Sermon: The Passing of New Things

The Rev. Alison Cornish delivered this sermon, entitled The Passing of First Things, on April 24, 2016, at PA IPL member congregation Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia.

Good morning, and thank you so very much for the invitation to be with you here this morning.  Having an opportunity to participate in worship of many different faith communities is one of delights I cherish as Executive Director of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light.

Vincent Van Gogh Ravine

I sincerely doubt that the common lectionary that lays out the cycle of scripture readings for so many Christian communities intentionally aligns itself with the relatively new, and entirely secular, holiday of Earth Day – officially 3 days ago – but what a gift they have given us this morning!  First, those beautiful images from Psalm 148 that Susan read earlier – words, in fact, that are the basis of St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun – words that one author describes as ‘a symbiosis of praise involving humans and nature.’  And then, the vision from Revelation of a new earth, a new creation, of almost Edenic quality, coming to pass at the end times.  I’ll dig deeper into each of these in a few moments, but for now, let us savor these images, connecting perhaps to moments in our own lives when the qualities of our environs have elevated us, inspired us, nurtured

Bill Hemmerling, Friendship Trees

and strengthened us. You know those moments for yourself – whether they come during a walk in the woods, or sitting in the sun on a park bench; with hands in freshly dug earth in the garden, or floating on your back in the middle of a lake. And this sense – this feeling of wholeness, wellness – isn’t connected only to the ‘natural’ elements of the world.  It’s there, too, when we experience the work of architects and designers who create mindful and pleasing settings for people to work and live, and in the festivals and celebrations that draw us to sing and dance and feast together.  Clearly the ancients had these feelings – and we do, too.

Let us leave, for the moment, these words from long ago and far away, and fast forward a couple of millennium to the 20th century, and the work of Yi-fu Tuan, who coined the word ‘topophilia’ to describe what he called ‘the human being’s affective ties with the material environment.’[i] In this word – topophilia – meaning ‘love of place’ – Tuan tried to broadly capture what he saw as the ‘two-way relationship between humans and environments.’  It is an intentionally sweeping term, but it boils down to this: that particular combination of place, light, time, physicality which strikes a chord within us. It just feels right.  We feel, perhaps even with a sense of love, at home – in ourselves, and in harmony with our circumstances and our surroundings.

I hope I am describing something that each of us has experienced – and it would be lovely to pause here and share memories of these moments, to delight in one another’s delight.  But I want to press on to the times when yes, this feeling has been experienced, and also then lost – perhaps suddenly, often gradually.  How many of us have headed for what we anticipate will be a pleasant and familiar walk, turned a corner, and there – the tree that has always greeted us on this street, is gone. Cut down.  Or we drive through a familiar landscape, expecting the view of the meadow that has always delighted us with its delicate beauty and expansiveness – and instead, there is a new housing development.  We walk along the beach, scanning for shells and stones polished by the tumbling waves; instead, we’re greeted with plastic detritus.  ‘They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot,’ sings Joni Mitchell; and Barbara Kingsolver writes ‘we have a habit of naming whatever we ‘create’ –  think ‘Deer Run, or Pheasant Lane’ – after what we just bulldozed to build it.’  It happens, day in and day out: one person and her encounters through the world.  This is a pain is known to anybody who attends to the world around them, who feels a kinship and connection to the rich mix of place, time, relationships.

And if we really pay attention to what’s going on in our world, we are likely experiencing this kind of pain, this sense of loss, on a planetary scale – for that is what global climate disruption is causing.  If we pay attention to the melting glaciers, bleaching of coral reefs, drought-stricken fields and grazing lands, rising sea levels and disappearing islands, how can we not experience the keen pain of loss of key elements of our Home, with a capital H?

