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Our Mother the Earth – 5/11/2014

Once there was a farmer; well, he would have been a farmer, except that he had no land to farm. With neither money nor deed to his name, he found himself only poor, with nothing else to say about it. So he would go from town to town, looking for work in other people’s fields and pastures, though there wasn’t much to be had.

Then one day, he happened to pass by a place alongside the road. It was a field lying fallow and ownerless, where the locals threw their garbage. Having no other place to sleep for the night, he made his bed there, under the stars. In the morning, after he’d slept, it occurred to the poor man who was not yet a farmer, that a thing that was broken and abandoned and neglected, that had been treated poorly and forgotten by the whole of the world – that such a thing was worth at least a little bit more than nothing at all. For the man knew himself what it was to be abandoned and neglected and forgotten.

So he set to work. He cleared the debris and the refuse. Out of the wreck of an old wagon he fashioned a plow, and he tilled the soil until it was free of the larger stones and loose enough for planting. From the garbage that he had cleared away, from rotted potatoes and corn gone to seed he found enough to plant his field. And he worked the earth enough to have a small harvest from it in the fall. And so the man became a farmer then.

Many years passed, and the farmer continued to work that same field. One day, a new priest came to the parish, and riding along the road into town, he saw the man at work. It was late summer, and the crop was already green and high. The farmer came over to greet the stranger surveying his farm. The young priest greeted him and thought to pay him a compliment. He said, “You and the Lord have done fine work here.”

“Thank you,” said the farmer. “You should have seen it when the Lord had it alone.”

There is a view, common and familiar in western culture, that the natural world is an empty canvass, formless and void until it is worked by human hands and given shape and meaning. Wild and empty spaces are worth less than organized and habitable ones, and of course land with buildings on it is generally even more valuable, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been involved in a real estate transaction – or just played a game of Monopoly. For thousands of years, human beings in many – though not all – nations and cultures have carved up the world into plots and parcels and estates, with titles and deeds and easements and tenancy agreements. We have made a commodity out of the earth. And when a theological explanation has been needed to justify this attitude, advocates for it have returned, again and again, to a particular place in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

The book of Genesis – the first book in both the Jewish scriptures and the Christian bible – opens with a story about how the earth and its human inhabitants came to be. The first of these is the seven days of creation, in which the God of the story separates the universe into successive divisions: light and dark, day and night, the sky and the sea, the land and the water, and then brings forth living things to inhabit air, sea, and earth. The last of these major works in the story is the creation of humankind. This particular species receives a special blessing: to be fruitful and multiply, and to have a special relationship to all the other animals of the earth. The most familiar term in the Christian tradition is dominion, but the word being translated here from Hebrew – radah – is probably better rendered as rulership. Humanity, in this story, is set to rule over other animals, and all green and growing things are given to those animals and to humans for their food. This single passage – three verses from Genesis – has been leaned on for millennia in order to justify absolute human domination exploitation over the earth and everything that lives there.

But the very force of our own experience pushes back against this attitude. The earth is the ground that we walk on. It is the only place we have to live. It is the source of all bodily nourishment: the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. So for as long or longer than there have been religious justifications for the dominance of the land – and this fragment from Genesis is by no means the only one – there have also been voices of reverence for the earth and our relationship to it. In the Atharva Veda, a 3,000 year old section of the scriptures of Hinduism, we find a hymn to Prithvi, a goddess who is the embodiment of the earth itself. The hymn reads, in part:

          In the villages and in the wilderness, in the assembly-halls that

are upon the earth; in the gatherings, and in the meetings, may we

hold forth agreeably to thee!

          As dust and seeds did she, as soon as she was born, scatter these

people, that dwelt upon the earth, she the lovely one, the leader, the

guardian of the world, that holds the trees and plants…

          O mother earth, kindly set me down upon a well-founded place! With

heaven cooperating, O thou wise one, do thou place me into

happiness and prosperity!

