This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.
“The Quails and the Net”
Gautama Buddha was a great holy man who lived long, long ago in India. He was so wise that people came from far and wide to learn from him. Many of these people stayed with him, and became his disicples, or followers.
Once upon a time, Buddha noticed that several of his disciples were spending a great deal of time arguing among themselves. As a result, these disciples began to disturb the other people who had come to learn from Buddha. Not only that, but Buddha felt that because of their arguing, they were not making any progress toward becoming truly enlightened beings.
That evening, Buddha sat all his followers down together, and he told them this story:
“Once upon a time, long, long ago, there lived a large flock of quails in a forest. Now in near this very same forest there lived a hunter who made his living from capturing quails and selling them to people who wanted to eat them. Every day this hunter would slip quietly into the forest and sit hidden behind a big bush. Then he would imitate the call of a quail. He did it so perfectly that the quail thought the hunter was one of them.
“Upon hearing the hunter’s call, the quail would come out of the safe places where they had been gathering food. Once the quail came out into the open, the hunter would leap out from his hiding place and throw a big net over as many quails as he could reach. He would bundle up the net and take all the quail away to the marketplace to be sold to people who wanted to eat them for dinner.
“As you might expect, this state of affairs did not please the quail at all. In fact, they were scared silly because this hunter was capturing so many of them.
“The quail decided to hold a meeting to discuss the problem. One wise quail brought up a good point. She said:
“‘You know, that net the hunter throws over us isn’t very heavy. If we all agreed to work together, we could escape. As soon as he throws the net over us, if we all fly up together at the same time, we can lift the net up with us and get away.’
“The other quails thought this was a good plan. They all agreed to work together to escape the next time the hunter threw the net over them.
“The very next day, the hunter came back to the forest. He imitated the call of a quail so perfectly that all the quail were fooled again. Then he threw the net over as many quail as he could reach, expecting to bundle them up as always.
“But this time the quail who were caught under the net knew what to do. Instantly, before the hunter could bundle them up, they all flew up in the air together. They lifted the net up with them, and settled down together into a nearby rose bush. The net got tangled up in the thorns of the rose bush, and the quail scurried away to safety.
“The hunter was left to pick his net out of the sharp thorns. After hours of work, he finally untangled his net, and walked home, tired and discouraged.
“The next day, the hunter came back to try his luck again. He gave his imitation of the quail’s call. All the quail came running. When they felt the net settle over them, they instantly began to fly to a nearby patch of brambles. They settled down into the brambles leaving the net caught on the sharp thorns. Once again, the hunter was left to untangle his net from the sharp thorns.
“This went on for some days. The hunter was growing more and more discouraged. Finally, one day the hunter came back into the forest, gave his perfect imitation of the quail’s call, and threw his net over the quail when they came out into the open.
“But this time, when it came time for all the quail to fly up together, one quail happened to step on the foot of another quail.
“‘Hey,’ said the second quail, ‘who kicked me?
“‘Nobody kicked you,’ said a third, ‘It’s just your imagination.’
“Yet a fourth quail said, ‘Oh, he’s just ocmplaing because he’s lazy. he never lifts his share of the net.’
“Still another quail said, ‘And who are you to talk? Yesterday I noticed that you did very little of the flying, leaving all the hard work to the rest of us.’
“As the quail fought and bickered among themselves, the hunter bundled them up in his net and carried them off to market. They were all fat, plump quails, and the hunter got a very good price for them.”
The followers of Buddha listened very carefully. They all believed that they had lived many lives in the past, sometimes as animals and sometimes as humans. The Buddha told them that the story of the quails was really a story of them in one of their past lives.
“When you were on this earth as quails,” said the Buddha, “you argued among yourselves, and were caught by the hunter, and were eaten for dinner that very night. You are no longer quails. Is it not time for you to stop arguing among yourselves?”
The disciples who had been arguing so much grew embarrassed and ashamed, and from that day on, so it is told, they no longer engaged in silly arguments.
The first reading this morning is from “Philosophical Creed” by Abner Kneeland (1833).
“A Pantheist’s Creed”
“I believe in the existence of a universe of suns and planets, among which there is one sun belonging to our planetary system; and that other suns, being more remote, are called stars; but that they are indeed suns to other planetary systems. I believe that the whole universe is Nature, and that the word Nature embraces the whole universe, and so far as we can attach any rational idea to either, that God and Nature are perfectly synonymous terms. I am not an Atheist, but a Pantheist; instead of believing that there is no God, I believe that, in the abstract, all is God. I believe that God is all in all, and God is in each of us; and that it is in God that we live, move, and have our being….”
The second reading this morning is a very short poem written by the Universalist Edwin Markham:
They drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in.
