I don’t usually post my sermons on this blog, because for me the sermon is a spoken genre that doesn’t translate well into written form. But people at church seemed to like this sermon, so I thought, what the heck, maybe you might like it. And this sermon is for you, no matter what flavor of religious liberal you happen to be.
Be warned: if you were in church this morning, I usually ad lib 20-30% of the sermon, including most of the funny bits — so this is different from what you heard today.
The first reading this morning is from the book Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, from the chapter titled, “Sounds”:
What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.
I did not read books the first summer [I lived at Walden Pond]; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time…. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.
The second reading is from the Hebrew prophets, the book of Isaiah, chapter 24, verses 5 and 6:
The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt….
Sermon — “Transcendental Ecology”
In case you haven’t noticed, the historically liberal churches have been shoved off to the margins in the United States. Historically liberal churches such as the Episcopalians, the Congregationalists, the Methodists, the northern Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterians, the Quakers, and yes the Unitarian Universalists, have been losing members and influence for some forty years now. We used to be at the center of things. Forty years ago, during the Civil Rights movement, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called on church leaders to come stand beside him, we in the historically liberal churches went and stood. Some religious liberals even died for Civil Rights, including two Unitarian Unviersalists: Rev. James Reeb, and Viola Luizzo. At that time, we engaged with the outer world, and our opinions actually mattered.
Since that time, Unitarian Universalists and all the other historically liberal churches have been steadily losing membership and influence. (We Unitarian Universalists have actually been gaining members in the past twenty years, at about one percent a year; which however is not enough to keep up with population growth but at least we’re not shrinking like all the other liberal churches.) I sometimes feel that we religious liberals have spent the last forty years in a kind of a daze; we have spent the last forty years gazing at our navels. Sure, individual religious liberals work harder than ever to make this a better world — but as a group, as a liberal religious church, we are far from the centers of power and influence.
Of course, you know who is at the centers of power and influence. While we religious liberals have been gazing at our navels, the Religious Right, a loose coalition of many of the fundamentalist churches, some of the evangelical churches, televangelists, billionaires, and other conservative Christians, has gained in power and influence. The Religious Right has enormous influence in Congress and in the White House. The Religious Right is extremely well-funded. The Religious Right has charismatic preachers, some of whom have built churches of upwards of thirty thousand members. We are shrinking and increasingly irrelevant; they get to elect presidents.
I think it’s time for us to change. For the past forty years, we religious liberals have been coming to our beautiful church buildings, politely sad because global warming and massive species extinctions are destroying living beings that we consider sacred. Perhaps we even gently wring our hands, and we say we don’t quite know what to do. We know that environmental destruction is a religious issue. We know that one of the roots of the ecological disaster we face today is the simple religious fact that Western religion has mis-interpreted that passage in the Bible, the one where God gives us dominion over all other living beings, to mean that we can rape the earth and destroy at will. We know, too, that the Religious Right is happy for their God to have dominion over the United States, and for men to have dominion over women, and for men in the United States to have dominion over all over living beings — and when they say dominion, they don’t mean it in a nice, polite way, they mean domination. We religious liberals know all that, and when we leave our beautiful churches after coffee hour, we seem to forget all this until we next come to church, maybe four weeks from now. We conveniently forget that the ecological disaster we are now facing has deep religious roots.
I think it’s time for us to change. We no longer have the luxury of sitting quietly in our beautiful liberal churches. We no longer have the luxury of chatting politely with our friends at coffee hour about everything except the religious roots of the ecological crisis (to say nothing of the religious roots of gay-bashing, the religious roots of the widening gap between rich and poor, and so on). We no longer have the luxury of being able to separate our polite religion from the rough-and-tumble of real-world events; we no longer have the luxury of hiding our religious faith from the world.
So I’m going to try to set an example here this morning. I’m going to speak here publicly about my deeply-held religious faith, a religious faith that drives me to try, against all hope, to save what’s left of the natural world from further destruction. Maybe what I say seems a little raw; maybe I’m making one or two people feel uncomfortable. We have gotten out of the habit of speaking of our deeply-held religious beliefs here in our liberal churches; we have, in fact, gotten out of the habit of being religious. But that’s what ministers are for: to set the best example we know how to set, and to call people to be religious.
So let’s talk religion — to start us off, I’ll talk about my own deeply held religious beliefs.
I’m a Transcendentalist. When I was about sixteen, I had a transcendental experience. I was sitting outdoors at the base of Punkatasset Hill in my home town of Concord, Massachusetts, with my back against a white birch tree. There was this alley of white birches that someone had planted along an old farm road, and the fields on either side were still, at that time, mowed for hay twice a year. So I was just sitting there on a beautiful late spring day, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of the oneness of everything. I mean, this was an overwhelming experience, I really don’t have the words to describe it. Since then, I’ve had numerous other transcendent experiences, some more powerful than others.
What do these transcendental experiences mean? Well, I suppose I’m still trying to make sense out of those experiences. When I was about twenty, I found William James’s book Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he describes the various mystical experiences that people have. James said that perhaps a quarter of the population have mystical experiences of one sort or another, and in his descriptions of the various kinds of mystical experiences I could see the outlines of my own mystical experiences. But James’s book didn’t tell me about the meaning of my mystical experiences.
I found something of the meaning of my transcendental experiences in a book by my fellow townsman, Henry Thoreau. I had always disliked Thoreau when I was a child; when you grow up in Concord, and go to the Concord public schools, you get force-fed Thoreau and Emerson, and Alcott and Hawthorne for that matter. I don’t take well to force-feeding and so dismissed Thoreau. But at last I found that Thoreau’s book Walden probably described what I had been experiencing better than anything else, especially when he writes:
I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, …until by the sun falling in at my west window… I was reminded of the lapse of time.
