Opening Words: The Pasture, Robert Frost
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long. — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long. — You come too.
Sermon: Earth Day 2011
On Sunday, November 30, 1969, five months before the first Earth Day celebration, the New York Times carried a lengthy article about environmental concerns. The article said, in part:
“Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam…a national day of observance of environmental problems…is being planned for next spring…when a nationwide environmental ‘teach-in’…coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned….”
Gaylord Nelson, Senator from Wisconsin, was the force behind what came to be known as Earth Day. He organized a speaking tour for President Kennedy in September of 1963, just two months prior to Kennedy’s assassination.
Gaylord Nelson’s efforts resulted in the first Earth Day, held in places around the country on April 22, 1970 with an estimated 20 million demonstrators.
Coincidentally, I began my ministry at Follen Church on April 1, 1970, just three weeks prior to that first Earth Day. Our church played a major role in that event – which we held on the Lexington Green, made famous by ‘the shot heard ‘round the world’ in 1775. It was another kind of ‘shot heard ‘round the world.’
That phrase is from the opening stanza of Emerson’s famous poem, Concord Hymn, 1837.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The earth-day flag was unfurled on another April day, 195 years later. To paraphrase Lincoln’s famous words:
‘Now we are engaged in a great civil debate, testing whether this nation, and all the other nations on this earth, can long endure. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it will never forget what we’re doing here – that we here highly resolve that this nation shall have a new birth of environmental responsibility, so that this earth with the care of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish.’
The debate about environmental degradation, about the carbon dioxide emissions damage to the air we breath and the water we drink, about global warming, reminds us of the earlier debates about whether the earth was flat, and whether the sun revolved around the earth, with people like Giordano Bruno burned at the stake for going against the church’s teaching that the earth is the center of the universe.
The debate about the age of the earth goes on – the Bible says that the earth was created in six days by a creator god; Bishop Usher calculated the day and the hour, using the Biblical story of creation – it happened, he said, at 9 a.m. on October 23, 4004 B.C. Ussher calculated the dates of other biblical events, concluding, for example, that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday November 10, 4004 BC, and that Noah’s ark touched down on Mt Ararat on Wednesday, May 5, 2348 BC.
It would be amusing if it wasn’t so dangerous – to take the Biblical stories literally.
Columnist David Brooks, commenting on the Broadway play, “The Book of Mormon,” writes:
“…religion can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.”
Nicely put – even if a bit unrealistic, what with Bible quoting and Koran quoting fanatics wreaking havoc and undermining every attempt at peace making, every effort to use our intelligence and scientific knowledge to do the work of the world.
We’re not the only ones to take religious teachings as metaphor…to de-mythologize Bible stories…and on special occasions to re-mythologize those stories so that we can tap into the part of the brain that has a thirst for inspiration balanced by the need for information.
We need both information and inspiration – but we need to remember that they serve different purposes.
Just as a literal interpretation of the stories justifies global warming and dismisses the concerns that might lead us to be more pro-active in ameliorating the problem, so does the political motivation for denial keep us from being more responsible caretakers of our fragile little planet.
By ‘political motivation’ I mean the tendency of those running for office to tell the people what they want to hear, which prevents us from doing what needs to be done to preserve, protect and defend the earth.
None of the other species with whom we share the earth fouls their own nest as we’re in the process of doing.
Earth Day helped to wake us up to the seriousness of the environmental pollution problems we were creating, and out of that awareness the Environmental Protection Agency was formed. We realized we had to “do something” about the deteriorating conditions of water, air, and land on which our existence depends.
We look back in amazement before the EPA stopped raw sewage from being dumped into rivers and lakes – when industrial waste was dumped into our waters and landfills, without regard for the damage it was doing.
We’ve come a long way when we look back forty one years when smokestacks freely polluted the air, when auto-mobiles were without restrictions regarding pollution.
Yet there are people today who remain in denial and suggest doing away with the EPA – it stifles business!
