Opening Words: United Nations Environmental Sabbath Program Prayer
We who have lost our sense and our senses–our touch, our smell, our vision of who we are: we who frantically force and press all things, without rest for body or spirit, hurting our Earth and injuring ourselves: we call a halt.
We want to rest. We need to rest and allow the Earth to rest. We need to reflect and to rediscover the mystery that lives in us, that is the ground of every unique expression of life, the source of the fascination that calls all things to communion.
We declare a Sabbath, a space of Quiet; for simply being and letting be; for recovering the great, forgotten truths; for learning how to live again.
Today we gather to celebrate Earth Day; to reflect on our lives and our connection to the Source of Life…the Earth, our common home. We declare a Sabbath, a time to step back, to rest from all the doing and remind ourselves of the Sacred Soul that is within each of us, among all of us as a spiritual community, and beyond any of us to name or to describe, but not beyond our ability to praise.
Sermon: What Sustains Us
There’s an ancient story about a rabbi who retired and went to live in a faraway village. After a year of solitude the people of the village decided to invite him to speak in their modest synagogue on Yom Kippur. He said no.
After another year they approached him again and he agreed, and when he stepped into the pulpit he looked out at the people and said, “Do you know what I’m about to tell you?”
“No,” they answered in a single voice. “If you don’t know what I’m here to tell you I’m not going to bother,” and he stepped down from the pulpit and left.
The next year he was again persuaded to speak and when he stepped into the pulpit he looked out at the people and said, “Do you know what I’m about to tell you.” With a single voice they responded, “Yes!” “Well, then,” he said, “obviously I don’t have to tell you what you already know.”
When Yom Kippur came again they persuaded the famous rabbi to speak, and this time they had a plan. He stepped into the pulpit and said, “Do you know what I’m about to tell you?” One half the congregation said, “No,” and the other half said, “Yes!”
The rabbi smiled and said, “Well, then, let those who know tell those who don’t!” And he stepped down from the pulpit.
This is our annual Earth Day service. Do you know what I’m about to tell you? You know that the earth is suffering from our abuse. The earth is in trouble; and we’re in trouble. We’re concerned and we’re wondering what we can do to preserve the earth, the source of all life.
If everyone on the planet lived the same life style we enjoy, we would need five or six more planets, but Nature gave us only one – this one.
There are things we can do; things we should do; things we must do, not only to be responsible caretakers of our beleaguered planet, but to be responsible caretakers of our own souls.
Let me ask a question, different from the rabbi’s question: What’s your hand’s-on experience with Mother Earth?
It’s one thing to learn about our planet in science classes, and that information is important, but to feel connected to our Earth requires direct, hands-on experience, especially the kind we have when we’re very young.
Some of my earliest and fondest memories involve climbing trees. It was something I did with friends, to be sure, but climbing a tree is a solo experience, so my memories of tree climbing don’t involve them, just me, by myself.
I had a favorite tree in the back yard – it was just right for climbing; it wasn’t too big, and there were low branches, so I could get up by myself, standing on an up-side-down barrel. After climbing into the upper branches I could find a comfortable branch to nuzzle in and just sit and watch. I didn’t think of it as a meditation, then, but looking back I realize that’s exactly what it was.
There’s something about climbing a tree and sitting in it; something that has a spiritual dimension; a sense of connection with the tree, and with Nature, which some choose as the best name for God.
We spent a lot of time outdoors. For example, we hunted for snakes by pushing over old logs under which the snakes were hiding, or at least we thought they were hiding; they knew we were looking for them. During snake hunts we discovered an interesting variety of bugs who lived under those logs. We watched them — we studied them.
We also studied the ants — little red ones and big black ones. We poked sticks into the ant hills they made and watched them as they quickly re-built, carrying grains of sand as big as they were.
We figured out how to catch pigeons by tilting a box up with a stick onto which we tied a long string, putting bread or cracker crumbs under the box and when the bird was under there, eating away we would pull the string and catch the pigeon, which we quickly released.
