What are mosquitoes for?

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“Consider the lilies of the field…. Therefore, do not be anxious.”  Matthew 6: 25-34

What are mosquitoes for?

A student of mine once asked me that question. I was spending the summer in Florida, co-teaching an intensive high school ecology course on Sanibel Island. Each day we would divide our time between field studies and classroom lectures, and each evening we would sit outdoors swatting the mosquitoes and studying classics of environmental literature. One of these was Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s eloquent indictment of toxic pesticides.

Every few days, helicopters would fly over the island, spraying a pesticide called malathion, to reduce the mosquito population. The next morning, during our field studies, we would find honeybees floating dead in the Gulf waters. And while we all welcomed the respite from the mosquitoes, my students were questioning the costs and benefits of controlling them by such draconian means. So one of them asked me, What are mosquitoes for?

Now, that’s an interesting question. What, exactly, was she asking? I could have described for her the place of mosquitoes in the island’s food chain – how mosquito larvae provide food for aquatic animals, how the mature insects are a food source for many species of birds. Or I could have described the role that mosquitoes play in the spread of disease, and spoken of the hundreds of thousands of deaths due to malaria each year. These are some of the things that mosquitoes do. But is any of this what mosquitoes are for?

My student’s question presupposes that mosquitoes are here for some purpose. This is where we leave the realm of ecology and enter the realm of theology. The ancient creeds of our faith affirm that all creation is called into being by God. The psalmist declares,

How manifold are your works, O God!
In wisdom you have made them all:
The earth is full of your creatures.
When you open your hand, they are filled with good things,
When you take away their breath, they die,
When you send forth your spirit, they are created.

But to what end are they created? What might God’s purpose be? Why should God desire to make such creatures? What are mosquitoes for?

The first chapter of Genesis tells us that humans were created last of all God’s creatures, and from this some have concluded that humans were the end-goal of all creation; that all other creatures are here for our benefit, and that even mosquitos must somehow be good for us – even if only to teach us some patience and humility. Yet the creation story also tells us that God declared each part of creation “good,” even before humans appeared on the scene. Not good for us. Just good.

What are mosquitoes for? To say that other creatures are here for our benefit merely begs the question. What are we for?

* * *

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers, Do not be anxious. I suspect that for many of us this is a difficult teaching — almost as difficult as being told to love our enemies. How many of us can remember the last time we spent a day, or even an hour, free from anxiety?  Yet here is Jesus saying, “Do not anxious. Do not be anxious about what you will eat, or about what you will drink, or about what you will wear. Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s trouble be enough for the day.”

How often do we go to sleep at the end of the day with the feeling that we have done enough for the day? Instead we lie awake, worrying — that we haven’t saved enough, or worked enough, or studied enough, or prepared enough. That we haven’t protested enough, or prayed enough, or exercised enough, or cleaned enough, or spent enough time with the kids. No matter what we do, it’s never enough, and there’s just not enough to go around. So anxious are we, that even the words, Do not be anxious, can seem like yet another impossible demand, another item on our to-do list that we have failed to accomplish. Do the taxes, clean the house, get the oil changed, don’t be anxious.

Somehow, I think this was not what Jesus had in mind.

The truth is that most of us cannot imagine a life without anxiety. We are, after all, fragile and finite creatures, and all that we have is perishable. How should we not be anxious?

Well, Jesus in fact gives us some concrete advice here. Look at the birds, he says. Consider the lilies. Jesus is not just telling us to stop and smell the roses and listen to the birdsong. He’s not just saying that spending time outdoors will help restore our perspective. That may be true – I know it’s often true for me – but I don’t think that’s the point he’s making here.

Look at the birds of the air, he says. They don’t sow, they don’t reap; they are of no use whatsoever. A bit later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus mentions that sparrows were sold two for a penny (Mt 10:29). In terms of market value, a sparrow is worth next to nothing.

So what are sparrows for? Not much, apparently. And yet…

“And yet your heavenly father feeds them.” You see, God does not measure value as we measure value. We have become so used to measuring the value of others by what they can provide for us, that we don’t stop to consider that this may not be God’s perspective. We don’t stop to consider that other beings may be intrinsically good. Not good for us. Just good.

Jesus continues: Consider the lilies of the field, he says. They don’t toil, they don’t spin; they are good for nothing, except to be thrown in the fire.

What are lilies for? Not much, by our standards. And yet..

“And yet Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

If we are anxious about our worth in God’s eyes, perhaps it is because we are so accustomed to judging and measuring the worth of our fellow creatures, or even of our neighbors. If we spent less time measuring the worth of others, perhaps we would be less anxious about how we measure up. (In Matthew’s gospel, today’s teaching is immediately followed by the words: Judge not, that you be not judged.)

In a world where sparrows are measured by their market value and people are measured by their wage earning potential, it is no wonder we find it hard to believe that God might love even the least of these. That God might love even the least of us. And yet…

The twentieth century French mystic Simone Weil once wrote that “God, if he exists, is good, because he takes delight in something other than himself.” Why does God feed the sparrows? Perhaps because God delights in sparrows. Perhaps God even delights in mosquitoes. Perhaps God even delights in you. Therefore, do not be anxious.

This is what Jesus told his disciples: Therefore, do not be anxious. It was not so much a commandment as a conclusion – a conclusion based on the premise that all creatures live and move and have their being in God.

Maybe that’s what we are for: the mosquitoes, the sparrows, the lilies, and you and I. To live, and move, and have our own unique and beloved being.

(This sermon was originally preached at First Churches of Northampton, MA, 2.27.2011.)

(photo: Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved.)

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