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Hebrew Scripture Reading—Psalm 72: 1-7
The famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once called upon his readers to imagine their “whole country as a big household, and the whole nation as a big family.” He then asked, “What do you see?” Shaw himself imagined a family full of “half-fed, badly clothed, abominably housed children.” He imagined “the money that should go to feed and clothe and house them being spent on bottles of scent, pearl necklaces, pet dogs, racing…cars, [and] January strawberries that taste like corks.” Shaw castigated “the nation that spends money on champagne before it has provided enough milk for its babies.”
When I imagine our own nation as one big family, I imagine us all living in a large three-story house. At the ground level, one walks in and finds hungry children lying listlessly on the floor, suffering from disease and neglect, desperately wanting to make it to the second floor. From where they sit, they can smell the aroma of warm cooked meals wafting down the stairs. They can hear the sounds of parents calling after their children and tucking them into cozy beds. On the second floor, children and adults experience hardships, but it’s nothing like the first floor. On the second floor, they never have to worry about where their next meal will come from or how cold it will get that night. Life is relatively good on this floor. Every now and then one of them will imagine what it’s like down below, and every now and then one of them will imagine what it is like beyond the chained and padlocked door leading to the third floor. They can tell from the deliveries that whoever lives on the third floor likes to spend a lot of money not only on diamond studded cell phones, but also on high tech guns and rocket launchers.
When I think about those kids on the first floor, I can hear the voice of the children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman chastising us for not investing in our children, for letting the foundation of our house crumble while “building astronomically expensive fences to protect it from outside enemies.” I can also hear the voice of Desmond Tutu declaring that “just a fraction of what is extended so obscenely on defense budgets would make a real difference in enabling God’s children to fill their stomachs, be educated, and be given the chance to lead fulfilled and happy lives.”
Today is the Fourth of July, and while our congregation might be full of diverse opinions about our nation, and our government in particular, I think all of us can agree that we want to live in a nation that cares for its children. We don’t want to live in a house in which some children wither from starvation and sickness while a handful of adults gorge themselves on greed and indifference. We want to live in a house in which every child has food for their stomachs and medicine for their bodies. Ultimately, the true test of a moral society is how it treats its children. This morning I want us to take a look at how our nation has performed on this test and see if there is some room for improvement as well as some signs of hope. Pretend, if you will, for a moment that you are a teacher grading a final exam at the end of the school year. You’ll be sending home a report card based on this exam.
The exam consists of just four questions and answers. For each answer, I want you to give a letter grade: a, b, c, d, or f. You might want to pull out a pencil from your pew and write down your grades on the back of your bulletin insert as we go along. The first item on the exam pertains to the economic wellbeing of children. The question asks how much poverty afflicts our nation’s children? How are we doing? The answer is that one in five children in our country are poor, while one in 12 suffers from extreme poverty which means they live in conditions at half of the poverty line or less. For a family of four, the poverty line is roughly $22,000 a year. Since 2000, the number of poor children has increased by 2.5 million.[i] Okay, write down how you would grade our nation when it comes to child poverty. The second question: How many children lack the food that they need for healthy lives? The answer: In 2008, roughly, 22.5% percent of children or 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households, households in which there was limited or uncertain access to adequate food. This was an increase of 5.6 percent over the previous year.[ii] Now, write down a grade for our nation when it comes to child hunger. The third question: How do the infants of our nation fare? The answer: The United States ranks second to last in infant mortality rate among 30 industrialized nations. In terms of the rate at which children are born with low birth weights, we rank 21st.[iii] Consider this, and write down a grade for our nation. The fourth and final question: To what degree, do children of different races fair differently when it comes to poverty, hunger, and infant health? The answer: In terms of poverty, Black and Latino children are more than twice as likely to be poor as compared to their white peers.[iv] In terms of hunger, Black and Latino households have more than twice the rate of food insecurity as white households.[v] In terms of infant health, Black infants are approximately two times as likely as both white and Latino infants to be born with low birth weights. They are more than twice as likely as white infants to die before turning one.[vi] Write down a grade for how our nation does when it comes to racial equality among children.