          The religious imagination has long associated land and the earth itself with mothers and motherhood. The world nurtures and fosters life. The connection to parenthood is obvious, and the parallel to biological motherhood – the physical alchemy by which one being creates another being from itself – should be as well. This points to a closely related religious theme, applied to mamas of all sorts: birth, adoptive, or otherwise. The range of gifts which mothers give to their children, gifts of nurturing and teaching and protection and life itself, are gifts which are impossible to repay.

But just because a debt cannot be repaid does not mean that no one has ever tried to calculate it. The religions of India, Hinduism and Buddhism in particular, have a deep fascination with the debt which all people owe to their parents and ancestors, and a similar theme of unbounded gratitude appears in many native religions of Africa and North America. At one point in the development of Buddhism in China, religious thinkers became particularly fascinated with the idea of milk-debt: the amount of loving kindness and selfless compassion owed to one’s mother for the breast milk which all children required in order to survive infancy, before the advent of modern substitutes. An official estimate of the amount the average infant consumes was eventually set at roughly 360 gallons.[i] The point of all this was to make clear just how ridiculous and impossible repayment would be. But because we live in an era when it is actually possible to buy human breast milk through a sort-of Craigslist for nursing mothers, I could not resist making the calculation. Based on my best guess of a current average price and ignoring problems with supply, storage, and transport, the twelve barrels of breast milk needed to meet that historical measurement would cost just about $100,000. The debt we owe to the source of our lives – whether our parents, or the earth itself – is immeasurable.

Beside the historical religious arguments, more modern insights also have some relevance to how we view the earth we share. The scientific creation story, the narrative of our current best understanding of how life began on earth, begins about three and a half billion years ago. The molten earth had cooled enough for oceans to form on its surface, vast seas filled with chemicals churned up in part by volcanic eruptions. Lightning raked the waters, providing the potential means for building more complex molecules. Somehow, through means we can guess at but still not fully prove, the swirling chemical cauldron of the primeval sea produced the first bacteria – incredibly small and just barely alive. Through the imperative towards survival and growth and complexity that is hardwired into life, the process of evolution led to the first complex cells, then multicellular life, and on and on until something like 500 million years after life first began, the first animals make their way from the ocean to the land. While we cannot say for certain yet just how rare, we know what we can observe in the rest of our galaxy that the conditions found on this planet, thirty-five thousand-million years ago were favorable to life in a profoundly uncommon way. The world that has made us all possible, and continues to make us possible, is a rare find amongst the stars.

Our particular tradition as Unitarian Universalists, which believes that true religion must work in concert with reason, counsels reverence towards our planet and our cosmos, and falls more on the side of earthly motherhood than earthly dominion. Out front, in the entry-way to the sanctuary you may have passed a framed text which was written originally by William Schulz, a former president of our religious association. His personal attempt to crystallize the notoriously varied and verbose essence of our faith had seven points, two of which are: “That Creation itself is Holy; the earth and all its creatures, the stars in all their glory…” and, “That human beings, joined in collaboration with the gifts of grace, are responsible for the planet and its future.” In this way, we are not actually out of step with the spirit of that first chapter of Genesis, either, because that text has been woefully warped and distorted in order to justify enormous violence against the natural world. In that story, after each act of separation or creation, a refrain follows: “and God saw that it was good.” The bible here is in clear and full agreement with the insights of science: the fundamental conditions of our planet are good – they make it possible for life to happen, and to thrive.

Now, all of this has been, I hope, an interesting lesson in historical theology, but it is far more pressing than that. Human rulership over the earth is a present fact in that we have vast capabilities, as a species, to disrupt and destroy ecologies and other natural systems. The global climate upheaval brought on by the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – over the last century cannot be ignored. There is no vast tree-hugger conspiracy at work doctoring mountains of evidence all across the globe. Last year, Richard Primack of Boston University published a book called Walden Warming, based on research conducted by him and his students in the woods around Walden Pond in Concord, where the famous Unitarian author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau established his quasi-hermitage. Primack’s work used the study that Thoreau made of his environment to show that flowers are blossoming and birds are appearing earlier than they did 150 years earlier in Thoreau’s day. The climate really is changing. The water levels really are rising. The Carteret Islands at the eastern end of Papua New Guinea really have been evacuated, and really are expected to slip entirely below the waves by the end of next year.[ii] As I stand here in our sanctuary less than a quarter of a mile from the ocean, I have to think that we are a community who ought to be particularly concerned about all this.

