Coming Together to Restore our Earth
Rev. Kevin Tarsa
A sermon delivered April 18, 2021 via Zoom to the
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
Out of Thin Air
From our Earthbound vantage point, the enveloping sky and atmosphere above us seem endless, or at least immensely vast.
From the space station that circles the Earth, having gained some distance, we can see our Earth’s atmosphere as the thin protective skin that it is.
In a recent local League of Women Voters’ presentation organized by our very own Carol Kucsora, I learned from Gary White that if you were to drive a car at highway speed directly upward into the sky, it would take 10 minutes to get to the end of the breathable atmosphere. That might seem like a good distance, a 10-minute drive, but at the scale of the entire Earth, that 10-minute drive wouldn’t take us very far from the Earth’s surface. It is indeed a beautiful, protective, and thin skin.
Whether or not you know the latest data, I am going to assume that you know that the Earth’s climate is changing, with a rise in the Earth’s temperature that could have dire consequences for many lifeforms on the planet. I expect that most of us here accept scientists’ research indicating that our human behavior and activity are contributing to the rise in temperature through our short-sighted use and abuse of land and its resources, and through our significant contributions of carbon dioxide to Earth’s atmosphere. You may know that it’s happening even faster than predicted. As Jeff pointed out, the hopeful among us say there is still time to make a meaningful difference, if we act with courage and solidarity and soon, meaning now. We’ve got 9 years, according to Gary White, who gives a helpful presentation of the current data, and his reasons for hope. in the local League of Women Voters video that you can watch online.
UUCM’s climate change task force has encouraged the legislative approach.
Here’s Bob Miller with an update. [click for video]
I like to point out that for many people, pursuing legislation is not a sexy approach, and that often the effective actions are not the sexiest ones.
I felt a dilemma when preparing for this Earth Day service – wondering how to approach the sobering realities of climate change and its effects without adding to people’s existing sense of overwhelm after several years of unrelenting uncertainty and fear. Rather than crying out that the sky is falling, which it is, and telling exactly how it’s falling, which others do so well, I want to take a different approach, which is to invite us to notice not whether we should care, but how we each care.
Help From Adam Robersmith and Our UU History: For the Love of God
I received some help from a piece in the book Justice on Earth, written by UU Minister Adam Robersmith, who offered me a doorway to speak to this moment through the lens of our tradition’s history and our tradition’s particular take on what matters.
So, to look back for a moment, to a time when the predominant religious leaders in this nation were preaching hellfire and brimstone in the 17 and 1800s, preaching that you better shape up or you’re going to burn in hell, our Universalist Christian forebears offered an alternative message – that God loves you and everyone, completely and unconditionally, and you are going to be okay, in the end, no matter what.
Hosea Ballou, our nation’s most powerful exponent of Universalism, listened to the common religious messages of the day, and said, now wait a minute. You’re telling people that the reason they should love God and the reason they should be good and do good, is because if they don’t, they are going to be in big trouble, or you are telling them that the reason they should love God and good is because if they do, they will get a big reward. Well, what does that say about God and about the value being and doing good?, he asked.
Now, to those of us for whom the concept of God is not helpful, I offer a humanist slogan as a bridge. The saying is: “I spell my God with two O’s, and the devil without a D.” It names a focus on doing good and challenging evil behaviors in this world.
In the cadence of his day, Hosea Ballou wrote:
“The preaching of future rewards and punishments, for the purpose of inducing people to love God and moral virtue, is not only useless, but pernicious. All such preaching, be it ever so well intended, not only amounts to a declaration, that God and moral virtue are, in themselves unlovely and unworthy of being loved, but, as far as it is believed, serves to alienate the affections from those most precious objects.”
If the only reason people would love God or good, is so they won’t be punished or so that they’ll get a reward, that not only says that good and God aren’t worthy of our devotion all by themselves, it pushes us away from them so that we are less likely to love them.
The alternative, he said, is to believe that God and good are worthy of our love because they are precious and inherently valuable in their own right. Worthy of our devotion because of who and what they are, independent of rewards or punishments.
Rev. Adam Robersmith draws a parallel between that Universalist thinking and our approach to climate change and our relationship to the Earth.
He asks, “Are the nourishments, life-sustaining cycles, and blessings of this world only worth saving because we should be afraid of some hellish future?”