There was a place in the corner of the garden where we buried our cat, Mittens, after she was hit by a car. We made a gravestone for her and painted her name.
We used to play at Oak Grove Cemetery near our house, fascinated, and a little scared, knowing that people were buried there.
In older years we got in touch with the earth for pay. One of my first jobs, at age nine, was working on McCue’s farm, picking string beans. We got $.60 a bushel, which is 4 pecks or 32 quarts. That’s a lot of string beans, but $.60 was a lot of money, then.
We also planted pansies for old mister McCue. He worked with us, going out in front of the team of boys, poking holes in rows, into which we would carefully place the root of the pansy plant and then fill it in and pack the soil down firmly, but not too hard. McCue paid us $.35 an hour.
Later, when I reached the minimum hiring age of 14, I worked in Johnson Brothers’ greenhouses tending roses; mostly watering the plants, but also mulching them with manure that had to be hand-packed at the base of each rose bush. Starting pay was $3.50 for an eight-hour day.
The water and manure provided sustenance for the plants – the money provided sustenance to me. Now, looking back, I realize that working with the earth provided another kind of sustenance to my soul or spirit, and my young boy’s sense of pride. Working with one’s hands was honorable; working with the earth was spiritual, though I wouldn’t have described it that way, then.
We know, deep in our bones and spirit, that we are from the earth; we are of the earth…we are that part of the earth which has evolved a unique kind of consciousness; we are nature’s child taking notice of our Mother Nature; we have an organic connection to the earth that is as natural as taking a breath, but we need to stop to think about it, from time to time, to remind ourselves that we are sustained by the earth.
We know that we need food and water to sustain the body; we need a deepening awareness of all that sustains us, including the sustenance of the mind and spirit as well as the body.
When we succeed in deepening our awareness and honing our sense of gratitude, or appreciation for Life – for the interdependent web of all existence, of our existence – we can say, with that Native American prayer of the Sioux:
O our Father, the Sky, hear us and make us strong.
O our Mother the Earth, hear us and give us support.
O Spirit of the East, send us your Wisdom.
O Spirit of the South, may we tread your path of life.
O Spirit of the West, may we always be ready for the long journey.
O Spirit of the North, purify us with your cleansing winds.
Or we can say with the Hebrew Psalmist: “O taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy is the man who takes refuge in him! Depart from evil, and do good (work); and seek peace.” (Translation: “O taste and see that Life is good, happy are those who take refuge in Nature; stop harming the Earth and seek ways to befriend her.”)
I began doing ministry in Lexington, Massachusetts, on April 1, 1970, and three weeks later, on April 21, I worked with the Senior Minister and members of the congregation to put together a service in celebration of Earth Day, which was held on April 22, 1970 — the first observance of Earth Day, and we’ve been observing it ever since.
That first Earth Day was spearheaded by Senator Gaylord Nelson who got the idea in 1962 as he listened to and read troubling reports about the state of the environment. He persuaded President Kennedy to make a national conservation tour to bring attention to these troubling environmental concerns. It was easy to see what we were doing – Boston Harbor was polluted, as were so many rivers, like the Hudson,, and they got cleaned up.
Kennedy did the five-day tour in September of 1963 and the germ of the Earth-day idea was planted and came to blossom on April 22, 1970.
The anti-war protests ignited political activism on several fronts: feminism, gay rights, racial injustice, and so forth.
On Sunday, November 30, 1969, The New York Times ran a lengthy article about what they called, ‘the astonishing proliferation of environmental events.’
“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…with a nationwide teach-in.”
The first Earth Day celebration helped to raise consciousness about air and water pollution and environmental degradation.
Earth Day is also about the human environment – the inner life that directs us – it’s about becoming more conscious of the way we live, and conscious living is the heart of one’s religious or spiritual life.
