Texts: “Love is stronger than death” by Richard Rohr * Luke 24:13-33 (the road to Emmaus)
Have you ever viewed spirituality from the standpoint of economics?
Spirituality is associated with mystery, belief systems, values. The latter is key for many of us at Mill Woods United. We gather in community to reflect on what we hold most sacred and to discuss how to make values like beauty, truth, and love real in our hearts and in the world.
Value is also an economic category. What should goods and services cost? What makes them valuable? How do they contribute to our wealth?
The value of commodities has been in the news lately. Last Monday, the price of oil futures went negative for the first time in history. On Monday, if you were an oil producer and wanted someone to contract with you to take oil off your hands in May, instead of receiving money from the buyer, you had to pledge to give them $35 for each barrel they ordered!
This situation didn’t last long, but it highlights the unprecedented nature of the economic collapse associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of a global lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the world economy has fallen off of a cliff. One result is that no one is sure what anything is worth anymore.
Last year, consumers bought on average 100 million barrels of oil per day to power transportation, heating, construction, and industry. But with passenger jet traffic down to near zero and commuting via automobiles drastically curtailed, the world is only consuming 60 million barrels of oil per day this month. Industry can still produce 100 million barrels every day, but there are drastically fewer buyers.
The value of a good or service is connected both to the effort required to produce it, and to consumer demand. It does no good to pour capital, labour power, and technique into producing a good or service if no one wants it. Value cannot be divorced from the needs and wants of consumers.
The ad industry tries to sell us on the value of innumerable things – fashion, travel opportunities, 5,000 square feet homes, 80-inch TV screens, investment instruments, and so on. At church, we promote the value of things like spiritual growth, communal solidarity, and equality and justice for all people.
Often the discussion of values in a spiritual community is pitched to us as individuals. Should we value inebriation or sobriety; the amassing of expensive goods, or charity towards the poor? Should we place our hopes and desires on the prestige of the nation or on the needs of humanity? This focus on personal value systems is more than valid, I believe.
But our focus is also social. For instance, what has this year’s pandemic revealed about our needs and desires for adequate healthcare, shelter, and food for all? For public health preparedness and scientific expertise? For transparent political leadership and a well-funded and evidence-based public service?
In the face of today’s health and economic crises, public debate is raging about how to restart the economy. Should we try to resume burning 100 million barrels of oil a day even though climate science says this is incompatible with human survival? Should we continue to allow homeless people to flood the streets of our cities and put only meagre resources into long-term care, or would doing so highlight both the sinfulness of society and open it to the next infectious pandemic?
Discussing such issues at Mill Woods United won’t make a big difference in how the economy is rebuilt over the next months and years. But given that we are a spiritual community that promotes values like beauty, truth, and love, our discussions can help us stay be awake to what today’s crises have revealed.
In today’s Gospel reading, the value of community is made clear. Two grief-stricken followers of Jesus are walking home on the first Easter Sunday. Their lives are transformed when they engage a stranger in conversation and invite him to share bread. When they do so, their minds are opened to the gracious realization that the Risen Christ now lives within them. Having been thus enlightened, they rush back to Jerusalem to joyously reconnect with their friends.
In the face of today’s unprecedented health and economic crises, Mill Woods United on its own will not be able to create a realm of justice and love. But by discussing our sacred values, by breaking bread together, and by reaching out in love to each other and the neighbourhood, we can reveal the Risen Christ burning within our hearts and rejoin the struggle for a better world with a sense of hope and joy.
May it be so. Amen.