All across the country this month Unitarian and Universalists have celebrated Justice Sunday. This is a Sunday where congregations honor and increase our participation in the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. In a few minutes we will hear more about the service committee from John and Betty Richards.
The theme for this Sunday is Planting Seeds. Justice begins by planting seeds. Growing your own food — and having the resources and opportunity to do so — is a powerful act. A time to reflect on food security and sustainability. Our goal is to bring transition and transformation to our Congregation and our community -- to inspire a broad movement involving people from every corner who want healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way.
Much of the food we eat contributes to our ill health. Many of our standard industrial agricultural practices cause unnecessary pain and suffering to farm animals that give their lives that we might have meat, eggs, milk and cheese -- and to laborers who work in dangerous conditions. Many of our practices rob the soil of its health, pollute the land, the water and the air, and rely overly much on non-renewable petroleum products for their production and transportation. Our food system, as it exists today, allows millions to go without food in a world where others have far more than they need, largely, although not entirely, because good, wholesome, nutritious food is either not available or affordable to all. This is not a guilt trip or another sermon about ethical eating. Justice begins by planting seeds and if there is one thing I know about this Congregation is its commitment to service and justice.
There are many sermons that one could preach related to these problems and to their solutions. They can’t all be preached today. Rather this morning, I’d like to begin by looking at these problems theologically. And then I’d like to focus on the issues related to affordability and availability of real food to those who need it.
Recently a colleague pointed me in the direction of a book that was new to me, a book called Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating by Norman Wirzba, who is a professor of theology, economy and rural life at Duke Divinity School. Wirzba talks about food as something that is meant to join us together, intimately and intricately with other people, but also with the entire natural world. The very act of eating is, he says, all of life and with the mystery that is the source of that life. In order for us to live, we must eat. And in order for us to eat, we must take life. Life must give way to death in order for other life to be sustained. And that is an intimate process, which reminds us that we are in fact connected intricately with all life and with all that sustains life … the soil, the air, the water, the sun.
Aware of our interdependence, we acknowledge that eating ethically requires us to be mindful of the miracle of life we share with all beings.
As Unitarian Universalists, we understand this idea of an interconnected web of all existence quite well. Being part of something bigger and recognizing that we belong to it and that we are connected intimately and intricately to others. According to Wirzba, the problem with our current food systems, in theological terms, is that “we live in exile,” which he defines as “the refusal to welcome and accept responsibility for the membership of creation of which we are a part.” This is such an interesting idea to me that we are in living in exile when it comes to our food. We are cut off. We are alienated, isolated, separated. We don’t see the connections between our food and our health, our food choices and the health of workers or the environment, our choices and the fact of hunger.
When I think of these things together … exile, food, hunger … I think also of the other ways we are alienated from our food, our consumption, I think of how people -- so many people -- are hungry these days for connection, for purpose, for wholeness, for health, for sustainability and for good food itself. For Wirzba the act of communion is one path out of that exile. For communion is a ritual of remembering, of restoring that which has been dis-membered, of recalling our connections not only to one another, but to our food and those who gave their labor and their lives that we might eat and live. When thought of in those terms, communion can be a very relevant and powerful act that brings us back into community in the fullest sense of the word. As Unitarian Universalist the word communion might make us squirm. But community, interdependence, and justice are the words we live by and bring us to restoration and wholeness.
A very real justice issue in this country is food insecurity which means people not having access to food and go hungry. Food insecurity is directly related to climate change. As our climate changes so does the type, amount and quality of food available to all of us. It’s one big and scrambled chain of events. Nearly 50 million people in the U.S. are food insecure -- about 1 in 6 Americans. 18 million children are food insecure, more than 2 in 5 children. Florida food banks have been distributing food at disaster levels over the last 3 years with increases of 80% in some areas of the state. Just listen to Florida’s food insecurity statistics:
- Total food insecurity rate (availability of food and one's access to it): 20 percent
- Total number of food insecure people: nearly 4 million
- Total child food insecurity rate: 32 percent
- Total number of children who are food insecure: over 1.5 million
- Some Florida counties claim 25-40 percent of their people are food insecure.