Right now, my husband and I are experiencing both ‘levels’ of pain and loss, and I find they are intimately entwined.  Pat and I are selling a house on Long Island, New York – a home of 27 years for me, and more than 50 for him.  Neither of us wants leave a place that has given us such joy and pleasure for so long.  Topophilia well describes the relationship we have with our tiny slice of land and house, the wide sky sheltering a salt water creek, replete with native residents – muskrat, heron, turtle, osprey.  And, too, the human relationships that have flourished – neighbor, friend, family.  But there have been changes afoot for a while that make remaining untenable, unsustainable. The area is, first of all, being transformed, and the changes are driven by a different set of values than the ones we embrace.  This new wave of values honor both more and less – more money which fuels more development leading to more people and traffic and a much larger human ‘footprint;’ all of which also leads to less – less peace, less regard for the fragile ecosystems with which we have so tried to co-exist.  That has been the long, slow transition.  Much more dramatic are the very real effects of climate change.  In 2012, Superstorm Sandy swept through our ‘neighborhood.’ We were subject to mandatory evacuation.  The water surrounded our house but thanks to the whims of tides and winds, did not actually flood it.  It could easily have been a different story.  We don’t want to count on being so lucky twice.  So we have sold the house, and now are going through the arduous process of saying our goodbyes, and collecting memories to take with us on our next adventure.

In trying to put words to these feelings, to describe this sense of displacement and loss – I came across the work of an Australian environmental philosopher, Glenn Albrecht.  Albrecht became interested in the experience of people living in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales, in environments that were being transformed by open cut coal mining.  He coined the term ‘solastalgia’ to respond to what he described as ‘people [who] were … at home … [but] lacked [the] solace or comfort derived from their … relationship to ‘home.’ Solastalgia has its origins in ‘solace’ and ‘desolation’ – it is worth quoting Albrecht at length to get clear his meaning:

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[Solastalgia] is the pain experienced when … the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation.  It is an intense desire for the place where one is a resident to be maintained in a state that continues to give comfort or solace.  Solastalgia is not about looking back to some golden past, nor is it about seeking another place as ‘home.’ It is the ‘lived experience’ of the loss of the present as manifest in a feeling of dislocation; of being undermined by forces that destroy the potential for solace … In short, solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’[ii]

Albrecht’s words resound deeply for me in reflecting on the changes Pat and I have witnessed and felt even as we tried to stay where we loved living.  And the causes are both local and global – the local stand of trees cut down to make way for another spec house – the warming, rising, and nitrogen-laden sea waters that give rise to toxic algae blooms.  But we know we are in no way alone, nor even suffering the worst of the effects, either local or global.

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It is no small thing for me to suggest that we, as a species, across this blue-green planet of ours, are experiencing profound solastalgia … but I think we are.  We are living in times, and places, that are under assault – whether through the rapacious drilling and burning of fossil fuels; the wanton release of pollutants into the air, water and soil; and the loss of sustainable habitat for a wide range of species.  It is easier for some to ignore, to insulate themselves, even to mitigate the effects of climate change – depending on where in the world one lives, the access to resources one has, and one’s willingness to attend to the world around them.  But I think we engage these ‘diversionary tactics’ at our own peril.

What I am talking about here isn’t whether or not one believes in human-caused climate change – or whether the policies and actions of countries will move far enough, fast enough to avoid catastrophic changes to our climate and weather patterns.  It’s not even about the place we occupy in the vast web of interdependence.  All of these are so important, and real, and call for our attention.  This about the profound connection we have with Creation – and the pain that occurs when that relationship is damaged – we lose so much. Our identity. Our sense of being ‘at home.’ Our agency.  And our place as co-creators, with God, of a glorious, wondrous, life-sustaining, place – what Pope Francis calls ‘Our Common Home.’

Well, now is that point in the sermon when you are fervently hoping that I am going to turn some kind of corner, offer hope, a vision of a different future, a way forward.  And I will try!

