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.

African Earthkeepers

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 first reading is titled “The Earthkeeper’s Call.” It comes from the African Initiated Churches in Zimbabwe. It tells in part how the African Initiated Churches teamed up with traditional religious groups to plant trees in Zimbabwe.

After chimurenga [the Zimbabwean revolution]
the earth was scorched and barren
and the Spirit of God urged prophets:
“Cry, the empty gullies, the dying plains —
clothe the naked land of the forebears!”
And hope returned.
Healing hands, young leaves of trees.

Heeding the call
they came:
black multitudes
churches of the poor:
billowing garments…
red, white, blue, resplendent green
bearing holy staves, cardboard crowns.
Cursed descendants of Ham,
rejects of white mission,
lift the fallen banner of Spirit
kingdom’s cornerstone
where souls of people, tree souls meet.

Prophets shouted:
Repent! Confess!
I bare earth with axe and fire
rape forests without return
sledge-rip gullied meadows
turn earth’s water to trickling mire.
Confess and baptize… the land!
Oust the demons of neglect.
From Jordan emerge
with bonded hands, new earth community…

Proclaim new heaven
new earth in black Jerusalem…
where weary traveler
finds cool in shade
rustle of leaves
fountains spring
clear water of life.

The second reading is from the book “African Earthkeepers: Wholistic Interfaith Mission.” This passage tells about how some African Initiated Churches have used religious means to prevent environmental destruction. You should know that these particular Christian churches call evildoers “wizards,” in keeping with traditional African cultural understandings, and that as translations of Shona words, “wizard” and “wizardry” have nothing to do with Harry Potter or Gandalf.

“In the earthkeeping churches the nuances regarding wizardry are inevitably more varied and subtle than during the war [for Zimbabwean independence]. In contrast to the execution or torture of war traitors, wanton tree-fellers or poachers of wildlife will, upon prophetic detection, either be temporarily barred from taking the eucharist or, in the event of repeated transgression of the earthkeeper’s code, be excommunicated altogether. The key figures in the Association for African Earthkeeping Churches are only too aware of a common guilt which, in a sense, makes all of us ‘varoyi’ — death destroyers. To this they readily admit, which in itself is a sure sign of accepting collective responsibility for environmental restoration. There is a vast difference, however, between admitting guilt prior to committed participation in conservationist programmes, and deliberate deforestation or related destructive action in the face of a protective environmental code. It is this attitude of selfish environmental exploitation, regardless of the will of the community and the destruction caused to nature, which the prophets condemn as the evil of uroyi [wizardry], to be stamped out at all costs.” [p. 166]


This is the first in a series of three sermons for Black History Month. Although often Black History Month is a time to celebrate and explore the Black Diaspora, in today’s sermon I’m going to talk about contemporary Africa.

If you attend worship services here regularly, you will know by now that I have a special interest in ecological theology and spirituality. Nor I am alone in this interest: many other people in this congregation are also committed to ecological theology and spirituality. Speaking for myself, I find myself nodding in agreement with the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released yesterday which says there is “unequivocal series of evidence [showing that] fossil fuel burning and land use change are affecting the climate on our planet.” I feel equally strongly that my religion has to address the realities of that environmental crisis; in fact, if my religion does not address the environmental crisis in real and meaningful ways, why, I’ll go find another religion that does.

I said our whole world is involved in this environmental crisis. It’s easy to forget that. It’s all too easy to concentrate on our environmental problems right here in North America, and ignore the rest of the world. It’s easy, for example, to conveniently forget that when sea levels start rising due to global warming, the country of Bangladesh is going to be much worse off than New Bedford — thousand, even millions of Bangldeshis could be affected by even a modest increase in sea levels. It’s easy to forget, for another example, that the air in some Chinese cities is so polluted that no birds can live in those cities, and that lung diseases are rampant among the human inhabitants of those cities. It’s easy to forget, for another example, that the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are predicting an increase in the already serious droughts and desertification in sub-Sahara Africa.

