Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon was actually delivered by Bev Burgess, worship associate, because I was out of town on family leave.
[The first reading was the poem “Global Warming Blues” by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie. Here’s the poet reciting her poem:]
The second reading this morning is part of a poem about ecological recovery. It’s an excerpt from the poem “New Ecology” by Ernesto Cardenal. This poem takes place in Nicaragua, some years after the authoritarian Somoza regime collapsed. The poet writes:
In September more coyotes were seen near San Ubaldo.
More alligators, soon after the victory…
The bird population has tripled, we’re told…
Somoza’s people also destroyed the lakes, rivers, and mountains.
Somoza used to sell the green turtle of the Caribbean.
They used to export turtle eggs and iguanas by the truckload.
The loggerhead turtle was being wiped out…
In danger of extinction the jungle’s tiger cat,
Its soft jungle-colored fur…
But the sawfish and the freshwater shark could finally breathe again.
Tisma is teeming once more with herons reflected in its mirrors
We’re going to decontaminate Lake Managua.
The humans weren’t the only ones who longed for liberation.
The whole ecology has been moaning….
Sermon: “The Tree Spirit’s Mistake”
Here we are, just finishing one of the warmest winters on record here in New England. We have had some cold snaps, and we definitely knew that it was winter, but over the course of this year’s heating season, temperatures have been surprisingly mild. This is actually a good thing for many of us, considering how much energy prices have risen this year. But it’s also not such a good thing, insofar as it reminds us of the looming ecological crisis. Mild winter weather means we’re probably going to have to brace ourselves for more scorching weather in the summer, and maybe another drought. We might even say that the ecological crisis is no longer looming, it is upon us.
So what should we do? Of course we’re going to take political action. Of course we’ll encourage technological fixes. But I also feel that our ecological crisis must be addressed spiritually. I’ll tell you an old Buddhist story to explain what I mean.
Once upon a time, Kokālika, who was one of the followers of the Buddha, asked his friends Sāriputta and Moggallāna to travel with him back to his own country. They refused to go, and the three friends exchanged harsh words.
One of Buddha’s followers said sadly, “Kokālika can’t live without his two friends, but he can’t live with them, either.”
“That reminds me of a story,” said Buddha, and he told his followers this tale:
Once upon a time, two tree-spirits lived in a forest. One was a small, modest tree; the other was a large majestic tree. In that same forest lived a ferocious tiger and a fearsome lion. This lion and this tiger killed and ate any animal they could get their paws on. They were messy eaters, and left rotting chunks of meat all over the forest floor. Because of them, no human being dared set foot in the forest.
The smaller tree-spirit decided they did not like the smell of rotting meat. The little tree-spirit told the great tree-spirit that they were going to drive the lion and tiger out of the forest.
“My friend,” said the great tree-spirit, “don’t you see that these two creatures protect our beloved forest? If you drive them out of the forest, human beings will come into our home and cut all us trees down for firewood.”
But the little tree-spirit didn’t listen. The very next day, they assumed the shape of a large and terrible monster, and drove the tiger and lion out of the forest.
As soon as the human beings realized that the tiger and the lion had left the forest, they came in and cut down half the trees. This frightened the little tree spirit, who cried out to the great tree spirit, “You were right, I should never have driven the tiger and the lion out of our forest. What can I do?”
“Go find the tiger and the lion and invite them to return,” said the great tree spirit. “That’s our only hope.”
The little tree spirit found the tiger and the lion and asked them to return. But the tiger and the lion just growled, and rudely replied, “We shall never return.” The next day, the humans returned, cut down all the trees, and the forest was gone.
The Buddha finished telling this story, and paused. The Buddha and all his followers believed that they had lived many previous lives, and his followers knew this story was about one of his previous lives. The Buddha continued: “I’m sure you guessed that the little tree spirit was Kokālika, the lion was Sāriputta, and the tiger was Moggallāna.” To which one of his followers responded, “And you, Buddha, were the great tree spirit.”
