Using Less to Help the Poor

This past fall I listened to the audiobook of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. Set in the near future, the novel begins with a catastrophic heatwave centered in India due to the impact of climate change. Millions die as the power goes out and there is no place for anyone to cool off, with even lakes reaching temperatures of over 100°. Told from the perspectives of over a dozen characters, we follow the global race to combat the impact of the global warming, especially harsh on those who live in developing countries. The Ministry for the Future is a UN created entity established after the Paris Climate Accord focused on creating policies and implementing changes in the best interests of the humans who will live after us even while that means imposing strict  guidelines now. It’s a sweeping epic that is perilously close to non-fiction, and it should be a wake up call for us when it comes to the environmental crisis.

A sermon based on Luke 6:17-26.

What’s striking throughout the novel is the significant impact of the climate emergency on the poor. We know this in the current day already. We see it in the way those developing countries are more devastated when significant storms hit, or when faced with horrendous drought. The crisis is already contributing substantially to migration in the Middle East—civil wars erupt over dwindling resources, especially water and food supplies. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the news stories of these events when they happen in a place like Sub-Saharan Africa, or the Indian sub-continent, a point the novel makes right from its beginning when the western world isn’t nearly as responsive as they should be in the face of a significant loss of life. It takes  a devestating weather event occurring in the US for the Americans to become more desirous to work together with the globe on finding solutions.

We heard today from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s gospel. Jesus begins with the beatitudes, but unlike their more familiar counterpart  in Matthew, they’re much more concretely focused. Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” but, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Similarly, he blesses not those who hunger for righteousness, but simply “You who are hungry.” Throughout his entire gospel, Luke focuses on the needy, the ones with much less when compared with the rich. In his sermon today, Jesus warns the ones who are rich that they have already received their consolation. And he adds, “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” We hear these words on Super Bowl Sunday when we in the US will down over 8 million pounds of guacamole and some 1.4 billion chicken wings. We will certainly have our fill today, make no doubt about it. (And for the record, I will be making guacamole myself later this afternoon.)

So when I look at the interplay of these two narratives—The Ministry for the Future and The Sermon on the Plain—one thing stands out: the wealthy in our world use up more than their fair share, and it impacts the poor substantially. It’s not easy to hear this as an American, but it’s true. The production of goods for the wealthy to consume and enjoy has led to the exploitation of the poor in unfair wages, reduced them to insufficient housing, and damaged the environment. It brings about despair for these people, and those of us who consume most of the world’s resources do not recognize this. Hope Jahren details the true cost of this consumption in her book The Story of More: “All of the want and suffering in the world—all of it—arises not from earth’s inability to produce but from our inability to share.” Because we cannot imagine having fewer of the things we crave, we naively yet willingly inflict pain on other people and our natural world. 

I don’t want to be a downer this morning, but I do need to be honest. And friends, please note I personally consume more than my fair share in many ways. I am preaching first and foremost to myself. Yet let me emphatically say this to all of us: Jesus does not hate or despise the wealthy. In Luke’s gospel, for example we see Jesus’ interactions with Zacchaeus, that short but rich man, who becomes a follower of Jesus. It’s only in Luke’s gospel that we hear the parable of the two sons whose father was wealthy enough to give the younger son his inheritance years early, and his strong gift of forgiveness. However, Jesus also recognizes that it’s not easy to have a lot of wealth and also be dependent on God for our needs. And the wealthy often think that somehow they don’t have enough and need more, while others do without even the basic necessities because we do not fairly share what the world produces.

So what are we to do? How should we respond to Jesus’ words? Where’s the good news?

First, we must look hard at the reality of things.  We Americans consume a lot. Like the four pounds of red meat and poultry we each eat on average every week. It takes 300 million tons of grain to feed those animals. According to Prof. Jahren, if we cut our intake down to two pounds a week—still more than the average in many developing countries—we could increase the world’s food supply by 15%. Additionally if the 38 countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (or OECD countries)—including North America, Europe, Australia, Japan, and Israel—cut their meat consumption in half, there’d be an extra 400 million tons of grain to feed the hungry every year. There are some 811 million people who face severe hunger in our world, getting less than 1800 calories a day, and often going whole days without food. Imagine if the grain feeding cattle and chickens for us to eat more meat could be used to feed human beings instead. Imagine ending world hunger simply by consuming less meat. There are other areas where we also over-consume including energy and goods, but I think you get the point.

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest three tangible ways that we might engage more faithfully during the season of Lent which begins in just a couple of weeks. The easiest would be to adopt Meatless Mondays during Lent. If the populations in those 38 OECD nations adopted a plan of foregoing meat just one day a week, there’d be an extra 120 million tons of grain to feed hungry. Can you do this for the 6 Mondays in Lent just to try it out? A small step in the direction of doing with a little less.

Second, you could adopt the 40 bags in 40 days Lent challenge. With this one, the goal is simply to fill a bag with items you no longer need every day in Lent. We all know we have things we could give away, from gently used clothes to old towels and linens to books or cds or kitchen gadgets or kids winter gear. You can choose the size of the bag—from a small plastic shopping bag to a large trash bag—and donate to an appropriate place or recycle the items. (Our own Bargain Box will be looking for spring and summer clothes during March, if you want to begin there.)

Third, I’d like to suggest something a friend once did during Lent: no extraneous shopping or eating out during the 40 days. My friend allowed herself to get the basics of food she’d need, but that was it. No lattes or bagels or new outfits or home goods. Nothing extra. Her thinking was that many in our world make do with what they already have, and certainly she could do the same. She then calculated what she would normally spend on those things and made a donation to a local organization for the needy.

All three of these would help us recognize our tendencies toward overconsumption. It would gently remind us that there are those in our world who make do with much less. That instead of needing to keep up the pace of using more than our share of the world’s resources, we could scale back a bit. Doing so would positively impact our planet, our less resourced neighbors near and far, and our own souls. 

I think Jesus is asking us as his disciples to stand in solidarity with those who are poor. To make intentional decisions to place their needs as equal to our own. If we do this together, in community, we could support one another on this journey. It’s not easy to be countercultural in this way. It’s not easy to choose to eat differently, or avoid shopping, or clearing out our spaces with no intention of refilling them. But doing so with others can make a world of difference for ourselves and for those with less. 

I think if we do this, we begin to show our dependence on God. We say that we need help because on our own we over-consume, and ignore the needy. When we turn to the Almighty, we encounter this blessing, that we read from the Prophet Jeremiah: “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” May we become those trees planted by the everlasting waters that we might bear fruit as followers of Jesus. Amen.

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