It’s easy for us here in North America to forget that the environmental crisis is world-wide. In my more cynical moments, I sometimes think that predominantly white North America manages to ignore environmental crisis in countries where most of the people do not have white skin. In my less cynical moments, I sometimes wonder how these other places are coping with environmental crisis. Many places in the world are already deeper into the crisis than we are. Maybe we could learn from them.

A year ago, I happened to stumble across a book titled African Earthkeepers: Wholistic Interfaith Mission, by Marthinus L. Daneel. In this book, Daneel tells the story of an interfaith earthkeeping project that unites Christians and traditional African religious groups in Zimbabwe. The project didn’t happen overnight, and the story of this interfaith earthkeeping effort goes something like this:

Before the war for majority rule in Zimbabwe, ecological problems were already appearing. Overgrazing was common — putting too much livestock onto the land had the result that the plants the animals preferred to eat couldn’t reseed themselves, leaving bare soil. Soil erosion became common, and big gullies began to appear in the land where the soil washed away. Firewood had become scarce, more and more trees were cut for cooking fires, and forests began to shrink in size. All these trends were exacerbated by the fact that a tiny white minority controlled most of the land, which they farmed for profit, not to supply local food, selling much of their crops abroad.

Zimbabwe achieved independence from white minority rule in the mid-1980’s. Many of those who fought for black majority rule hoped that a redistribution of land would lead to greater equity through better ecological balance. This was not to be so, for the war for independence, and its aftermath, devastated the countryside. Widespread destruction of forests left the land vulnerable to erosion. People were evicted from where they had lived, and wound up squatting on common lands. On top of that, a severe drought lasted through most of the 1980’s up to 1992.

In his book, Marthinus Daneel says that it was bad enough to see the poorly-conceived settlement plans lead to further environmental destruction. But it was something else to see “callous profiteers” grab up forest lands and clear-cut the trees to sell as firewood for a quick profit, leaving the land exposed to soil erosion. And it was something else to see squatters pushed into the drainage area of Lake Kyle, where they quickly cut down large sections of the forest, leaving the bare soil to drain into the lake.

“Worst of all was the invasion of Mount Mugabe,” Daneel writes. Exploitative profiteers managed to grab land on the sacred mountain, cutting down the wild fruit trees that grew there, selling them for firewood. Not only was it ridiculous to destroy a food source just to make a quick profit; the people of the area, both Christians and those who practiced traditional religion, thought of the trees as sacred. “These greedy exploiters desecrated the holy grove,” writes Daneel. “Soon the mountain was dying.” [p.9]

Daneel and others watched the land being destroyed, and slowly a resolve grew in them to somehow stop the destruction. Daneel, who is Christian, tells about a key moment for him, when he was talking with one of the leaders of the traditional religion. Both of them felt the environmental crisis had a spiritual side to it. In Daneel’s Christian churches, there was a growing feeling that the church’s must become keepers of God’s creation. For their part, the traditional religious groups were upset by the destruction of the sacred groves, and they felt that unless something was done to fix the situation they could expect retribution from the spirit world. A key moment came when the two groups decided that they must work together — that these two religions, long at odds with one another, must put aside their differences and address the problem of environmental disaster together. It’s as if Unitarian Universalists teamed up with fundamentalist Christians become earthkeepers together.

Out of the collaboration of these two groups emerged the project of planting trees. Not only was planting trees a religious act, it was also pragmatic: planting trees meant stabilizing river banks; it meant planting fruit trees that can become food sources; it meant preventing soil erosion from overgrazed lands; it meant fighting back against desertification. Remember, too, that they couldn’t just raise money and drive over to the local nursery to buy saplings; there were no commercial nurseries; if they wanted trees they would have to create nurseries and grow the trees from seeds.

