Sermon: Our Transforming Climate

This sermon was given by Rev. Alison Cornish on Earth Day 2018, at the Unitarian Society of Germantown in Philadelphia.

Readings  — two poems      

The Peace of Wild Things  by Wendell Berry   audio link
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World   by  Adam Zagajewski  text link
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Sermon: Our Transforming Climate        Rev. Alison Cornish

Thank you for your kind invitation to be with you this morning. When I visit faith communities in my role as Executive Director of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, I am often the only Unitarian Universalist in the room. So, it’s good to be ‘home.’ And to take advantage of being with fellow Unitarian Universalists, which gives a particular shape to a conversation about Care of our Common Home – as Pope Francis has spoken of it – and the challenges that come with climate change. There is a uniqueness, I believe, both in what Unitarian Universalists bring to the topic, and what the planetary challenge brings to Unitarian Universalism. In the end, perhaps there is an opportunity for transformation for all … for I know that is indeed a key aspect of our faith’s mission – to transform lives – ours, and those with whom we are in relationship.

I want to open my reflection this morning with a short reading. I’ll tell you who wrote it – and when it was written – after I read it! It’s from a sermon titled ‘Lessons from the Sierra Nevada’ –

I believe that if, on every Sunday morning before going to church, we could be lifted to a mountain-peak and see a horizon line of six hundred miles enfolding the copious splendor of the light on such a varied expanse; or if we could look upon a square mile of flowers representing all the species with which the Creative Spirit embroiders a zone; or if we could be made to realize the distance of the earth from the sun, the light of which travels every morning 12 millions of miles a minute to feed and bless us, and which the force of gravitation pervades without intermission to hold our globe calmly in its orbit and on its poise; if we could fairly perceive, through our outward senses, one or two features of the constant order and glory of nature, …our materialistic dullness would be broken, surprise and joy would be awakened, we should feel that we live amid the play of Infinite thought; and the devout spirit would be stimulated so potently that our hearts would naturally mount in praise and prayer.

OK, the fact that an entire paragraph is one sentence … as well as some of the word choices … should clue you in to the fact this wasn’t written recently. It’s an excerpt from an 1863 sermon written by Thomas Starr King – who was a minister in both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions long before our denominational merger.

What I hear King saying is that opening ourselves to the awesomeness and mystery and the teachings of this extraordinary planet on which we live – and upon which we depend – has the power to transform us. ‘…our materialistic dullness would be broken, surprise and joy would be awakened.’ To turn our heads and hearts so significantly that we will live in new and different ways.

Wow.

What a different view of transformation this offers than what we’re fed as a daily diet by the ‘usual sources’ – a steady drumbeat of information, statistics, numbers, facts (fake and not) —not that I’m arguing against sketching reality as it really is. We need to face the facts, to know the reality of the state of our planetary home in a time of climate change. We need to understand the links to human activities: specifically that the combustion of fossil fuels for energy production, transportation and agriculture is causing the Earth’s atmosphere to heat up at a rapid rate, disrupting the planetary systems upon which we all depend for our very lives, and outstripping our —and other species’— ability to adapt.

But what’s as clear as these facts is that more, and more finely detailed, information has not, to date at least, led to a transformation of human behavior. In the words of Shirdi Sai Baba, an Indian yogic master, ‘You seek too much information and not enough transformation.’ Indeed, too much information can actually work against us – in powerful ways.

A few years ago, the Social Capital Project published a major study of American’s attitudes and worldviews, especially as related to the environment and climate change. Their report sought to go beyond the dualities of ‘believe/not believe’ and the polarities of liberal/conservative/
Republican/Democrat/Libertarian/Green. It was an investigation of values and demographics.

Perhaps at another time, we can try unpacking what language speaks best to whom when it comes to these issues. But tucked into a corner of the report, I found a too-brief section on the obstacles each of us face – no matter our demographic markers –in making our way to a path of mobilization and action – indeed, transformation – of taking on the very real crisis of climate change. See where you might land in these descriptions:

Environmental ‘fatalism’ – ‘It’s just too little, too late …’ Though we value – and take in – accurate information, you and I know that the news is not good. It’s extraordinary that so much information from far-flung parts of the world is so accessible to us – so we can watch ice melting in Antarctica, Indonesian rainforests burning, soaring temperatures in Phoenix, all in the flick of a TV remote. But to what end? Does it transform us … or shut us down?

