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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, December 16, 2007


When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

— Mary Oliver (Thirst)

You Have Come Into the World To Do This

Sunday, December 16, 2007
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

I have often thought of Advent as the season for dreaming. It is the dark time, just before winter solstice, the time of incubation and waiting. The time of ruminating and pondering as we are told, in that ancient story that Mary, the mother of Jesus, pondered the meaning of her surprising and mysterious pregnancy. Sometimes I think it is a cultural fear of darkness and pondering that has led to the almost mass hysteria of the holiday season. Just when our bodies seem to want to go into hibernation, when we yearn to turn bear like, we are thrown into a frenzy, often of our own making, of shopping and decorating and holiday parties. To me this seems all wrong for Advent — maybe all of that light and noise could come later — in February for example, when we have started doubting that the winter will ever end and the snow no longer holds even the merest hint of beauty anymore. To me, Advent is a time for stillness, for standing at the window, for watching the sky. Advent is a time to come to know something about our dreams and yearnings which are often very quiet, and subtle and hard to hear above the noise of our daily lives.

I think often these days of those beautiful words by Rainer Maria Rilke:

I love the dark hours of my being. My mind deepens into them. There I can find, as in old letters, the days of my life, already lived, and held like a legend, and understood.

(Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)

What if we were to deepen into the dark hours of our beings — what might we come to know? What might we come to understand about the days of our lives already lived? And how might that knowing shape our future? The poet Theodore Roethke writes, In a dark time, the eye begins to see. In a dark time the eye begins to see. (In a Dark Time by Theodore Roethke)

What is waiting to be seen in this season of darkness? When we allow ourselves to rest in darkness, to wait in stillness, we see glimpses of things that may be painful and frightening to know. This is probably why we avoid it. This advent season I have been asking us to look at the some of the truths of life on our planet. I am grateful to Patrick Hughes, the members of Groton Local and Sue Lotz and her work with the Pachamama Alliance for helping to bring these glimpses of truth to us — they are not easy truths but they demand our attention, they require our attention and our response.

The poet and activist Drew Dellinger writes about dreams that wake him up because of what they demand of him. He writes

It’s 3:32 in the morning and I’m awake because my great-great grandchildren won’t let me sleep.

My great-great grandchildren ask me in dreams, What did you do while the planet was plundered.

What did you do when the earth was unraveling?

Surely you did something when the seasons started failing, as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying.

Did you fill the streets with protest… What did you do when you knew

(from hieroglyphic stairway by Drew Dellinger)

The news for our planet isn’t good this advent season. Environmentalist and founder of the Rainforest Action Network Randy Hayes believes that we are in dangerous moment in history. He writes:

No generation has confronted what we confront right now… virtually every natural habitat across the planet is being degraded now.

We have not only changed the atmospheric chemistry leading to climate disruption and ozone depletion. We’ve got deforestation of the rain forest and other forests of the world. We’ve got species extinction, the draining of underground water aquifers, the polluting of our rivers and aquifers with poisons… we’ve got soil erosion. We’ve got the over fishing of the oceans of the world These are all big ticket global ecological issues and what they are doing is they are shredding the fabric of life that basically creates the life support systems, the ability of the planet to support our life and future generations. That is what is at stake right now… people can call us alarmists if they like but think about the function of an alarm. It is meant to alert you to a danger, to wake you up to take action and I think we need the alarm clocks ringing right now.

(The Pachamama Alliance, Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream symposium. p. 11)

Many of are entranced by the culture we live in — where we can, as Patrick reminded us, eat avocados from California and as I noticed this week as I fed my children, mango from Thailand, asparagus from Peru and green beans from France, and never once stop to think about the cost to the planet of bringing these things from the far corners of the globe to the local Trader Joe’s grocery store. We are entranced, many of us, by our love of bigness and more and muchness, by the idea that if a little bit of something is good, than more of it must be better. These dreams are not dreaming life giving dreams — but as long as think of ourselves primarily as consumers rather than citizens, we stay numb in many ways to the ways that dominant culture is dangerous and deadly, not just to us but to our collective future.

