Grace to you and Peace, from God our Creator and our Risen Lord Jesus Christ,
The noted Architect William McDonough once asked an audience to “Imagine this design assignment: Design something that makes oxygen…sequesters carbon…fixes nitrogen…distills water…accrues solar energy as fuel…makes complex sugars in food…creates micro-climates…changes color with the seasons…and self-replicates.” McDonough then goes on to point out, that in contrast to the marvelous creation that is a tree; it took Human beings approximately 5,000 years to figure out that it would be a good idea to put wheels on our luggage.
This made me consider trees from a slightly different perspective. Today, I want to ask you to consider the environment from a slightly different perspective. Often when we talk about the environment we talk about how our scarce natural resources are dwindling away and we are not leaving enough for future generations. But God’s creation is not scarce, it is abundant. My challenge to you today and in the future, is to look at the world not in terms of scarcity, but in terms of abundance.
The Bible says relatively little about the environment, but it is unequivocal on two points. 1) Creation is Good and Creation is God’s. The 6th century BCE story of creation in Genesis one tells us that the world is made not in violence and destruction (as believed by the Babylonians and most of the nations surrounding Israel) but in love and that ‘God saw that it was very good.’ The Psalmists is explicit saying “The Earth is the Lords and All that is in it” (Psalm 24:1) a theme that is echoed throughout the Bible.
While the Bible says relatively little about the environment, it says a lot about the broader issues of stewardship. Too often we divide up our world into academic disciplines and forget to put it all back together. Economists study one thing, environmentalists study another. What does one call someone who is concerned with the just distribution of natural resources? Though our modern economy of computers and cell phones is several degrees removed from ‘the environment’ it is worth remembering that the source of everything in our economy is the natural world. Indeed, economy and ecology share a root word, oikonomia, and the Greek Orthodox church has kept that root alive, it literally means ‘housekeeping’ but it is used in Orthodox circles in the same way in which we refer to stewardship.
To talk only about ecology and not at the same time about economy and stewardship is to miss two-thirds of the message. The ancients did not make these neat and tidy divisions, and one of the most interesting practices in the Bible is the Sabbath. Most Christians to do not keep the Sabbath, and we tend to only be familiar with the part of Sabbath law that requires one day of rest out of every six. But the Sabbath was more than simply a religious practice, the Sabbath ties together economy, ecology, and stewardship.
Most people find Old Testament law boring. And, to be honest, most of it is. But it is a key source of insight into the practices that made ancient Israel unique from its neighbors and set apart as God’s nation. Every seven days was a day of rest. Every seven years was a year of rest for the fields and a year of the remission of debts for the indebted. Every fifty years land was restored to its original owners and slaves were freed. At all times anything that fell to the ground was not harvested but was left to be gleaned by the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. After coming out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites set up a remarkably egalitarian society.
This Earth Day, congregations across the country are talking about The Ethics of Energy. Energy is one of the drivers of the global economy, and for many of us it has created a system of previously unsurpassed wealth and comfort. However, Deuteronomy (8:17-18) provides a necessary reminder: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God…” Unfortunately, we are not being good stewards of energy, on either an economic or ecological level. Conversations about energy often revolve around the concept of scarcity. But the truth is that God has given us energy sources in abundance. We may have a finite supply of some sources of energy like coal and gas, but sun, wind, and water are examples of gifts from our Creator with the potential to generate power in perpetuity. Creation is brimming with energy, and a Christian perspective on energy involves acknowledging the abundance of God’s Creation and the call to care for Creation. Energy is a gift from God, whether it takes the form of food that fuels our bodies, gasoline that fuels our cars, or electricity that lights our nights. God intends abundant life for all people, and energy is a critical part of that. Unfortunately, we have not always lived out our call to be good stewards of energy. We waste energy in myriad ways. We fail to acknowledge that some forms of energy, like gas and oil, are finite. And, we fail to make energy available to everyone in order for them to meet basic needs. We also have not made good choices regarding how and where we get our energy.
Here in Kentucky, we get most of our energy from coal. Over the last 20 years, we increasingly get it from mountaintop removal coal mining. Rather than digging under the mountain to extract the coal, in mountaintop removal the top of the mountain is dynamited, and the debris pushed over the sides and into the streams below. Over 500 mountains in Appalachia have been destroyed, and 293 of those are in Kentucky. Across Appalachia we have destroyed 1.4 million acres of forest and 2,000 miles of headwater streams. And yet all of this destruction still pales beside the human costs. The Appalachian communities where mountaintop removal is practiced are among the poorest in the nation. This region was poor before coal was found in the mountains, but the discovery of coal has turned into a poverty trap that has prevented the development of an adequately diversified economy. Coal mining jobs do pay well, on average $60,000 a year. But mountaintop removal replaces workers with machines, while simultaneously destroying the mountains themselves. With the mountains is also destroyed the possibility of development by other industries, such as tourism or alternative energy. Coal production and profits are increased, while jobs are lost, health is endangered, and Creation is destroyed.
