Leviticus 24:1-7; Matthew 6:25-34
The man who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, Frank Gehry, was asked what inspires his work. And his answer surprised a few people. He said that what inspires him most are the limitations and constraints that are put on him. With the Guggenheim, it was the need for impeccable acoustics which inspired the soaring, graceful steel exterior that has made that building iconic; and when he won an award for his design of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, he said it was because of the strict standards of acoustics that were needed that led to that design. He remembered a project he took on once that had no constraints at all, and he found himself having a really difficult time-- he kept asking himself what the project was about and questioning himself on what kind of an architect he was. He finds that in order to do his best work, to be his most authentic and creative self, he needs limitations and constraints.
In a study of 1.7 million people who won awards in their fields-- people like you and I who do normal, everyday jobs, what they found is that the people who are most creative and do the best work are those who are under constraints of some kind-- limitations like the kind you and I deal with everyday. It's a lesson that nature has been trying to teach us for years. (Forbes Magazine online, July 12, 2013)
Recently scientists in Yellowstone have gotten to do something amazing. Usually scientists are given the task of studying how eco systems respond when an animal goes extinct-- fascinating, perhaps, but also devastating. But in Yellowstone in the past few years, scientists have been studying what happens when an animal is reintroduced into the wild. In this case, what has happened since wolves have been reintroduced into Yellowstone. It seemed obvious to the scientists that the Elk populations would change their behaviors-- after all, wolves were their number one predator before they disappeared from that area. And, indeed, the Elk populations have changed their behavior-- now the Elk have major limitations and constraints about where they are living, how often they move around, and what food supplies they stop at. But under those constraints, amazing things have begun to happen. Elk populations have actually boomed since the wolves were reintroduced. There are now 3 times as many Elk as before. But the Elk are no longer at liberty to eat in the same areas all of the time because they have a natural predator, so the willow trees are able to mature a bit longer. And when the willows mature long, the beaver, who love willow, are able to enjoy this food source and are booming as well, which has caused them to build more dams. Whereas before, there was one major beaver dam, Yellowstone now has nine beaver dams-- nine beaver families, instead of one. And with the beaver dams, comes healthier river systems and more fish and less erosion from the banks of the rivers since the willow are able to grow deeper root systems, so the rivers are actually shored up more strongly. And they are seeing birds that they haven't seen in years, as well as new species of foliage. All of this, because one species was reintroduced to one area. It seems counterintuitive that if we put a restriction on the Elk-- bring back a predator so that they have to move during the year and find shelter and food in different areas-- that that restriction would create more health for the whole ecosystem, as well as for the Elk. But that is exactly what is happening. (yellowstonepark.com)
The natural world has always had a sense of enough. Remove one animal or bug from an ecosystem, and the whole system gets thrown off with some things growing in abundance and others decreasing, throwing off the balance of the system. You need all aspects of it-- all of the natural constraints and limitations so that the ecosystem can thrive. When things are out of balance, everything suffers.
The Bible has a lot to say about this balance. We hear it in the passage from Leviticus this morning about letting the fields lay fallow every seven years. This is an ecological principal about how to treat the land-- letting the soil rest so it will be healthy. But it's also a theological principal about having enough. When we remember that we are connected to the earth-- that indeed we were created by God from the earth itself-- than it makes sense to recognize that the earth is not something to use for our own gain, the earth is a gift like every relationship is a gift-- and it is important not to take advantage of it or abuse it or destroy it. When reading Scripture, we find that righteousness is frequently defined as right relationship with the soil. Living in the Middle East, with huge constraints around fertile land, there is a lot of time spent in the Bible on the relationship between humans and the earth, and between humans and God, and between God and the earth. In Psalm 104 that we read in the Call to Worship we see this delight in the land and in the creatures within it. There is dignity for creation. There is respect for the soil. There is an understanding that all of our relationships-- not just humans with humans but humans with the earth-- shape us and our understanding of God.
Ellen Davis, in her book "Getting Involved with God" says, "The Bible can enable us to grasp the depth dimensions of the ecological crisis because the ecological crisis is not a technological crisis, it is a theological one" (p. 185).
The earth has been telling us for awhile, that we are taking too much. As our water systems fail; our soil is literally blowing away; drought is becoming the norm in new places while floods are happening in other places; and the temperature of the earth is increasing like a child with a fever, the earth is crying out that this is enough. We have been using up resources at a pace we cannot keep up with; polluting our water systems so that people and animals are sick and dying; creating farming practices that have little to do with appreciating the earth and more to do with what we can get out of it quickly. Living within a scarcity mindset, we have treated the earth and her resources as a giant mall on black Friday- buying up quickly whatever we think we want at the moment, assuming that someone will come stock the shelves again. But through our own greed and game of "grab it before someone else does," we are finding that the earth will not tolerate us living outside of our means. It is unhealthy to view the world from a system of scarcity-- that the solutions aren't out there and we all have to be looking out for number one. But it also doesn't work to imagine that somehow God will provide when we keep living the way we are living. The opposite of scarcity isn't over abundance; the opposite of scarcity is enough.
Whether we are willing to face it or not, we are part of the ecosystem; and how we treat our soil, our water, our fellow creatures, is as important as how we treat our neighbors because these are also our neighbors. How we view our neighbor the earth, our brother the soil, our sister the water, has an impact on how we treat humans as well. When we see the earth as expendable, it is not difficult to see people as expendable; it is not difficult to see God as expendable. When we put ourselves and our desires first, when we act as though there are no healthy limitations, we become sick; the earth becomes sick; and our view of God becomes narrower and narrower.
Which is why there are laws in the Bible about resting every six days and remembering who is in charge-- that it is not our productivity that created the earth or makes it rotate around the sun-- it is God! It's why there are laws about leaving produce in the field for those who don't have enough to come and glean-- the Bible sets up a community of mercy and grace using the fruit of the earth. It is why there is a law to welcome the stranger in our midst-- because all that we have is a gift, and it just makes sense to offer that gift to others.
God has offered us a way forward-- a way that depends on us trusting in God's goodness; a way that depends on us recognizing when we have enough and putting limits on ourselves for the good of the planet and the good of our fellow human beings and the good of the earth. God has invited us to be partners in the garden-- and a partnership means we think about others and know we are responsible for the whole, not just ourselves. This is true in how we treat our bodies, how we choose to spend our money and use our resources, how we see relationships in our lives, and in how we live on this earth.
God has put constraints and limitations on us because that's when we thrive the most! Consider the lilies of the field-- they neither toil nor spin, and yet God clothes them in beauty. They cannot be anything but a lily. And that is enough. Maybe what we need to learn from the earth is how to be ourselves in relationship with everything else-- nothing more, and nothing less-- living below our means so that others can simply live. Not letting ourselves be overcome with worry so that we live with a mindset of scarcity and therefore hoard our share, but instead keeping ourselves in check so that the earth and the creatures within it, including our fellow humans, can thrive.
People around the world have been creatively living within the constraints God has given us for generations-- choosing practices of farming and gardening that are healthy for the earth, eating local food that is sustainable, choosing transportation that does minimal harm, and even intentionally deciding on entertainment that gives back joy to the earth. Imagine how much more we, as a community of faith and as individuals can do when we choose to live within the limitations of healthy practices and watch our ecosystem, our community, thrive.