A Covenant with the Earth



A Covenant with the Earth
preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
October 12, 2014




Last week I told you some of my favorite and trite jokes about Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalism.  I begged forgiveness to begin with, and promised you a more serious sermon this week.  So I thought I’d talk this morning about global climate change, colonization and genocide.  Sad but true.

Winona LaDuke gave an amazing Ware lecture in 2010 at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Minneapolis. She is a Native American activist, environmentalist, economist and writer.  You may know her name from having run for vice president on the Green Party in 1996 and 2000.  “Whether you have feet, wings, fins, or roots, we are all in it together.” she wrote.  “Mother Earth needs us to keep our covenant.”

As we introduced our theme of covenant last week, we reviewed some of the historical context of the word as it pertains to our faith tradition, and likely discomfort for the word because of that history.  I’m speaking of the history of colonization, genocide, oppression, and domination of indigenous people – done often in the name of a Christian God.

That covenant of our forebears fell short because it didn’t include love for God’s creation and its peoples, and consequently produced a covenanting community turned in on itself.   That community could justify violence against others, because it was concerned only with its own people and the God they claimed.

Our covenanting must strive to be inclusive and transformative so that we might nurture a world of creativity and peace.  “Whether you have feet, wings, fins, or roots, we are all in it together,” says Winona LaDuke.

Covenant can be hard to explain in our tradition, when we do not all hold the same beliefs about God, when the earliest understanding of Covenant involved God.   How do we prevent ourselves from turning in on our own as the Puritans did, without a transcendent focus?  a common God, or a universal belief in the greater good?

Remembering, of course, that putting God in the equation did not, by any means, save the Puritans and the Colonists from evil.  But I do think having that third transcendent point on the triangle reminds us, at least, that it is not just about us.

LaDuke names Mother Earth as the third party to our covenant.  We have a covenant with one another, and with something larger, Mother Earth.  And I believe that works for many of us, those of us who believe in God and those of us who don’t.  The Earth is often as large a piece of reality as we can grasp, and Mother reminds us of our relation to it.  Mother Earth.

Along with Covenant this month, we are also exploring Stewardship.  Stewardship is the overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving, such as the earth, such as this church, such as democracy.

There’s a whole section in our hymnal called “stewardship of the earth” with hymns in it, such as one we sang together at the beginning of this service, We Celebrate the Web of Life.

Stewardship goes along with covenant.  Covenant is our promise and living our commitment.  Stewardship is the act of protecting, preserving, and caring for our resources:  human resources, environmental resources, financial resources… all of it.

As Winona LaDuke said in that Ware lecture

“We are the people that can keep our mother from baking. We are the people that can stop them from knocking off the top of big mountains. We are the people that can stop them from rebooting the nuclear industry. We are the people that can do the right thing, and what a great spiritual opportunity that is.”

Stewardship as a great spiritual opportunity.  I like that.

Stewardship implies a different relation to resources than simply owning them and using them for personal gain.  The earth does not belong to us, but we belong to the earth.  Whether or not Chief Seattle ever said those words, those words are true.  The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.  We serve the earth, the earth does not exist to serve us.   Well, even that is too simple a statement.  We and the earth are interdependent.   Since we are interdependent, we need to protect what we can, be good stewards of the earth, preserve the life-giving capacity of the earth, protect the earth, care for the earth.

So far, we’ve not done such a good job with that….we may not have intended climate change, but we’ve started it.  And as we know, global climate change is the greatest adaptive challenge we face.  We are already experiencing rising sea levels, catastrophic storms, and the extinction of species.  The only way to combat these enormous challenges is to change, to change our behavior, to change our way of thinking, to change our hearts.

Recognizing the interdependence of all life, we are called as people of faith and conscience to heal and sustain the planet we call home.  I don’t believe our problem – that is, among UU’s – people in this congregation – is generally one of denial.  I believe our problem is knowing how to respond.  What do we do about it?  There’s a recent initiative begun by multiple Unitarian Universalist organizations – the UUA, the Service Committee, Ministry for Earth, and the UU Minister’s Association – which is providing some concrete suggestions for action.
·         Grow the climate justice movement
·         advance the human rights of marginalized communities
·         shift to clean and renewable energy

You’ll hear more from me about this in the spring between World Water Day in March and Earth Day in April, but you can check it out yourself at commit2respond.org.  www.commit2respond.org 

You may wonder why advancing human rights is a part of this call to action… global climate change disproportionately affects the already disadvantaged, as Winona LaDuke made clear in her Ware Lecture of 2010, or if you just remember Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It was Hurricane Fifi in 1974 that had destroyed the water system in the Honduran village I lived in while serving in the Peace Corps.  I was there in 1987 – and the water system had still not been repaired.  Some of the houses had toilets and sinks, but none had running water.  Everyone in the village has to carry water in from a well.

More people on the planet live that way, than the way most of us do, with running water indoors, electricity and internet access.  In this country, those who live without electricity or access to clean water are often either indigenous, or immigrants.