It’s Earth Day weekend, and at last we have real spring weather; which means that we have been able to celebrate Earth Day in the most appropriate way possible, by spending time outdoors. In fact, we have set up chairs in the garden so you can enjoy your coffee there after the service.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to make Earth Day into a pleasant holiday designed for middle class white folks who like to spend time outdoors. Many of us, however, believe Earth Day should be more than that; that includes most of us here in this congregation. Earth Day isn’t just about saving the Earth, it’s about saving ourselves as well, because we human beings are just as much a part of the earth as polar bears and penguins. It is true that we human beings have invented ways to have a disproportionately large impact on the earth, but we are also very much a part of the ecosystem we are impacting. Thus the philosophy of Earth Day cannot be fully captured by the usual environmentalist slogans of “Save the planet!” — it’s ourselves we are trying to save; we are trying to save all of humanity, along with polar bears and penguins.
How do we do that? Can we do more than repeat the usual slogans of “save the earth” and “reduce carbon emissions”? I have come to believe that we must get to the moral and ethical and religious roots of saving the planet — that we have to fundamentally change the way we think and feel about what it means to be human, and how humans relate to all other living beings. In other words, we have soul work to do.
And I have discovered a relatively simple idea that helps me with my ecological soul work: the idea of ecojustice. “Ecojustice” is not the same thing as “environmental activism.” Ecojustice — that’s the prefix “eco” in front of the word “justice” — is meant to encompass both ecological justice, and economic justice; so ecojustice helps me understand the relationship of my soul with all other living beings, both human and non-human living beings. Ecojustice grows out of theology and morality, whereas I see environmental activism as predominantly political in nature.
So I would like to tell you about the religious principles behind ecojustice. As I see it, the religious principles behind ecojustice are very much the core religious values of this congregation. Therefore, you might decide, as I have, that ecojustice makes sense as a primary focus for what we do together here at First Unitarian, as a religious community.
Let me begin by stating what I believe is our deepest religious value. I believe our deepest religious value, the taproot, as it were, of our entire faith, is a deep and abiding respect for all sentient beings, growing out of the idea of radical love. Historically, we Unitarian Universalists have come out of Christianity, and one of the gifts we received from Christianity was the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, who summed up everything he taught in two commandments: love your God with all your heart and mind and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. We Unitarian Universalists have now become what I call post-Christians; and a large part of our becoming has been to extend Jesus’s teachings on love.
So as we heard in the first reading this morning, the Universalist minister Abner Kneeland proclaimed in 1833 that: “I believe that the whole universe is Nature, and that the word Nature embraces the whole universe, and so far as we can attach any rational idea to either, that God and Nature are perfectly synonymous terms.” Jesus taught that we should love God with all our hearts and minds and souls; when Abner Kneeland extended that and taught us to consider all of Nature as God, that implies that we should love all of Nature with all our hearts and minds and souls.
Another example: in 1866, a Unitarian minister, Henry Bergh, founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Not that Bergh limited himself to extending rights to animals; he also helped found the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Bergh believed that all human beings, including children, have moral rights; he believed that animals have moral rights, that they have their own inherent dignity and respect just as human beings do. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors as ourselves; and Henry Bergh taught us to extend our concept of neighbors beyond adults to include children and animals, and people who are not like us; all these are neighbors whom we shall love as we love ourselves.
Since the time of Abner Kneeland and Henry Bergh, Unitarian Universalists have continued to pursue these theological ideas. This is not to say that we have arrived at any kind of theological consensus; Unitarian Universalists have no particular interest in arriving at a single theological consensus. Yet all of us, or nearly all of us, would say that Nature is sacred; some of us would agree with Abner Kneeland and say that Nature is God, while others of us would find other ways of proclaiming that Nature is sacred. And all of us, or nearly all of us, would say that animals have moral and ethical rights; I think most Unitarian Universalists would agree that all sentient beings have moral and ethical rights.
All sentient beings have moral and ethical rights, but what do I mean by all sentient beings? I mean this:– people who look like us and talk like us are clearly sentient beings; people who are less similar to us but who live near us are clearly sentient beings; really all human beings constitute sentient beings; as do other large mammals like dolphins and elephants and chimpanzees. Since it’s hard to define exactly what we mean by “sentient,” to be on the safe side I would include all living beings; and finally I would include all beings. So we move out in widening circles: from those who are most like us, to those living begins who are least like us.
This is where it becomes a religious act. It’s easy to love those who are like us; if someone has the same color skin as yours, if someone talks the same language as you do, if someone looks like you; then it is easy to love them as you love yourself. But it gets more difficult when someone speaks a different language than we do, looks different than we do, has a different religion than we do; then it is more difficult to love them as we love ourselves. And when someone is a different species than we are, especially one of the species that aren’t cute and cuddly, species like turkey vultures and shelf fungus; then it becomes more even difficult to love those beings as we love ourselves.
The religious principle of radical love, found in all great religious traditions in one form or another, can help us grow beyond what is easy. As we grow and deepen our religious faith, we shall grow into loving all our neighbors, all sentient beings, as we love ourselves. As we grow and deepen in this way, we widen our circles of love.
A short poem by poet Edwin Markham gives voice to how this can happen:
They drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in.
