As a twenty-one year old seminarian, I remember the afternoon when I walked into my pastor's office at my home parish where I worked every summer through high school and college coordinating youth programs and a Vacation Bible School and I said to him, "I think God wants me to have a different experience of ministry...I want to go to the mission to work with the poor." He sighed and rolled his eyes as if I was going through some "passing thing," but after months of insistence he began to realize I was serious and I was indeed going to do this. After calling and writing around, I discovered there was a Migrant Worker Ministry about 300 miles from home in a small rural parish that was looking for someone bi-lingual who could help. So I quickly signed up!
My first week there, two Mexican religious sisters took me in their Volkswagen bug through the bumpy dirt road that led to a huge field where tomatoes and peppers were being grown and off to the side there was a long row of housing units that looked more like sheds than actual houses. The conditions were indeed deplorable and the dirt floors inside the makeshift lodging made it seem impossible that we were actually in the United States. But we were. My first contact with a family of migrant workers was unforgettable. Just as the two religious sisters and I walked into one of the homes of a family with four young children, I remember how the father and mother invited us to sit down. The kids had just opened the one and only glass bottle of soda they had. Immediately after our arrival, the mother signaled the children and they handed the bottle back to the parents--no questions asked. I was shocked to see how those obviously thirsty children did not hesitate to give even the little they had to their mostly unknown guests. That image has stayed with me for decades: It was a true act of great generosity! Countless subsequent experiences confirmed that the poor are often detached and so generous; even with the little they have.
Greed and a disproportionate interest in possessions is certainly one of the great challenges we all face in our contemporary society. Yet, it would not be fair to say this is something totally new or exclusive to our times, for it certainly seems to also be a real challenge for the crowds listening to Jesus in today's gospel passage from Luke. I don't want this sermon to be another systematic condemnation of materialism in today's society...I think we've all heard way too many sermons about all that. But I do believe this lesson from Scripture is challenging us to seriously reflect on how we are using our God-given resources and could even be inviting us to a change of attitude when it comes to dealing with our "apparent abundance," especially in the most developed nations.
It is by now a well-known fact that while rich countries become more and more prone to be wasteful, poor countries and regions are left without the most basic resources to survive. As believers, as followers of Jesus, this has to make us more than a bit uncomfortable-- and beyond these feelings of discomfort--the urgency of the situation must motivate us to real action.
In a 2011 study commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, it was found that "roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year--approximately 1.3 billion tons--gets lost or wasted."
Other alarming conclusions in that same study tell us that...
- Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tons) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (which is 230 million tons).
- Fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers, have the highest wastage rates of any food.
- The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world's annual cereals crop (What is equivalent to 2.3 billion tons--based on figures from 2009 and 2010).
(Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations--www.fao.org "Cutting Food Waste to Save the World")
In the parable contained in today's gospel, God calls the man who stores up an abundance of food for years "a fool." I can't help but make the connection with the foolish behavior that is so prevalent in today's "super-size it" society and in our constant need to buy a lot more than we could ever consume, just to "be safe" or to obtain a false sense of security. The truth is that every time we discard food, because we don't know what to do with it or where to put it, we are manifesting the worst kind of human greed and wastefulness; we are also showing great disregard for God's creation and the resources we have been so abundantly blessed with. I can assure you there are hungry people not far from your home who would feel blessed to receive what many of us simply choose to throw away.
I recall a missionary priest from one of the poorest regions in Central America who would visit South Florida twice a year to fill huge containers with everything our community in Miami wanted to throw out--everything one could imagine from old clothes to outdated and mostly broken electronics. One day a group of clergy approached him and said, "Father, what do you do with all this garbage?" The priest humbly bowed his head and then raised his eyes and said, "I want you to know that with all these objects that are now useless to you, I have sustained my missionary parish and the neighboring community for the last 30 years. My people value everything you call 'garbage' and they fix it, they recycle it or make some use of each of these things. Nothing gets thrown out."
I invite you to allow the words of today's gospel to resonate in your life, and I invite you to begin to experience what it means to be "rich toward God," for to be truly "rich toward God" requires a real change of attitude which considers everything we have as a blessing from above and to treasure those blessings by sharing them generously. True Christian charity begins in the heart and then translates into heart-felt actions. As the great American comedian Bob Hope once said, "If you haven't got any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble." And indeed, perhaps that is what we may be suffering from-- "heart trouble," the kind of heart trouble that makes us unable to fully experience the loving great generosity of God, furthermore, our inability to plainly see God's bountiful providence in our lives. When we come to terms with the fact that God's generosity is great, we begin to realize how much more generous we must be, we who are created in God's image and likeness.
In the way we use water and food, in the way we use our money and resources and in our care of all of creation, we can be "rich toward God" by becoming much more responsible stewards of what we have been blessed with, and this becomes especially true and personal when we begin to realize that our abundance is not meant to be consumed solely by us, but must be protected, cared for and properly distributed.
Let us pray. Lord, you have blessed us with so much! We want you to know that we are truly grateful. Let us never fall into the trap of becoming wasteful or overly preoccupied with storing up for ourselves that which is not truly necessary and let us use everything you have blessed us with to be a blessing for others. May your generosity toward us make us truly more generous toward all, especially those in greatest need. Amen.