My Vision for the Earth

Vision for the Earth: Connecting
preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
September 13, 2015

I begin with a prayer written by the United Nations Environmental Sabbath Program:

We have forgotten who we are. 
We have alienated ourselves from the unfolding of the cosmos.
We have become estranged from the movements of the earth. 
We have turned our backs on the cycles of life.
We have sought only our own security, we have exploited simply for our own ends,
we have distorted our knowledge, we have abused our power.
Now the land is barren, and the waters are poisoned, and the air is polluted.
Now the forests are dying, and the creatures are disappearing, and the humans are despairing.
We ask forgiveness.
We ask for the gift of remembering.
We ask for the strength to change.
Amen  (Singing the Living Tradition #478)

My vision for the earth is that we re-connect to it.  We re-connect to the story of the earth, to our place in it, we remember that we are the earth’s consciousness, the earth come alive.  

Other species may also be self-conscious, but I am not another species... and so only speak for my own awareness of our ability to be self-aware and our collective tendency to not be aware.  I believe it is our own consciousness which has the potential to save our lives as a species and our home the planet.  So improving our awareness is of primary concern.  Remembering that we are nature and re-connecting to our nature, I think, can help us do that.  In fact, the biggest lesson the earth can teach us is that we are all connected.

Our theme this month is vision, and rather than talking about the mechanics of vision or how to get vision or use vision or how to make a vision statement, I am going to instead spend my pulpit time this month casting visions.  I want to cast some visions, so that you will do the same.  I begin with a vision for the earth because it is our home.  As our home base, it is the ground from which we grow and where we return.  Remembering that we are connected, I believe, is the key to our salvation.  “Out of the stars have we come,” Robert T. Weston reminds us in our hymnal.   “Out of the stars have we come.”  13.7 billion years ago, we think, the universe was born.  Some call it the big bang, but I am taken with the term, the Great Radiance, which describes the light rather than sound. 

After the initial expansion, the universe cooled and subatomic particles formed and later atoms.  These primordial elements in giant clouds coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies. The earth formed approximately 4.6 billion years ago.  Approximately 3.8 billion years ago, life emerged on our planet.  Our human ancestors did not appear until somewhere between 5 and 7 million years ago.  Million not billion.

Life as we know it is a very recent development.  Human life even more so.  We have forgotten who we are.  We have alienated ourselves form the unfolding of the cosmos.”  Is that true for you?  That statement from the United Nations prayer?  When has it not been true?

When do you feel most connected to the unfolding of the cosmos?  Is it looking at the stars at night, or lying in the grass looking up at the leaves on a tree in the light of day?  Do you walk in nature on a regular basis?  or do you watch nature videos about mating wild animals?

For me, I have felt most connected to the unfolding of the cosmos when I’ve glimpsed the Northern Lights in Washington state and in the Badlands of South Dakota.  I feel most connected to the unfolding of the cosmos at Yellowstone National park, particularly where I can imagine the Supervolcano or Yellowstone caldera at Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris Geyser basin. Mammoth Hot springs have these terraces of colored limestone where hot water comes to the earth’s surface.  It’s eerie and beautiful and connects me to the ancient history of the earth.  Likewise, Norris Geyser basin is a flatter series of hot water streams and geysers, mud and ash.  I always felt that I was on a distant planet when I walked the area as a child.  It didn’t resemble the earth of my home with green trees and plants, but looked like images I’d seen of the moon so far away, only with water.  and it stinks.  the sulphur stink made it foreign and exotic, not like the sweet smell of evergreens or fresh grass. This geothermal activity is a link to our past.  Connects us to our origins.  Or that’s how it feels for me.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest.  We celebrated my father’s 80th birthday by traveling to the Olympic National Forest.  To Cape Flattery – the furthest point northwest in the contiguous US.  and it was gorgeous, and it fed my soul.  It reminded me that we are connected. And something more.  That feeling of connection is like love.  Yes, I love my father, and my family, with whom I traveled, but it was more than love of the people I was with, it was love of the land, of the planet, of life itself.