At first, this story sounds like an ecological parable that’s easy to understand. We start with a stable ecosystem. The foolish tree-spirit upsets the balance of the ecosystem by getting rid of the large predators. The ecosystem begins to collapse. When the foolish tree-spirit tries to fix their mistake, they realize that upsetting the balance of an ecosystem is easy, but it’s difficult to restore that balance once it’s been upset.
But there is more to the story than that. The story really begins, not in the forest, but with conflict within the Buddha’s religious community. Three of the Buddha’s followers cannot get along. Their constant fighting upsets the balance of the community. The Buddha is trying to teach his followers that the quality of their human community affects the world around them. What we do in our religious communities, how we treat one another, affects more than just the people within our little communities.
We Unitarian Universalists teach ourselves something similar when we talk about respect for the interdependent web. A theologian named Bernard Loomer was one of the first to bring the idea of the interdependent web to Unitarian Universalists. Loomer had had a long career as a Presbyterian theologian when he began attending the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, California. The Berkeley Unitarian Universalists, when they realized the spiritual depths of his teaching, arranged for him to give weekly talks. In 1984, during one of those talks, Loomer told them that most people had misunderstood Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus of Nazareth was speaking about what he called “the Kingdom of God,” he was using first century Jewish language to describe how all things are connected and dependent upon one another. While Jesus referred to this concept as the “Kingdom of God,” Loomer called it the “interdependent web of existence.” The interdependent web of existence means all human beings are connected, and we must treat each other as we ourselves wish to be treated. All living beings are connected in the same way, and all living beings are connected with the non-living world, with air and rock and water and sunlight, in one grand interdependent web of existence.
The old Universalists hinted at the same thing when they said, “God is love.” We might re-interpret that old Universalist statement for modern times something like this: God is not some transcendent supernatural being that exists outside of and beyond the world of science and reason; instead, God is the love that connects all things in an interdependent web. This is another positive statement of the power of the interdependent web of existence.
In the poem “Global Warming Blues,” Mariahdessa Ekere Tallie tells us what happens when we deny the interdependent web, when we deny our connection to all humans and to all living beings and to all non-living things. When we deny the interdependent web of existence, we get global warming and our towns become rivers, bodies floating and water high. (Or, for those of us who live here on the South Shore, we have surprisingly mild winters, and hot summers with too little rain.) The poet tells us: “Seem like for Big Men’s living / little folks has got to die.” The Big Men ignore the interdependent web; they deny their connectedness to other humans, to other living beings.
It matters how we human beings connect to one another. When we deny the interdependent web that binds all human beings together, we also deny the interdependent web that binds humans to non-human beings. The two cannot be separated. Systemic racism allows a few human beings to exploit and dominate other human beings. In the same way, the ecological crisis stems from a system that allows us human beings to exploit all living beings. Systemic sexism results in sexual harassment, gender pay gaps, and rape culture. And this is tied to a system that allows human beings to rape and exploit the earth and non-human beings.
How can we repair the damage that has been done to the interdependent web of all existence, human and non-human? You may say to yourself, I recycle, I compost, isn’t that enough? You may say, Does this mean I have to fight global climate change and racism and sexism and ableism and everything else all at the same time? That’s too much for someone who’s already working two jobs and trying to raise children.
But this does not have to be overwhelming. The Buddha taught his community a simple but profound truth: how they treated each other within their religious community made a difference in the wider world. The quality of our relationships inside our religious communities makes a difference in the wider world. As we work together to eliminate systemic racism inside our religious communities, we show the world that human relationships can be healed. As we gradually eliminate the sexism that still continues inside our religious communities, we teach both ourselves and the wider world that human relationships can be founded on something other than exploitation and dominance. What we do inside our religious communities is part of the interdependent web. As we learn to live together in love, we help heal the entire interdependent web of all existence.
We can keep on recycling and composting, working two jobs and raising our children. And direct political action is still necessary. And we can spread spiritual renewal within our religious communities, by living together in love. As we repair the interdependent web of existence within our religious communities, we also draw strength from that religious community, and with that strength we can bring love to the world around us. The love we bring to the world will combine with the love others are bringing. And so the healing of the world begins in a small way, in the interactions of this gathered community. May that healing continue to grow among us, as plants continue to grow in the depths of winter until at last springtime bursts forth in all its glory.