The Catholic priest and environmentalist Thomas Berry writes about what he calls the technological entrancement of our culture and our age. Berry believes that most of us have unexamined assumptions about progress and that these assumptions will be our undoing unless we can see them, unveil them and break free from them and into more life giving truths. He talks about our unquestioned belief that technology always makes things better for us, our belief that technology, not change in human behavior, will ultimately solve all of our problems and make all of our desires possible. Berry also talks about the dream of continuing and continual progress toward what he calls some “ill defined magical paradise” That is, we assume that we should always be in motion, always moving toward some goal, always in the process of getting to someplace else, someplace that will be better than here and now. But this assumption keeps us removed from the here and now, which is where and when we are actually living of course. This assumption allows us to devalue the present and allows us to sacrifice or risk the present for some imagined future. (Thomas Berry quoted in Awakening the Dreamer, Pachamama Alliance)

Brian Swimme is a scholar and author of several books on cosmology, evolution and religion and he also examines some of the human assumptions which have led us into our present environmental crisis. He writes about the assumption of our culture that the earth is here to satisfy our needs and wants, that the earth is a resource, to be used and exploited by human beings, who somehow stand apart and separate from the rest of creation. He writes:

One way to characterize the cosmology (or shaping stories) that is at work in our culture is this: that the natural world, the earth is there for us to satisfy our needs and desires whatever they might be. So we want to make things. We use the Earth. We make things. And we think of it as something like a lumberyard, or, in fact, we use the word “resource” so that the Earth is full of resources that are there for us to use as we see fit. Now that orientation actually is not that bad so long as humans are not that powerful. But suddenly when we become so massively present, that orientation turns out to be completely pathological. You can’t call a forest a resource. It’s filled with amazing beings. You can’t call the ocean with all those fish and the marine mammals a resource. Each of those species is the end result of 13.7 billion years of evolution. They’re spectacular, they’re stupendous, they have a right to be here. So to think of them as resources and to use them however we like is really what’s driving our destruction.

(Brian Swimme, quoted in Awakening the Dreamer, Pachamama Alliance)

What does it mean for us to imagine new dreams? Advent has since its beginning been a time for this — a time of waiting and longing and even re-imagining the whole order of the world. Advent is a time for facing often hard truths in difficult circumstances. My colleague, Rev. Thomas Mickelson writes:

It is so appropriate that the central image of this season is the birth of a child. The Christian cr¸che, a manger and a newborn child, is one of the best-known religious images in the world. And it makes sense that the birth in Bethlehem took place in the midst of political unrest and instability so that the new child had to be taken by his parents quickly and stealthily away and out of danger. Dangers and risks are often part of waiting, dangers and risks that threaten unfulfilled hopes. During advent, we wait for the birth of a child. But, underneath the story of the child, are other stories-the story of the people who surrounded Jesus, a people who were caught in waiting over life and death struggles; the story of people waiting in our own time who lives seem hopeless, our own human waiting, our personal stories of waiting, the story of the world waiting and longing for peace and justice, for a modicum of prosperity spread evenly to all people, for security and respect, for food and housing and health care for everyone, for opportunities for children everywhere, for the right to pursue life, liberty, freedom, and pathways to happiness. Look how long we have waited for true democracy in the world. The world waits. We wait.

(From the sermon, “The World Waits” by Rev. Thomas Mikelson Sun, 12/05/2004, First Parish Cambridge, MA, Unitarian Universalist)

The world waits and we wait but I believe the waiting of advent is not a passive waiting. The hope of advent is not a helpless hope. In many ways the earth itself can teach us what we need to know. Mary Oliver writes about going among the trees when she is so distant from the hope of herself, when she is so distant from who and how she wants to live in the world, with goodness and discernment, walking slowly and bowing often, when she is far from that she walks among the trees and they remind her of who she is and how she wants to live. When we remember our deep connection with the earth, the one that many of us had as children, it becomes easier to love the earth and to care about its future in a different way.