And if all that news does manage to motivate rather than discourage, it’s easy to succumb to another kind of environmental ‘overload’ – the challenge is just too big and overwhelming.

What’s the most important thing to do? ‘Tell me again, switching light bulbs will help the planet … how?’

The authors of the study name other ways we resist transformation … and as I read these, I thought they are perhaps felt particularly keenly by folks most likely to be found in UU congregations.

There’s the specter of environmental ‘sainthood’ that haunts — a worry that, no matter what we do, ‘We’ll never be green enough.’ And then something the authors dub “environmental ‘cognition’” —it’s just plain too hard to wrap our minds around climate change because it isn’t a simple cause-and-effect problem. Environmentalism came of age in the era of pollution.

Then, something could be identified, targeted, and cleaned up — but how do you ‘clean up’ carbon?

And finally, the study points to “environmental ‘elitism.’” ‘Working on these issues is fine for those with money and time – or who are urban, or white, or professional … ’ But what about everyone who is facing the immediate and pressing problems of merely staying safe, employed, fed, insured, housed?

So, do any of these feel familiar?

In my work with PA IPL over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve become convinced that the only way to overcome these obstacles is to start with oneself —because, as we know from countless sources, the only thing we can truly change is our own attitudes, behaviors, and actions.

Mindfulness is somewhat of a buzzword these days – but what I like about it in relation to working on climate change is that it offers us a way forward that we actually have control over.

Mindfulness is not some wimpy, weak response. Mindfulness is a discipline and also a call.

Here are words from Thich Nhat Hahn (2008):

The bells of mindfulness are calling out to us, trying to wake us up, reminding us to look deeply at our impact on the planet. The bells of mindfulness are sounding. All over the Earth, we are experiencing floods, droughts, and massive wildfires. Sea ice is melting in the Artic and hurricanes and heat waves are killing thousands. The forests are fast disappearing, the deserts are growing, species are becoming extinct every day, and yet we continue to consume, ignoring the ringing bells. All of us know that our beautiful green planet is in danger. Our way of walking on the Earth has a great influence on animals and plants. Yet we act as if our daily lives have nothing to do with the condition of the world.

We are like sleepwalkers, not knowing what we are doing or where we are heading.

Whether we can wake up or not depends on whether we can walk mindfully on our Mother Earth. The future of all life, including our own, depends on our mindful steps.

So let us pause. Let us listen. May we hear the bells of mindfulness that are sounding all across our planet.

How do we ‘hear the bells of mindfulness’ —how do we wake up, and stay awake? The words of Thich Nhat Hahn call us to practices where we might ‘walk mindfully on the Earth.’ We are called to heal ourselves, and thus, our connection with Earth and all that live upon it.

Mindfulnessis an antidote to barriers to action, and we are badly in need of that!

In her essay The Sacredness of Earth Day, Gail Straub writes

Each conscious Earth-friendly act — composting, reusing, recycling, repairing, carpooling, eco-wise shopping, and conserving water and energy — is also an act of spiritual mindfulness. It is the degree of mindfulness that we bring to our most ordinary daily acts of sustainability that determines the sacredness of life. Indeed, it is mindfulness that transforms the mundane into the sacred. The recycling bins become daily rounds of Earth awareness, the water and energy saved prayers of gratitude, and the rides shared a collective offering to clean, fresh air… As an antidote to the addiction of consumerism, [mindful] stewardship heals the spiritual emptiness at the core of much of modern life. Ultimately, skillful stewardship is a blending of reverence with responsibility…

A blend of reverence with responsibility … as I UU, I say —where do I sign up?

How do we begin this shift, to see habits or hobbies or chores or must-dos or should-dos as acts of spiritual mindfulness?

Here’s my recipe for Individuals Who Want to Engage Climate Change on a Daily Basis as a Spiritual Practice of Mindfulness.

