacle: a man in grey-striped formal trousers, black vest and suit jacket, bowler hat and umbrella — plainly someone from the highest echelon of Britain’s highest class – this man blubbering hysterically because he wasn’t allowed to eat his vermin-ridden garbage?

   Hunger doesn’t merely make the tummy ache.  Hunger doesn’t merely produce diseases and deformities born of protein or vitamin deficiencies.  Hunger also bewitches the mind.  Hungry people start thinking about doing, and actually do, what they would otherwise never imagine themselves doing.  Hunger exposes civilisation as no more than skin deep.  When an airliner crashed in the Andes Mountains in South America several years ago it was learned that the survivors had survived by eating the remains of fellow-passengers who had already died.  Immediately the tabloids featured headlines on cannibalism, while more thoughtful magazines probed ethical issues raised by this turn of affairs.  Hunger bewitches.

   Reflect for a minute on a story from the life of the prophet Elisha.  Syria’s army besieged the Israelite people, and these people were soon hungry.  And hungrier.  Desperate.  So desperately hungry that 80 shekels of silver (80 shekels would normally buy you 40 roasting rams or 90 bushels of grain); so desperately hungry that people were now paying 80 shekels for the head of a dead donkey.  A dead donkey’s head?  Hungry people will eat anything.  If you had only 5 shekels you could purchase half a pint of bird-droppings.  (There’s food in bird-droppings, you know; if you poke around in bird-droppings you’ll eventually find a few seeds.)   If you had no shekels what did you do?  Two Israelite women knew what to do.  “Let’s make a deal”, one said to the other; “today we’ll boil your infant son and eat him; tomorrow we’ll do the same with my son.”  One mother boiled her son and shared him with her friend.  Next day the second woman said she couldn’t.  The king was called in to settle the matter.  The king exploded and swore he would kill the prophet Elisha.

   Kill Elisha?  What did the prophet have to do with this horrible turn of events?  Nothing at all.  Then why go after him?  Hunger makes even rulers irrational, doesn’t it?  Hunger twists people’s minds until a pretzel looks like a straightedge.

   Hunger is terrible.  How terrible Jeremiah knew when he wrote, his mind reeling, “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children….” (Lamentations 4:10)

I: — Today is thanksgiving Sunday.  Today we customarily thank God for food.  The people in our world who don’t have food, millions upon millions of them; for what do they thank God?  After all, God has promised to supply food.  He who is our creator would be a mocker if he created us only to turn his back on us.  (Human beings who turn their back on their children are sent to jail, aren’t they?)  God maintains that he’s not only creator; he’s also provider and sustainer.  Now I believe that he is.  But then, I’m not hungry.

   Still, I am persuaded that God is as good as his word.  He does provide for us creatures whom he’s fashioned in his own image.  He does keep the promise he makes: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest…shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)  I’m persuaded it’s entirely correct to thank God for food, and thank him as often as we eat it.  In the words of a common Eucharist liturgy, God does care for all that he makes.

   And yet even with God caring as much as he can care, a great many people are hungry.  Scores of thousands starve to death every day.  Far more are permanently damaged in mind and body on account of their hunger.

   On the one hand, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about food since God feeds his people as surely as God feeds the birds of the air.  On the other hand, the apostle Paul tells believers that not even famine can separate them from God’s love vouchsafed to them in Christ Jesus their Lord.  Clearly Paul knows that God feeds (as promised) yet famine occurs, and famine kills.  Famine kills even as God continues to feed.  Famine kills even as God’s love remains uncontradicted.

   Yet every day someone tells me that the fact of widespread hunger throughout the world does contradict God’s love.  Then where are we with respect to God? Where is God with respect to us?

II: — It’s plain to me that God has been slandered; perhaps slandered unknowingly (in other words, the people who have faulted him in the face of the world’s hunger have done so thinking they were telling the truth about him), but slandered none the less.  “He doesn’t care”, they have said, or “He doesn’t care enough.”  Today I wish to vindicate God’s name.  I wish to show that the appalling hunger in the world at this moment can’t be blamed on a deficient supply of food.  In clearing God’s name of the calumny that attends it I’m going to explode several myths.

MYTH #1  People are hungry because food is scarce.  In truth, food isn’t scarce.  There’s enough food in the world at this moment to feed adequately every man, woman and child.  Think of grain-production alone.  There’s enough grain grown right now to provide everyone with sufficient protein and with 3000 calories per day.  (Most of us need only 2300 per day.)  The 3000 grain-calories per person per day produced right now doesn’t include many other foods that aren’t grains, foods like beans, root crops, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and grass-fed meat.

