Sunday, April 12, 2015

Committing to Climate Justice

Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
April 12, 2015

The other day on our church Facebook page I put a link to a short film that was sent to me – it’s called MOTHER: Caring for 7 Billion, and anyone can have free access to it on the web until April 22nd; I found it interesting that there was a typo in the heading: it says,  “Earth Day Free Steaming Through April 2015”!

Yes, Chicken Little, the sky IS falling! Anyone who denies it after all the evidence from science is willfully ignorant and working against the planet’s best interests. Some of us are old enough to remember the TV ad with the slogan, ”It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” – if we don’t know it by now, we soon will!

The impact of our earth, of nature in general and of climate change in particular, upon our lives and our spiritual identities, is the subject of our service today. For Unitarian Universalists, climate change is not only something that we are concerned about because of our seventh principle, but because it is a social justice issue.  Our Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations recognizes this in a statement on Global Warming/Climate Change:

“Environmental justice is the recognition that environmental degradation disproportionately harms those who are poor and marginalized, even while they derive less benefit and have less control over how our resources are used. These concerns are especially true with global warming/climate change. As weather patterns change, causing drought in some areas and flooding in others, poorer peoples lack the resources to respond to these disasters and bear the brunt of suffering when they happen.

Our Unitarian Universalist (UU) spiritual values call us to act on the personal, local, and national levels to adopt practices that will reverse global warming/climate change, and to do so in ways that are just and equitable.” (UU Guide to 2012 Preach-In,

Climate Justice Month is a month-long spiritual journey for climate justice, from March 22 through April 22. Its organizers, Commit2Respond, have listed on its website three action goals for individuals, congregations, and organizations – 1. To shift to a low-carbon future 2. To advance the human rights of affected communities 3. To grow the climate justice movement.

The concept of Climate Justice is huge, and even taking one full month to reflect on what it means and how we can become committed to it doesn’t do it ‘justice’, no pun intended. So the Commit2Respond team divided up the month into 4 phases, beginning on World Water Day, which, fittingly, is when the Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus came to speak here; I’d like to reflect that 4-part structure with our service this morning. Each of those phases will have a spiritual reflection to enrich our appreciation and deepen our understanding of the process we need to go through in order to commit to climate justice. With each phase, we will focus on an element of the Earth to ground that reflection. Denice will be helping with those reflections.

Starting on March 22nd, the first week’s emphasis was "Rejoicing and Celebrating in Our Natural World." The Rev. Thomas Starr King said,
I believe that if, on every Sunday morning before going to church,…  we could fairly perceive, through our outward senses, one or two features of the constant order and glory of nature, our materialistic dullness would be broken, surprise and joy would be awakened, we should feel that we live amid the play of Infinite thought; and the devout spirit would be stimulated so potently that our hearts would naturally mount in praise and prayer. (Lessons from the Sierra Nevada, sermon, 1863)
We all have wonderful experiences of the world around us, and I love the way Kenneth Patton, the author of our closing hymn, “We Are the Earth Upright and Proud”, puts this sense of celebration: “And with its purpose strong, we sing earth’s pilgrim song, in us the earth is growing.” The element we focus on with rejoicing and celebrating in our natural world is water, and of course nothing can grow without water. Our connection with the natural world and its gifts, which are what we eat and drink, is an essential one for our continued existence.
When we think of the teeming life in rivers and oceans, the incredible and invisible underwater kingdom, we are humbled at how little we know about our planet. But water is at the heart of basic human rights, which everyday are under threat – even right here in the US. The media story last week about Peter Brabeck, the CEO of Nestle, is an example: water is a natural resource we should all be entitled to for survival, yet it’s being taken from a drought-stricken area of this country, California, and sold by a multinational corporation back to us. He says that this idea that every person has a right to water is ‘extreme.’ 

And finally, when we reflect on the role of water in our natural world, we grieve at the potential for loss due to climate change. Communities throughout the world are facing threats to their water access as a result of climate change.

* First Reading
Let us now read together the responsive reading from Thich Nhat Hanh, Water Flows:

Leader: Water flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.

All: Miraculously, water comes to us,

and sustains us all.
Leader: Water flows over these hands.

All: May I use them skillfully

to preserve our precious planet.

The second step in the process of committing to climate justice is to "Reckon with and Grieve the Loss We are Confronting." To me, the vastness of this earth makes it difficult for me to imagine the magnitude of destruction.
Just seeing images of the mountaintop mining in Kentucky causes me to grieve for the beauty of those mountains, and how they are left bare and scarred, after their precious interior materials have been gouged out for our use.
 “We are caught between two fears,” say Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone: “The fear that if we do nothing, our world will fall into crisis, and the fear of acknowledging how bad things are, because of the fear it brings up.” Matthew McHale from UU Ministry for Earth writes, “So many of us deal with this conflict by trying to push the crisis out of view. But we aren’t really free of it; it’s just sitting there like a pit in our stomach. We may try to numb the pain, but it numbs the joy as well. Our energy starts to sag, and we feel less alive. And…as a society we become unable to deal with the deepening crisis unfolding around us.”
Fire is the symbol of Reckoning because Fire signifies transformation, righteous anger and passion; in this phase of reflecting on climate justice, we are asked to explore where our energy comes from, and to reckon with the impacts and injustices of climate change. 

