“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
Rachel Carson spoke these words over forty years ago and yet we have continued on the path more traveled simply because it is more comfortable for us. Carson recognized so long ago that this was not a sustainable lifestyle, and we are now reaching the point where the signs of its impracticality are all around us. Look only at the gas prices which are forecast to soar over $5.00 per gallon by June of this year. So why, when it is so evident that our current path is unsustainable, do we cling so desperately to it? Is there something which increases our importance to such a level that we must maintain our facile lifestyle at the expense of the less fortunate, and of every other species on Earth?
The resounding answer should be no. It seems oddly appropriate that the scripture selection for this Renewal Sunday comes from the book of Genesis-every renaissance is rooted in the beginning, a rebirth to bring people back to a golden standard they had once attained. And can it not be said that the absolute paramountcy of human fulfillment was life in the garden of Eden?
What did the garden of Eden mean, what was it for? “The Lord God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” From the very beginning, from the second chapter of Genesis, the garden of Eden was a place for man to prosper, but also a place for man to maintain nature, preserve the other species and all creation. I chose to end this Genesis excerpt at a strange place, before the reference to the tree of knowledge and the consequences inherent in eating of it. As we all know, mankind did eat of the forbidden fruit and has suffered the consequences. An unexpected consequence is that we forgot how to properly keep the Earth. After leaving the garden, the Earth was something to be subjugated, bent to the will of man. We cannot say that this is a calling we are gladly a part of, if not out of devotion from our suffering planet, than due to our own self-concerned natures. I cannot imagine that anyone here wants to pay $5.00 per gallon of gas, or $500 for a plane ticket to Boston or New York. Those who are not motivated by the plight of the Earth itself should be motivated by these very real fiscal concerns.
Environmentalism is not only a political issue or an ecumenical one, it is also an economic one. By investing more now to protect our planet, we will save in the long run. Think of environmentalism in economic terms now. In particular, consider the financial crisis we have just recently recovered from. The American economy recovered relatively quickly due to many businesses being saved by government bailout. If humanity draws too heavily on the environment, there will be nothing available to bail us out, it will all have been plundered in the name of maintaining the comfort and facility of our current lifestyle.
It is estimated that if every human lived as the average American does, we would need five Earths to sustain ourselves. Five. The problem here is we only have one. In the past one hundred years, we have consumed more than the entirety of prior human civilization had, and we have not given back nearly enough to maintain sustainability.
Visionaries such as John Muir and Rachel Carson have realized throughout this period that the Earth matters to us, that we as a race are walking the wrong path. As far back as the 1880s, John Muir said, “The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.” On protecting the sequoia of Northern California, Muir made the very real point that, “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” Today, we are the fools. Due to our unsustainable choices, despite not being the ones who personally cut down the trees or pour the sludge into the waters, we are equally responsible because we choose to buy the product prepared at the expense of this method. These visionaries have tried to warn us, but, fools we are, we refuse to listen because it shatters the easy way of life to which we have become so accustomed.
Often, those who can truly see what is wrong with are world are those who lack the material benefits they speak against. This past week I read an incredibly powerful novel by a South African named Alan Paton. Cry, the Beloved Country speaks to the racial conflict in apartheid South Africa, but also to many issues that continue to plague the human race today. In particular, the passage containing the titular phrase stuck with me as particularly poignant and powerful, I would now like to share it with you all.
“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, not stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”
Paton cautions the black South African from loving life too greatly because life can easily be fleeting and end quickly when you are a Bantu living in an Afrikaner’s world. But there is a deeper significance in the fact that Paton chose to speak of nature here. This loss was not necessarily a loss of life, although it could be, but moreso a loss of traditional values. Zulus were flooding from Natal and Zululand to the great mining cities of Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, and so many others. In these massive urban sprawls they too often forgot nature, forgot the appreciation their people had for the Earth and the sustenance it provides. This was Paton’s second message-the blacks of South Africa were losing an ecocentric viewpoint they had lived under for hundreds of years and Paton was rightly afraid. We ourselves lost this viewpoint long ago, but we now, luckily, seem to be finding once again.
The second scripture reading today was quite unique. According to most protestant denominations, it is an apocryphal text. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, however, maintain it as a valid piece of the biblical canon which appears following Daniel 3:23. It is included by the UCC, and also by the churches of the Anglican communion, as a canticle within hymnals or prayer books. This canticle seemed oddly appropriate for our Renewal Sunday, though, due to the breadth of its message. We have today thanked God for most parts of our natural world, an excellent first step in a renewed commitment to preserving and appreciating nature’s splendor. Nature is inherently tied into religion, I would go so far as to say that if one cannot find God in nature, than one cannot find God at all.
This devotion to nature is part of what makes our church so incredible-we have so many opportunities to find God in Maine’s nature surrounded by others who share our faith. From a cabin at Pilgrim Lodge to a tent at Sowadnehunk campground at the foot of that great peak, Katahdin, we do get out to God in nature.
From 8:30 to 9:30 last night, millions of people around the world turned off the lights in solidarity for Earth Hour. In fact, I wrote most of this sermon by candlelight in a dark house, surrounded by the sound of silence that is often now so hard to find. I found it to be great provenance that this Earth Hour happened to fall before Renewal Sunday, before a green Sunday, before my youth Sunday.
Since 2007 when it began as a regional event in Sydney, Australia, this observance has spread around the world and brought millions together to show that they care about the future of our planet. I ask you to take away from today only this thought-choose to show that you care as well. Show it by making sustainable choices, by taking the extra effort to find the recycle bin you know is somewhere in the room, just not as conveniently placed as the trash can beside you, and remember that by showing this you are also showing your appreciation of God and the work He has done here.
John Muir perhaps summed this idea up best in what I would consider to be my favorite quote. When asked why humans should preserve nature rather than profit from it, Muir said with complete conviction, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
In Maine we are so close to nature, and yet we can be so separated. I will leave you today in contemplation of a couple quotes from a man I count among those who most inspire me, John Muir.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
And now on a more human note, “Most people are on the world, not in it-having no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them-undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.”