The traditionalists formed a group called AZTREC, the Association of Zimbabwean Traditional Ecologists, and the Christians formed a group called Association for African Earthkeeping Churches, or AAEC. Together, they declared the “war of the trees,” and set a goal of growing a million trees from seed every year, and then planting those trees where most needed. By the year 2000, the year Daneel wrote his book, they had almost reached that goal, surviving several serious droughts and overcoming serious financial and logistical challenges.

Remember that this was an interfaith religious movement. To me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the religious movement is that both the Christians and the traditionalists declared that destroying trees was evil and not acceptable from a religious point of view. This is what we heard in the second reading this morning. The Christian churches would publicly expose persons who engaged in tree-cutting or environmental destruction, ask them to repent, and if the evildoers would not repent, they would be excluded from the eucharist, the central religious rite of the church; and if their actions continued after that, they would be excommunicated. On the traditionalist side, their leaders declared that destruction of trees would lead to the most dire consequences for individuals, and for the community. Traditional spirit mediums told the people that if environmental destruction continued, the spirits would continue to withhold the rains, and the severe drought would continue. Christian prophets denounced individual evildoers and profiteers. In short, both Christians and traditionalists declared that environmental destruction was evil, that environmental destruction was against religious principles, and that individuals who participated willfully in environmental destruction would be penalized by their religious communities.

I said at the beginning that perhaps we could learn from this African movement. Now the history of North American involvement in Africa has been generally paternalistic, especially here in the United States. When we think of Africans at all, which is not very often, we have a tendency to think: Those Africans, they are so poor and ill-educated, I’ll send a check to help out one of those poor starving African children I see in the advertisements. When our government sends aid money, the money usually comes with restrictions and advice, with an underlying assumption that Africans don’t know enough to handle their money, and that their governments are all corrupt anyway (as if we have no governmental corruption here in the United States, as if the lobbyists don’t have undue influence here in out own country). We tend to look at Africa paternalistically, and we think that we can offer help to them, but how on earth could such a poor continent help us out.

Well, I think the African idea of turning environmental destruction into a religious matter is an idea we could learn from. I think the African idea of interfaith cooperation to stop environmental destruction is an idea we could learn from. I even think the idea of declaring environmental destruction to be evil is an idea we could learn from. So I say we should listen to and learn from these Africans who plant trees.

First of all, let’s be a lot more explicit about turning environmental destruction into a religious matter. If we did that, we might come up with some interesting results. Then anything we do to stop environmental destruction could be seen as an act of prayer or meditation, a spiritual practice, which in turn could mean that whatever we do to stop environmental destruction is not a thankless chore but rather it is an act of spiritual beauty. If stopping environmental destruction becomes a religious matter, for some of us it will become easier to channel the whole force and power of mind, heart, and soul into that effort. If healing the earth becomes a religious matter, we might just find that we heal our own souls by healing the earth. Therefore, I say: let’s make earth healing, earthkeeping, a central part of our shared religion.

Second of all, let’s figure out a way to make earth healing and earthkeeping an interfaith activity. I believe interfaith cooperation should be especially important for Unitarian Universalists. We already have lots of expertise in this area — we have Christians, humanists, Jews, pagans, and Buddhists in our congregations as it is, we already know how to do interfaith dialogue at a very intimate level. We can translate religious terms on the fly. When a fundamentalist Christian says “creation care,” we can translate into secular humanist terms: “ecological sustainability” — into pagan terms: “honoring the Goddess” — and so on. In fact, I think we might borrow the two African terms, “earth healing” and “earthkeeping,” and perhaps use them to substitute for more theologically loaded terms. We Unitarian Universalists should be out there making contacts with other religious groups, and building interfaith cooperation for earth healing and earthkeeping.

Third, it’s time for us to declare that environmental destruction is evil. It is perhaps the greatest evil of our time. It is a religious evil. I know we hear too many comparisons to the evil of the Nazis and the Holocaust, but in this case I believe that comparison is apt; right now, environmental destruction is causing genocide as entire species are deliberately pushed towards extinction. It may cause further genocide as poor countries and communities of color are forced to bear the heaviest burden of environmental destruction.

