By Bill Moseley
Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of July 25-26, 2015.
People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it is my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.
Some of you may know that my wife and I are the parents of two teenage children. One of our perennial struggles is convincing our kids of why it is worthwhile going to church – a challenge I am sure none of you have ever faced. We hear: it’s such a waste of time, it’s boring, it’s irrelevant, it’s old fashioned... The basic critique is that church has nothing to teach us. The reality is that I understand some of these concerns, yet I go to mass. Why? Well, on a good day, I suspect it is because I know that I can be small minded and I understand that I need to have my way of thinking and acting challenged.
Our son recently went through confirmation class this year and one of the benefits of this process is that the candidate gets a sponsor with whom he or she can discuss this question of ‘why bother going to church.’ We would periodically hear from our son about the conversations he had had with his sponsor. In one of these our son’s sponsor said: I think you will grow up to be successful and rich, and part of the reason you should go to church is so that you will not grow up to be a rich jerk.
So I would like to riff on this theme of ‘not being a rich jerk’ and connect it to today’s readings. Please note that I am interpreting rich in a broad, relative sense. In other words, by global standards everyone in this room is wealthy. Furthermore, by jerk, I take this to mean less than honorable, if not self-centered behavior. How do today’s readings challenge our way of thinking and acting, how do they push us to think bigger than ourselves and to behave in a way that is better for us, our fellow human beings and the planet?
In today’s lessons, both the first reading from Kings, as well as John’s version of the loaves and fishes story, we hear about the enduring human concern of: “will there be enough?” We read about the servant in Kings who is worried that there will not be enough food to feed all of the guests. We also hear about Philip, in the Gospel of John, who is deeply concerned about how they will feed the 5,000 who have gathered to hear Jesus. Philip’s angst is clear when he notes: ‘Two hundred days wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to have even a little.” In each story, there is some food to be had, but there seemingly isn’t enough. Jesus clearly says: let go of your fears of scarcity and there will be plenty. Furthermore, the writers of both stories go out of their way, and really emphasize, that there is food left over and that this should not be wasted. After performing the miracle of plenty, Jesus instructs the disciples to “Gather up the fragments so that nothing may be lost.”
This kind of advice challenges us on a least two fronts. First, it takes on our deep seated anxiety of shortages. Some in our community may worry about the source of tomorrow’s meal, some of us worry about having enough money to pay the bills each month, others are concerned about saving enough for retirement. These concerns often trigger an almost primeval fear of scarcity, a sort of panic that can keep us up at night. Furthermore, we often reason, prudent people, responsible people, save their resources and do not use them frivolously. In fact, at some level many of us believe that poor people are poor because they do not know how to manage their resources wisely.
The second challenge is that, perhaps, the one time we feel like we can afford to be less frugal, to waste a bit, is when there is a sense of abundance. Some of us drive to work when we could bike or walk, we fly when we could go by train, or we jet ski when we could paddle. If we have the resources, we reason, then why not live a bit easier? These readings ask us to share when we sense scarcity and to conserve when there is a feeling of abundance. At first glance this makes no sense.
And while this message may be counter-intuitive at the level of the individual, I think in both cases we are asked to take a step back and think about the situation more from the perspective of the group, to think about the state of affairs collectively. By working as a group, by thinking about each other, by sharing, by taking only what we need: scarcity dissolves. Furthermore, by moving beyond ourselves, we begin to realize that abundance is also an illusion and that frivolous over-consumption is deeply problematic. This shift in perspective, from the individual to the collective viewpoint, is – if you will – all about not being ‘rich jerks.’
I believe Pope Francis is calling for something very similar in his recent encyclical on climate change. I don’t know if any of you have had a chance to read this document, but I highly recommend it. Pope Francis clearly believes that climate change is real, that this problem is disproportionately impacting the poor of the world, and that over-consumption by some is a key driver of the problem.
Why have we, as a people, been so reluctant to address this global environmental challenge? Clearly the reluctance to address climate change varies by individual. For some, like the guy who sat next me on the plane last month and incessantly questioned me about the validity of climate change science, he not only doubts the science but he believes this is a conspiracy to destroy the American dream. For him, Americans have worked hard to become rich and prosperous. We are deserving. And now others are using the climate change problem to question the economic system that has created this wealth. At some level, he was articulating a fear of scarcity. Others will take what we have. At another level is voicing a right to over-consumption. We earned this wealth and we should be able to spend it as we please.
Others understand global climate change, they believe in the science, yet feel completely overwhelmed by it. We are like Philip in the Gospel of John. How can we possibly feed 5,000 people, this problem is so, so huge: ‘Two hundred days wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to have even a little.” The planet is warming, the oceans are rising, I just don’t know what to do.
As in today’s readings, the encyclical asks us to think bigger than ourselves, to think beyond our group, the tribe we call America. While Francis gets into some of the science of climate change, much of the text has a social justice bent and focuses on how the impacts of climate change are and will be differentially experienced. He goes into detail discussing how those who produce very few greenhouse gases, the world’s poor, will suffer some of the worst impacts of climate change. We are asked to have empathy for others, to think beyond ourselves.
Francis also spends a considerable amount of time discussing over-consumption as a key driver of the problem. He writes: “We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.”
By thinking larger than ourselves, by being wholehearted, we simultaneously come to better understand the problem and begin to see the possibilities for a solution.
My read is that Pope Francis believes that we need to reform the economic system to solve this problem. He writes: “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming . . .” This sets off a lot of alarm bells for many Americans, including my friend on the airplane. It sets off alarm bells because reform plays on our latent fears of scarcity, a concern that we will lose out if the system changes. But even for those who understand the problem and want to change the system, it can be overwhelming. If the economic system is the problem, how do we change it?
My students ask me this question all the time and get really depressed about it. If the system is the problem, how do we change it? While Francis uses more nuanced language, he is saying that the rules we have set up, the way we operate as a global community, is faulty. We can only accomplish so much as individuals. If we let go of our fears of scarcity, and start working together, we might be surprised by what is possible. Miracles may even happen. We feed 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and two fish, we end slavery and Apartheid, we elect a black president, or we enact marriage equality for all. All of these changes were thought to be impossible. None of these things would have happened had we not relinquished our fears and worked together as a group. And while it may not seem possible now, it is within our capacity to address climate change by setting up laws and tax policy that leads us to consume differently. And while some may lose out, namely those invested in fossil fuels and related technologies, the larger collective of humanity will win.
The miracle here is in the collective. It is tempting to read the loaves and fishes story and draw individual lessons about morality: we need to share and not waste. The problem is that moral behavior will only get us so far if the economic system, the way we exchange resources, takes insufficient account of human deprivation and environmental degradation. The harder task is to reform the system, to make sure we privilege what is good for all. What makes sense for the individual may not be best for the group. Many people, like myself, are not moral superstars, but we are ‘rich jerks.’ I do not naturally feel compelled to share when I sense scarcity, and I need motivation to conserve when I sense plenty. I cannot do this alone, but I can in a community. And that is why I go to church.
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