We traveled to several points in the Olympics, but the last night settled in at Sol Duc Hot springs – a natural hot springs tucked away in the forest.  Like Bath in England or BaƱos in Ecuador, these hot springs attract people from around the world to soak in their healing powers.  And it was healing.  Part of the healing it offered me at least, was that feeling of disconnection which can accompany us in the modern world.  It probably helped that there was no phone service or internet out there.  We were “disconnected” in a way that made me feel more connected to what is real, to the earth, the water, the trees, the mountains, the clouds. “to the universe to this community and to each other.”  And because of the hot springs, it stunk a little like Norris Geyser basin, connecting me to that ancient story of our origins as earth.

Connected we are, but as the U.N. prayer indicates, we can feel disconnected, and we can act as if we’re disconnected to the earth and each other.  It is our connection that sustains us, gives us hope, but also presents our greatest challenges.  Because there is no action we can do that does not affect another.  And we have struggled to recognize the impact of our actions on the planet we call home, the only home we have.  Now that we do know what the human impact is on the planet – that we are in fact killing our only home – it is time to change our ways.

This is a spiritual crisis, as much as it is a physical one.  Because the spirit is that connection, that connecting link between our actions and their effects, the link between our minds and our bodies, our thoughts and feelings and what we do in response to them.   I relate spirit to breath, that mysterious marvelous involuntary impulse which keeps us alive,  an aliveness that we can learn to be conscious of and notice and control…. as our bodies breathe so does the planet.  Our survival depends upon our increased consciousness of that breath, our own and the planet’s, and changes of our behavior so that we may keep breathing which requires the planet to keep breathing.

We have become estranged from the movements of the earth. We have turned our backs on the cycles of life.  I do believe this is true.  As we emerged into our consciousness we began, as a species, to imagine we were smarter than nature.   We took action based on our limited knowledge – which is what we always have to do, but hubris seemed to take over, and rather than continuing to ask more and more about why nature did it one way, we got seduced by our own ability to do it differently.  We thought we knew better, and have done a lot of damage to our planet and to our own bodies that way.

Clear cutting forests that are the lungs of our planet and the home of so many species.  Colonizing lands that were already inhabited, and murdering the people there or enslaving them.  Making artificial food-like substances to replace actual food because we wanted to improve our health or, worse, profit from it.

Mostly in hindsight do we see how faulty and damaging our vision was.  But that we keep learning is the good news.  We keep evolving, just like the planet that birthed us.  We adjust to new conditions, learn from experience, and change our ways.  The rate of change, however, is ever increasing, and that poses a problem for us.  We cannot sit back, we must actively grow our understanding and change our behavior.  We must cast new visions and take different actions.

We have sought only our own security, we have exploited simply for our own ends, we have distorted our knowledge, we have abused our power.

By creating the illusion that we are not connected, that we are separate, isolated beings, we were able to believe that our security could be separated from the security of others, the security of the planet.  We exploited simply for our own ends, not recognizing the impact on others and that connection back to ourselves.  Not understanding how oppressions hurt the oppressed and the oppressors.  That is distorting our knowledge.  We are born knowing we are connected, because we rely on others to survive… but with that nurturing that allowed for survival many of us begin to believe that we are not dependent on others.  That we actually are independent and can take action in the world that doesn’t impact others.  We can exploit the planet without impacting our own survival.  It is an illusion, but a powerful one.  We come into our power, and we can abuse it.  We have abused it.  I am not one that believes we must give up power so that others may have it.  There is an unlimited supply – like love.  I believe we need to use any power we have responsibly and for those who do not have it.