In other words, are climate crisis warnings the modern-day equivalent of fire and brimstone sermons, preaching that if we don’t stop sinning, we’re going to bring on the apocalypse and burn for all eternity. And is that the most helpful motivation? Does the threat of fire and brimstone actually inspire people to change their behavior?
Adam writes, “Let us not [work for] change out [of fear] of some future hell, lest we link acting faithfully to fear, rather than love; lest we link action to disaster, rather than reverence.”
It’s one of those internal shifts that can make a significant difference.
As Jeff Stone pointed out, sometimes and for some of us fear does help get us past our inertia. Fear may indeed be helpful and even necessary for some of us. And there will be no shortage of it available. There is plenty of information and fabulous presentations that will scare the pants off of you.
And it is important to know that there is another way available: it is to protect the Earth, to protect our grandchildren’s grandchildren, to protect those who will suffer first and most from climate changes – not first out of our fear of impending disaster, but first out of our love, and to recognize it as such, including our love of the Earth because it is inherently worthy of our love and affection – not for its economic value or even the safety and sustenance it provides us, but because of the extraordinary reality it is, with our without us.
Adam Robersmith writes, “If we, as a nation, a people, or a species, loved this planet as our Universalist ancestors understood loving God, we would have already made so many different choices about how we live on this Earth and with each other.”
If a Tree Falls
Jeff told me about Diane Beresford-Kroeger, an Irish-Canadian scientist who speaks “of our profound human connection to the ancient and sacred northern forests and the essential role they play in sustaining the health of our planet.” In a beautiful, moving, and inspiring film – Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees – she takes us around the globe, sharing not only the extraordinary revelations of science, but also her tremendous and contagious love for the trees and forests of which she and others speak. It is a heartening film, spiritually and intellectually heartening.
She speaks, for example, of the 1000-year-old tradition in Japan of “forest bathing” – which is to walk through a forest bathing in what the forest offers. And this isn’t simply about liking forests and so enjoying the experience because of that. Diane lists a litany of medicinal aerosols that trees produce and that we breathe in when we walk through a forest, chemicals that directly benefit our immune systems and trigger our nervous systems to relax. Walking in the woods feels good not only because we like forests, but also because the gifts we are breathing in are doing us neurochemical good.
Diane invites our personal, deep, everyday, at-home grounding in the Earth and its spectacular and sustaining marvels right in our yards. After watching the film, I could not help but go out and observe more closely the world in my backyard and to work in my garden immediately. And while she names with clarity the current dangers to those forests and trees that she so loves, she also lifts up reasons for hope – reasons grounded in those very trees. She says, for example, that if every person planted one tree a year for 6 years – one native species tree to an area – we could reverse climate change. Like Robin Wall Kimmerer, Diane Beresford-Kroeger embodies that love of which Adam Robersmith writes- It’s a beautiful and profound love. Maybe it’s a kind of love that motivates, or could motivate, you. I commend the film and Diane’s work to you. Thank you, Jeff!
Or… your strongest motivation around climate change may be rooted in your loving compassion that calls you to care about the well-being of those who will suffer first and most from climate changes…those with the least voice and power. As Jennifer Nordstrom put it, “While the entire world may be threatened by climate change, the individual threats we face are particular to where we live, and our access to power and resources (Justice on Earth 6).” Here too, a glance into our tradition’s history sheds some light. Back to the 1800s again, transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau set the tone and articulated a perspective not only for their fellow Unitarians, but also for the nation to this day.
Sofia Betancourt, Associate Professor of Unitarian Universalist Theologies and Ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkley, reminds us “that not only are we profoundly shaped by their idealized vision of one white man communing with the wilderness [think of Thoreau in his Walden Pond cabin] we are also responsible,” Sofia says, “for reimagining the transcendence they offered us.”
I invite you to notice what comes to mind and heart when you think of “the environment.” Sofia points out that when we think of the environment, those of us with white, western European heritages tend to hold in our minds and hearts an image of a beautiful, pristine wilderness – a “landscape untrammeled and unpopulated by human beings save one single . . . person [like ourselves perhaps] . . . actively communing with a sublime part of nature (Justice 41).” For many it’s an image of natural wilderness, devoid of people, that needs saving, and that would ultimately get “preserved for the privileged few.” I think of the Nature Conservancy, which I’m not dissing, just recognizing. It’s built around a particular image of nature and its value.