  What’s more, sufficient food is produced right now even in those countries where millions are hungry.  Even in its worst years of famine, for instance, India has produced so much food as to be a net exporter of food.  (India has been a net exporter of food every year since 1870.)   In India, while millions go hungry, soldiers patrol the government’s six million tons of stockpiled food — which food, of course, now nourishes rats.  In Mexico, where at least 80% of the children in rural areas are undernourished, livestock destined for export are fed more grain than Mexico’s entire rural population.  There’s no shortage of food.

MYTH #2 — Hunger in any one country is the result of overpopulation in that country.  If this were the case, we should expect the worst hunger in those countries where there are the most people per food-producing acre.  But it’s not so.  India has only half the population density per cultivated acre that China has.  Yet the Chinese eat while millions in India do not.  China has eliminated visible hunger in the last 50 years.

  There’s dreadful hunger in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Yet these countries have scant population per cultivated acre.  In Africa, south of the Sahel, where some of the worst hunger continues, there are fewer people per cultivated acre than there are in the USA or in Russia; there are six to eight times fewer people in Africa south of the Sahel per cultivated acre than there are in China.

   Please note that I’ve spoken of “cultivated acre.”  We must be sure to understand that less than 50% of the world’s land that could grow food is now growing food.  (It’s plain to everyone, by even this point in the sermon, that the real barriers to alleviating hunger aren’t physical but rather political and economic.)

MYTH #3 — In order to eliminate hunger our top priority must be to grow more food.  Already you’re aware that the world is awash in food right now.  The real problems concerning feeding hungry people lie elsewhere.  For instance, land-ownership is concentrated in too few hands.  A recent United Nations survey of 83 countries disclosed that 3% of the world’s landlords control 80% of the land.  In most countries only 5% to 20% of all food-producers have access to institutionalised credit, such as banks.  The rest, the other 80% to 95%, have to get their credit from virtual loan sharks who charge up to 200% on farm loans.

   What’s more, new agricultural technology benefits only those who already possess land and credit.  It’s been documented irrefutably that strategies which simply aim at having more food produced have dreadful consequences.  Here’s what happens.  New agricultural technology (for instance, hybrid seeds that produce bigger crops from less fertiliser) attracts investors whose primary interest is investment, not food-production; i.e., new agricultural technology attracts investors who see agriculture simply as a good investment.  Moneylenders, city-based speculators and foreign corporations rush to get in on the good investment.  The new money swells the demand for land.  The price of land skyrockets.  Tenants and sharecroppers are then squeezed off the land.  These folk can’t feed themselves and now go hungry.  What about the crops that the new technology has made possible and that speculators now produce in record quantities?  These crops are luxury items (carnations, for instance, to adorn dining room tables); these luxury items are purchased by consumers in the western world and the northern hemisphere.  In other words, new agricultural technology reduces food production.

   We’ve all heard of the Green Revolution, a breakthrough in agricultural technology that promised to generate oceans of foodstuffs for the world’s hungry.  The Green Revolution was born in northwest Mexico.  Overnight the average farm size jumped from 200 acres to more than 2000.  And overnight three-quarters of the rural workforce was squeezed off the land — now with nothing to eat.  The Green Revolution found rural people hungrier than ever.

   Any attempt at remedying hunger simply through greater agricultural sophistication renders people hungrier than ever.

MYTH # 4 — The increase in population (and therefore the need for greater food production) requires the use of chemicals that are environmentally dangerous.  In fact very little pesticide or fungicide or insecticide is spread on farmland.  I know, when we hear of the tonnage of these assorted “‘cides” it sounds colossal.  For instance, the USA alone spreads 1.2 billion pounds of pesticide every year.  One-third of this, however, is used on golf courses, lawns and public parks.  Very little farmland is treated with these chemical substances.  In fact, in the USA only 5% of cropland and pastureland is treated with insecticides; only 15% with weedkillers; only one-half of 1% with fungicides.  Over half of all the insecticide used in the USA isn’t used on food crops at all.  (Most of it is used on cotton, and even then, most of the land that grows cotton isn’t treated.)

    Greater demand for food doesn’t issue in overwhelming chemical pollution.

MYTH #5 — In order to help the hungry we should improve our foreign aid programs.  The truth is, increased foreign aid will do very little to alleviate hunger.  The question we must always ask concerning foreign aid is this: when the government of a western nation sends financial aid to a hungry country, into whose hands does the money find its way?  The money falls into the hands of that tiny number of people who exercise social and political control.  This tiny number benefits; few others do.  In Guatemala, for instance, virtually all the money sent as foreign aid merely enriches still more the handful of largest landholders.