Now, I want you to take these four grades and come up with a grade for how you think our nation did on the exam as a whole, but before you do that you might want to consider whether you are the kind of teacher who likes to grade on a curve. You might want to think about how we compare to other countries. For example, one study of the 1990s, compared child poverty rates in the United States to fourteen of our wealthy peers among the nations of the world. The United States had the highest child poverty rate of them all, so compared to other students who took this same exam, the United States tended to be in the back of the pack.[vii] Write down your final grade for the exam based on these considerations. Try not to be biased. You are not supposed to have favorites when grading students.
Now, if we are going to be good teachers, below the final grade we should write some comments that will encourage the student to improve and give the student a positive sense of their potential. We don’t want the student to spend the whole summer depressed after looking at the grades. This student needs some confidence and some hope. Here I am reminded of our scripture for this morning. It portrays the king as a student in the classroom of God. The psalmist asks God to teach the king to govern with righteousness and to bring justice to the poor. Whoever wrote it had some high expectations that the king would actually do this. The psalmist believes the king will do what’s best for the poor and their children. At the bottom of our report card, I think we need to write something that will show we have some high expectations for our student as well. We need to indicate that we believe this student can succeed.
But let’s be honest, if we were hanging out in the teacher’s lounge drinking coffee and discussing the future of this student, we would say this student needs a little more than high expectations. This student needs a vision that offers some hope. Our psalm does this by painting a vision full of the kinds of images that would appeal to someone living in an agrarian society. Here we find the poetry of the peasant farmer and the shepherd. It’s the poetry of green hills and meadows. It’s the poetry of seasons marked by the sun and the moon. It’s the poetry of rain that falls and waters the earth. It’s the poetry of the abundant harvest, and it’s the abundant harvest that can fill the stomachs of the hungry. At the bottom of that report card, muster the most hope-filled words and images you can find for our student. This student needs more than a smiley face. This student needs a dream of what’s possible in that great big house with its great big family. Give this student a vision that will help keep them motivated through the summer.
Now, once you’ve finished, we have to figure out who to give this report card to. In our country, we don’t have any kings or queens. Ostensibly, we have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, so it would seem the report card should be going to whoever’s a citizen, whoever can cast a vote and have a voice. If that’s the case, perhaps, we should be giving these report cards to ourselves. Perhaps each of us should take our report card home and ponder over it. Perhaps each of us should consider what it would take to live up to our high expectations, to fulfill some of our hopes and dreams.
The good news is that none of us are alone in facing up to these challenges.
Through the Moses Project, we’ve dedicated this whole year as a church to learning about the issues facing children, so that we can take action. Almost a quarter of our entire membership has signed up to join a book group that’s going to read about children’s issues. That’s amazing. Normally, we have to have a potluck with dessert to have that many people sign up for anything. Another piece of good news is that all three of those books mentioned in your bulletin don’t just talk about the problems kids face whether it be foster care, hunger, or education. All three books offer real solutions that have already been tried at a local level. These are books that introduce us to inspiring, innovative communities. The books are full of hope that isn’t pie in the sky but is as real and as concrete as a home to live in and a school to learn in.
All around this country there are inspiring people who are busy trying to improve this house in which we live. They’re busy taking out the rotten, decrepit parts. They’re busy knocking down the doors separating one floor from the next. They’re busy renovating the rooms. They’re painting the walls and fixing the plumbing. They’re busy cooking in the kitchen and putting warm meals on the dining room table. They’re busy mentoring in the living room and keeping a watchful eye from the front porch. Let this be the year in which we join them. Let this be the year that we take pride in what we are able to offer to this house full of promise and potential. Let this year be the year of the great harvest. Amen.
[i] Children’s Defense Fund, The State of America’s Children 2010 Report, B-1, see:
[ii] Feeding America, “Hunger in the U.S.,” see: <http://feedingamerica.org/faces-of-hunger/hunger-101/usda-hunger-numbers.aspx>.
[iii] Children’s Defense Fund, The State of America’s Children 2010 Report, i, see:
[iv] Children’s Defense Fund, The State of America’s Children 2010 Report, B-1, see:
[v] Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews, and Steven Carlson, Household Food Security in the United States, 2008, 10, see <http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err83/err83b.pdf>.
[vi] Children’s Defense Fund, The State of America’s Children 2010 Report, E-1, see:
[vii] Lee Rainwater and Timothy M. Smeeding, Poor Kids in a Rich Country: America’s Children in Comparative Perspective, (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003), 21.