First, choose a practice. Choice is important!  We are more likely to stick with something we choose than having it thrust upon us. Will it be conserving water?  Composting?  Picking up litter?  Using public transit?  Walking?  Try it out — is it a good fit for you?  Will you face it with grumbling and resentment, or engagement and curiosity?  Can you do it with intention, as a routine (not just when you feel like it)?  Does it hold the potential for new insights, learnings, ah ha moments?  Is it joyful?

Now, think of ways you can spread your practice. How is it shareable, teachable, bloggable?  Get the word out about what you’re doing, invite others along, or even help them find their own practices.

Most important (and do not skip this!): articulate —for yourself, and those around you, how your practice connects to climate change. What story can you tell about making — if not a dent, at least a nick — in your carbon footprint?  What’s your personal role in making change happen by managing carbon in your own life?

Even as we engage in spiritual practices of mindfulness, we still need collective action through policy change, community efforts, and political will. But I am convinced those efforts are more likely to succeed if they emerge from personal commitments to practices. Why?

Practices … allow us to stay in touch with the challenge of climate change on a tangible, daily basis – so it doesn’t get abstract, or something we read about in the paper in far-off places, or times. It’s here. It’s now. It’s real. Just like our practice.

Practices … keeps us honest; because we are taking personal responsibility for the immense carbon footprint those of us in the U.S. have, using a huge percentage of the planet’s carbon budget.

Practices … empower us to speak authentically to policy makers and politicians —we can say ‘I’m doing what I can … I’m asking you to do what you can, too.’

Practices … build social values and norms. To take on a spiritual practice that connects us to Earth and its care and see it as just ‘what we do,’ not something unusual, has the potential to change the conversation with others who are casting about for what they can do.

Practices … wake us up, keep us aware, noticing the world around us, in all its glory and brokenness.

Ultimately, practices … inspire us to take on more, bigger, changes. Because as essential as they are, individual practices simply aren’t enough. They matter, they help — but in order to truly make a difference, we need to work together — as communities, and I would say particularly as communities of faith. Here I borrow some language of one of our own, Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams. In his book Transforming Liberalism, Adams spoke of several different themes of liberal religion —and in them, I find the grounding for congregations’ work on climate — and perhaps for Unitarian Universalists in particular.

Adams wrote that to be religious means having a particular world view that draws on certain root metaphors. For Unitarian Universalists, our worldview is embedded in our seventh principle,  “we are a part of an interdependent web of all existence.”  A part — not the whole — intimately and intricately connected to all of life. When we recognize this, we can become reflectors, and amplifiers, of this amazing Earth. We offer praise and thanksgiving for its beauty, as well as lament to address our distress at its desecration. To lift up the glory of the world as we have experienced, yes loved it, with joy and hope, this is no small thing, and desperately, hungrily needed. Gail Straub concludes her essay for Earth Day with these words:

Understanding that our destiny is forever linked with the fate of the Earth, that the health of our souls is inextricably related to the health of our planet, is at the heart of stewardship as a spiritual practice… Walking the path of stewardship, we take it one day at a time, just as we do with our spiritual practice. We aspire toward a fresh beginner’s mind as we compost, plant trees, shop with green values, conserve, recycle, reuse and repair… Gently, inexorably, both our spiritual practice and our stewardship are changing us, and changing the world.

May this moment in time — urgent, precious —
grant us an opening for transformation —
of ourselves, of one another, of Earth.

Closing Words         

In the Midst of a World  by Rebecca Parker  text link
In the midst of a world
marked by tragedy and beauty
there must be those
who bear witness
against unnecessary destruction
and who, with faith,
rise and lead
in freedom,
with grace and power.

There must be those who
speak honestly
and do not avoid seeing
what must be seen
of sorrow and outrage,
or tenderness,
and wonder.

There must be those whose
grief troubles the water
while their voices sing
and speak
refreshed worlds.

There must be those
whose exuberance
rises with lovely energy
that articulates
earth’s joys.

There must be those who
are restless for
respectful and loving
companionship among human beings,
whose presence invites people
to be themselves without fear.

There must be those
who gather with the congregation
of remembrance and compassion
draw water from
old wells,
and walk the simple path
of love for neighbor.

And,
There must be communities of people
who seek to do justice

love kindness and walk humbly with God,who call on the strength of
soul-force
to heal,
transform,
and bless life.
There must be
religious witness.