I suspect most of us have had this kind of experience, when others drew a circle to shut us out. Some Unitarian Universalists have experienced this on the basis of our religious faith:– we’re considered heretics by many Christians in the United States, and so we have been shut out in a variety of ways; perhaps you have been shut out by your childhood faith, but welcomed here. Some of you in this room have experienced this because your skin was the wrong color; or because English is your second language; or because you aren’t a United States citizen; or because you happen to be attracted to people of the same sex; or because of learning disabilities, or health problems, or economic status, or even because you’re just too doggone tall or short or fat or skinny.
Edwin Markham was a Universalist, and his poem tells us how radical love can deal with this experience of being shut out. “Love and I had the wit to win,” says Markham, “We drew a circle that took them in.” That is the essence of radical love:– when someone tries to draw a circle to shut you out, Love can draw a circle that takes them in. This is another way of saying:– love your neighbor as yourself, and everyone is your neighbor.
The idea of ecojustice grows out of this fundamental theological principle. Everyone is your neighbor. People like me are my neighbors; but then Love and I widen the circle more. All human beings are our neighbors, even when they don’t look like us or talk like us; but then Love and I widen the circle more. As the circle widens, we come to discover that all sentient beings are our neighbors; my soul is connected with all souls. At the most basic level, loving all your neighbor means you don’t want to kill them unless absolutely have to. So obviously we don’t kill our immediate family, people who look like us and talk like us. And as the circle widens, we realize that we must extend the same morality to all sentient beings, to all living beings.
Let us trace these widening circles from the perspective of our own congregation here. Our bylaws expressly state that we welcome all persons. At the beginning of each worship service, we affirm that we welcome all persons: “we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology” — and we mean what we say. We have a number of people in this congregation who are not U.S. citizens, and other for whom English is not their first language — that’s not a big deal for us. Even though many of us are white, we have a significant number of people who do not identify as white — and we do pretty well with that (though we could do better). We have people of all different income levels, from quite well-off, to people with very little income. Love and we have the wit to win; we draw our circle to take in all these people from our local community.
And we draw a still wider circle. You have probably noticed that we display the United Nations flag in our sanctuary. The first United Nations flag was given to our congregation many years ago by Louise Sawyer’s sister, and it has been here ever since, as a reminder that we pledge allegiance to all the peoples of the world. Not just the people in our community, not just the people our country, but all human beings everywhere.
And we can draw a still wider circle, as we in this congregation are beginning to do. I have said that we value all sentient beings; and indeed, as a religious principle, we value all life. So it is that we are finding ways to widen the circle still farther, to widen the compass of our moral and ethical circle still farther.
While environmental activism seems to widen our circle still farther, I sometimes feel that environmental activism can cause us to jump right from our immediate family, to non-human life, while skipping the rest of the human species. And while I’m reluctant to say it, too often environmental activism as I’ve experienced it has done precisely that — it values other species sometimes more than fellow human beings. From a religious point of view, I find this troubling.
From a religious point of view, I have come to value the perspective of ecojustice. Ecojustice links economic and ecological problems — the prefix “eco” means both “economic” and “ecological,” where economic justice often has more to do with other human beings, and ecological justice often has more to do with non-human beings. By tying together economic justice and ecological justice, the term “ecojustice” reminds us that we don’t get to choose between ecology and economy, because religiously speaking both are matters of extending justice to beings who don’t happen to look like us.
Let me give you an example of how this works for me, personally. Personally, I’m very committed to cutting carbon emissions and stopping global climate change. Yes, I want to save the polar bears who will die if the Arctic ice cap melts. But I also want to cut carbon emissions to save hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis who live in low-lying river deltas and who will be displaced by rising sea levels; I also want to save hundreds of thousands of people in Central Africa who are being displaced due to desertification caused by global climate change. And quite frankly, I want to save my own soul, because I know global climate change has been caused by my American lifestyle and I’m sick of feeling guilty.
Ecojustice allows me to understand how global climate change is a justice issue. The horrors of Darfur came about because people were displaced by desertification in Central Africa, and desertification is caused by global climate change. Global climate change is a racial justice issue: at this point, non-white people are far more affected by global climate change than affluent white people in North America and Europe. Global climate change is an economic issue: global climate change is already disrupting economies, especially in low-lying areas like Bangladesh and New Orleans. These are ecological problems, they are human problems, they are my problems.
As Unitarian Universalists, our theological principle of radical love — love for all humanity, love for all sentient beings — allows us to extend the circle of our love as far as possible. Thus, as a religious tradition we are uniquely placed to deal with a problem like global climate change, or any ecojustice issue, because our theology allows us to understand how love can be extended to the widest possible circle. And here at First Unitarian, I feel we already live out this theology more than do other Unitarian Universalist congregations. We really do welcome people of differing ages, genders, races, national origins, economic classes, sexual orientations, physical abilities, and theologies — we aim to live out a just society in our own congregation.
We work to live out a just society here in our own congregation, and we already have members who are committed to both ecological and economic justice. We have the appropriate theological principles. Even if you’ve never heard the term “ecojustice” before this morning, we already know how to do ecojustice. It’s a unique religious contribution we make to the local community and to the wider world.