We put our dog down this summer.  It was so hard.  I was faced with enormity of my own power. and I didn’t want the responsibility.  I didn’t want to “play God” – and yet… we are already manipulating nature with our pets, simply by having them, by their dependence upon us.  My dog Scotty wouldn’t have survived a day in the wild.  He didn’t like to even walk in the grass.  He was a street and sidewalk walker.  His species has been bred for dependence upon humans for generations.  and the only responsible thing for me to do was to use my power responsibly.  and so we made a decision many of you have made.  It was my first time, however, as Scotty was my first dog ever.  And it was hard.

and all of this is hard.  It’s hard to be conscious. To take responsibility for our actions, to consider the consequences, to not live in denial about how our actions impact others.

 Now the land is barren, and the waters are poisoned, and the air is polluted.  Now the forests are dying, and the creatures are disappearing, and the humans are despairing.  We ask forgiveness.  We ask for the gift of remembering.  We ask for the strength to change.

We ask these things, but whom do we ask?  God, the Universe, this invisible but tangible connection?  For me, they may be one and the same.  The creating, sustaining and transforming power of the Universe is another name for God or that linkage among us – that connection to everything and all:  Spirit.   And it doesn’t matter at all to me what you call it, but that we do it – that we remember our connections, ask for forgiveness for our actions, and change our ways.

My vision for the earth is that we remember that we are sacred ground and we treat ourselves and our relations as such – our relations including the animals, the plants, the stars, the people, the trees.

One thing about my recent visit to the Pacific Northwest, which is the home of my heart, is that it expanded my love for this, my adopted home, here in the Michigan.  At Cape Flattery, - the northwest most point of the contiguous US, looking out over the Pacific Ocean at the rocks and trees and sea, I couldn’t help think of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in northern Michigan, looking over the rocks and trees and a lake so big it could be a sea.  One reminded me of the other and my heart expanded.

Love is like that.  It always expands us.  That’s one reason I believe that our activism, our work for social change and environmental justice – should come from that place of love.  You heard that love this morning in the words of Jennifer Teed who works for the Michigan UU Social Justice Network and Michael McClellan who works for the Department of Environmental Quality at the State of Michigan.   Not everybody is lucky enough to get to express their love in their work, but everyone should have a chance to show that love in their lives.

Love!   That is another name for the creating, sustaining and transforming power of the Universe.  The universe itself, like your own life, was created, if you will, came into being, emerged, and it has been sustained, allowed to flourish – sometimes flourishing more than other times, but you are alive and the planet is alive, and somehow we can be changed.  We can be changed by the elements around us, and we can choose to influence those elements and activate the change.  This is an amazing truth – a miracle, really.  We long to take responsibility for our actions, seek forgiveness – which is really just a matter of becoming aware, learning, seeing the problem we’ve created and vowing to change our ways. 

We remember the lessons of nature, that we are connected and – I’m going to get theological here – and we are loved.  I don’t have other language for that.  We are loved, and that love can sustain us for the long haul and help us transform and change our ways.  If you don’t know what to do or what you need to change, go see Jennifer Teed after the service and visit the Social Action table with information about MUUSJN, or talk to Michael McClellan or connect with another person here today whom you know has found ways to help the planet.  Attend the film next Sunday night, Fire and Ice.  Do something.

And as you leave church today, and return to your busy lives this week – lives trying to survive the pressures of living and being something more – consider a tree.  Find a tree, any tree. 
You can be outside under it, or inside away from the mosquitoes, gazing upon it, but try to grasp the utter beauty of that single tree and see if your spirit doesn’t expand to help you do the work that must be done:  the work of surviving, the work of being something more, the work of changing and the work of helping the planet which is our only home, our blue boat home.

I love the hymn we are about to sing because it offers me perspective.  When my life seems unmanageable and my problems too big, I return to that image Michael shared earlier of the earth as seen from space – that blue ball floating in the universe, sailing along indifferent to my petty concerns and yet vital to my existence:  the wide universe is the ocean I travel, and the earth is my blue boat home. 
Will you sing with me? 

Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written.  I have not edited this sermon to written form.