To slow the destructive reconfiguration of our planet’s weather and avoid the worst effects – in a very real sense to save current world civilization, which weaves together the lives of more than 6 billion people – we will have to stop burning these fuels. The clock is running, and by several reasonable estimates, we have only so much more carbon-based fuel we can use before crossing over into a world whose storms and temperatures and sea levels will completely upend the current society. That estimate says that we know of almost five times as much gas and coal in the earth as we can afford to burn. To protect the world we have, we will have to resolve, as a species, not to burn most of that carbon.

Messages like this one often end with some sort of pitch for personal change: drive less, recycle more, stop eating red meat. All of those are fine things to do, but slowing and stopping the warming of our planet isn’t something that can be done by small acts, not even by a very large number of them. This effort is going to take a change in public policy. We, and others like us – those who care about the world, and particularly about the people who live upon it, and at the mercy of it – will have to make it a central mission of our age to see a dramatic shift in public policy. In a recent article in the Nation, Chris Hayes compares this daunting project to the movement to abolish slavery in the United States.[iii] Obviously, there can be no moral equivalency with a system that kept millions of human beings as disposable goods for hundreds of years. But one of the chief forces that prevented the abolition of slavery for so long is also at play with climate change: an appalling amount of money. The lie that human beings could be property assigned to them a cash value, and the people who mistakenly believed themselves to be the owners regarded that value as very real, and very much theirs. Our current fuel economy also assigns a cash value to all that unmined coal and undrilled oil, and convincing the corporations and corporate boards and stockholders to leave all that potential money in the ground will not be easy. If we can do it, it will be one of the most impressive achievements we will have ever shared as a species.

The only good news is, that we’ve done it once before. Uprooting the public institution of slavery took far, far too long and cost vast sums in blood and suffering, and left continued injustice echoing into this day. But it was accomplished, and with some small but meaningful contributions from among our own theological ancestors, I might add. Ultimately, what is at issue in this age is not the earth, or even life, itself. These things are incredibly tenacious and adaptable. What it is in question is the motherliness of the earth – whether humanity will, by willful ignorance and foolish greed, so distort our planet that ceases to be the nurturing cradle for us that it so long has been. Already great damage has been done – as in the story we began with: the field lies fallow, and covered with waste, broken, abandoned, neglected. We can choose to proceed as we have been, and see destruction visited in our own generation or in our children’s – or we can begin to clear the garbage, fashion a plow, and get to work.

[i] This tradition seems to have its origins in a section of the Ekottara Agama – see R. Alan Cole, “Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism”



Saved From What? – 5/4/2014

A man sits marooned on a desert island. It’s the sort of island that you can only find in cartoons: a patch of sand barely big enough for him and a single palm tree. His hair is ragged, his beard has grown out, and his pants are frayed – clearly, he has been trapped on that tiny island for quite a while already. All around in every direction, there is only the open sea.

Except that for one lone figure, approaching that tiny speck of land. His body is half above the waves, as though he is walking up out of the sea floor. He wears a blue suit and a square haircut, and holds a book in his hand. Greeting the cast-away, the stranger launches into a well-rehearsed spiel. “Good morning! Could I talk to you for a few moments about your salvation? Not from this island of course.”

This is the Sunday edition of the newspaper comic Bizarro from several months ago[i], and if I were a lot less concerned with copyright than I am, I would have included this image in your order of service. And if I were just a little bit more mischievous than I am, I would have directed you to contemplate it for about twenty minutes in lieu of today’s sermon. But instead I will say a little more on the topic of salvation.

