Seeing God Face to Face


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

August 2, 2020

Texts: Genesis 32:22–32; Matthew 14:13–21

      We all remember the photo. It’s of the little Sudanese girl dying of starvation with her head bent over and a vulture bending over her waiting for her to die. I still have it on my refrigerator to remind me–– of what? I don’t even know. I just know that it was so mesmerizing that I could not let it go out of my mind. Neither, apparently, could Kevin Carter, who took it and won a Pulitzer Prize for it. After chasing away the vulture and getting the child to a feeding center, he sat under a tree, sobbing uncontrollably. Torn by the horror of what he had witnessed in Sudan and at what he felt was the total indifference of the world to its plight, he took his own life the following year. 

      Now fourteen years later the horror of starvation still looms around us, made even more dramatic by some of its causes. Due to the hot dry weather in the American Midwest, wheat production is 11 percent below what it should be. Canadian spring wheat is moving along but winter wheat was down 15 percent. The European Union has seen a price increase from $187 to $205 per metric ton. Argentina, another large producer, has seen a 38 percent increase in the price of wheat. And this is only wheat.

       The rich and the very rich will not suffer, of course, because they have bought this government several times over with campaign contributions and lobbying funds. Just in case you wonder how many lobbyists there really are in the halls of Congress, 11,867 have registered, many of them former staff members to important committees and some former members. And, of course, many industry representatives are now in important posts in the government. I bet old John Adams would have just shuddered at the changes in government since he helped establish our new nation.

       How far we have come from God’s face in that little girl in Sudan, for indeed, she and the millions like her are the face of God. And we must look at it and struggle with what we see just as surely as Jacob struggled with God at Peniel. How shall we respond to the face of God in our midst? What we do here in our daily lives reflects that response. Part of our response must be a more sensible energy policy that takes the limits of our resources seriously. Although God may be infinite, our resources are not and the way we waste them today will impact future generations. 

       The founders of our Nation had a concept called posterity. They looked at their actions in terms of their posterity––those future generations that would follow them. And we must do the same. It is the responsible way, indeed, the theological way, to respond to the face of God in our midst. 

      The current world food crisis reflects the weaknesses of a global food system that is highly vulnerable to economic and environmental shock because of the risks and inequities inherent in the industrial agri-foods complex, which has been built with public funds for grain subsidies, foreign aid, and international research and development—the industrial agri-foods complex is made up of multinational grain traders, giant seed, chemical and fertilizer corporations, processors and supermarket chains. 

      The trade surpluses of the Global South forty years ago have shrunk from $7 billion to more than $11 billion deficit today, and it is rising. This rise mirrors the rise of food surpluses in the industrial North and is the result of systematic destruction of southern food systems through a series of northern economic development projects. 

      The great “Green Revolution” had led to genetically modified seed that does not replace itself. Back in the time of Jesus and up until very recently, farmers in the Global South were able to harvest seeds from their crops. The GM seeds have to be purchased and repur-chased every year. Add to this the so-called structural adjustment programs that require poor countries to shoulder an unconscionable debt and the so-called free trade agreements, which benefit us, not them, and there you have it. Add climate change and we have more immigrants from Central and South America? 

      Look at NAFTA and CAFTA, negotiated to benefit U.S. business––not even U.S. workers. There was that giant sucking sound that Ross Perot worried about, but it went from here to China where the government has created a slave labor system for Uighurs whose working conditions make the early days of the Industrial Revolution look like a paradise. 

      The Chinese government is sterilizing Uighur women so they have no more babies; the children are separated from the parents in such a way that makes Trump’s border policy look humane. Even the families of those imprisoned in these concentration camps––and that’s what they are––have no idea if their family members are even still alive. 

      Yeah, yeah, we know all that, we say. Dreadful, yes, but what to do? Just keep going to Marshall’s and Costco and try to get the best prices. Loaves and fishes worked well for Jesus but, hey, today’s a new reality. It’s a new reality, all right, one that we ignore at our peril––and at the peril of our posterity. 

       And I’m just as guilty as any of us. I spent yester-day morning cleaning out my kitchen and wondered, “Where did I get all this stuff?” I kept thinking about that picture that’s on my refrigerator. It’s gritty––I didn’t put it in one of those magnetic plastic picture holders that I use for Kellie and Molly. 

       I  want to grab hold of God as did Jacob and wrestle God to the ground refusing to let go until I can get some resolution to the gnawing feeling I have within me when I think of how I live and how the nameless hungry live. 

       God does offer us hope in the midst of despairing about the world. That hope does not only come through the elements of bread and wine that we will have in our homes but also through the life of the one who came to show us how to live as if God’s kingdom is already here.         The miracle of our Gospel reading this morning is not that in blessing the loaves and fishes they magically multiplied, but that through sharing what we have, we will enable not only the hungry to eat but that there really will be enough for all. 

       Let us pray: O God, who made the earth to be abundant for us, help us to share what we have, not just individually, but through national policies that will enable a hungry world to eat at your table. In Jesus’ name do we pray, Amen.