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Sermon delivered by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian in New Bedford, Mothers' Day, 14 May, 2006.


(The first reading was a poem by Adrienne Rich, titled "Mother-Right," from her book Dream of a Common Language -- not reproduced here due to copyright restrictions.)

The second reading this morning is from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Proverbs, chapter 4, verses 1-9:

1 Listen, children, to a father's instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight;
2 for I give you good precepts:
do not forsake my teaching.
3 When I was a son with my father,
tender, and my mother's favorite,
4 he taught me, and said to me,
"Let your heart hold fast my words;
keep my commandments, and live.
5 Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away
from the words of my mouth.
6 Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.
7 The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever else you get, get insight.
8 Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honor you if you embrace her.
9 She will place on your head a fair garland;
she will bestow on you a beautiful crown."

Sermon -- "Eco-Moms"

At their best, religious scriptures make us feel uncomfortable; make us realize that we're not yet the best people we could be; make us long to grow a better world from the compost of our present reality.

And the religious scriptures of the world have their limits. The religious scriptures I know have a tendency to ignore women: the writings of Confucius mention women maybe once; Buddhist scriptures are either abstractly remote, or focus in on a man's world; the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus tell men's stories. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are somewhat better: the Hebrew Bible has some powerful women characters in it, and a couple of books are even devoted to telling women's stories; in the Christian scriptures, women have important roles to play, now and then. But: if we want to talk in newspaper terminology, women get far fewer column inches than men in all religious scriptures; which is hardly balanced reporting; worse yet, there's a clear bias in the reporting in that women's viewpoints and concerns are slighted.

Well, this is an old story by now. Even though a few conservative religious groups continue to insist that the world's religious scriptures offer a perfectly balanced view of women, the rest of us know better. And over the past few decades, some of our best poets have created poems that rival religious scriptures for beauty, truth, and a capacity to make us feel uncomfortable.

The first reading this morning was by one of those poets, Adrienne Rich. Her poem "Mother-Right" challenges us to think about who mothers are, and what women are; and who men are, and what they are; and who and what children might be.

In the poem, a woman is running through a field; she has a child with her. In her long, slim hand, she holds the smaller, starlike, hand of a child. Her hair is "cut short for faster travel"; the child's hair is in long curls that graze his shoulders. Together, they through the field.

Somewhere on the horizon a man stands, his feet planted on the ground. He is walking the boundaries (the boundaries of what, is not quite clear) and he is measuring. He is motivated by the belief that parts of the earth are his.

So the man is making boundaries, and the woman is running, running through the air, running through the field, running under the clouds and sky. How can there be boundaries to anything? Well, the man believes the things belong to him: the grass; the water; the air. But the woman is running over and through and under; her eyes are sharpened; she is making for the open.

She is making for the open....

Perhaps herein lies the woman's wisdom: she is making for the open, making for the openness beyond boundaries. She is drawing her son along with her, and the boy is singing.

In the second reading this morning, from the Hebrew scriptures, Wisdom is personified as a person, as a woman. And "the beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight." Or as it is more felicitously rendered in the sonorous words of the King James translation: "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace...." This old religious text, this old collection of folk-wisdom and proverbs, was written down to pass on wisdom to young men; but hidden in these old proverbs is challenging advice to men and to women: don't just trust in men's wisdom, trust in the wisdom of women, too. Wisdom, who is a woman, shall give to thine head an ornament of grace, like the child's curls grazing his shoulders.

This all, of course, is the mythical poetical religious thinking that we Unitarian Universalists love so well. It's a little mysterious, and it's pretty hard to pin down in prose, or in a sermon. Maybe you just can't measure it and put firm boundaries on it; you have to sort of run through it, looking for an opening. But we can tell there's wisdom there; we might even be able to get a little closer to the meaning of that wisdom if we keep on going. And my experience with religion would indicate that we'll know we're getting closer to the truth, to the openness, when we start to feel a little uncomfortable. So let's see what we can do to get a little uncomfortable.

One of the things that makes me uncomfortable is the image of the man on the horizon walking boundaries and measuring things. I love really good boundaries. I love to measure things. That's just the kind of guy I am. What makes me uncomfortable is the thought that all that measuring and boundary-making might lead me to believe that the grass and the waters and the earth and even the air might be considered mine; or if not mine, someone else's.

Whereas I know perfectly well that fields and earth and wind and air really can't belong to anyone. Yes, yes, I know that in our society we carefully measure off the land, and you can buy a plot of land with a house on it, and call it yours; and pay taxes on it, and pay for the repairs to the house, and then when you move away or die the house and land gets sold to someone else who owns it. Or like me you can rent a home or apartment from someone else. We all know this perfectly well: if you have enough money, you can own land.

