Saturday, August 2, 2014

New Questions for a New Time

Loaves and Fishes Revisited

As greenhouse gas emissions and global warming increase exponentially, it becomes more obvious each day that treating this challenge as just another social or political issue is not only ineffective, but dangerously distracting. We know we can’t continue business as usual in many areas of our lives if we are to mitigate global warming; why would we think that the usual paradigms to effect change would be appropriate in this case?

In particular, what should the church do to respond to global warming and other forms of environmental degradation? Should we do a religiously informed version of what other environmental activists do to advocate for climate stability and cleaner air and water, or are we called to do something different?

This week’s Sunday Gospel passage has brought me back to a persistent feeling I have that the church’s call in the face of pressing environmental concerns needs to be very different in kind from what other environmentalists are doing. Perhaps we need to look beyond dressing up the talking points or action steps of other groups with theological language and do something unique that might better match the uniqueness of this moment in human history and the uniqueness of the church as the Body of Christ.

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is Matthew’s version of the story of the loaves and the fishes (Matthew 14:13-21) At the end of January, I posted a reflection on John’s version of the story. In John’s version, Jesus asks the disciples where they will find something for the crowd to eat, and while the disciples have a conversation about all the reasons it can’t be done, a boy offers the five barley loaves and two fish that he has. That post suggested that offering whatever we have in faith can have surprising results. The many grassroots efforts to address climate change may not look like much compared to the influence of the fossil fuel industry, and we can give lots of reasons to think they are not sufficient to make a significant difference, but when we offer these efforts in faith, they can do more than we can imagine they can do.

But Matthew’s version is different; it adds a different twist that makes it about more than having faith that even our small efforts can make a difference. This version starts with the disciples being proactive about feeding the crowd. They realize that people will start getting hungry soon, and they very sensibly suggest to Jesus that he send the crowd away so people can go into the villages and buy some food. They aren’t stumped about how to make sure no one goes hungry: Jesus simply needs to break up the gathering so people can go off and buy some food. But Jesus says they don’t have to go away. The way this situation would usually be handled is not necessarily the best approach. After all, this is not just any gathering with just any teacher; this is a gathering of people wanting to be with Jesus. So Jesus says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

It’s as if Jesus says, “Don’t send them away. Think outside of the box; come up with a new solution for a new kind of situation.” And when the disciples can’t think of a different solution, Jesus asks for what they have and shows them something very new: the blessing, breaking, and distribution of the bread to feed a crowd of people who came hungry for something only Jesus could give them.

What people outside of faith communities are doing to address climate change and pollution are often very sensible projects bent on changing government policies or encouraging conservation or advocating for environmental justice. They are sensible and proactive approaches, often the same approaches that activists have found successful to effect change in other areas. But global warming in particular is a new problem unlike any other we have ever faced. And the church is different in kind from any other type of institution. Put those two things together, and it seems to resonate with Jesus saying, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” It sounds like, “You don’t need to rely on old paradigms to effect change; figure out something different.” Perhaps we are called to figure out something that looks like Jesus blessing, breaking, and distributing something we already have.

These are the questions for prayer, reflection, and discussion that have risen up for me in light of this Gospel text: What do we as the church have to offer? How do we offer it to Christ so that people can be fed what we need here and now, in this world where we face a very real threat to life on this planet unlike any other humankind has ever faced? How do we offer the church’s unique gifts so Christ can use them to meet the unique needs of this point in human history?

I invite others to sit with these questions with me. Sitting prayerfully and openly with these difficult questions in this nearly unthinkable situation may be the first step of doing what God calls us to do in this time.