Monday, April 20, 2015

For the Beauty of the Earth

This is the text of the sermon deliverd on Sunday April 19th at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  If you would like to hear it, you can listen to the podcast on our website.  (I began by holding a plastic inflatable globe ...)

This is it.  The earth.  Our home.  (Well, this isn’t it, actually.  It’s not clear plastic, and when you see it from this distance the various continents are differently colored, and they don’t have labels on them.  And that makes a difference.

There’s a song by Julie Gold that’s been sung by Nancy Griffiths and Bette Middler that’s called, “From a Distance.”  Beautiful song.  And it says that from a distance you can’t see any of the problems that we can see all too clearly.  From a distance, all you can see is the beauty of this planet.  And it is a beautiful planet.  And the only home we have.

It’s easy to talk about the threats the planet faces.  Climate change – and I can say that because this isn’t Florida – climate change is just what it sounds like:  the changing of the climate, and those changes aren’t going to be good for us or for the vast majority of the things on the planet that need clean air and water to live.  That’d be most things.

So it’d be easy to talk about the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and what that’s doing -- and projected to do – to global temperatures and weather patterns.  It’d be easy to talk about the diversity of plants and animals that are dying off; easy to talk about rising sea levels and the destruction of essential habitats.  (Including ours.)  It’d be easy to talk about the apathy, the indifference, the sheer ignorance of so many among our political leaders and the ordinary person on the street.  All of that would be easy; ad all of that you’ve heard before.  As one of our own environmental activists put is:  “if we don’t have a habitable planet, no other social justice issue will make much difference.”

When the subject of the environment comes up it often does so in the context of how endangered it is.  Climate change – which since we’re not in Florida I can say – climate change seems to intractable that,

Yet we needn’t simply bemoan our fate.  We can also celebrate our successes, and there are successes in the environmental movement.   According to a report published by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, we are well on our way to repairing the damage to our ozone layer such that it might actually recover fully in the next few decades.  Some of thought we might never see that.

From 2010 to 2013, 441 new species have been scientifically identified in the Amazon, including a titi monkey that purrs like a cat and a new passion flower that sprouts spaghetti-like filaments from the center of the bloom. Various scientists described the new species and World Wildlife Federation compiled the list of 258 plants, 84 fish, 58 amphibians, 22 reptiles, 18 birds and one mammal.
While the West African Black Rhino has now been officially declared extinct, still the remaining population of Northern White Rhino in Kenya is under 24-hour protection, and the Indian Rhino has returned from the brink of extinction.

Closer to home, Charlottesville is taking part in The Georgetown University Energy Prize,  a nation-wide competition open to small and medium-sized localities with the goal of reducing energy use.  The Grand Prize -- the $5 million grand prize –will be awarded in 2017. It’s exciting to note that Charlottesville has moved into the semi-finals, competing against 49 other communities across the country.  (And these 50 were winnowed down from the 8,000 communities who entered!)  There is a city employee, Susan Elliott, whose sole objective is to lead the EnergizeCharlottesville effort to win the grant, which has to be used to reward the community as a whole and to further its energy savings efforts.  If you are a city resident you may have noticed Susan’s call for citizens to take specific actions to reduce their environmental impact which appeared in the City News that comes with the gas & water bill.  In order to win the grant Charlottesville has to show that it is already making meaningful and significant changes even without the money.  We have 2 years to accomplish this; and by our status as a semi-finalist we seem to be doing well.

Members of our Forever Green group – formerly the Environmental Action Committee – will be handing out something called the “Greenfaith Pledge.”  It is a list dozens of things – things large and small – that each of us can do to help reduce the damage our species is doing to our planet.  Things that you and I can do.

Did you know that our congregation has already been doing quite a lot to make a difference?   Our incredible Environmental Action Committee led us in a process that culminated in our being officially recognized UUA “Green Sanctuary.”  (And I’m sure that any of these folks would be proud to tell you about all that went into that accomplishment.  A couple of years ago we mounted solar panels on our roof to help offset our dependence on fossil fuel derived electricity (the only church in Charlottesville, I believe, to do so).  This decision was controversial at the time, but it’s exciting to be able to say that we are currently displacing approximately 25% of our electrical energy costs here in the main church building.  (That’s roughly $1,500 a year in savings as well as reducing our impact on the planet.)

And we are working to further reduce our impact on our environment when we voted at our last congregational meeting to divest our endowment fund of all fossil-fuel related investments.  (We have already sent $200,000 of our endowment to be managed as part of the UUA’s socially responsible Common Endowment Fund.) 

Even close to home, there are individuals and families in this congregation who are actively and conscientiously making decisions in the way they live their lives so as to make to make a difference.  Some have put solar panels on their homes, some are careful about what cleaning products they use, or the kind of car they drive (and how often), the temperature they set their thermostat, or dozens of other measures to help the environment.  If you are one of these people who are consciously trying to make a difference, would you please rise.  You may not have been honored this morning as our 2015 Eco Hero, but you are all heroes nonetheless.

Bust so far all I’ve given you is information.  Useful information, I hope.  Inspiring, even.  Yet that’s not what makes a sermon.  That’s what makes a lecture.  At best a “talk.”  And if all we offer are talks and lectures, we have already lost.  If environmental justice is a simply a cause we struggle for, then we will, in fact, be part of the problem.

I say that because the challenges facing the earth are not “out there.”  We are not apart from the earth; we are a part of the earth.  That wonderful astrophysics Neil deGrasse Tyson revels in pointing out that the iron in our blood is exactly the same thing as the iron in the rocks around us, is exactly the same thing as the iron in the stars in the universe.  We are made of the same stuff.  We are a part of the world.

And thinking that we are apart from it, that we are separated from it and some how different, is a good bit of how we got in this mess in the first place.  Some trace it back to the Judeo-Christian traditions which, in the book of Genesis remember God as saying that humanity should have “dominion over the earth.”  For generations we have acted as though that meant that we could do anything we wanted with it.  We’ve acted as though the earth and all that’s on and in it were objects for our use.

Yet today many scholars and theologians are saying, as some scholars and theologians have always said, that what that passage really meant is that we are to be stewards of the earth.  That we are to care for it.  As the only species that we know of that is capable of understanding the consequences of our actions and of thinking ahead, we have the responsibility – whether called by God or not – to care for this place, our home.

And it’s important that we remain mindful that the earth is not just the home in which we live.  Calling on St. Francis again, one of his great gifts is his modeling of a recognition that everything that is is part of one great family.  The rocks, the trees, the sun, the wind, the water, the birds, the wolves … brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles.  This is our family, and just as we are beholden to take care of our human families, so, too, are we beholden to care for all of our relatives.

Turning down the thermostat is good, but why do we do it?  Because our family needs us to.  Deciding not to drive gas-guzzling vehicles is good, but why do we make that choice?  Because our relatives are crying out to us.  As in so many other areas there is no “us” and “them” here.  There is only “us.”  One family.  One home. Let us do what we can.

Pax tecum,


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