We Unitarian Universalists tend to be reluctant to declare that something is evil. The term “evil” has been misused and misappropriated, especially in religious circles, and we don’t want to continue that misuse. We are even more reluctant to declare that a person is evil. We say that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. And from our Universalist heritage, we retain that old sense that God will save all souls, that there will be universal salvation, no matter what.

Yet I don’t think we can avoid calling the current environmental destruction “evil.” Huge numbers of people are going to die if we don’t do something about global climate change; and the people who will suffer most will be the peoples who have been historically marginalized: communities of color, the poor, those without political power. We have already seen this tendency at work in New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What happened to the poor neighborhoods in New Orleans was evil, insofar as the disaster continues to have worse consequence3s than it should have had. And we can’t avoid calling the current environmental destruction evil because we know that there is a small number people, of profiteers, who benefit from environmental destruction. The big oil companies have been actively working against public policy initiatives to reduce oil consumption so that we may reduce the production of greenhouse gasses — insofar as they have done so, the oil companies and their executives are doing evil.

Those are just three things we could learn from this African movement for earthkeeping. If we had more time this morning, I would love to explore at least two other things we could learn from them. I would love to talk about how earthkeeping and earth healing could be further integrated into our worship services — for example, those African Initiated Christian churches plant trees as a part of a worship service. And I would love to talk more about the significance of planting trees, how tree planting becomes both a pragmatic act, and an act of religious earth healing.

So it is that I believe we can learn something of critical importance from an African interfaith environmental group. I hope that you see, as I do, how we can learn from the mother continent of Africa. We can learn that earthkeeping and earth healing should be a religious task, not just a political task. We can learn that such a huge task requires us to work in close cooperation with other religious groups. And I believe we can learn practical, pragmatic ways of accomplishing earthkeeping.

So may our religious tradition learn from African religious traditions; so may we learn to become earthkeepers, and earth healers.

God in Nature

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) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, titled “Blight.”

Give me truths,
For I am weary of the surfaces,
And die of inanition. If I knew
Only the herbs and simples of the wood,
Rue, cinquefoil, gill, vervain, and pimpernel,
Blue-vetch, and trillium, hawkweed, sassafras,
Milkweeds, and murky brakes, quaint pipes and sundew,
And rare and virtuous roots, which in these woods
Draw untold juices from the common earth,
Untold, unknown, and I could surely spell
Their fragrance, and their chemistry apply
By sweet affinities to human flesh,
Driving the foe and stablishing the friend,–
O that were much, and I could be a part
Of the round day, related to the sun,
And planted world, and full executor
Of their imperfect functions.
But these young scholars who invade our hills,
Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
And travelling often in the cut he makes,
Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
And all their botany is Latin names.
The old men studied magic in the flower,
And human fortunes in astronomy,
And an omnipotence in chemistry,
Preferring things to names, for these were men,
Were unitarians of the united world,
And wheresoever their clear eyebeams fell,
They caught the footsteps of the SAME. Our eyes
Are armed, but we are strangers to the stars,
And strangers to the mystic beast and bird,
And strangers to the plant and to the mine;
The injured elements say, Not in us;
And night and day, ocean and continent,
Fire, plant, and mineral say, Not in us,
And haughtily return us stare for stare.
For we invade them impiously for gain,
We devastate them unreligiously,
And coldly ask their pottage, not their love,
Therefore they shove us from them, yield to us
Only what to our griping toil is due;
But the sweet affluence of love and song,
The rich results of the divine consents
Of man and earth, of world beloved and lover,
The nectar and ambrosia are withheld;
And in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves
And pirates of the universe, shut out
Daily to a more thin and outward rind,
Turn pale and starve….