A member of our congregation told me about the recent visit of a young child who lives in an urban area. The little boy went for a walk in the woods here and was stunned and delighted to find what he called “wild ice.” He had never seen ice outside of ice cube trays or hanging off the eaves of buildings. He didn’t know that ice “grew wild” and was utterly delighted to learn that it did.

For most children, the natural world is a source of fascination and delight. Like many children, my children’s first words were imitations of animal sounds. Caleb’s first word was Bow Wow. Isabel’s was mama, followed almost immediately by dog. The words tree, sun and moon came soon after. Like most young children, they want and need to be close to the earth. They throw themselves in leaf piles and snow piles. They dig in mud and sand and dirt and splash in water wherever they find it.

Dan Wakefield, a writer and member of King’s Chapel in Boston, returned to church as an adult and came to deeply love his faith community. But he never forgot how important the natural world was to his spirituality. In this passage, from Returning: A Spiritual Journey, he writes about how, as a child, he went into the chapel of the wilderness in order to find his connection with that quiet presence.

Though I still attended Sunday school sporadically, I began to feel more spiritual refreshment out of doors than in church. In the fields and woods not far from my house, in the burning leaves of autumn and the running streams of spring, I felt close to the source and mystery of things. The perfume of wet clover, the rough hide feel of the barks of oaks, rushes of wind lifting curled red maple leaves off the hard autumn ground in swirling eddies - these and all the million sights, sounds, and smells of nature, from the sweet taste of foxtail grass I chewed as I strolled, to the quick flash of perch below the surface of a brook, all were revelations and messages of some great creating force. I knew there were secrets in the woods and sometimes I felt I was very close to them, close to understanding, and there was a thrill in sensing such knowledge was there if only I could look close enough or be still enough or attuned enough.

I think many of us feel closest to the source and mystery of things, as Wakefield, puts in when we are in nature. It is so much easier to see the beauty of the world, to sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves, however we name it or understand it, when we are outside. Sometimes on beautiful mornings I confess I want to ask you what you are dong here. I want to send you outside. It seems almost paradoxical, especially on beautiful mornings, to seek for stillness and awe and the presence of the Sacred inside a building, when the vastness of that presence surrounds us. While today, in the midst of a blizzard, I am deeply grateful for this warmth and shelter, I often feel like God is waiting for us outside. I want to go have church with the Black Angus cows in their contented stillness grazing on the sides of Gibbet Hill. Or have church while climbing Gibbet Hill and looking out over the roofs and steeples and fields. I want to say sometimes, “The church has left the building. We have gone to search for wild ice!”

Psalm 19 reads in part, The heavens declare God’s grandeur and the radiance from which they arise. Each dawn tells of God’s beauty; each night shines with God’s grace. Their testimony speaks to the whole world and reaches to the ends of the earth. But what does it really mean to believe that the dawn tells of divinely inspired beauty and the night shines with a similar grace? What does it really mean to believe in the sacredness of this gentle hand that has shaped the earth, to see the handprint of holiness in the natural world? To see the world this way requires us to ask questions about how we conduct ourselves on this earth. It has implications for what we eat and where the food we eat is grown, for where the clothes we wear are made and how much energy is used in getting these goods to the stores where we buy them. It has implications for the efficiency of the cars we drive, and how much we drive them; for how much we choose to buy and how much we throw away — as if there is any such place as away.

I think about how carefully most of us protect the things and people we love. The future depends upon us learning to extend that sense of care to the natural world. The future depends upon us learning to see the earth as something fragile and precious. The future depends upon our ability to claim the earth as home and to love that home enough to conserve, sustain and protect it.

Mary Oliver writes:

Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, stay awhile.
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, it’s simple, they say
And you too have come into the world to do this,
To go easy, to be filled with light and to shine.

So let us go, easy, filled with light, to shine.


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Most recently updated 2009-06-06