Don’t worry about not remembering these statistics. Just know that food insecurity in our country, in our state, in our county is a very real and disturbing justice issues. Parents in families that never before experienced food insecurity are increasingly finding it difficult to feed their children adequately.
One young couple who lives in our county, Tony and Karen, lived for 12 years in a comfortable home with their two children. Both Tony and Karen lost their jobs over a four-month period. Facing foreclosure, they sold their house for what they owed on it. Now, living in a cramped apartment, Karen’s unemployment benefits have run out, and the family is struggling to put food on the table. Although Karen wants to feed her children fresh fruits and vegetables, she cannot afford them. Her younger daughter has had ear infections all year and was just diagnosed with anemia -- conditions associated with a chronically inadequate diet. This is happening right outside our door. Their situation is unfortunately common.
We need only listen to our Unitarian ancestor Theodore Parker, who also happens to be my UU hero. He writes "The miser, starving his brother's body, starves also his own soul, and at death shall creep out of his great estate of injustice, poor and naked and miserable.” In other words, the ones who have not, are already blessed. Those of us who are outraged that some go without, are blessed. And those who actually do something about it, who sacrifice something in order that the have nots might also have, they are truly blessed.
I’m thinking of the ways we, as individuals, are called, perhaps, to change our own habits of eating, our habits of consumption, in general, perhaps -- so that others might eat, too. We could, for instance, eat more plant-based, more local, more sustainably grown foods in order to use fewer of the world’s resources to feed ourselves. But I’m thinking also of the ways we are called as a community to fix the brokenness of the system in which we live. We are doing many of those things already! We have a modest garden that we can freely harvest from, we are able to compost here on the Congregation’s property, a few members offer weekly meals at St. George’s. We’ve planted fruit trees that when they bear fruit we will be able to take fruit freely, but we will also invite migrant workers and their families to take freely to ease their food insecurity. We collect food to offer to families who have little, and we pack meals that feed children that rely on school meals to eat, but are hungry when school is not in session. I’d like you to be even more brave and offer a few families who share our concern for insecurity and receive food stamps a plot here where they could garden. They are able to use their food stamps to buy vegetable plants. Among them they will create a co-op between themselves and have access to 4 or 5 times more fresh and organic food. All because you were brave enough to offer a plot of unused land.
One of my colleagues this week was tweeting words of wisdom that he’s picked up from a church conference on mission and outreach that he’s been attending, and one of the many wonderful quotes that he tweeted has stuck with me. It said, “If you really get serious about loving your neighbor, you can make a measurable difference in your neighborhood.” Let us get serious. Let us be brave and create justice for ourselves and our neighbors. Let us plant seeds that will grow to feed our bodies and seeds that will feed our minds, hearts, and souls. Let us build a new way to be in the world and in our community.
I spent a few days with my colleagues from all over Florida this week. You may know by now that I love listening to stories. A colleague told a story about how homicide was increasing in their area. Most of those murdered were people of color and they died alone and without any ritual or any public recognition that this brother or sister has left us and in such a violent way. That was until a Unitarian Universalist congregation assembled an 8-member choir. They would arrive on the scene the day after the homicide had taken the place and sang. They offered their voices to mark the time, the place, and the loss of another. Soon other choirs joined, then community organizations, then people heard what was happening and left their homes, their apartments, their jobs to join in the blessing. Recognition of lives lost and a community coming together to honor that life and seek justice inspired a town to crave justice and work for it. And so they did. The high homicide rate had significantly decreased.
We’ve already begun the work of planting seeds and have dedicated ourselves to the work of alleviating food insecurity, not only through our programs I’ve already mentioned. Remember the story of the miser who “used his gold to improve the lives of local people,” who “held feasts for his neighbors … which were so enjoyable that they became the talk of the land?” Let us use our gold, our gifts, our green building to feed more souls.
“Love is the spirit of this Congregation and service is its law. This is our great covenant….” Let us make these words come alive and not simply become weekly recitation.
And so may we continue to support our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and continue to find new ways to share that spirit of Love with those outside of our walls.
May we find new ways and plant seeds to feed more souls.
And may we continue to be an ever-increasing blessing unto the world.
May it be so.
Planting Seeds, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor delivered at 1stUUPB on April 27, 2014.