Tomorrow in this country many people will celebrate Columbus Day.  Some of us, however, prefer to celebrate Indigenous Peoples day.  Indigenous Peoples day re-imagines Columbus day and changes a celebration of colonialism into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about the genocide and oppression of indigenous peoples in the Americas, to organize against current injustices, and to celebrate indigenous resistance.

Comanche activist and national civil rights leader LaDonna Harris has been a powerful voice for Native people and the struggle to strengthen and rebuild indigenous communities and train emerging Native leaders around the world.  She is sometimes called the first lady of Indian country.  She began her political career married to US Senator Fred Harris, and was the first Senator’s wife to testify before a Congressional committee.  She helped return the Taos Blue Lake to the people of Taos Pueblo and helped gain federal recognition for the Menominee Tribe.  I got to hear her speak this summer when a film about her life was shown at the Traverse City Film festival, and she was there – I also got to see Michael Moore at that screening.  It was called LaDonna Harris:  Indian 101.  Indian 101 was the name of a course she developed to educate the executive and legislative branches of the US government on the unique role of American Indian tribes and their relationship with the federal government.

In this film she recalls the first several times she suggested such a course, and the politicians all rebuffed her, suggesting they already knew what they needed to know – until one of them asked her whether or not American Indians had the right to vote… it was after that comment that President Lyndon Johnson assigned her the role.  The course was taught to members of Congress and the Senate for the next four decades.   LaDonna Harris worked in other areas to advance civil and women’s rights, and to promote responsible environmental stewardship and world peace.   In 1993, Harris began the American Indian Ambassador’s program to help pass down the knowledge of current Native leaders to the next generation of Tribal, national and international Indigenous leaders.

This documentary film was interesting in that it focused on the life of a single person, and yet the way LaDonna Harris accomplished so much in her life was by nurturing and cultivating relationships.  She did not in any way act alone.  In fact, I was surprised to see in the footage that it was President Nixon who announced the return of the Taos Blue Lake to the people of Taos Pueblo – she worked with anyone, regardless of political affiliation, to make progress on these interrelated and interdependent causes.  Environmental stewardship, advancing human rights, growing indigenous leaders.  One thing we understand from the natural world, is how very interdependent we are.  An agreement between the bear people and the salmon affects the river, and so on and so forth.  How we are stewards of the earth affects how we treat one another and other species, and vice versa.  That’s why we have groups around this church which focus on immigration and ending racism and reproductive justice, the environment – all these issues are related and interdependent.  The best we can do is to find a place and start there.  Begin where we are with who we are and continue the hard work of adapting, of changing, of changing our behavior, our thinking, and our hearts.

“I want to talk to you about being here -- omaa akiing.”  - that is how Winona LaDuke began the Ware lecture.
“This is our land here. … our traditional art form…describes our land and our people that are here. It's very important to us, because what I want to talk about is our opportunity to be omaa akiing, here on this land -- our opportunity to do the right thing.”

I agree with UU Minister and Colleague Jay Leach who claims that 
“the most radical, controversial, countercultural message we offer in our particular liberal religion may not be about marriage equality or economic justice or environmental activism or any other of our social stances as important as those are.
“Our most radical, controversial, countercultural message just may be our affirmation that each of us, every single, individual one of us is a part of an interdependent web of all existence.”
He suggests that to make that affirmation with full integrity changes the question from “what’s in it for me?,” or how does this affect me?, to a question of a larger ‘us’ – the greater good.
We can decry the injustices of the world, trying to separate ourselves from it, or we can embrace the beauty and justice we can find, however small, and connect ourselves to it.

 “Whether you have feet, wings, fins, or roots, we are all in it together.” she wrote.  “Mother Earth needs us to keep our covenant.”

Covenant is what connects us.  We are connected, regardless, like the salmon and the bear and river.  What one does affects the other.  And so it matters what we do.  and it matters that we make agreements with one another, and with Mother Earth, and that we try to live by those agreements, and respect our complicated connections and the greater good.

Do you know the story of the March 1504 lunar eclipse?  Christopher Columbus was on the north coast of Jamaica and he and his crew were eating the food supply of the indigenous people who needed it for themselves. The islanders began to refuse them access.  In an attempt to appear all powerful, Columbus predicted the disappearance of the moon on the night of February 29, 1504 and convinced the inhabitants of the island that he had the power to make the moon disappear and then reappear.  The next day, they gave him their food.

It’s not a very nice story.  It’s a story of scarcity and domination, exploitation and colonization.  Perhaps it’s time we put that story in the past, where it belongs.  We celebrate Indigenous Peoples day tomorrow, and remember our covenant with the earth, our interdependency, and the lunar eclipse as it appeared earlier this week.  Did you see it in the early morning?  I had a great view in the middle of a field – the sky was clear and I could see the stars and watched the moon in its fullness, as the sliver of light disappeared on one side, appearing again on the other, a red color in between – it put it all in perspective.  We are so small, so insignificant, just a speck on the planet, and yet we have such a responsibility to our home, our blue planet.   We have an opportunity to be here on this land.  We have an opportunity to do the right thing.   May we be good stewards and keep our covenant with Mother Earth.