Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Moment for All Ages

Members of the Sunday school sang the song “Garbage” by Bill Steele.

Roger Weiss has posted “Garbage” sung by the songwriter online. Bill Steele had originally posted this recording on his own website, but after his death in 2018 his website disappeared. For Roger Weiss’s remembrance of Bill Steele, along with more recordings, go here.


The first reading was a poem by Ada Limon, “The Origin Revisited.”

The second reading was from “The Edge of the Sea” by Rachel Carson.

Hearing the rising tide, I think how it is pressing also against other shores I know—rising on a southern beach where there is no fog, but a moon edging all the waves with silver and touching the wet sands with lambent sheen, and on a still more distant shore sending its streaming currents against the moonlit pinnacles and the dark caves of the coral rock.…

Once this rocky coast beneath me was a plain of sand; then the sea rose and found a new shore line. And again in some shadowy future the surf will have ground these rocks to sand and will have returned the coast to its earlier state. And so in my mind’s eye these coastal forms merge and blend in a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality—earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.

Sermon: “Garbage”

The First Parish children’s programs — both our summer ecology camp, and the Sunday school — have been singing the song “Garbage” by Bill Steele. This has become a favorite song of several of our kids. Partly, it has become a favorite song because they sing it as fast as possible — maybe twice as fast as you heard it earlier this morning. Obviously, that’s too fast to really understand the words, but they all have the words memorized. They know exactly what the song means.

The other reason I think they like the song is because it has meaning for them. Today’s kids seem to be very aware of problems like plastic pollution of the ocean, so even though this was a topical song written back in 1969 to convince peopple to stop filling in San Francisco Bay, it still has meaning for today’s kids. In 2009, Steele told an interviewer, “Writing topical songs can be frustrating because they go out of currency very quickly. What’s frustrating about this one is that 40 years after it was written, it is still current. From the environmental standpoint, it’s frustrating that we haven’t done anything about it, and that this problem is still with us after all this time.”

I don’t know how the kids feel about it, but for me the most powerful verse is the third verse. That’s the verse that tells us that we’re not only filling up the Bay with garbage, and filling the air with garbage, we’re also filling up our minds with garbage. The song tells how Mr. Thompson goes home after a hard day at work, and settles down to read a newspaper story about “the mayor’s middle name,” which he finishes just in time to watch the All-Star Bingo Game on television. Today it’s more likely to be TikTok and Instagram than newspapers and television, but the phenomenon remains the same — most of us spend way too much time on trivia. While it is important to stay abreast of the news in a democracy, we don’t really need to know about the mayor’s middle name, any more than we need to know about Joe Biden’s dog’s behavior, or that Donald Trump does not own a dog.

We fill our minds with information of no value, and Bill Steele wanted us to convince us that that was analogous to the way garbage was being dumped into San Francisco Bay back in 1969. I’d even extend that metaphor somewhat. Great tracts of San Francisco Bay were filled in with garbage and other landfill during the 1960s and 1970s. But that kind of landfill liquifies during an earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey tells us that “When the ground liquefies, it may lose its ability to support buildings and other structures.” Thus, don’t build your house on garbage, because the garbage won’t provide stability in moments of crisis. If we fill our minds with garbage, we will not have a secure foundation on which to build wisdom or ethics. The first time our mind is shaken by some catastrophic event, all that garbage will turn to mush.

Of course there are alternatives to filling our minds with garbage. This is supposed to be the role of the great spiritual and ethical traditions throughout human history. And indeed, the environmental movement has been cast as a kind of spiritual battle. We are told that we must recycle more, and buy electric cars, and eat more plant-based food. If we could just rid ourselves of our individual spiritual failings — our lack of recycling, our consumption of meat, our gas-guzzling cars, and so on — we could solve the environmental crisis.

I’ve become convinced that the environmental crisis we’re currently facing does have spiritual roots, but I don’t believe that the roots of the environmental crisis lie in ridding ourselves of our individual spiritual failings. We’re not going to solve the environmental crisis by addressing our individual sins of not recycling enough, not eat plant-based foods, and so on. Instead, I feel one of the main roots of the environmental crisis comes from a collective misinterpretation of the Bible. Specifically, I feel that our society collectively buys into a gross misinterpretation of the so-called “dominion clause” in the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, which goes like this:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

This passage has been widely interpreted by Western Christians, Jews, and atheists to mean that God gave humankind god-like powers over every other living thing, meaning we humans have permission to do whatever we like to the non-human world. The historian Lynn White thought this misinterpretation of the Bible dated back to medieval times. I don’t know about that, but I do know that in the late twentieth century a theological viewpoint called Dominion theology became very influential. This theology is based on a misinterpretation of that passage in Genesis, teaching that God has given god-like powers to humans, so they can do whatever they want. Dominion theology goes further than this, teaching that men should have dominion over women. And dominion theology also teaches that Christians should be in charge of all human political affairs. Humans have power over non-humans; male humans have power over female humans; male Christian humans have power over everyone else.

