Call of the Wild, the Challenge of the Web

A sermon by Rev. Katherine Jesch
Paint Branch UU Church
June 30, 2002

People of faith across the continent are coming together to care for our precious planet. How shall we put our UU values to work for a broader social justice that includes all of life on earth?

Good morning! I’m really pleased to join you this morning at Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church. Somehow I can’t resist an invitation to share my "gospel of the Earth" with anyone willing to give me their attention for a few minutes. I thank you for this opportunity, and I hope I can spark your imagination a bit.

The legal definition of wilderness includes the concept that the land shows no evidence of human occupation. "Untrammeled by man . . ." the law says. According to Terry Tempest Williams, wilderness is also a metaphor of "unlimited possibility". You will find that I quote Williams quite a lot. I think she is is one of the most eloquent nature writers working today. She refers to wilderness this way in her 1995 statement before a Senate subcommittee when she testified against the Utah Public Lands Act of 1995 because it was inadequate to protect wilderness lands in her home state: "What do we wish for?" she asks. "To be whole. To be complete. Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from. . . How can we cut ourselves off from the very source of our creation?"

This morning I want to try to respond to the call of the wild – that unlimited possibility – that is heard in the theology of virtually every religious tradition in the world. And I want to show how our theology supports the work of the many Unitarian Universalists across the continent who are responding to the challenge we find in the metaphor of our Seventh Principle.

In the beginning was the web: the interdependent web of all existence, of which we humans are certainly a part. This I know: All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.

The interconnected web evokes for me the image of a spider web, all the strands connected to each other at several points. Each strand by itself is not of much use, but all together, they serve the essential functions of gathering food and offering protection for their owner. At the same time, to our human sensibilities, this web hangs as a piece of art, a thing of beauty in the early morning sunlight in the garden, holding drops of dew like pearls, strung together between two flower stalks.

We find all kinds of images in nature that serve as much more than just pretty metaphors. They illustrate for us fundamental truths about the world and our place in it. For example, the tree of life is a religious icon in many of the world’s religious traditions. Whether it’s a single tree with roots intertwining below the ground and leafy branches reaching for the sky, or a whole forest carpeting the landscape as far as the eye can see, a tree shows us about connections, about the interdependence of all existence, about the essence of our seventh principle. We can take comfort in the complex richness of these connections. Individual trees germinate from tiny seeds, grow to great height, scatter seeds across the mountain, and finally die and decay on the forest floor. Together as the forest, trees share in the task of nurturing and sheltering the plants and creatures of the mountain, including each other.

The forest also exists in relation to its mountain. Soil develops from the material produced by the trees, and other plants and creatures contribute as well. In turn, this soil becomes part of the mountain that supports and nurtures the forest. Without the mountain, the forest would have no place to stand, no food to nurture its growth. Without the forest, the soil would dry up and wash down the face of the mountain in a storm. The forest and the mountain need each other, and are changed by each other.

In another image, we see that the earth lives in circles. Spring is a time of new life and growth – the planting season when hopes for the future are made real by hard work. Summer is a time of taking care, of weeding and watching, working and watering. It’s also a time of playing outdoors, exploring the abundance of nature all around, and anticipating the harvest to come. Fall is a time of reaping what has been sown; of storing away the bounty of the earth for the coming of winter. And winter is a time of rest, of decay and recycling, of gathering strength. A time of waiting quietly for the dawn, for the new birth that will come in the spring. It is a time of transition.

These cycles are not always painless or smooth. The wisdom of the Earth is often ignored, and sometimes the circles are manipulated, distorted, or denied to the detriment of the earth and her creatures.

Whether it’s the unlimited possibilities of the wilderness, the intricate interconnections of the forest and it’s setting on the mountain, or the circles of life embedded in the seasons of the year, these metaphors impart a wisdom that we continue to ignore at our peril. I believe that the scope of the environmental crisis dwarfs all of our other social problems, no matter how important they may be (with the possible exception of war – which in our time always includes a strong element of environmental destruction – and is often in fact triggered by a lust for more of the Earth’s resources which in turn may be triggered by poverty, over population, and/or local environmental devastation). Our daily lives make us individual accomplices to this catastrophe, whether intentionally or unwillingly.