We have a long way to go before we can pat ourselves on the proverbial back, before we can say that we’ve become responsible caretakers of the earth.
I know I’m preaching to the choir – you know as well as I do that we need to become more vigilant, more responsible caretakers of the earth. But I’ll preach not so much to inform as to give voice to thoughts we share, to give expression to the concerns we share, and to give voice to the hopes we share.
That’s why our work for social justice, social action and social responsibility is so essential to us as a congregation.
Earth Day reminds us of the importance of our environmental action group – social responsibility.
Our work for social justice is another leg on our three-legged stool, focusing on health care, the committee to end the death penalty, racial justice and our rainbow task force which focuses on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender issues.
The third leg is social action, which brings us to the work at Beardsley School in Bridgeport, and the Westbridge coalition work and the food bank – hands on work.
In a way the Earth Day celebration brings the three parts together – social responsibility, social justice and social action.
To love the earth, as in loving a child or grandchild, a spouse, partner, or friend is more than a feeling of affection; to love the earth requires knowledge about the earth – Earth Day is like an annual physical exam.
To love the earth requires caring for the earth – cleaning up the mess; it requires respect for the earth indicated by appropriate conduct – like re-cycling, and practicing an ethic of respect.
I’m not a tree hugger – I don’t talk to the trees, or make wishes on a star – but the trees and stars speak to me in a universal language that doesn’t require dictionaries.
Nature is beyond a good and evil dichotomy – it simply exists, and I exist with it, and in it, and I sense my relationship to it, and it’s an intimate connection – even a sacred connection.
David Vita says, “Fruits and vegetables are often in short supply in our cities where min-marts and fast-food and convenience stores substitute for supermarkets. Salt, sugar, and heavily processed foods rule the neighborhood.
Where and how people live, learn, work, and play has more impact on their health than medical care and is where health care and environmental justice come together.
Some Americans will die 20 years earlier than others who simply live a few miles away which is why it’s said that your zip code may be more important to your health than your genetic code.
The City of Detroit has an area of 139 square miles, a population of 900,000 people and just 5 supermarkets.
It begs the question: If an apple a day keeps the doctor away –what if you can’t find an apple anywhere?
On Friday, May 13 our REEL Justice film is Urban Roots – urban gardens – the story of how seeds of change are literally taking root in Detroit’s empty lots and factory yards.
On Saturday, May 14 we will be assisting Westport’s Green Village Initiative in building a garden at the Beardsley School, our adopted elementary school in Bridgeport.
And to hear more about upcoming local urban garden opportunities please meet me in the library after the service.”
Walt Whitman wrote about it in 1855 in his poem A Song of the Rolling Earth. It’s a long poem, worth reading in its entirety. I’ve chosen a few lines that speak to Earth Day:
A SONG of the rolling earth, and of words according,
Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the ground and sea, They are in the air, they are in you.
Were you thinking that those were the words, those delicious sounds out of your friends’ mouths?
No, the real words are more delicious than they.
Human bodies are words, myriads of words,
(In the best poems re-appears the body, man’s or woman’s,
well-shaped, natural, gay, Every part able, active, receptive, without shame or the need of shame.)
Air, soil, water, fire — those are words,
I myself am a word with them–my qualities interpenetrate with theirs — my name is nothing to them,
Though it were told in the three thousand languages, what would air, soil, water, fire, know of my name?
A healthy presence, a friendly or commanding gesture, are words, sayings, meanings,
The charms that go with the mere looks of some men and women, are sayings and meanings also.
The workmanship of souls is by those inaudible words of the earth, The masters know the earth’s words and use them more than audible words.
Amelioration is one of the earth’s words,
The earth neither lags nor hastens…
The earth does not withhold, it is generous enough,
The truths of the earth continually wait, they are not so conceal’d either…
The earth does not argue,
Is not pathetic, has no arrangements,
Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise,
Makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures,
Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out,
Of all the powers, objects, states, it notifies, shuts none out.
Whoever you are! motion and reflection are especially for you, The divine ship sails the divine sea for you.
