The spiritual practice of gardening helps us cultivate a sense of reverence for the earth and our deep relationship to it. On this Earth Day we celebrate the ways we can deepen that connection and care for this home we share. Rev. Libby Smith and Worship Associate Josie Cressler offer their reflections.
Reading - "Gratitude" by Max Kapp
Sermon - "Dear Earth"
On this Earth Day, The Unitarian Universalist Ministry for the Earth is calling us all to stand in solidarity with the 21 youth that have filed a constitutional lawsuit against the United States president and federal government for failure to meaningfully address climate change. For those of you who haven't heard about this I want to give you a very brief synopsis of the case. I am not a legal expert and this is a grossly simplified explanation, but for those of who want more detail, it's easily available on their website, www.youthvgov.org.
Essentially, 21 youth from all over the country, with the support of an organization called Our Children's Trust, filed a constitutional climate lawsuit called called Juliana v. U.S., against the U.S. government in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in 2015.
The complaint asserts that, through the government's affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.
The government, and the fossil fuel industry, who joined the case as defendants, have repeatedly tried to get the case dismissed, and every time judges have ruled that suit can go forward. The most recent triumph was on March 7, 2018 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to block the process of the case – something called a petition for writ of mandamus – a strong arm tactic that the court described as “drastic and extraordinary.” The administration's petition was not successful, but it did succeed in disrupting the start of the trial, which had originally been set for Feb. 5 of 2018. Now that the ruling against the writ has been handed down, the youth are eagerly waiting for the courts to set another date for the actual trial to begin.
I would love to tell you about all 21 of these youth, but time doesn't allow for that. You can go to the website and read their profiles. But I will lift up the youngest plaintiff, because the UU Ministry for the Earth has chosen to honor him with their Guardian of the Future award. Levi Draheim is 10 now. He lives on a barrier island in Florida just 13 feet above sea level and is part of the UU Church in West Melbourne, Florida, where his mom is the religious educator. He learned about the lawsuit from his minister there. He says: "I work hard to protect the environment and animals near my home. I want my government to work hard to protect my future and the future of the animals and ecosystems in our country."
Here's what his profile on the website says:
"You have to find the way of nature," is one of Levi's messages for the world from his beloved home of a barrier island in Florida, just 13ft above sea level. His island has been impacted by environmental issues from red algal blooms to increasing storms from climate change. After Hurricane Matthew, Levi volunteered replanting the dunes at the beach, where he also does litter clean-ups. The youngest #youthvgov plaintiff, Levi has been speaking at marches and rallies in his neighborhood to bring attention to the risk climate change poses to low-lying Florida. He is also a painter and a dreamer who is part of the lawsuit to imagine and build a better future.
I don't know about you, but when I was ten, I wasn't worrying about the future of the planet, I wasn't giving speeches or going on marches. I did have the beginnings of a real love for the earth. I grew up in the country and spent a lot of time outdoors alone, climbing trees, watching birds, digging in the dirt, walking in the rain. I loved the earth, loved nature. But no one was talking much then about the need to protect it.
As I read through the profiles of the youth who filed this lawsuit, I noticed – no surprise perhaps – that many of them have grown up in places rich in natural beauty and have felt a deep connection and relationship to the earth for their entire lives. They see what's happening, they talk with pain about watching businesses and government chase after profits while damaging the earth they love, and they are painfully aware of being voiceless – because many of them are too young to vote.
But they are not voiceless now. They are speaking, loud and clear, not just through their lawsuit, but many of them at rallies and marches and other events every chance they get.
And while they speak of their fear about the future, and effects of climate change, they do not seem to be primarily motivated by fear, but by love and reverence for the earth that is their home.
And that got me wondering. Because we all know what's going on, and most of us worry about it and many of us are fearful. But that doesn't necessarily push us to take any kind of action. Fear is so often paralyzing rather than motivating.
I was reminded of our early Universalist forebears who insisted that humanity did not need to fear God, to fear hell, in order to be good and do the right thing. They said rather that a deep gratitude for a loving God would do more to motivate us to right living than any fear based system could do. Reverence and gratitude brings out the best in us. Fear often brings out the worst.
If we are motivated only by fear and anxiety, we probably can't sustain the work we're trying to do, whether we're talking theology or ecological activism. But if we are motivated by reverence and delight, we will be more energized. That reverence allows us to feel our deep connections to the earth. It's the disconnect that has developed, the way we have forgotten how deeply we are of the earth, that has allowed us to treat it as we have. As Josie said in her lovely reflection, something like running in the woods provides “a nice chance to reset and to connect with myself and with the Earth, which, according to some belief systems that I like very much, are one in the same.”
Two things in my life right now help me feel the truth that we are of the earth, not just dependent upon it, but actually part of it. I do a lot of funerals these days – a big piece of my ministry is working with families who have no church connection when they need a pastor for a funeral or memorial service. And nothing brings home the reality of our earthiness quite so much a burial – despite the lengths that funeral directors go to to disguise the fact that we're actually putting a body in the ground. You can't help noticing, even though they've moved the loose dirt out of site, or covered with astroturf, even though they ask the family to leave before the casket is actually lowered. But still we hear those words – ashes to ashes and dust to dust – and the reminder that we are giving our loved one back to the earth, from which we all have come and to which we all must return.
