Texts: Isaiah 55: 1-13; Matthew 14: 13-21
Well, it happened again. What I mean to say is that I did it again. It all started with a simple trip to Princeton with a fellow pastor who needed some time to talk about personal stuff. I heard myself saying, “You know, that there's a new translation of the Bible out – its at the Cokesbury store at Princeton. Let's check it out.” Books, though, are like tortilla chips – you don't eat just one, but, hopefully, you know when to stop. When we got to the Seminary bookstore, there it was – no, not just the new translation I wanted but my favorite two four letter words: Book sale! Seriously now, how can you resist this book or that if it's 60% off? The two of us went merrily through the sale racks, picking this one and then that one – to paraphrase Shakespeare, frailty, thy name is Joyce at a book store. Then, right outside the bookstore door, we saw the sign for Somali famine relief. We were in a seminary, after all.
East Africa is suffering its worst drought in over 50 years. This drought does not affect just one country but most of East Africa. That's almost 18 million people. The warming temperatures of the Indian Ocean have contributed to the decrease in rainfall, pushing farmers into both conflict over grazing lands and encroachment on wildlife areas. First the cattle die from lack of water and food; in other words, they starve Then the earth is baked to a hard crust; in other words, people cannot even plant crops. And, finally, whatever is left withers and dies. Then the people begin to walk, looking for food and water. Many will die on the way to a refugee camp; only the strongest will survive the journey. The three refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya, just over the border from Somalia, now sees 1500 new people looking for food, for water, for basic medical services every day. Where does out moral responsibility begin and where does it end? These are the questions of today.
Obviously, none of us has the power to change the warming climate. That is, we don't have the power alone. But each of our single powerless voices can join together into a choir of power to pressure even the recalcitrant to look at how our over-consumption – yes, even of books, has affected the environment. Every time I'm in a bookstore I repeat my favorite line from Erasmus, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” But even I am beginning to tell myself that gluttony takes many forms. I mean, how many books can you read? A lot!
In spite of what some may consider my crazy preoccupation with books, we do need to look at how we – yes, we – can help to right the balance between plenty and want. It's really more than just giving money to famine relief in East Africa, earthquake relief in Haiti, or flood relief in the American Midwest. It really means reordering our national priorities, certainly no easy task. However, it also means reordering our personal priorities. It's really difficult to resist the temptation of that magic four letter word “sale.” Each of us has our own idiosyncrasy when we see that magic four letter word “sale.” And the media that constantly says it's our lack of consumption that keeps industry from hiring doesn't help, either.
It's not our lack of consumption of stuff from China or where ever, or even books printed here in the U.S. that drove the economy down. It was bad housing debt, Wall Street speculation, and pure greed that made us such a mess. And, I'll wager that those so-called tea party types haven't limited their own personal consumption as well. We are in a spiral and it seems like there's no way out.
So, how do we put the brakes on ourselves individually and collectively? There is a great hunger in this land for meaning, for something that can touch us, give us some connection with the One who is beyond us and yet in us, the One who has created us and given us minds to think and souls to feel. We see it in the enormous appeal of experience based worship – what we often see in pentecostal churches. We have been driven by the quest for personal fulfillment; as a result, religion has become more privatized. The so-called “personal relationship with Christ” approach has narrowed religious thinking and experience so that we become even more spiritually hungry. Even the hermits and monks of the early church realized that they needed community and it was only in community that they could lead a contemplative life. The Jesus of the Gospels may go off alone from time to time but he always, always returns to a community; in his case, it was the community of his followers.
In the loaves and fishes story, Jesus just doesn't sit in the boat enjoying his personal experience with God. And when he gets to that “lonely place apart,” he just didn't ignore the crowd. He healed the sick and when his followers told him to send the people away, he responded that the disciples should give them something to eat. And when the loaves and fishes were shared, there was enough for all. Sharing and being in community with others is the crux of this story as it should be for our stories. Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone discusses the temptation to seek religious fulfillment in privatized religion. As he points out, privatized searching has actually led to not only increased secularization but a collapse of the moral framework of doing good. We become so obsessed with filling ourselves that we ignore the world around us. Even the most atomistic among us comes to realize that we need a community of like minded people to address the evils we see around us. Jesus called others to join him; so should we.
It seems that what we need to do is to learn how to develop the delicate balance between focusing on ourselves and throwing ourselves into the world. It is a really difficult thing to do. We need to feed ourselves spiritually, religiously, and at the same time open ourselves to the realities of the world around us. Sometimes we just pull ourselves in; other times we ignore our own spiritual health at our peril. It's the balance that's important.
Now, there are many ways to approach the famine in East Africa, just as there are many ways to approach the reconstruction of Haiti, and the damaged farmlands and small towns of the American Midwest. There's no question that we need to provide emergency relief to the victims of all three disasters. But we also need to provide long term relief through development, teaching better farming techniques, and supporting the development of civil society. And what applies to East Africa and Haiti applies to the United States as well. The practical problem becomes implementing the balance.
Let us pray: Wonder in the Storm Clouds, help us to discern what we truly need, the needs of others, and how to meet those needs through the Gospel.