* Second reading
Fire is “too much with us; late and soon….”
Of late, terrorists made spectacle of massacre, setting ablaze a living man, in a cage.
Of late, 9/11, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dachau and Auschwitz,
Fiery crosses and lynching trees—hate’s infernos.

Soon (and now) fossils afire, we warm the oceans, parch the soil, turn trees to kindling.
Of late and soon, self-immolating, we set this world, our home, ablaze.
We make spectacle of massacre.
“For this, for everything, we are out of tune….
But let us never forget, never again—fire “changes everything.”

In the beginning was fire, and fire’s the seed of stars—
Ex ignis, we come from fire.

Fire, our first tool, warmed and gathered us.

Fire, need not and cannot and will not be, our blazing cage.

- Dr. Michael Hogue

McHale says, “By honoring our emotions, we begin to transform them. We recognize that our sadness and grief are manifestations of our deep love for the world. We recognize that our anger arises from our passion for justice. And we can then begin to use those emotions in service to helping heal our world.”

And so the third step in committing to climate justice is "Reconnecting with Front-Line Communities and with the Earth in All Her Glory." 
The Commit2Respond Team says that “being truly honest about the crisis we are facing returns us to our deep love for this world, for love is at the root of our sense of loss.
Today, we reconnect with that love and remember why we entered this process: because we love and are inextricably interconnected with all the beings of this earth and the earth itself. Hope lives in these connections. By reaching out to reconnect with our community, our neighbors, and our allies in this struggle to reclaim life for all, we re-source our souls for the work ahead. Reaching out reconnects us to our own well of inspiration and to relationships that make us resilient.
We know power is everywhere and can be used for good and for ill. The power of human connection can strengthen us. But power is not evenly distributed in our society. We carry this awareness in our connections, and commit to an awareness of our own power in relationship, the power of others, and different patterns of power in society. We choose to source our work with power that nourishes and works for justice—power that serves solidarity—and work against power that harms some and privileges others.”
Can we “commit to working in ways that share power, that redistribute power more fairly, and that use power to create a more beautiful world”?
Let us reflect on this task by using the symbol of air: it signifies breath, the breath that we all take as creatures of the planet in an atmosphere that sustains us, and which we need to keep clean. Clean air is life, and a precious gift. Breathing is balance; we should strive for balance in how we take and give back to the earth.

* Third Reading
“Listen to the air.
You can hear it, feel it,
smell it, taste it.
Woniya wakan, the holy air,
which renews all by its breath.
Woniya wakan, spirit, life, breath, renewal,
it means all that.
We sit together, don’t touch,
but something is there,
we feel it between us
as a presence.
A good way to start thinking
about nature
is to talk to it,
talk to the rivers, to the lakes,
to the winds,
as to our relatives.”

In Week Four, which is next week, we are asked to "Commit to A New Way." An obvious symbol for this final week, which ends on Earth Day, is Earth. This is the time for “bringing our vision into reality, fruition, culmination, committing to long-term actions that will create a paradigm shift and grow the climate justice movement”. As I mentioned, Commit2Respond suggests 3 goals for congregations to accomplish, which we can talk about after the service.

We have our work cut out for us; and how much better it would be if we had partners from other faith traditions – especially the ones we name as being the sources of our UU tradition – to join us in our commitment to save the planet.

The good news is that creation care is an ethic present in every major faith tradition. This was made clear in 1986 when Pope John Paul II invited major faith leaders to the town of Assisi, home of St Francis who loved nature. The resulting "Assisi Declaration" was a real challenge to world faiths to practice what they preach, signed as it was by Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu leaders.

Just how do these world faiths express concern and care for the earth? For instance, the Koran says, “Assuredly the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of humankind; yet most people understand not.” Because it is an Abrahamic faith, Islam stresses the role of humanity as stewards as does Judaism and Christianity.