Since that first Earth Day Celebration there has been a weaving of our increased concern about the damage we’ve been doing to the earth and one’s religious life. All the religions, across the wide spectrum, are united on this point: what we think about the earth, and the way we behave toward the earth, is at the heart of religion.
Earth Day is not intended to make us feel guilty – it’s not about ‘shaming.’ It’s about raising awareness about the effect our lifestyle has on our planet, our home.
Increased awareness sometimes results in feeling uncomfortable – it gets our attention. We know we’re all part of the problem, but the hope is that raising our awareness can help us to think about how to become part of the solution – how to participate in ‘the greening of the planet.’
Just as the rivers and oceans can become polluted, so can our minds become polluted. Concerns about global warming have been getting politicized, with red-state and blue-state opinions about what’s causing climatic changes, and who is responsible for the problem, and who should be responsible for making necessary changes to prevent global tragedy.
Change effects the economy. Regulations often result in higher prices for things we buy; to understand the resistance to acknowledging global warming, etc. just follow the money.
Most of us drive cars and SUV’s; most of us have central heating in our homes; many of us have central air conditioning in our homes. We all buy our food at the supermarket, and we know that all of that food had to be transported by big trucks – someone said ‘there’s more oil in our refrigerators than our cars,’ referring to the energy that it takes for all that transportation.
Most of us need a vehicle to get to work, to school, to shop. Our vehicles sustain us.
Most of us need central heating to sustain us; and we increasingly feel like air conditioning is a necessity. We are sustained by food that has to be transported, and for which we need to drive.
So, on this Earth Day we take time to look again, to pause and feel a sense of gratitude for this planet that sustains us; to feel grateful for Life itself, to remind ourselves of our intimate relationship with Nature, which some call God.
I grew up with five brothers – the sisters came later, in my teenage years. When we reminisce about those growing up years my brother’s and I chuckle about my father’s saying, “Easy on the butter boys, 50 cents a pound!”
When the pie was cut into six pieces we each tried to get what appeared to be the biggest piece. There was a lot of talk about sharing, and some loud disagreement about what was fair. “You cut, I choose!”
Now we’re aware of sharing the planet with six billion brothers and sisters, and there’s a lot of talk about responsible consumption, since so many are going without enough food and drinkable water to sustain them; there’s a lot of talk and some loud disagreement about what’s fair.
We’ve become more aware of and sensitive to what we call ‘the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.’ Indeed we’ve elevated that discussion to religious status. Today’s version of the Ten Commandments would include a statement of responsibility to the planet.
We have to be careful not to become dogmatic about environmental issues…about what one should be doing; what kind of vehicle we should be driving; what we should or should not eat; where to put the thermostat on those cold winter nights, or the use of an air conditioner on hot summer days.
Earth Day is not an effort to create a green catechism or make us feel guilty, but I have to tell you that after last year’s Earth Day service I don’t go into the supermarket or Trader Joe’s without my canvas bag. Sometimes I forget and find myself at the door of Stop and Shop and realize I didn’t take the bags…so I go back.
It means fewer plastic bags that wind up in the landfill, or worse, in the massive Pacific-ocean garbage dump. But it also has a spiritual ingredient. Awareness itself is spiritual. Consciousness raising is spiritual.
At first I felt a little self-conscious about carrying the green bags into Stop and Shop, but I’ve gotten over it.
There are lots of things that sustain us, besides food, clothes and shelter. Music and poetry is food for the soul; beauty in all its forms sustains us. Make your own list. You do know ‘what I’ve been telling you,’ of course.
The Psalmists summarized it nicely in what is easily the most well-known Biblical passage, Psalm 23. The poet describes our inter-dependence – you can do your own translating. For example, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,’ could be read as Nature directs me and provides for me.’
The Psalm/poem is about ‘having enough,’ and appreciating what we have. It’s about acknowledging the Source of all; it’s about green pastures and clear, drinkable water; it’s about having enough to eat and doing the right thing. It’s all about the Earth, our common home. Listen, again:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.