The second reading this morning is by Bernard Loomer, Bernard, from his essay “The Size of God” [in The Size of God: The Theology of Bernard Loomer in Context, ed. by William Dean and Larry Axel. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press]:

“In our traditions the term ‘God’ is the symbol of ultimate values and meanings in all of their dimensions. It connotes an absolute claim on our loyalty. It points the direction of a greatness of fulfillment. It signifies a richness of resources for the living of life at its depths. It suggests the enshrinement of our common and ecological life. It proclaims an adequate object of worship. It symbolizes a transcendent and inexhaustible meaning that forever eludes our grasp. The world is God because it is the source and preserver of meaning; because the creative advance of the world in its adventure is the supreme cause to be served; because even in our desecration of our space and time within it, the world is holy ground; and because it contains and yet enshrouds the ultimate mystery inherent within existence itself” (Loomer 1987, 42)

SERMON — “God in Nature”

In case you’re wondering, I’m not going to preach about Christmas this week. It’s only NOvember, and still too early to preach about Christmas. Instead, this sermon is the third in a series of sermons on Unitarian Universalist views on God.

I’ve been thinking about the current hullabaloo raised by Richard Dawkins’s latest book, The God Delusion. Dawkins, as you probably know, is an evolutionary biologist; he is also an atheist who delights in pointing out the ridiculousness of believing in God; and as a result he has been getting lots of coverage in the popular press. I have to admit, I don’t even plan to read his book. Tending towards cynicism as I do, it’s hard for me to take Dawkins seriously, because it’s clear that the more he fulminates against established religion, the more books he will sell. In today’s world, iconoclasm can be very profitable.

Come to think of it, maybe I should read Dawkins’s book, and learn how to write my own bestselling book in which I trash-talk religion from a minister’s point of view.

On the other hand, while the media has been giving Dawkins lots of coverage, but they have not been covering how theological scholars are responding to Dawkins’s book; popular culture doesn’t want to hear experts on religion talk about religion. The theologians are politely saying that Dawkins’s book simply displays his ignorance of theology: that the God Dawkins describes is not a God that any theologian would take seriously either. They are also saying Dawkins should know better: in order to write seriously about a subject you should read up on the subject first, and Dawkins clearly knows nothing about theology.

On the other other hand, the theologians are probably jealous that their books don’t sell as well as Dawkins’s. Which may be because too many of the theologians write about a traditional, abstract God that I can’t believe in. So where does that leave someone like me? I don’t believe in the cartoon-caricature of God that Dawkins vilifies; who does? Nor am I interested in the traditional God of the theologians, a lifeless God which I sometimes find even less believable than Dawkins’s cartoonish God.

I suspect there are quite a few you out there who find themselves in this same position. The cartoon-God of the God-bashers, while entertaining, is also faintly embarrassing because it’s too easy to bash a cartoonish God. The traditional concepts of God hold little interest for us any more. The academic God of the theologians seems simply irrelevant. Yet here we are, sitting in a church; we’re still religious. Whether or not we believe in God, we still take religion seriously.

So this morning I’d like to talk about one concept of God that I find I can take seriously; and that’s the idea that God is inextricably intertwined with Nature, with the natural world. Not that you or I or anyone should unquestioningly accept this concept of God-in-Nature;– but I do think it’s worthy of our serious attention, for at least three reasons: first, because many people find personal religious inspiration in Nature; second, because it seems easy to reconcile such a God with the insights of science; and third, because it seems that such a God could help us understand the current ecological crisis, and help us understand why we should do something about that crisis.

Let’s start with that first reason:– It’s worth considering God as Nature because many of us find personal religious inspiration in Nature. By “religious” inspiration, I mean an experience of awe and wonder, or an experience a sense of the sublime; a personal sense of religion often grows out of such experiences. Not that these experiences lead necessarily towards one narrow religious viewpoint. You can experience a religious awe and wonder at the coming of springtime and the rebirth of the natural world; but that doesn’t mean that you will necessarily fit that experience of awe and wonder into the traditional Western Christian celebration of Easter and the risen Christ; no more does it mean that you will fit that experience into the celebration of the ancient Celtic pagan holiday of Beltane. Or you can experience a religious sense of the sublime when you are in the eye of a hurricane, when you see and hear the storm raging all around you but overhead there is that small, quiet patch of blue sky; but that sense of the insignificant self being overwhelmed by the sublime power and grandeur of the universe does not lead to any specific religious theological belief system.