Salvation is a central idea in the Christian tradition, and living as we do in a society, and in fact on a planet, where Christianity predominates, many of us think of salvation as being the chief concern of all religions. There are different understandings of how people are to be saved, and what they need saving from, but the same general idea persists. There is something bad or dangerous inherent to the human condition, and each religious system offers its own particular way out. For orthodox Christianity, salvation means redemption from sin: to be freed from a base and fallen state and made pure in order to receive eternal life. That’s the sort of salvation that the desert-island evangelist in the comic appears to be peddling.

Our ancestors, particularly on the Universalist side, took issue with this way of looking at the world. First, they couldn’t make any sense of the idea that some people are worthy of salvation and some aren’t. We heard about the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou and his metaphor of the muddy children earlier. Here are his exact words on the subject:

“Your child has fallen into the mire and its body and its garments are defiled.  You cleanse it and array it in clean robes.  The query is, ‘Do you love your child because you have washed it?  Or, did you wash it because you loved it?’”[ii]

Second, and this is one of many places where the Universalist and the Unitarian branches of our family tree start to sound very similar, comes the trouble with the idea that human beings are inherently sinful to begin with. The orthodox view holds that people are born bad, and that evil comes to us more naturally than good. Our forbearers were the sorts of heretics who could not abide this low view of humanity. Human beings are capable of great evil, yes, but we are also capable of good and show that capacity with great frequency. To say that we are wicked from the get-go is a harsh and irrational judgment against infants who have quite literally done nothing wrong.

But it is the third challenge to the orthodox idea of salvation that is most relevant to that comic strip, and to our discussion this morning. I believe, in fact, that it is the most currently important of the three heretical attitudes towards salvation we’ve inherited, because it is the one the world needs most right now. The idea that most people are going to Hell and the belief that babies are born sinful are both still out there, but their popularity has waned over time. The average conscience recoils from them, so their champions have a harder time selling them now than in ages past. But the third issue is the one that was likely most obvious to you when I described the desert-island tableau: there are real and immediate dangers that ought to come before obscure points of theology. If you want to talk to me about saving my soul, when my body is literally stranded and starving to death, your priorities are catastrophically misaligned.

Our theological ancestors responded to a world that was obsessed with the afterlife – who was going to get there, and how, and what they were going to find when they got there – by turning around and facing in the opposite direction. They determined that their faith needed to be about this world, not some other one. They did this for different reasons, and that variety is something that is still with us today. The ardent Universalists believed with absolute confidence in a future life where all people would dwell eternally in the presence of an infinitely-loving God. Rather than making them ambivalent about what happened in the comparatively short waiting period before death, their belief made them determined to reform the mortal world: to end war, to establish justice between people and nations, and to build the Kingdom of God on the model of the Christian Gospels. Others, among the fringier Universalists and the Unitarians, either professed uncertainty about the afterlife, or grew to doubt its existence due to a lack of empirical evidence. This similarly animated their determination to make the world a finer place. Whether or not Heaven and Hell were real destinations, they were certainly metaphors for the things we do for or to each other here on earth.

This brings us to our theological present, and a Unitarian Universalism which includes Christians and Buddhists and Pagans and Jews and a very large number who do not carry any secondary label. An atheistic materialist and a believer in a benevolent and loving God are both equally welcome here because both sets of beliefs, if practiced with compassion and sanity, yield the same consequences. Our disparate theologies point toward a shared vision of a world made whole. Whenever I preach a sermon on a single theological term like this, I always want to offer you a working definition for it – not an exclusive one, but one you might be able to use, by the light of our tradition. The understanding of salvation which is centered on this world then, is anything that protects, rescues, or restores a person or people from great danger or harm. We do not need to be saved from cosmic sin, but we do need saving from the evil we do to each other and ourselves, both the personal wrongs made of rage, hatred, or fear, and the structural injustices built up in our society over centuries.

