About a month ago, a small group got together on the back porch of Betsy Bowen’s home for dinner and a presentation by the group of summer interns that have been working with St. Luke’s and Kimball Ave Community Church and Humboldt Park United Methodist Church to do work around the issue of childhood obesity. After fixing ourselves plates piled with healthy and delicious food (and pouring ourselves a summer shandy), we sat down to learn more about the obesity epidemic and to think about how faith communities are particularly positioned to make an impact on this issue.
As we began, the interns led us through a bible study on the same portion of scripture from Isaiah that we heard as the first reading this morning,
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, by and eat! Come, buy milk and wine without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you might live…” (Isa. 55:1-3a)
The interns asked what we heard in these passages, and people had great insights. For example, this passage is addressed to everyone who thirsts, which is all of us, and then to those without money, the poor, which we don’t always think of as being all of us… so we are invited to consider the ways in which each of us is poor or impoverished.
Then there is the question about how we spend our money. We’re asked to think about why we spend our time and our money on pastimes and products that deplete us instead of filling us up. But, instead of so much of what we’re used to when we talk about food, instead of being told to cut back and not indulge, these verses encourage us to “delight in rich food.” So, we’re left to wonder what foods are truly rich – rich in vitamins and minerals and proteins and complex carbohydrates – and which are simply sweet and empty. Or, which of our pursuits are truly enriching us, feeding our minds, challenging our bodies, and which are simply numbing our bodies or distracting our minds from the world around us.
The interns shared some startling information about how obesity rates have risen in the last twenty-five years or so. When you look back at obesity rates in 1985, the states with the highest obesity rates were Georgia, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia – each of which had 15-19% obesity rates. By 2008, the only state in the country with a 15-19% obesity rate was Colorado. The healthiest state in the nation, at least in terms of obesity rates, was now as heavy as the unhealthiest states in the nation were twenty-five years ago. Most other states had gone from under 15% to over 25% the last quarter century.
As scary as this information sounds, one thing we discussed is that when the trend is national, like this one is, affecting every state and cutting across every demographic line, then something is happening that is larger than any one of us alone. This isn’t simply an issue of personal responsibility, it’s an issue of what kinds of foods are available, what kinds of foods are in our environment, how our foods are produced and packaged and labeled. What is being added to our foods, and what is being taken out of them. When you see the maps, the story becomes clear – this epidemic is affecting all of us together.
That is where the power of congregations and communities of faith come in, and the miracle in this morning’s gospel reading illustrates the point perfectly. As the story begins, Jesus is grieving because his cousin, his mentor, his friend, the man who baptized him, John the Baptist is dead. Not just dead, but murdered. Jesus is overwhelmed by bad news, and so Jesus withdraws from his ministry and finds a boat to take him someplace deserted so that he can be alone.
But the crowds continue to follow him, and the gospel says, “when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” So we know that the crowd was more than curious, they were needy. They brought their sick with them. And Jesus, who had troubles of his own, did not distract himself from the suffering of the world in order to tend to his own sorrows. Instead, he seems to show us that the healing so many of us are seeking in our own lives, the sorrows that weigh on our hearts, will find some relief, some respite, as we come to the aid of those who share our woes. We know this, we’ve experienced this, the power of our own pains and sorrows to make us more skilled at tending to the pains and sorrows of others. People who are able to do this are sometimes spoken of as “wounded healers.”
But the crowd was large and Jesus was only one man, and as night fell it didn’t look like the crowds were getting any smaller. This is a dynamic we know as well. The work is immense, and we are few, how will it all get done? The disciples are worried about the issue of capacity, “this is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Let them take care of themselves. It’s too much for us to attend to all their needs.
This mindset is common, we’ve all felt it: care-givers, community organizers, teachers, parents, pastors. The sense that those we are responsible for need more from us than we can give. It’s how the disciples felt looking out at the masses of sick and hungry people that came to Jesus, wave upon wave. They are concerned for his well-being and their own, they are worried that they will drown in the sea of need before them.
But Jesus, looking out at the people, sees something other than need and lack. He sees abundance. Jesus knows that hurting people are never just hurting people, they are also intelligent, resourceful, capable, gifted people. Jesus knows that each person is always more than the sum of their hurts, they are always and ever children of God, part of the whole cr
eation that God looked out at and called “good.”
So Jesus performs a miracle of perspective, perhaps most miraculous to his closest followers, who had forgotten how gifted God’s people truly are. Jesus does not say to his disciples, “don’t worry” or “it’s in God’s hands” or “let go and let God.” Jesus looks at the sea of hurting, hungry people and then at his disciples and says, “they need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
The disciples gather up what they have and it’s just five loaves and two fish, clearly not enough, but Jesus says, “bring them to me.” So they do, and Jesus lifts up what they have to start with and blesses that and then sends them into the crowd to feed the people.
Here we should go ahead and give the disciples some credit for having the faith to begin what seemed like an impossible task from the get go. Even as their hearts told them that there was no way they’d pull this off, they went ahead and started feeding people anyways.
And maybe it was that act, that faith that something large can come from something small, like seed scattered along the path, that touched the hearts of the crowd. Because, hurting and hungry as they were, it wasn’t like they didn’t have anything of their own to offer to the project. So, as the baskets were passed, those who truly had nothing took what they needed, and those who’d packed some food away for the day’s journey shared what they had. You can imagine that as the baskets worked their way out from Jesus to the back of the crowd people saw that the impossible was actually happening, and not wanting to see a miracle fail, they gave what they could to keep the miracle going.
St. Luke’s, we know something about this kind of miracle. We know what it feels like to have only five loaves and two fish and to feel like we’re trying to figure out how to feed five thousand. But in God’s miraculous economy, the good news is that we don’t have to figure out how to come up with all the loaves and all the fish, we simply need to muster up the faith to begin passing the baskets, and then we will see that all of God’s people, the hurting and the hungry, the members and the strangers, the old-timers and the newcomers, all of God’s people have gifts to share.
That has been the process, as we’ve worked over these last five years at the intersection of faith and public health. It began with a food pantry feeding hundreds of people and 12-step groups healing scores in recovery. Then it was yoga and tai chi and taekwondo. Then it was book studies and small groups thinking and praying together about food and justice and the environment. Then it was one church working with two others to uncover the stories that each of us are carrying about how obesity has affected our lives, our families, our congregations, our neighborhoods, our students. We realized we could do more together than we could do alone, and we partnered with Advocate Health Care and the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago’s Children (CLOCC) to create a neighborhood faith-based roundtable on public health that we’re calling “Fed by Bread,” to always remind us of Isaiah’s question, “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?”
An epidemic like childhood obesity seems too vast for a small group of people, even faithful people, to take on. There are thousands upon thousands of people in need, and only a few of us. The answer, Jesus teaches us, is not fatalism. “You feed them,” he says, and then we discover that everyone, together, is part of the answer.
People of St. Luke’s, who do you suppose we will pass the basket to next, and what do you suppose they will put in it? There are so many hurting and hungry, graced and gifted, people in our community, just waiting to be part of God’s feeding, healing work. How will we meet them?
Jesus looked at the hurting and the hungry and said, “they need not go away; you give them something to eat.”