But here, too, there is an alternative.
Sofia names for us that environmental justice is about addressing “environmental devastation [and at] the same time addressing gross injustices within the human family (41).” It is to notice and to learn how centuries of environmental devastation are directly tied to centuries of human oppression.
Think indigenous people. Think enslaved people. It’s to know that garbage and waste and toxicity are again and again and again dumped into communities where people have the least wealth and power to combat it. To know that 98% of farmland in the U.S. is owned by white persons, and not by accident. It’s to notice who has access to what kind of food. It’s to understand that the ways indigenous people were “removed” from their land continue to shape how people and land are treated in our country now. It’s to be aware that we cannot achieve our beautiful image of justice and sustainability for the Earth without achieving justice for its people.
It means not imaging an idealized, pristine wilderness without people, but a compassionate world in which people are in right, just, equitable, sustainable, and sustaining relationship with each other AND with the Earth. It’s a vision of the ideal environment, that in which people are an integral part of the environment, not separate from it.
It is clear that climate change and our contribution to it threaten the lives and well-being of many on the planet, and that we are called to use the resources, the power, the influence we have to make a difference while we can, in all the ways that we can. It’s not the Earth that needs restoring, it’s our relationship to it.
I haven’t focused today on “what to do” – though anytime someone wonders whether we need to focus on legislation, or on recycling, or on reforesting, or on growing more of our own food, or on reducing fossil fuel extraction and use, or supporting BIPOC farmers, or reducing our consumption of animal products, or wasting less, the answer is, of course, yes. Like a true forest with all of its layers and incredible interconnected diversity, we need an ecosystem of approaches to the falling sky.
We know there is danger. We got that, or at least there are many sources for learning that. What I invite you to do today, is recognize your own strongest and best source of motivation to do something. The doing can keep changing and evolving and will be more sustainable, if it’s anchored in the motivation that is most true for you.
Maybe for you it is fear, maybe fear energizes you, activates you in ways that help you feel less helpless. Go looking for some of that doomsday data and the scientists’ warnings. They are powerful, and indeed motivating.
Maybe for you the most passionate motivation is rooted in love sheer love for this extraordinary Earth and its extraordinary life. Draw on it. Watch Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees or read Diane Beresford-Kroeger’s books if you want to strengthen it.
Maybe for you, the call to act is motivated by your love for your children, grandchildren, students, or nieces and nephews…your people and relationships – hold them in mind and heart, and commit to working toward legislation that would operate at a big enough scale to make a difference.
Maybe what most moves you is your love and compassion for those who suffer under layers of intersecting oppressions, your transcendent vision of true beloved community co-created by all its participants, equitably.
As Adam Robersmith puts it – Adam meaning “Earth creature”:
“It is time for each of us to make one more choice that decreases the impact we have on the Earth, to use less, to enrich more.” I invite you to make one more choice to use less, to enrich more. And to do it “because it is the right, respectful, loving thing to do now (Robersmith 54).”
To close, the words of Theresa Soto:
“You must not believe the lying lie that you do not matter, that whatever change you can organize is so insufficient as to not be worth your time, your energy, your life force. You must be willing to dream a dream that carries forward your community. This is how we rise (Spilling the Light).”
So may we be.
A few resources:
Citizens Climate Lobby. https://citizensclimatelobby.org/chapters/CA_Nevada_County/
League of Women Voters of Western Nevada County: Solutions to the Climate Emergency. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKcALRrUyk4&t=217s
Soul Fire Farm. An Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system. https://www.soulfirefarm.org/
UU Ministry for Earth. https://www.uumfe.org/
UUA Climate and Environmental Justice. https://www.uua.org/environment
The Climate Reality Project. https://www.climaterealityproject.org/
Works Cited, Referenced, Consulted
Ballou, Hosea. An Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution: On the Principles of Morals, Analogy and the Scriptures. January 1859.
Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees. – A video available on Vimeo and Amazon. 1 hour. http://calloftheforest.ca/
Take a walk in the woods with acclaimed Irish-Canadian scientist and author, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, as she reveals our profound human connection to the ancient & sacred northern forests and the essential role that they play in sustaining the health of our planet.
Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class, and the Environment. United States, Skinner House Books, 2018.
Soto, Theresa I.. Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience. United States, Skinner House Books, 2019.