"The Muslim Declaration on Nature" that came from the Assisi meeting says, “The central concept of Islam is… the unity of God. Allah is unity; and his unity is also reflected in the unity of man and nature. Unity…is maintained by balance and harmony. Therefore, Muslims say that Islam is the middle path and we will be answerable for how we have maintained balance and harmony in the whole of creation around us” (IPL)

We can read in the Judeo-Christian sacred texts the promise God made in the rainbow covenant with Moses never again to destroy the world by flood. There are also references in the Hebrew scriptures – in the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Exodus, Job and Second Chronicles, that urge us to care for creation. Even though there is a clear ascetic strand of religious thinking and practice in Christianity that emphasizes denial of the world, in Judaism there is a more sustained and coherent reverence for the earth in its teachings down the centuries. Rabbi Abraham ben Moses, from the 12th century, says “In order to serve God, one needs access to the enjoyment of the beauties of nature, such as the contemplation of flower-decorated meadows, majestic mountains, flowing rivers…For all these are essential to the spiritual development of even the holiest people.” (Interfaith Power and Light)

In the early history of the Christian church, the letter of Paul to the Romans says that the fate of creation is bound up with the fate of humanity (Rom 8:19-23). St Basil the Great and St Bonaventure also speak about the need to admire nature – in fact, Bonaventure declares: ”He…who is not illumined by such great splendor of created things is blind.” (IPL)

And Pope John Paul II’s feat in gathering religious leaders in Assisi to agree on their traditions’ emphasis on creation care is about to be topped by Pope Francis. He is working on a papal document, called an encyclical on climate justice. “The encyclical will be released in advance of Pope Francis’s address to the United Nations in September and before high-stakes climate negotiations in Paris at the end of the year. Naderev Sano, the Philippines’ climate commissioner said in an interview that this issue has been negotiated “at the political level for more than 20 years, and we look to Pope Francis to untangle this stalemate, because this issue is beyond merely a political issue. It is a profound moral issue that affects the whole world.” The Philippines was devastated by a typhoon in 2013 that killed more than 7,000 people, and its climate commission hopes the pope’s encyclical will be a “game changer for the international process.” (Interview, Democracy Now)

In an blog from Faith in Public Life, John Gehring predicts that Pope Francis’ toughest audience might well be here in this country. Some conservatives are already reacting, saying that “the pope is part of “the radical green movement that is at its core anti-Christian, anti-people, and anti-progress” (Stephen Moore, a Catholic economist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington).  But, Gehring reminds us, in classic conservative philosophy, conservative means “preserving what is good and being skeptical about the notion of progress at any price. Surely our fragile environment is an inheritance we don’t want to squander, and we’ve already paid too high a price for the progress we’ve made at the expense of our planet. As Pope Francis himself said, the environment is not just a legacy from the past, but a loan for our children.” 
("Can Francis break the US climate change stalemate?" April 7, 2015, 11:05 am | Posted by John Gehring

So we UUs are not alone in wanting to protect our climate and our future, and our future generations.  As he recovers from a serious stroke, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has just this week urged us to wake up to the critical task at hand: “There’s a revolution that needs to happen and it starts from inside each one of us. We need to wake up and fall in love with the earth.” ("Wake Up to the Revolution", Thich Nhat Hanh, April 6, 2015

* Fourth Reading
By Rev. Mark Belletini

This is our earth.
It falls through heaven like a pearl in a glass of plum wine.
There are no other earths that I know of.
There are no other skies that we have mapped.
This is our earth.
The Oneness who gave birth to it
remains nameless.
There was no midwife then
to bring us word of the birth-cry.
We only rejoice that it is.
This is our earth.
Ice caps its head.  Glaciers clasp its feet.
Warm wind, like the breath of a lover,
breathes around its breast.
Mountains thrust up to the clouds, bringing joy.
Storms blow across its shores, bringing fear.
Silvery fish capture sunlight and haul it down
into the deep, as on shore, valleys spread
with ripening fruit.  Cities teem with the
Poor and disenfranchised in the shadow of
golden towers. Children live and also die.
Highways throb.  Monks sit in silence.  Mothers
work. Crickets chirp.  Teachers plan.  Engineers
design.  Fathers write letters.
People marry
with and without the blessings of law.
People cry.
They laugh, and brood, and worry and wait.
This is our earth.
There are no other earths.
Before its wonder, philosophers fall silent.
Before its mystery,
poets admit their words are shadow, not light.
And all the great names religious teachers
have left to us
Ishtar, Shekinah, Terra Mater, Suchness, Wakan Tanka, Gaia
suddenly refuse to announce themselves.
And so we too fall silent,
entering the time where words end
and reality begins.

And so it is up to us, by keeping our sense of interconnectedness through the Seventh Principle in mind, and by taking opportunities like the Commit2Respond’s Climate Justice Month, to become advocates for the earth. The ultimate aim of this month is to raise our own awareness of how precious our world is. To quote the Rev Judy Moores from the UU Church of Davis, California, it is “our ancestral home, our current home, and the only home that we will ever have – a place deserving of reverence, gratitude, wonder, love and care.” (UU Guide to Preach-in).

The Southern Baptist in me feels that this is the time for the Altar Call: asking all of you gathered here in this church today to make a faith commitment to be good stewards of the earth, to teach our children and our grandchildren to be good stewards as well, and to join our fellow spiritual travelers - in all world faiths and none - in spreading the good news - the Gospel – of creation care… while we still can. Can I get an Amen?

Gaye W. Ortiz

* Readings for Climate Justice Sunday from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), Commit2Respond