Poet Adrienne Rich gently challenges this notion of ours. She has that lovely cynical little line in her poem: "He believes in what is his." Silly man: he may believe it is his, but there's that woman and her son running through it like there are no boundaries. Because, you know, there really aren't any boundaries except the ones we make up.

I would like us all to teach our children that sometimes we have to respect man-made boundaries (please note the use of the gender-specific pronoun!). But I would also like us to teach our children that there are no boundaries, not really. For there is a great religious truth that all life is a unity. All life is a unity. True, we human beings are different from starfish, and thank God we are different from cockroaches; yet there is a unity which binds us together and makes us one.

Part of the reason we have gotten into the big ecological mess in which we are now thoroughly immersed is because we have been acting like boundaries are real. If I dump my factory's PCBs into the Acushnet River, I'm dumping them past the boundaries we humans have created; which means of course that the PCBs just magically disappear. Out of sight, out of mind.

We really believe that, you know. And it really is a kind of primitive religious belief. By primitive religious belief I mean that a belief that takes religion far too literally, ignoring religion's poetical mythical qualities. A primitive religious belief relies on superstition and suspension of reason to believe in it. I also know it's a primitive religious belief, because when you challenge someone's primitive beliefs, that person tends to get all cranky and dismissive. As when you tell the people running the factory that you can't just dump the PCBs into the Acushnet River, those people get all cranky and dismissive, calling you an environmental crank. They suspend reason and rely on superstitious beliefs: no no no, there's an invisible boundary line there, once we dump the PCBs into the Achusnet River, they can't hurt us any more.

It's sort of like when you're a little kid, and another kid says they're going to give you cooties, and you create this invisible shield so you don't get cooties. So we create invisible boundaries so we don't get ecological cooties. Forget the fact that those PCBs are going to get into the fish and the quahogs, and that the terns and the seagulls are going to eat the fish and the quahogs full of PCBs, and so the PCBs will spread around the ecosystem until we find PCBs in human beings, too. Nope. No PCBs in human beings, ‘cause we've got our invisible shields up. That sounds like a primitive religious superstition to me.

What we need today are moms who run through the mythical, magical, invisible-but-real boundaries, and show children the poetical mythical religious truth that all is one. We need Eco-Moms; that's with a capital "E" and a capital "M," superhero-style. Not that Eco-Moms wear the typical superhero costume of tights and cape: I'm thinking more along the lines of something designed by Dior, or better yet by Coco Chanel: classic, simple, and suitable for every occasion. Eco-Moms have a variety of super-abilities: they have X-ray vision which allows them to see through the surface of things to an underlying unity; they can leap tall boundaries with a single bound, carrying a child safely with them; more powerful than anti-environmental rhetoric, they can stand up to silly superstitious beliefs; and they can teach their children to be whole human beings aware of their connection to the earth.

Not that every mom is going to have time to be an Eco-Mom. Lord knows moms have enough to do as it is. Yet perhaps there would be a few moms out there who could be Eco-Moms. The world could also use a few good Eco-Dads, to say nothing of Eco-Grandmas and Eco-Grandpas. Not only that, we need child-free people like my partner and me to teach children the same things. We adults need to teach children a way of Wisdom that leads us to unity and wholeness.

We're facing an environmental crisis right now; we all know it at some level. We know this crisis is going to affect our children's lives; we can be pretty sure that it will affect every aspect of our children's lives. It's equally obvious that we're facing lots of other problems, too: war, poverty, violence, the plague of AIDS, population growth; but it feels like the environmental crisis is looming even larger all the time. And we know there's a religious dimension to our situation: when we human beings are faced with seemingly unmanageable problems, we often try to make sense out of those problems through our religious beliefs.

Our Unitarian Universalist religion doesn't give us any easy answers or quick fixes: no invisible shields for us; no denial of reality for us. In that sense, we have an uncomfortable religion. But ours is a ultimately a comforting religion, because one of our core beliefs is that we human beings can change the world for the better, if we choose to. I sometimes think we don't believe that strongly enough. We can change the world, if we would just put our minds to it. When New Bedford harbor gets filled with PCBs, ordinary human beings have the power to get together, and declare the harbor to be a Superfund site, and start cleaning up that harbor. When a rich powerful real estate developer is trying to destroy sixty acres of wetlands and forest in the town of Fairhaven, ordinary human beings have the power to get together and stop that real estate developer.

We can change the world....

When global environmental problems feel overwhelming, when you feel like nothing is ever going to change, remember that we can change things. We can change things in order to preserve this good earth for our children, and their children, and so on down to seven times seven generations.

When the going gets tough, leave behind your meek and mild-mannered day-to-day persona, slip into a nearby church, don your Chanel-designed superhero costume, and leap into action....

...Eco-Moms to the rescue!

We all have it in us to be superheros, even if it's only for a day.