The notable African-American poet Lucille Clifton spoke at Chautauqua Institute a couple of summers ago and she told a story of sitting at the kitchen table, weeping, the day Kennedy was killed. Her little children saw her and asked, “What’s the matter?” “President Kennedy has been killed,” she said. One of the children replied, “We didn’t do it, Momma!”
Today we’re celebrating our Mother Earth; it’s a kind of birthday celebration. She doesn’t tell us exactly how old she is, there’s no birth certificate, but there’s evidence –she’s about 4.5 billion year; she has a 4 billion-year old rock she wears proudly.
If the age of mother earth is put in terms of a twenty-four hour clock, we Homo sapiens were birthed by mother earth at (165.000) 23:59:59; about a hundredth of a second on that clock.
We emerged from her womb and each of us return in a relatively short span of time. We are of the earth, as a child is of its mother.
We’re very concerned about mother’s health. She needs to be in an ‘assisted living facility,’ and we’re the ones who need to give the assistance.
Thirty nine years ago we threw her a big party — the first official ‘earth day.’ By coincidence that party was in my first month of ministry in Lexington, MA.
It was a celebration of a good, caring mother, but some of her children spoke about their growing concerns about her health. These were called environmentalists. They talked about the ways we children have been misbehaving, harming her.
We wanted to respond, ‘we didn’t do it, Mommy!’
But we soon came to realize that we all have to take some responsibility for our mother’s condition. It was called consciousness-raising. “Pay attention to your mother!”
She’s been very patient with us. She appreciates our annual celebrations because she knows that those celebrations effect the way we treat her on a day-to-day basis.
We’ve come a long way since that first Earth Day. On that Earth Day there was no Environmental Protection Agency; the previous year, on June 23, 1969, Cleveland’s oily, contaminated Cuyahoga River caught fire. Flames climbed as high as five stories until fireboats brought it under control. The fire was attributed to wastes dumped into the river by the waterfront industries.
Later (in 1978) along came Love Canal, which was originally meant to be a dream community, a vision of William T. Love at the turn of the previous century (1900) to have the river generate power by digging a short canal between the upper and lower Falls. It didn’t work, so the land was eventually used as a land-fill area for industrial wastes, and later 100 homes and a school were built on it, and the people living in those homes got sick. Very sick. The folks living there had to be evacuated from their homes, but the birth-defects kept showing up.
Now everyone who has paid the slightest amount of attention knows enough about our Mother’s problems to be concerned…the ozone layer and global warming, acid rain, and so forth.
Mother Earth has been assaulted and we all have assumed some sense of responsibility for the problem and some commitment to solutions that need to emerge.
Few among us respond like Lucille Clifton’s little children and say, “We didn’t do it.”
Sometimes the simple dissemination of information about our environmental problems feels like an accusation, and accusations don’t help much.
Accusations also set groups of mother’s children against one another – the good, green guys pointing fingers at the bad Humvee-driving guys.
When you feel like you’re being accused, you respond with some defensiveness – that’s just how we’re made, and it’s counter-productive to our common goad of bringing our dear mother back to health. We’re in this together! We all need to take some responsibility.
E. B. White’s famous words come to mind: “Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
We want to save the world because we savor it, otherwise what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way, the savoring comes first.
Look again at Mary Oliver’s wonderful little poem which she called Messenger
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
How do we love the world? The same way a parent loves a child — it’s a joyful responsibility Each of us does our parenting in our own way, but we also share some ‘best practices.’
You’ve heard about some of those ‘best practices’ this morning, from our Green Sanctuary Committee…it’s all about being responsible caretakers of Mother Earth.
We’re developing a theology of ecological responsibility that reinterprets the Biblical injunction to ‘have dominion over the birds of the air and the fish of the sea,’ as it says in the book of Genesis. Our theology of ecological responsibility takes the word dominion and turns it upside down, from dominating over to making a domicile with. A domicile is a home, and we need to preserve and protect our home so it will continue to be habitable.
Any Creator God worth conceiving would have us treat the earth the way Chief Seattle suggested when he said:
“Every part of the earth is sacred…every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
“…the sap which courses through the trees (is like) the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.
“The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors…it is sacred.
“The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.
“…the air is precious to us…the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports.
“Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.”
Families are often brought more closely together when there is a tragedy; communities are brought together more closely when there’s a common problems…our nation was brought more closely together by the tragedy of 9/11 and the World Wars before that.
Now humankind is bring drawn together with shared concerns about the ecological crisis that has been created by what we called progress, starting with the Industrial Revolution.
In 1961 General Electric hired an actor named Ronald Reagan to say that at G.E. ‘Progress is our most important product.’ They came to realize that progress is a double-edged sword, so they gave up their old motto and came up with a new one: ‘We bring good things to life.’
All progress brings change, often for the better, but sometimes with unanticipated consequences that are not so good. We keep learning, both as individuals and collectively as the human community.
Clearly our culture has planted a message that ‘more is better,’ and that mentality has played a big role in the current economic crisis. We don’t need to go into details today, but I’m going to assume that you know as well as I do that the ‘more is better mentality’ is such a driving force that many of us are never satisfied with where we are or with what we have…we’ve bought into the idea that more is better, bigger is better. We keep learning.
This point was made so well by Kurt Vonnegut four years ago Kurt Vonnegut in a little piece he wrote for the New Yorker that I’ll use it to close; especially since he wrote it in the form of a poem:
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22′
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!