It seems like the economic, social, and political structures we have created force us to participate in the destruction, even if we’d rather opt out. Our religious traditions, family structure, notions of personal identity, and the distribution of economic and political power are all called into question when humanity’s way of life undermines its own survival. One reason the existing social and economic system is so compelling is that contemporary society makes it particularly hard to find a sense of meaning. The endless stream of commodities we have to have has actually become a substitute for love, for community connection, and really feeling at home in the world. Thus, to ask us to buy and own less to preserve "nature" is to ask us to be less.

But when we focus so much attention on material possessions at the expense of our relationships, we become estranged from what is most meaningful in our lives. The most significant spiritual aspect of the environmental crisis is about the damage to our bonds of connection, to ourselves, to each other, and to the earth itself. Terry Tempest Williams tells us we must go into the wilderness, into nature . . . to watch, listen, and absorb the wisdom of the Earth that is imbedded in nature’s cycles. And we must also carry from the wilderness the message of our continuity with all of nonhuman nature, a message that challenges us to learn to use our power and privilege in the service of liberation, not oppression; a message that challenges us to live simply and lightly upon the earth.

This message is not new, however. In the 1830's, Ralph Waldo Emerson preached eloquently and compellingly about the benefits of immersing oneself in nature – for solace, – for sustenance, – for rejuvenation. Nature is a place to seek enlightenment and awakening, a place to meditate and seek wisdom, a place from which to contemplate the wonder of creation, a place for healing and inspiration, indeed for some, a place to seek revelation and commune with the Divine.

A few decades later in the 1860's, Thomas Starr King found beauty and relaxation in the wilderness of California’s Yosemite Valley. When he first entered the Valley, he is said to have proclaimed: "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is the Yosemite of music! Great is granite and the Yosemite is its prophet!" Today, one of the towering peaks of granite in Yosemite National Park bears his name – Mt. Starr King.

One of the streets in San Francisco also bears his name; Starr King Boulevard runs alongside the block that contains the Unitarian Society of San Francisco where he was minister from 1860 to 1864. This great city remembers Starr King’s work as an orator and activist for justice in California’s political landscape. He did not separate his faith from his politics, and he looked toward nature to sustain him in his work. This snapshot of Thomas Starr King reflects the starting point for my own theology: a combination of religion as social activism, with nature as sustenance.

I think today we are even more aware of the complexities of nature and the interconnections between human culture and Earth’s systems. We can no longer afford to separate our ethic of justice for humans from protection of ecosystems. We recognize that nature gives us much more than beauty and relaxation. Ultimately, we depend on it for our very survival, the wealthy as much as the poor. Therefore, healing the earth is not separate or different from our other social responsibilities. I truly believe there can be no ecological integrity apart from social justice; and there can be no social justice without ecological justice. This ethic becomes a call to action that we can no longer ignore from our comfortable easy chair in our air conditioned living room, decked out with the affluence of the great American dream.

But rest assured, there are many ways for us to act on this integrated theology. For example (and here is a shameless commercial), The Seventh Principle Project is an environmental organization affiliated with the UUA. This group has initiated a congregation-based program called the Green Sanctuary that can provide a structure for our work of healing the Earth. A Green Sanctuary is the home that nurtures and strengthens us through Earth-caring spirituality, and sends us forth to work for eco-justice in the world. This program of study and action is designed for a congregation as a whole to increase its understanding of the issues, make the connection more explicit between these issues and the theology and spirituality, and finally to translate these values into justice in the community. I coordinate this program as part of my environmental ministry.