I get a good deal of my own religious inspiration from Nature. When I’m in the White Mountains, hiking above treeline into the alpine ecosystem, being in the midst of the low shrubby trees and tiny delicate flowers, that is a religious experience for me. Or the other day when I was out on Pope’s Island, I flushed a Cooper’s Hawk out of some shrubs near the city marina, and the surprise of its sudden appearance, and the sight of it flying off low over the waters of the harbor, was a religious experience. I don’t know how to explain that feeling of connection to another living being except as a religious connection; I’m not going to eat a Cooper’s Hawk, nor will it eat me; seeing a patch of lichen above treeline is not going to give me some evolutionary advantage that will help me pass along my genes to the next generation. These powerful experiences of nature don’t move me to believe in the traditional God, but my personal experiences of the natural world make me think that it might make sense to describe Nature as God.

And this is related to the fact that it is possible, even easy, to reconcile such a God, God-in-Nature, with the insights of science.

Science can provoke awe and wonder and sense of sublime; at least, I suspect it can do so for nearly everyone in this room. Haven’t you ever been thrilled by one of those science programs on television? Admittedly, some of them are terminally boring, but I do get excited by the programs about astronomy. How can you not get excited when you hear about the Big Bang that (so it is theorized) was the beginning of our whole universe? How can you not react in awe and wonder when you learn about the vast distances in our universe? What’s even more thrilling is when you get to experience science first-hand. Last winter, one of the local astronomy clubs brought their telescopes out for AHA! Night one month, and I got a chance to look through their telescopes at Uranus and Mars — that was far more memorable than a television program, and it was certainly an experience of awe and wonder for me.

On a more personal level, as an avid bird watcher I’m thrilled by bird biology. When you see two different kinds of sandpipers feeding side by side at the edge of the ocean, almost identical to one another except for the length of their bills, and you know that they evolved from a common ancestor, evolving different bill lengths so one could dig a little deeper in the sand and mud and exploit a slightly different ecological niche, I find that thrilling. Those two birds are living, breathing examples of how evolution works, which I find awe-inspiring and wonderful. Now I had better stop talking about birds before your eyes glaze over in boredom. The science of ornithology happens to fill me with awe and wonder; even if you find birds mind-numbingly boring, I trust that you will be able to think of other examples of science that fills you with awe and wonder.

Richard Dawkins notwithstanding, many religious people have no problem reconciling God with science. Liberal Christians find it easy to reconcile a fairly traditional Christian God with science, as long as you don’t take the Bible literally. Pagans, Jews, and many other religious faiths say that science is completely compatible with belief in Goddess or God. But I would like to tell you about “religious naturalism,” a religious position which I probably adhere to.

Jerry Stone, a philosopher of religion who is affiliated with Meadville Lombard Theological School, came up with the term “religious naturalism.” I went to hear Jerry give a talk about religious naturalism last June at General Assembly, our big annual denominational meeting. Jerry says that ‘naturalism’ means “a set of beliefs and attitudes that focus on this world,” whereas ‘supernaturalism’ would imply that there is something beyond the natural world. So according to Jerry Stone, “religious naturalism is a philosophy or theology that there are religious aspects of this world which can be appreciated within a naturalist framework.” Which means that religious naturalism is easily compatible with science.

And religious naturalism allows belief in God. (Jerry Stone also says that there are also religious naturalists who see no need for any concept of God at all; but that’s a topic for a different sermon.) Some religious naturalists would say that God is the whole universe, the totality of everything; as we heard Bernard Loomer say in the first reading this morning. Other religious naturalists would say that God is a part of the total universe; for example, a theologian named Henry Nelson Wieman said that the creative process in the universe is God. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau fall into one of these two camps: they found God in natural processes and in the connections between living beings, and it may be that they find God in everything.