   

What happens overseas is much like what I’ve seen in Canada.  When I was a pastor in New Brunswick and lived closer to corruption than I do in Ontario, the federal government of Canada launched its “LIP” programme.  (“L.I.P.”: local initiative project.)  Ottawa was handing out millions to small communities in order to help the poorest people in them survive.  My village received an LIP grant.  The grant amounted to thousands of dollars ($200,000 in today’s money.)  In my village four men worked five days per week for twenty weeks, building a small vault in the local cemetery.  The vault was so small it would hold only two caskets.  These four men laid one concrete block per day each.  (Think of it: four men each laying one concrete block per day for twenty weeks.)  Who were the men who pocketed the money?  Were they the poorest in the village whom the programme was meant to help?  Of course not.  Poor people aren’t “connected”; poor people don’t have access to the levers of influence and favours.  But well-to-do people have such access.  In my village it was the sons of the richest, those with connections, who siphoned off the government “goodies.”

   Next year our village received another LIP grant, this time to put a washroom (worth $75,000 in today’s money) in a small building that was used four hours per week.  Same story.  Third year, third grant.  But not one needy person was ever hired for any of these projects.

   Increased foreign aid won’t feed hungry people.  But it will build highways and bridges, thereby making land a better investment.  Land that is now a better investment attracts investment speculators who then use the land for purposes unrelated to food production.

   Historically, it was different in England and America.  In England political changes ended the landholding arrangement of feudalism and gave people access to land, at the same time that additional political changes gave common people protection against the powerful, the wealthy and the state.  In the USA a constitution (it had to be secured by force of arms) guaranteed the people freedom from the oppressions that had ground down common people in Europe for centuries, which oppressions America would fend off at any cost.  The oppressions fended off in the English and American revolutions are the oppressions we see in developing countries today.  Political change, not foreign aid, is what feeds people in the long run.

With respect to the short run I want to say a word here about mission support from the local church.  It’s important.  When the late Dr. Allen Knight, an agricultural missionary who spent years in what was then Angola, spoke to my congregation in Mississauga about the “Seeds for Africa” programme, the congregation supported him without hesitation.  We knew we could trust him.  The money we gave for seeds purchased seeds; money given for well-drilling actually drilled wells.  People were fed.  When my friend Dr. Peter Webster was performing surgery in Africa and schooling villages in preventive medicine, any monies he received from friends and congregations were used for their designated purpose, used for that purpose only, and used immediately.  We must never diminish our support for trustworthy Christian workers who are doing front-line work among needy people.

Have you heard enough this morning to convince you that God doesn’t merit the slander that is customarily heaped on him?  God is defamed repeatedly on the grounds that he doesn’t keep the promises he makes; he doesn’t care for all that he has made; day and night and seedtime occur without interruption to be sure, but the harvest doesn’t — say those who tell us that God lies.

   I trust you are persuaded that the presence among us of hungry people, together with the bodily and mental distortions that hunger produces, can’t be blamed on God.  He is as good as his word; he does care for all that he has made.  And for this reason he is to be praised.

III: — God is to be praised even more, for not only has he provided bread, he’s provided the bread of life.  No one lives by bread alone.  Without bread we humans disappear; without the bread of life we humans remain fixed — fixed in what?  Fixed in our perverse rebellion against God, fixed in our deadly defiance of him, fixed in our frustration and futility, which frustration and futility we can either rage against or surrender to but in any case can’t remedy.  Still, the Creator of us all doesn’t give up on us.

   Because God won’t give up on us he’s forever pressing the bread of life into our hands.  The bread of life isn’t made anew each day, but it’s offered anew each day.  “I am the bread of life”, says Jesus, “whoever comes to me will never hunger again.” (John 6:35)  The bread of life became available to us when provision was made for us in the cross.  Now it’s offered afresh as often as our Lord steals upon anyone anywhere and says, “Why don’t you stop running past my outstretched arms?”

   No one lives without bread; no one lives most profoundly by bread alone.  Only the bread of life can restore men and women made in the image of God to the favour of God.  Only the bread of life can relieve us of the consequences of our rebellion against God by releasing us from the rebellion itself.  Only the bread of life can reconcile us where we are estranged, thaw us where we are frozen and sensitise us where we are unresponsive.

   In his 2nd letter to the congregation in Corinth Paul is glad to acknowledge that God provides seed and bread.  Unquestionably he’s grateful for seed and bread.  Yet his ecstatic exclamation, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” plainly pertains to him and only to him who is the bread of life, Christ Jesus our Lord.  Then the bread of life we must seize or seize afresh today.

   

The church has only one mission: to offer Jesus Christ to any and all, near and far.  For in offering him, the one through whom and for whom all things have been made (John 1:3,10), we shall remind detractors that God has kept his promise to provide seedtime and harvest; and in offering him, the bread of life, we shall recall rebels to their rightful ruler, to their Father, as it turns out, from whom they henceforth receive eternal life

.Victor Shepherd   October 2014