As I work with dozens of congregations across the continent, I’m watching the growing commitment to transform our theologies into social action in ways that go beyond the secular work of traditional environmental organizations. UUs across the continent are actively working to extend and deepen their understanding and response to the call of the Seventh Principle. Over the past year they’ve joined with activists in other faiths to speak out in public witness for protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and I’m convinced this witness had a significant impact on the defeat of the Administration’s proposal to allow oil drilling to take place in the Arctic Refuge. UUs are also joining local community organizations to protest the operation of polluters in poor and minority neighborhoods. They’ve started covenant groups in their churches to support each other’s search for meaning beyond the emptiness of a life of endless consumption. They gather in interfaith celebrations for the blessings of the earth in Easter sunrise services and Earth Day and Solstice rituals.

We are fighting back against a system that calls us to mindless consumerism and selfish defense of our right to take whatever we want of the earth’s gifts without regard to the needs of other people, let alone non-human life forms. In our Seventh Principle we find a meaning, an identity, a sense of what is of ultimate value. This meaning is both spiritual and political, both transcendent and as earthy as can be. These deepest spiritual connections are active, not passive. And they involve hope, risk, and making new choices.

Now I’d like to invite you to get creative with me for a minute as we conjure up a glimpse of what this could look like in our actual church communities. . . here at Paint Branch UU congregation, for instance.

Imagine for a moment a church community that has a fundamental, bottom-line commitment to living in harmony with the earth. What would it look like? You might notice that the program of such a congregation is continuously infused with environmental ideas, actions, and spiritual ceremonies. The children's religious education integrates the wisdom of the Earth with all of the other religious teachings the children receive. The adults create structures such as "Simplicity Circles" to help each other take actions in their lives to minimize their footprints on the planet.

There are field trips to sites of environmental concern and to places of great natural beauty. Worship in this church often invokes elements of the earth and our human connectedness to it. Environmental prayers, music, altar objects, readings, and outdoor services are frequent worship elements, and sermons regularly focus on our relationship with the Earth. The building this church occupies is accessible by both human-powered and public transportation. It capitalizes on solar, wind or water energy to the fullest extent possible. The building features sustainably produced native materials as much as possible; it’s well-insulated, lighted with natural light, cooled by natural breezes and heated by the sun. (Isn’t it gorgeous?)

Recognizing the importance of living well in one's particular place, the landscaping reflects native and well-adapted species for the eco-zone of the church, and shading for the building was integrated into the design. Chemicals are avoided. A community garden is very much a part of congregational life – providing organically grown produce for a local soup kitchen as well as for social events for the congregation.

Church administration assumes conservation in all its policies, including use of recycled paper products, reusable dishes and non-toxic cleaners, soaps, and art supplies. Church activities include mending bees, swap programs, work parties, and recycling of everything you can think of. Church investments, of course, emphasize socially and environmentally responsible funds.

This church also embraces an external leadership role highlighting environmental responsibility in the larger community, especially in relation to issues of eco-justice. The church recognizes that poor people and people of color are the first victims of environmental poisons and natural disasters. The church has undertaken projects in the wider community to rectify environmental injustices, encouraging appropriate land use, protecting wildlife habitats, cleaning up environmental damage, and so forth. Congregational life reflects the understanding that we exist not only in space but also in time – extending backward through memory and tradition, and forward--seven generations--through vision and legacy.

Can you begin to imagine what it’s be like to be a part of this community? Here at Paint Branch, this complete vision might be a stretch in some ways, but I imagine it is not a wholesale shift in consciousness. You have already integrated some of these concepts into your way of life together. Others might take a bit of creativity and intention, but most of it is not completely foreign to you, I suspect. The framework for this lifestyle draws from an intellectual understanding of the science and technology of right relations with the Earth. And it feeds the heart and soul with a spirituality that nurtures and strengthens our deepest connections.

By using Nature’s gifts of beauty, wisdom, and unlimited possibilities, and by acknowledging the link between the environment and social justice, we can respond to the call to reverse the cycle of destruction we have brought upon the earth. Wringing our hands in despair at the magnitude of the challenge is simply no longer good enough. We must begin to take radical action to live our theology of ecology. I believe that in resistance to the status quo, we will encounter the spirit of the divine, awaken to the call of the earth, and realize our deepest connections to the mysteries of life.

May it be so. Amen.

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