In my opinion, dominion theology is spiritual and religious garbage. Nevertheless, a great many people are filling up their minds with this garbage — not just conservative Christians, but secular people are also being influenced by it. Now the secular people should know better, but let’s look at why dominion theology is religious and spiritual garbage.

According to Genesis, God created all the creatures that live on the earth, in the seas, and in the skies; God also created all the plants and every other living thing. Periodically during this creation process, God stopped, looked at the latest creations, and “saw that it was good.” That is: God did not stop, look at the latest creations, and say, “Gee, I hope some day the human beings make this animal or that plant go extinct.” Nor does God ever say, “Gee, I hope the humans use their garbage to fill in San Francisco Bay, which by the way I created to be a home for ‘every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm’.” Nowhere in the Bible does God say that humankind is supposed to trash the world.

Not only that, but the very next passage in the Bible states that men and women are equal. This upends another major tenet of dominion theology. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” You’ll notice that God had both male and female characteristics, since both males and females were created in God’s image (if this is hard for you to imagine, that’s no surprise since we limited mortals can’t entirely comprehend God anyway).

Contrary to what the proponents of dominion theology claim, here’s what those passages in the book of Genesis actually say: Humankind may have a great deal of power over the nonhuman world, but we are supposed to use that power to take care of God’s creation. God created both women and men in God’s image, which means that women are just as good as men. As for Christians being in charge of everyone else, nowhere in the book of Genesis does that come up. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christians are supposed to run the United States. This is garbage theology. Yet this is the garbage that has been filling many people’s minds.

So why do people allow their minds to be filled up with this kind of garbage? I suspect that part of the problem is that more than a few people in the United States today feel a sense of spiritual emptiness. They’re tired of conventional organized religion — and let’s face it, too much of conventional organized religion today feels spiritually empty — but they want something that fills that spiritual void they sense within. Then they hear about this spiritual movement that sounds pretty convincing, that gives them a purpose, that makes them feel a part of something larger than themselves, and they decide it fills the spiritual void they have been feeling.

There are also a good many people who don’t consciously accept dominion theology, but still act in accordance with some of of its values. Yet these people have unthinkingly accepted the tenets of dominion theology. Even though these people may not want conservative Christians running the United States; even though these people may believe that women are just as good as men; they are providing unthinking support to dominion theology.

So what are we to do about dominion theology? How can we promote the opposite of dominion theology — how can we promote the careful stewardship of planet Earth, the equality of men and women, the separation of church and state?

Today, a great many liberal Christians and Jews are pushing back against dominion theology. These liberal Christians and Jews are saying: Hey, this is our God and our Bible, and dominion theology has gotten it all wrong. Yes, we believe God created the nonhuman world; but while we humans may have dominion over the nonhuman world, dominion was given to us in order to care for God’s creation. And our Bible teaches that “God created humankind in his image…male and female he created them”; that is, women are just as good as men. Oh, and by the way, it says nothing in the Bible about Christians running the United States. This is some of what liberal Jews and Christians are saying. And if you’re a liberal Christian or a liberal Jew, you can be a part of this; you can say: Hey, stop trying to throw your dominionist garbage into our religion.

In addition to that, what all of us can do — whether we’re Christians or Jews or atheists or Buddhists or Haven’t-figured-it-out-yet-ists — we can all offer a compelling spiritual alternative to dominion theology. Part of our spiritual alternative will be that we have reverence for all life; we respect all life. We have equal reverence for all human beings, equal respect for all human beings, no matter what their gender. We value all the wonders of Nature and all the wonders of humankind; or, as we might phrase it, we affirm and support the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. Lastly, we can talk about love being the most powerful force in the universe, and we can teach that principle to other people by doing our best to live it out in our own lives.

We can offer a positive spirituality to replace a negative spirituality. Dominion theology is essentially a negative spirituality; it is not cheerful and filled with love, it is depressing and filled with feelings of sinfulness and inadequacy. We want to replace that with a positive spirituality, a spirituality of hope and of love; a spirituality that helps us live our lives as if we are all connected.

One way we communicate our positive spirituality is the way we live our lives. Another way we communicate our positive spirituality is through the arts. This is exactly what we did with the two readings we heard this morning. Ada Limon, poet laureate of the United States, wrote about a positive poem about how the beauty of the non-human world can support us and sustain us spiritually. Rachel Carson wrote a prose passage about feeling connected to everything. By reading this poem and this prose aloud, we are creating a positive spirituality. That’s one of the most important things we do here in the Meetinghouse each week: we use the arts to create positive spirituality together.

Of course there’s more to it than that. The concrete environmental problems we face — invasive plants and plastics in the ocean and so on — require concrete action. But concrete actions will be so much the stronger when they are supported by a positive spirituality; concrete actions are more effective when they are backed up by hope, and by love.