Whoever you are! you are he or she for whom the earth is solid and liquid, You are he or she for whom the sun and moon hang in the sky,
For none more than you are the present and the past,
For none more than you is immortality.
The song is to the singer, and comes back most to him,
The teaching is to the teacher, and comes back most to him,
The murder is to the murderer, and comes back most to him, The theft is to the thief, and comes back most to him,
The love is to the lover, and comes back most to him,
The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him–it cannot fail, The oration is to the orator, the acting is to the actor and actress not to the audience,
And no man understands any greatness or goodness but his own, or the indication of his own.
I swear the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall be complete,
The earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who remains jagged and broken.
I swear there is no greatness or power that does not emulate those of the earth,
There can be no theory of any account unless it corroborate the theory of the earth,
No politics, song, religion, behavior, or what not, is of account, unless it compare with the amplitude of the earth,
Unless it face the exactness, vitality, impartiality, rectitude of the earth.
I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth…
I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.
When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,
My tongue is ineffectual on its pivots,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man.
The best of the earth cannot be told anyhow, all or any is best, It is not what you anticipated, it is cheaper, easier, nearer…The earth is just as positive and direct as it was before,
I swear I will never henceforth have to do with the faith that tells the best,
I will have to do only with that faith that leaves the best untold.
The faith that attempts to tell the best robs us of something vital – life giving, inspirational…the dignity that comes with forming your own answers, even if they are forever changing…forming and reforming, experiencing your own little reformations!
The faith that tells the best, that gives the answers before the question has a chance to be formed in the mind – it cuts off the question with answers that are often antiquated and ridiculous, destroying the religious quest, the spiritual life blood that flows through us and inspires us.
The faith that tells the best denies the value we find in contemplating what we know about the universe – a type of contemplation of the facts of life seen from the highest point of view, Emerson’s definition of prayer.
I recall with great appreciation sleeping out in the open air on a wilderness trip into Yellowstone National Park and watching the Milky Way as it moved through the night.
I could see why the Romans called it the Via Galactica, the Road of Milk, or the Milky Way.
The basic facts about our universe move the mind from science to spirituality. What happens when you contemplate the fact that 1 light year is equivalent to 6 trillion miles, and our galaxy has a total diameter of somewhere around 100 thousand light years.
One star, our life-giving sun, is located towards the edge of the galaxy’s — about 26 thousand light years out from the central bulge of the galaxy. It takes 250 million years for the Sun to complete one orbit of the Milky Way’s central bulge.
There are 200 billion stars in our Milky Way.
These staggering numbers are essential to understanding our galaxy, but when thinking about them, trying to wrap the mind around them, something in us seems to move from information to inspiration, from facts to a sense of awe, a sense of humility.
Something in us accepts our inability to contemplate the vastness of it all…
On that clear dark night, lying in a sleeping bag in Yellowstone, and looking up, I heard the most memorable sermon – a symphony of stars and occasional meteors that wrote their signatures and changed something deep within me, in a very positive way, allowing me to surrender my life in humility…to accept my place in it all, and to acknowledge that we know so little…
Finally, I read somewhere that if the current population of the earth was represented by 100 people:
50 would be female
50 would be male
20 would be children
There would be 80 adults,
14 of whom would be 65 and older
There would be:
14 people from the Western Hemisphere
There would be:
12 people who practice other religions
16 people who would not be aligned with a religion
17 would speak a Chinese dialect
8 would speak Hindustani
8 would speak English
7 would speak Spanish
4 would speak Arabic
4 would speak Russian
52 would speak other languages – about 6000 of them.
82 would be able to read and write; 18 would not
1 would have a college education
1 would own a computer
1 would be dying of starvation
17 people would have no clean, safe water to drink.
So on this Earth Day we celebrate our common home, hoping to love it responsibly and to share it with our fellow earthlings equitably and fairly.
We’ll close with words from 19th century Unitarian minister, Edward Everett Hale:
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”