The debris pushed into headwater streams means that surface water and groundwater have been contaminated with carcinogens and heavy metals. Not all of the chemicals used and generated in the processing of coal have been studied for health effects, but of those that have, 19 are known carcinogens and 24 are linked to heart and lung damage. Cancer clusters have been occurring in towns affected by mountaintop removal, and though more research is needed, many believe that the cancer is a result of exposure to toxic chemicals used in the mining process. Mountaintop removal puts nearby communities at risk from: mudslides, flooding, loss of crops, decreased property values, loss of potential tourism revenues, and increased levels of respiratory disease and cancer. Birth defects are linked to mountaintop removal, and after controlling for other risk factors, scientists at West Virginia University discover that living in an MTR county is worse for a baby’s health than smoking during pregnancy. The economic and health impacts of mountaintop removal are slowly forcing people off of land their families have worked on for generations. All of the counties that are heavily engaged in MTR are losing population. By destroying Creation, mountaintop removal is permanently impoverishing the people of Appalachia. This is not the abundant life that God intends for all Creation.
Which, brings us back to my challenge for the day, the challenge of looking at the world through the lens of abundance rather than the lens of scarcity. It also brings us back to the Sabbath, a practice that is designed to force us to appreciate God’s abundance, rather than continuing to work out of fear of scarcity.
The Bible dictates that the land is to have a Sabbath every seven years. In ancient Israel, this was a very real agricultural practice. It was and remains necessary in order to let the soil replenish its nutrients after growing crops and providing food for six years. Today, rather than allowing time for the soil to rest and rejuvenate as God intended we are doing everything we can to get as much production out of the land as quickly as possible. We are trying to extract as many sources of energy as we can with little to no regard for safety and public health. But that is not what God intended. God created for six days and rested on the seventh. Keeping the Sabbath is difficult because it requires trust in God’s providence. In Leviticus God explicitly replies to those who object to the Sabbath as impractical (25:20-21) “Should you ask, ‘what shall we eat in the seventh year if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years.” Despite this, the Israelites did not always keep the Sabbath year either. Trusting that there will be enough food is not easy. This is not just true of food but can also be true of energy production. The idea of a Sabbath year of rest, or even a slowdown, from energy production can also be frightening. But the Bible is equally clear on what happens if the land is not granted a Sabbath. The land will take it by force (Lev 26:34-35, 43-44, 2 Chronicles 36:20-21). Both the Levitical history and the Chroniclers history suggest that the Babylonian exile may have been a result of breaking the covenant with God by not keeping the Sabbath. This is also in line with purely historical examples of the numerous societies that pushed their agriculture to the breaking point, and then collapsed when the Earth had no more to give. Perhaps the most notable among them was the Mayans, who counted on their innovative agricultural practices to allow them to draw ever more wealth out of the land. We are not the first society to count on the advances of technology to save us from the limits of our natural resources. If the land is not granted a Sabbath, eventually it will take one by force.
The noted Kentucky author Wendell Berry, once said, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” I would add that Christians live by the law of grace.
Grace can become an almost empty platitude, important, but highly personal and spiritual. However, for ancient Israel grace was a very real matter of physical life and death. I choose today’s readings because they remind us of that. In the Exodus reading God’s grace takes the form of manna from heaven. Manna that cannot be hoarded and kept back by individuals, but is shared among all of God’s people. Our wealth is, in some important ways, like manna. It too has its origins in God’s grace and desire to bless us with abundant life. But like manna, when hoarded it goes bad. The prophet Isaiah (5:8) has one of my favorite lines condemning the hoarding of wealth. “Woe to you who add house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” It’s a sharp lesson in the immediate practical consequences of our actions. It’s not that hoarding wealth puts you at risk from hellfire….it’s much more straightforward. Hoarding wealth will make you lonely and isolate you from the community.
In James we are reminded that riches rot and fancy clothes are consumed by moths. We are to wait patiently as a farmer waiting for both the early and the late rains. Not hoarding, but relying on God to provide food in abundance for us.
The Gospel reminds us that just as God has provided for the birds of the air and the lillies of the field, we also will be provided for. When we say the Lord ’s Prayer, we ask for our daily bread, literally enough bread to make it through until tomorrow.
God has created abundantly. But we forget that. We panic and try to get as much out of the Creation as possible. Then we hoard what we are able to wrest out of the land rather than sharing it. Earth Day is a good day to be reminded that manna will rot and riches will rust. It is far better to live with open hands in a loving community of God’s children, waiting for the Reign of God.