To find God in the interconnections between living beings: it seems to me that such a God could help us understand why we should do something about the current ecological crisis. This is the big problem I have with people like Richard Dawkins: he gives me no compelling reason why I should try to stop species extinctions, or try to clean up New Bedford harbor, or do anything at all about the ecological crisis.

Our ecological crisis fascinates me. It horrifies me, too, but I’m fascinated by the fact that we have the science and the technological know-how to end the ecological crisis — and yet we aren’t ending the crisis. I’m fascinated by the fact that we have the financial resources to pay for solving global warming, to take one example, to pay for it with relatively little disruption to the economy — and yet we aren’t ending global warming, or any part of the ecological crisis. I’m fascinated from a religious point of view, because I think our society refuses to deal with the current ecological crisis because of certain prevailing religious beliefs. Let me outline what some of those religious beliefs might be.

First, and most obviously, there are substantial numbers of right-wing Christians who don’t worry about the current ecological crisis because they fully expect the end of the world to come, and all the true believers will be “raptured” up to heaven. If you think you’re going to get “raptured” up to heaven, I’ll bet you don’t think you have to deal with global warming, species extinctions, or the PCBs in New Bedford harbor. Second, there are substantial numbers of people of many different religious persuasions who are willing to passively sit back and trust to God, or to Goddess, or whomever. If you think it was meant to be this way, ecological disasters and all, if you say “I’m sure God will provide”; I’d have to say there isn’t much incentive for you to take responsibility yourself to clean up the world.

Thirdly, and least obviously, there are lots of people who believe that human beings are the most important life form, not only more important than any other plant or animal but also more important than the ecosystem considered as a whole. If you think you, as a human being, are so special then why would you cut back on your fuel consumption just because global warming is going to melt the polar ice caps thus killing off all the polar bears? This third group includes plenty of people who would not think of themselves as religious, but I count them as religious since they hold onto this belief with religious zeal in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Yet if the theory of evolution teaches us anything, it teaches us that human beings are not special and not unique; we’re just another organism that happened to develop through the chance processes of evolution.

We human beings do have a deep need to feel special. At the moment, too many of us satisfy our need to feel special at the expense of all other life forms. If we are willing to affirm God as being intertwined with Nature in some way, that means that we, too, are a part of God. It doesn’t get any more special than that: there is that of God in each of us; or maybe it’s that there’s that of each of us in God; in either case, we too are divine, we too are Godly. If you prefer, you can substitute “Goddess” for “God” here, and everything will still be equally true.

Yet if we say that God or Goddess is intertwined with Nature, we have every incentive to do no harm to Nature, for doing harm to Nature is not only doing harm to God or Goddess, it is also doing harm to ourselves; since we too are divine. It is morally and ethically wrong to cause harm to Nature.

In the first reading this morning, Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that we have become strangers to animals and plants, strangers to ocean and continent, strangers even to the night and to the day. Why is this so?: “For we invade them impiously for gain,/We devastate them unreligiously…”. Emerson tell us that it is morally and ethically wrong to cause harm to Nature. He also tells us that in causing such harm, we only harm ourselves: “The nectar and ambrosia” of the Gods “are withheld” from us; “And in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves/ And pirates of the universe, shut out/ Daily to a more thin and outward rind,/ Turn pale and starve.” Causing harm to ourselves is itself morally and ethically wrong, to say nothing of being stupid.

“Give me truths,” says Emerson, not delusions. The truth is that it wouldn’t do us any harm to start treating Nature as divine. I’m not trying to convince you that you should accept this idea of God; I’m not even sure that I accept this notion of God; I need to think about this some more. But the idea of God as Nature is worth taking seriously.

Affirm that Nature is divine, and maybe humans will stop unleashing blight on the natural world. Affirm the divinity of Nature, and maybe we will figure out how to extend our morals and ethics beyond human beings to all of Nature. Such affirmations do not strike me as delusional, but as good practical common sense.