But that seemed like a really dreary direction to take on a beautiful spring day. And fortunately there's another practice that evokes my deep connection to the earth and my reverence for it, and that is gardening. That seemed like a better fit with our theme of emergence this month, since my first little pea sprouts are finally emerging, poking up through the cold and soggy ground.
Gardening evokes a deep gratitude in me, a reverence that is at the heart of cultivating commitment. I love Max Kapp's poem “Gratitude” that I used for our reading this morning. “Dear Earth,” I say as I kneel down to dig a hole and plant a tender new plant. Dear Earth that will allow that plant to grow, that will nourish it and support it and enable it to flourish – so that I may then enjoy it for its flowers, or its fruit or its shade. It's not that I think the earth exists primarily for my enjoyment. But as I tend to its needs I find I meet my own needs as well.
From Greek mythology we have the story of Gaia – the Goddess of the earth, the one who danced herself into being, as one version of the story goes. Listen to the story as retold in Lost Goddesses of Ancient Greece:
From the eternal void Gaia danced forth and rolled Herself into a spinning ball. She molded mountains along her spine, valleys in the hollows of her flesh. A rhythm of hills and stretching plains followed her contours. From Her warm moisture she bore a flow of gentle rain that met the surface and brought life. Wriggling creatures spawned in tidepools while tiny green shoots pushed upward through her pores. She filled oceans and ponds and set rivers flowing through deep furrows. Gaia watched Her plants and animals grow. In time She brought forth six women and six men. Unceasingly, the earth Mother manifested gifts on Her surface and accepted the dead into Her body. In return, She was revered by all mortals. Offerings of honey and barleycake were left in a small hole in the earth before plants were gathered. Many of Her temples were built near deep chasms where yearly the mortals offered sweetcakes into Her womb.
I hear this story as metaphor, not as literal reality – just as I hear most religious stories as metaphor. But so different from the myth most of us grew up with! In this story, divinity is embodied in the earth – where the Goddess joyfully and sensuously creates herself in earthly form and then, as an act of generosity, offers her bounty to all who inhabit her, as long as they honor and care for her. She is the earth and so the earth is holy.
Compare this to the story in the book of Genesis. We have God creating an earth that God declares “good,” but that is clearly separate from God, and then rather than demanding that human beings revere and cherish the earth, God gives them dominion over it. With that as our foundational cultural myth, it's no wonder we have learned to think of ourselves as consumers rather than caretakers, to assume that the earth exists to serve our needs, rather than thinking of ourselves as one small part of the intricate interdependent holy system of life. But when I work my garden, I remember. I am deeply mindful of the fact that although I enjoy the fruits of the earth, the earth does not grow things on my behalf. It grows things because that is its nature. And how amazing it is that I am part of that nature, that I can work with it, feed it, tend it, cultivate it, and help it to bring forth marvelous plants that beautify and uplift and nourish both body and spirit. Dear Earth, indeed. I am reminded to be grateful. And I am humbled, reminded that there is a force bigger than I am, the force of life itself, and I am part of it, contained within it, I can work with it, but it will always be the stronger of the two of us.
Gardening is humbling in another way, too. When I kneel in the dirt, with my bare hands digging down to feel the root and position the plant (May Sarton once wrote: “True gardeners cannot bear a glove/between the sure touch and the tender root” - -and I too find myself taking off my gloves to feel more closely what I am doing) -- when I kneel like that in the dirt, I am deeply aware of my own earthly nature. The Latin root for humility is the word humulus, meaning lowly or humble, and that comes from word humus, meaning soil or earth. The word for humanity, humanus, is also linked to that root word humus. We are earthly creatures, our very name tells us so. We come out of the earth, we are nourished by the earth, and we return to the earth. The name of the first human in the creation story from the book of Genesis, we know as Adam, but the Hebrew name is Adamah which literally means Earth Man. The first pun in the Bible. When we kneel in the garden, we dig in the source of life, and our eventual final home. We know our earthliness. We work the soil knowing that we work our very selves.
My husband’s cousin was a farmer, and back when everyone was starting up back yard gardens, John asked Tommy if it was hurting his business. Tommy ran a farm stand all summer, and John wondered how he could be making money selling tomatoes when everyone seemed to be growing their own. Tommy pointed out that he had sold thousands of tomato plants out of his greenhouses that spring. And then he said “Johnny” (there are three people in the world who can call my husband Johnny, and I am not one of them) “Johnny, when you sell someone a tomato, you’re selling them reality. When you sell them a tomato plant, you’re selling them hope. And the mark-up on hope is bigger than the mark-up on reality.”
That, I believe, is what keeps so many of us in our gardens. We pay gladly - with money, yes, but more with labor, with aching backs and sore muscles and broken, grimy fingernails - for the bounty of hope and possibility that grow up with the vegetables and the flowers, and for the chance to join forces with that life force full of possibility and hope - to be reminded that we are part of it. Grateful and humble, we kneel in the earth and feel our place in that cycle of growing things. We join forces with the life force to help things thrive, and as we do, we thrive too.
Whether it is working your garden, like me, or running in the woods, like Josie, or sailing down that golden river like Pete Seeger in Gabi’s lovely song, may we each find the connection to the earth that evokes our reverence and love, and calls us to find our place in the work of protecting and healing our home.