It is worth, though, reflecting for a moment on our reading from scripture, from Revelation – that apocalyptic book that caps off the New Testament.  Reading just the excerpt I did, we could jump to the conclusion that what is portrayed there is that everything, in the end, will turn out well.  We could be comforted, relieved – but that would ignore the context of the text.  In the words of one author,

The [end times] vision confronts us not so much with relief that everything will turn out well in the end, but with the reality that things, here and now, are profoundly unwell, and that repentance and change of life are required.  The promise of a new heaven and a new earth is a vision of judgment on Babylon and its culture of death, where money and privilege can buy success, health, ease, and the dignity and well-being of people, young and old, are subordinated to the demands of economic accounting and the ability to pay.

In other words, it is from the deepest and darkest valleys that a vision of a new future is born. We know this – from the empty tomb on Easter morning to Nelson Mandela’s Robbins Island jail cell, and countless other dark nights; some, I am sure, of our very own.  Despair need not have the final word.

Solastalgia, too, writes its inventor, Albrecht, ‘can … be future oriented, as those who suffer from it might actively seek to create new things or engage in collective action that provides solace and communion in any given environment.’  And this, I think, is where we must turn, as people, as communities, of faith.  As the effects of climate disruption become ever more active in our lives, I am all the more convinced that there are unique opportunities for congregations of all kinds – indeed, I do not know who else is so well equipped to engage the mix of spiritual, psychological, even physical desolation and dislocation that we, as a species, are facing.  Here’s why I say this:

  1. Communities of faith are reflectors, and amplifiers, of God’s good Creation.  Just as in this morning’s Psalm, and in the contemporary hymns we sang together, we offer praise and thanksgiving – as well as lament – to address distress, abandonment, suffering and loneliness.  To lift up the beauty of the world as we have experienced, yes loved it, with joy and hope – to join with artists and writers who see what we see, hear what we hear – this is no small thing, and desperately, hungrily needed in the face of a steady drumbeat of cynicism and negativity.
  2. Communities of faith have traditions, practices and customs – we have pulpits to preach from, teach from, to share and to lend – we have tables to gather around, to commune with one another, to affirm, and reaffirm, community – to remind ourselves of who we are – people of God, called to affirm and promote life.  We have sanctuaries – for celebration, mourning, and praying before heading out in to the world to give of ourselves.
  3. Communities of faith have a calling, an obligation really, to take all that has been given to us, and to tell the whole story.  The whole story means connecting the dots – for example, speaking a truth that climate change contributed to the Syrian refugee crisis; the whole story means filling in the blanks – for example, speaking a truth that corporate giants of the fossil fuel companies have been actively and aggressively ‘spinning’ the news on climate change for decades; the whole story means giving voice to the voiceless and empowering the powerless – for example, supporting Philadelphia’s poorest and sickest residents in their efforts speak a truth about industries that continually violate the law and spew toxins into our air.
  4. Communities of faith are a part of, and integral to, the communities that surround us.  Our faith homes were never meant to be isolated islands, separate from neighbors and neighborhoods, but part of, and responsive to our contexts.  Now more than ever, we face a choice: will we turn to one another, or on each other? Building, and rebuilding communities that have those qualities of topophilia – that ‘at home’ sense – requires the gifts of all, including those outside our walls.

That’s my list – but you, I am sure, have your own, starting with what brings you here this morning.

It is no accident that we celebrate Earth each year in the springtime, when, here in the northern hemisphere, the world around us quite literally comes back to life, moving from bud to flower to leaf in a cacophony of color, texture and fragrance in one long display of hopefulness and promise. Praise comes easily in such a time.  Love wells up.  Let us make the most of it by shining its growing light into the deepest, darkest places – in ourselves, and in the world around us, so that a new vision might emerge – one that will lead us forward towards a place of wholeness and faithfulness.

[i] Edwards Relph, ‘Topophilia and Topophils,’  accessed 4/21/2016. back
[ii] Albrecht, Glenn. ‘Solastalgia’. A New Concept in Health and Identity [online].PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, No. 3, 2005: 41-55.back