I discovered that I, too, love a broad margin to my life. That broad margin is a margin to my life in which I have the time and the space to be able to be rapt in a revery, to reflect on the ultimate meaning of the universe. It is also a margin to my life where I can reflect on the difference between real religion, and religion as it is imperfectly practiced in the world around me.
When I have been able to sit “rapt in a revery,” I have come to the inescapable conclusion that there is a unity which binds all human beings together, which binds all living beings together — which, indeed, binds us human beings to the non-living world as well, to the sun and the moon and the stars above and the rocks under our feet.
I can put this into scientific terms if you’d like: all parts of the ecosystem are interconnected, these interconnections can be modeled in terms of systems theory using feedback loops and non-linear relationships; and to harm one part of an ecosystem will have wide repercussions throughout the ecosystem. I find I am quite comfortable with scientific language. I can also put this into the language of Christianity if you’d like: God’s creation consists of earth, moon, sun, and stars; of the ocean and all the creatures that live there; of the birds of the air; of the plants that grow and the animals that live on the earth; of human beings. And to harm one part of God’s creation is to do violence to God. I find I am reasonably comfortable with Christian language. Or if you like, I can also put this into the one of the dialects of neo-paganism, which might sound something like this: the Goddess who is Gaia, earth mother, mother of all that lives; the Goddess who is the Moon Goddess who sets the rhythms of the seasons; it is she whom we love and must respect, and to harm the ecosystem is to harm the Mother Goddess. I find I am reasonably comfortable with neo-Pagan language, too.
Right now, the specific language is less important than the fundamental underlying insight. In fact, we could even put this in words that the Religious Right might recognize:
The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
(Right after that, by the way, Isaiah goes on to say why the earth has become polluted: it’s because his people have twisted and mis-interpreted their religion.)
Yes, we have broken our covenant, our promises, to the earth. I am told by some religious liberals that in speaking this way, I’m not being decorous, I’m not being polite. (Funny how you don’t hear the Religious Right saying to each other, “Now be polite!”) But my religious faith sets me on fire; I’m not polite. I know that my faith can transform the world; I know that my faith can change the religious attitudes that lead to dominion theology and global ecological catastrophe; but I am told by some Unitarian Universalists that I am not polite, because I’m trying to change this nice comfortable little religion we’ve had for the past forty years.
Maybe that’s the problem: mine is not a comfortable faith. I have not been made comfortable by having transcendental experiences that cause me to sit rapt in a revery on a summer morning; I have not been made comfortable by the religious realization that my contribution to global warming and habitat destruction is morally wrong; I have not been made comfortable in the knowledge that our churches must grow quickly or sink into complete and total irrelevancy as the Religious Right gains more and more influence in the United States; I am not comfortable knowing that it is up to me and other religious liberals to combat the misguided religion of domination that is the Religious Right.
I suspect that I’m probably passing along some of my discomfort to you. I keep challenging you, I know; I am not the warm, cuddly pastor that I would kind of like to be. I would love to be able to stand up here week after week, and be able to preach warm, comforting sermons. I would love to be able to sit with you each week and pass on comfortable religious thoughts as you live out your life. It would be so much easier if we could just keep on with our small, comfortable little church; for after all, growth just means more work for us. I wish I could be a warm comfortable cuddly pastor, in a nice relaxed sleepy little church; but I don’t think either you or I have that luxury.
My friends, the world is changing around us. Very rapidly. Ten years ago, I would have laughed at the idea that these United States could turn into a theocracy run by a Religious Right who distorts Jesus of Nazareth’s message of love into a message of prejudice and intolerance, who use the Bible to justify ecological disaster. Ten years ago I would have laughed at this idea; now I believe such a theocracy is a remote but all-too-real possibility. It will be a theocracy based on a religion of domination: men dominating women, the rich dominating the poor, straight people dominating gays and lesbians, and above all humanity dominating and destroying the rest of the natural world. Because, they will say, it is God’s will.
If such a theocracy comes, it will not be comfortable to be a Unitarian Universalist. If such a theocracy comes, we in the liberal churches will have no one to blame but ourselves. We have let our religion become optional, sort of like joining a country club, or supporting National Public Radio. We have let the Religious Right steal the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus and the other Jewish prophets away from us. We have let the political liberals to completely separate environmentalism from religion. We have let our churches dwindle in size, even though we are told that our churches get more newcomers and visitors, relative to our size, than the churches of the Religious Right. And we have been coming to church when we feel like it, staying comfortable, looking always inward.
My friends, I know that many of you are facing serious personal challenges. There are people in this congregation who have are facing so much that they don’t have any energy left over for anything except staying alive. But that, too, is a very different thing from having a country-club church; when life is that overwhelming, you are not in a position to have a safe comfortable religion; life is not letting you have safety and comfort. If we could start remembering that the world is not a comfortable place for most people, maybe we could offer each other a lot more comfort.
I’d like to invite you to join me in remaking liberal religion; in remaking this liberal church. I invite you to be on fire with your liberal religious faith. I invite you to feel your religion so deeply that when life overwhelms you, your religion becomes a source of strength. I invite you let your religious convictions of love, compassion, and justice draw you into passion and commitment to heal the world. I invite you to be moved by your deeply-held religious belief that all living beings are sacred, that the whole ecosystem is sacred.
If we did that, this church, First Unitarian in New Bedford, would once again become a force to be reckoned with. As it stands now, a few people are impressed with our beautiful building, and maybe with our past exploits; but aside from that, our little congregation of less than a hundred people is safely ignored. But if we choose to do so, we could change the world.