The personal wrongs often distract our attentions and our energies from structural injustice, and if we are going to be about the work of salvation in this life, in this world, we cannot settle for that. The form of racism made out of bigotry and slurs and violence is vile, but if we focus only on this we ignore the form of racism built into housing policies, banking practices, our education system and our courts. Misogyny by direct aggression, open contempt, and sexual violence or the threat thereof is a poison and even were it to disappear entirely, it would not erase the long-established biases against women and their bodies and their choices that come baked-in to our economy, our institutions, and even our families. Homophobia and transphobia may have their ugliest face in rates of assault and murder, but legal and social mechanisms that protect quiet bigotry and enforce a sub-human valuing of life have as much power to kill, or more. When we talk about saving the world, it is not simply from individual villains: it is from the broken and distorted way in which the world itself has long been ordered.

Our values are particular, but we are not alone in them. A focus on the here and now is not unique to our movement. Most religions have some tension between this world and otherworldly pursuits, and all of them have some voices or factions who want to address the immediate needs of the present. Judaism and Islam are each less concerned about danger to the individual soul than most of Christianity has been for most of its history. Imagine a dial with this life on one side and a future life on the other. Most forms of orthodox Christianity would rate at about 80% future life/20% this one. Judaism would be roughly the opposite: 20% future life/80% this one. And Islam would be right about in the middle, 50/50. The Jewish parallel to Christianity’s salvation has always been liberation in the here and now; freedom from bondage and return from exile of one sort or another. In the Christian tradition, the Liberation Theology of Latin American Catholicism and the Black Church in America and the Christian Dalits of India are all responses to the immediate needs of people living in an abject state of oppression, and all build on those same ideas of liberation found in the Hebrew scriptures.

A favorite quotation of the liberationists and our own Christian ancestors is the famous passage in the Gospel According to Luke in which the teacher Jesus describes his mission: “to proclaim good news to the poor…liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to set free those who are oppressed.”[iii] This is itself a rewording of a passage from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who declared his calling to be “a herald of joy to the humble, to bind up the wounded heart, to proclaim release to the captives, liberation to the imprisoned, [and] to comfort all who mourn.”[iv]

In Islam, we find an influential saint named Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, an ancient resident of the city of Basra, in modern-day Iraq. She is said to have been seen one day running back and forth across the city, carrying a burning torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked what she was doing, she announced that she was going to set fire to Paradise and pour water onto Hell – as soon as she could find them. If she could do this, she hoped that people would begin to make their decisions according only to their goodness, how much help or harm they did to others, rather than out of hope for reward or fear of punishment.

In the native religions of India – Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism – one of the ways for interpreting salvation is as freedom from suffering. There’s a story from the Bhagavata Purana – a Hindu holy book – called the liberation of Gajendra. Ganjendra was an elephant to set out to cross a river. On his way to the other side, he stepped near a crocodile who bit down on his leg with its mighty jaws. He struggled but was unable to free himself. In desperation, he reached down into the mud and plucked a lotus flower before raising it over his head and trumpeting. Vishnu, one of the chief deities in Hindu cosmology, heard this offering and accepted it, releasing Gajendra from the crocodile’s grip. This scene, an elephant standing in a river, bitten by a crocodile, raising a lotus in offering to Vishnu is a very popular and important image in Hinduism. Not unlike that first image we began with, it illustrates an important theological problem. In this case, the problem that not all of the evil, injustice, and suffering in the world can be overcome by our sheer will or effort alone. Sometimes, we need to ask for help, even when we might not have any reason to expect that help is coming.

The great Muslim mystical poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote,

There is no salvation for the soul

But to fall in love.

Only lovers can escape

Out of these two worlds.

This was ordained in creation.

Only from the heart

Can you reach the sky:

The Rose of Glory

Can grow only from the heart.

