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The Hungry
October 23, 2016
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana

Text: Mark 6:30-44; Luke 6:21a

 Whenever I read Mark’s version of the Feeding of the 5,000 I’m struck anew at the starkness of Jesus’ command to his disciples: “You give them something to eat.” “You give them something to eat.” It was late. People (probably including the disciples) were hungry. It was time to wrap things up, send people home, those who lived further away, those who had money, could pick something up along the way. A reasonable and practical plan. But Jesus has a better idea. You give them something to eat.

The disciples gulped. They hadn’t planned for this. They hadn’t shopped for this. It would cost at least $12,000 to feed the crowd – $12,000 they didn’t have – $12,000 they shouldn’t have to spend given that most of the people probably had money in their pockets, most of the people probably had food at home. Jesus doesn’t care. “You give them something to eat.”

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Every Easter, when we collect the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, about one cent of every dollar we collect finds its way to Immolakee, Florida. Located just north of the Everglades and inland from Ft. Meyers, Bontia Springs and Naples, Immolakee is one of the best places in the world to grow tomatoes. Eat a hamburger, your tomato probably came from Immolakee. Buy salad fixings at the grocery store, your tomatoes probably came from Immolakee. Immolakee is paradise for tomatoes and those who grow them. It used to be hell for those who planted them, fertilized them, watered them, picked them and packed them.

About two decades ago, some of the workers in those fields reached out to the Presbyterian Church for help. Their pay rate of $.50 per 32 lb bucket of tomatoes picked hadn’t changed in over thirty years. In an industry known for low wages and poor working conditions, theirs were even worse. They were tired of being abused. They were tired of being hungry. They were simply tired.

With our help and our offering dollars the workers organized to get bathrooms in the fields where they worked, childcare and preschools for their children, improved housing and guarantees they would be paid. With our help and offering dollars, the workers partnered with law enforcement and the Florida district attorney to prosecute growers who had literally enslaved migrant workers, freeing over 1,200 workers who had been held on farms against their will. Using our help and offering dollars, the workers mobilized congregations and business leaders to convince some of the country’s largest tomato buyers – household names such as McDonalds, Subway and Walmart – to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes, with that penny going directly to the farm workers.

Blessed are the hungry now, for you will be filled.

We like to see hunger as both local and temporary. We buy a few extra groceries to share with The Way Station so that a family facing a rough spell can get a little help. Yet most of the families in the food distribution line at The Way Station have been coming for months or even years. Volunteering at The Banquet in Salem is fun. It brings us together as a church, it makes us feel good, and helps families stretch pay checks and seniors pay for medicine. But as at The Way Station, most of the guests are regulars, a community of persistent need.

Most who come to The Banquet are grateful to have this place to come, this glimpse of the kingdom of God, a table of blessing where they can be filled. Most would also rather not be there. Some have made personal life choices leading directly to their need – the student who by not paying for groceries is able to afford her books; the dropout who would be earning more if he had just stayed in school; the dutiful child who sacrificed financial stability in order to take care of aging parents. Others wouldn’t be there if they just “got their act together” – wrestling their addictions or discovering the virtues of alarm clocks, showing up on time and doing a good job.

Still others are like the tomato pickers in Immolakee – trapped in systems of poverty where, even though they are working their tails off, even though they have done everything right and played by every rule, they still can’t get ahead. Maybe they’ve gotten the best job they can get, but their employer won’t give them enough hours to put food on the table but also schedules them in such a way that working a second job is impossible. Maybe the father of their children refuses to pay child support; or child care costs exceed their wages; or the combination of rent and medical costs leave little left for food; or the economy has changed in a way to make their skills irrelevant. So week after week they gather at The Banquet.

Blessed are the hungry for they shall be full.

When the farm workers in Immolakee first began organizing they met in a church – quite possibly one that already housed a food pantry or a health clinic or a free weekly dinner. When they went on strike, church members stood with them. When they went to free their enslaved fellow workers, church members amplified their voice and pressured politicians. And they started their campaign to get tomato buyers to voluntarily pay higher prices in Louisville, KY – where both Taco Bell and the Presbyterian Church have their headquarters.

Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish, he blessed them, broke them and abundance flowed. When we buy extra groceries for the food pantry or take an evening to serve a free meal, abundance flows from our lives to our neighbor in need. When we walk with our neighbor to change impoverishing systems, abundance flows across the generations.

Blessed are the hungry for they and their children shall be full.

Amen.