What Then Must We Do?

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We hold in our hearts this day all those in the wake of Hurricane Idalia that was moving across Florida as I began to compose this reflection earlier in the week.  Once again, an historic storm bringing extreme weather has left a path of destruction across several states.  Even before this, we had been praying for the people of Maui, many of whom have lost their homes and beloved friends and family to the wildfires that devastated that island.  And over the course of several days, we learned of yet another mass shooting in Jacksonville, FL by a young man inspired by his racial hatred.   And so this day as we prepare to break bread together as a community of faith, we gather to pray for our neighbors, for our brothers and sisters who are hurt and suffering. Let us pray, O Holy One, surround us with your comfort and love.  Strengthen us to dream new visions of caring for our beloved planet and all of our neighbors, especially those who are most vulnerable. Give us hope for today and for the future of our beautiful earth. Amen. 

As I’ve carried these events in my heart in recent weeks, I was reminded of the words by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. “What then must we do?” was the title he gave to  a  work of non-fiction he completed in 1886 in which he described the social conditions of Russia in his day. 

Writer Liza Knapp wrote that “In his later years, Tolstoy occupied himself with questions of social justice. Tolstoy wrote on a number of topics, including poverty, the allocation of goods and privileges, class relations, landownership, manual labour, famine, charity, civil disobedience, non-violence, and the ethics of diet. Tolstoy had been concerned with these questions earlier, both in his fiction and in his own life. But, inspired by his newly articulated faith, he felt the need to address these social issues more directly. For Tolstoy, faith and action went hand in hand.”

We know that Tolstoy was one of the great novelists and thinkers of his day and that he pondered these important social issues.  Like me, I am sure many of you are wondering just what we must do in response to the climate crisis in our time, and in response to the continuing gun violence across our country with special concern for targeted communities among our black, Latinx, Asian, and Jewish brothers and sisters.  I know these are all heavy topics that too often weigh on our hearts, but I strongly believe that as Christians, we are called to be aware and to act.  We are called to bring healing and hope, justice and peace to a broken world.  What then must we do? 

Our second reading this morning, Laudato si’ is from the second encyclical, or letter, of Pope Francis that was published in June 2015.  It’s subtitle is “on care for our common home”. In this important writing,  the Pope, in his role as a religious world leader, critiques consumerism and irresponsible development, laments environmental degradation and global warming, and calls all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action.”   He writes,
“Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.”

The title is drawn from the writings of Saint Francis. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord” are the opening words of the Song of brother sun and sister moon. In  this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. He says, “ This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

If you are anything like me, you may feel overwhelmed by the task before us.  We can do our small part, but large-scale change needs to be undertaken by large corporations and the nations of the world.  We have to re-order our priorities, there is no doubt.  It is time for us to consider how our search for newer and better things is causing such harm to our planet.  I never dreamed that this was coming in our lifetime, but it is underway in our time.  What can we reuse, recycle, repurpose?  Most of you know that as citizens of this nation, the U.S. ranks highest in most consumer categories by a considerable margin, even among industrial nations.  “With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, and 23 percent of the coal. The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average carbon footprint is closer to 4 tons. (Nature Conservancy) Americans create half of the globe’s solid waste. (Scientific American) The richest countries of the world consume 10 times that of the poorest and, sadly, 1/3rd of all food produced in our world is lost or wasted.  

What then must we do?  We must think in bigger and bolder ways about our own personal consumption and needs and I believe we need to support global initiatives on a state and national level for large scale change.  When our children were young and they had some birthday money to spend, we’d invite them to consider the question, “do I need it or do I want it?”  What do we really need?  We need clean air and water; we need to protect ourselves and others from the devastation of extreme weather.  We need to pass on a clean, healthy planet to the generations to come. We need to survive. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,”  reads the opening of Genesis, “And God saw everything that God had made, and, behold, it was very good.”   We have been given a remarkable gift of creation and of life. It is our responsibility to do everything we can to care for our planet and for one another… for the sake of our children and the children all over the world.