Rumi was a great advocate for love, but his meaning for lover was someone deeply in love with the divine. This might be expressed through a deep and profound connection with another person: a sibling, a spouse, or a friend. But it could as likely be practiced through chanting, meditation and prayer: connecting directly to the spiritual source. The awareness that the world of the here and now is what needs saving – from us, for us, and by us – is liberating: no metaphysical original sin hanging over our heads. But it can also be demoralizing: if God has hands to work in the world, they are our hands, and the hands of everyone else on earth. That’s a lot of hands, but there are days when they don’t feel like nearly enough. We need to know where we can find the small salvation – salvation in the sense of a salve, a balm to soothe and refresh – that we need in order to continue working towards the larger effort of our salvation as a species. Religion – ours and everyone else’s – has a dual role: to center and multiply our energies on the salvation of the world we live in, and to soothe and restore our weary spirits when the weight of that world grows too much.

So returning one final time to our opening comic: perhaps that man in the suit with a bible and a square haircut has a small point. He is still ignoring the profound and obvious need of the cast-away, even though he can clearly do something about it (how did he get to the island in the first place, after all?). But if his faith is something that has nourished him in the wilderness, or gotten him through even one hard night, then I can understand and empathize with the impulse to share it. We all need love and meaning and wonder and hope enough in our lives to carry is through – anything that can do that for any of us is worth at least exploring. But let us all determine first, before we rush to share our spiritual treasures with someone new, to bind up their wounds enough to listen, relieve their grief enough to see, and to help rescue their bodies before making a bid for their souls.


[i] The comic can be seen on the blog of its creator, Dan Piraro, here:

[ii] Hosea Ballou, from his most famous work, A Treatise on Atonement

[iii] Luke 4:18

[iv] Isaiah 61:1-2

Limited Selves in a Limitless Universe

To start this month, I’m going to invite you to watch this video: (go right ahead, I’ll wait here). For those of you who can’t spare the time, or who are reading this on paper, I’ll explain. The video is a short piece from Alok Jha, science correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, and in it he gives a very brief synthesis of some of the big ideas that made Stephen Hawking, the world-famous theoretical physicist, world-famous. There are three things from this video that prompt some theological reflection for me. It’s quick to watch, and I think it’s pretty fun, but if you can’t check it out, don’t worry – I’ll provide what you need:

1) The incredible mass of a black hole makes it

Other be price for your used When received it.

nearly impossible for matter or energy to escape it – and paradoxically, causes it to slowly shrink down to nothing over a long enough period of time. There is so much pressure in our world to get big: to be the most, the greatest, the whatever-est of whatever sort of thing you are. Now, the impulse to succeed is not a bad thing, and if you’re doing something good, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do more of it. But seeking power or importance for its own sake is ultimately a profoundly self-destructive path. Just as for a black hole, on a long enough time scale, the pursuit of vain glory leaves nothing to endure.

2) “At one point, everything in our universe was squeezed into a singularity.” I love thinking about this one – everything crunched down into one unthinkably small point. The sum of all things compacted tighter than when college students used to cram into telephone booths. (What are telephone booths? Ask your parents to ask their parents, kids.) Somehow, everything existed once without the benefit of special separation. This reminds me that we human creatures, tiny fragments of the universe that we are, ought to be able to find a way to exist together under what are clearly more favorable circumstances. Once, everything was a part of everything else. And that is still true today, in its own way, if we can only remember it.

3) “Stephen Hawking…came up with all these profound, provocative insights, without the convenience of being able to write anything down.” This is a slight exaggeration. Hawking was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease ALS when he was 21, but he had several more years before he lost the ability to write completely. Still, the overwhelming majority of his work has been done without the straight-forward ability to take notes or jot down ideas. That strikes me as monumentally hard – to reason through complex equations with nothing but your own thought-process to rely on. Hawking has explained that this has required him to create his own methods for process and calculating, some of which involve inventive visualization. He is a famously, scarily-smart individual doing work vastly beyond my grasp, so I won’t pretend that this is somehow an easy or a simple solution. Yet, I am inspired by the ability of any other human being, no less mortal than I, to find a creative solution when faced with such a profound limitation. It is astonishing what human beings are capable of, and if we are not all super-geniuses, that does not absolve us of the responsibility to do what we can. In the midst of a vast, strange, and expanding universe, it is up to us to grow into the best versions of ourselves that we can.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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