The Footprints We Leave Behind

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 22, 2012 (Earth Day)

Psalm 8; Selection from John Muir (A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf)

We spent last Memorial Day weekend with our son’s family at Gulf Shores, Alabama.  I took one early morning walk with our son and another early morning walk with our five-year-old grandson.  As we walked down the beach near the water’s edge, I was amazed at the amount of junk that people had left on the beach overnight.  Some of this junk already had been carried out to sea, and much more of it was in danger of being carried out to sea.  Children’s sand toys, empty soda and beer cans, plastic lawn chairs, articles of clothing, baseball caps, goggles, and a host of other items littered the beach.  As the tide was coming in, much of what we saw was starting to float, so like the boy who was throwing the starfish back into the sea, I was walking up and down the beach throwing sand buckets and lawn chairs back upon the dry sand to keep them from being taken out to sea.

I was reminded of a sign I saw on another beach several years ago that read: “Leave nothing behind but your footprints on the sand.”  In other words, don’t leave any trash on the beach or in the water.  Don’t pull up the sea oats or wildflowers.  Don’t alter the landscape in any permanent way.  Don’t leave anything in the path behind you except your footsteps in the sand.  And as I thought about that, I realized the message and import could go much deeper.  How good if we could exit this world without leaving behind anything except our footprints in the sand.  But alas, we all know it is far too late for that.  To continue the sea metaphor, that ship has already sailed, as they say.  Each of us has already drastically altered our world in a not-so-positive way by the trash we have thrown away and the fossil fuel emissions we have let go into the atmosphere, to cite just two examples.  But could there be hope of making changes and maybe making some amends for some of the negative footprints we have already left behind?  Hold that thought.

Before addressing that question, let’s briefly consider Psalm 8 that I read.   The psalmist, after considering the vast universe—the sky, the moon, and stars—then poses the question to God: “What are human beings, that you think of them; mere mortals, that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4).  Such is a good question, a question that, perhaps, was ahead of its time.  The traditional view is that we human beings are in a class all by ourselves.  Distinct from and superior to the rest of creation.  Such a view of humans inevitably led to a feeling of superiority and selfish ambition and over-indulgence.  Human beings exercised uncontrolled dominion over creation, which led to abuse of creation in many different forms.  The older versions of the Bible translate Psalm 6:8 to read, “Thou hast given [man] dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet. . .”  But the Good News Translation renders it right when it says, “You appointed [human beings] rulers over everything you have made,” because the word dominion means “to rule over.”  Such rule has too often been misused and abused.  The all too common attitude has been to use creation for our enjoyment and benefit without regards to or respect for creation and how the rest of the earth was being affected.  As Thomas Berry puts it in The Sacred Universe, “This sense of ‘use’ of Earth as ‘natural resource’ is an undermining aspect of our contemporary world . . . ” (166).  Part of the reason for this mindset, perhaps, has been our sense of isolation from creation and our lack of feeling connected to the whole.  We are not connected to the earth like our ancestors were.

But back to the psalmist’s question: “What are human beings, that you think of them; mere mortals, that you care for them?”  Many today are beginning to see themselves, not as distinct from and superior to the rest of creation; but rather, as an interconnected part of creation.  It appears that naturalist John Muir was of this mindset and one ahead of his time.  In the selection from A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, Muir asks, “Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation?”  All creatures of the earth, Muir argues, “are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals” (p. 39).  Do we as humans hold a special place in all creation that entitles us to rule over the rest of creation in any way we see fit, not taking into account the dignity and worth of every creature, every tree, every flower, every stream or body of water?  That is the question, isn’t it?    

But back to the footprint imagery.  We have heard a lot the past few years about our carbon footprint. Now, I readily admit that I am not scientifically minded enough to discuss something as complex as our carbon footprint.  There are many in this congregation who could explain the concept much better than I.  But as I understand it, a carbon footprint has to do with the amount of greenhouse gases, or carbon dioxide and methane emissions, that is given off because of the actions of an organization, business, industry, or individual.  Greenhouse gases are given off through the production of goods and services.  Or through driving and the transport of food or other goods or services.  Through construction, driving our vehicles, using electricity that is produced through the use of fossil fuels, and so on.  So any time we purchase products that required giving off of greenhouse gases in the making or transporting; or drive our car; or run our clothes dryer or use any other form of electricity that comes from the burning of fossil fuel; and so on, we are increasing our carbon footprint and contributing to the pollution of our atmosphere. 

Now, it is obvious that we’re all in this boat together.  And as I stated earlier, regarding the footprint that each of us is responsible for, that ship has already sailed.  But the good news is each of us can consciously reduce—to some small degree, at least—the amount of carbon footprint that we are leaving behind through such means as limiting our driving as much as possible, cutting back on our consumption of electricity when possible by turning off lights or appliances when they are not needed or switching to low energy light bulbs. 

There is something known as “Carbon Offsetting,” actions that can be taken to counter balance, so to speak, one’s carbon footprint.  Planting trees, especially reforestation on a large scale, and switching to solar power are two of the primary means of carbon offsetting.  By planting trees or funding the planting of trees in places where they are really needed, we help offset some of the harmful gases we emit.  In some parts of the world the destruction of forests by peoples who need the wood to survive, or so that pasture land can be created for the grazing of cattle, is reaching critical stages and adversely affecting our earth’s atmosphere.

Speaking of solar power, last Sunday following church, Lee Robertson, Dale Rector, and our United Church youth began work so as to equip our church sign on Kentucky Avenue with solar panels.  They hope to finish that project and flip the switch today.  That is one small step in the right direction.  Some months ago, we installed new energy efficient windows in our educational building (thanks to a generous donation by the Hudson Family) to cut down on our use of electricity and natural gas.

There was an article in the Knoxville News Sentinel a few weeks ago about the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church that has installed solar panels on its roof and is going completely solar and will even start getting credits for the excess solar power their panels generate.  They have taken very seriously the task of reducing their carbon footprint.

Obviously all of us can’t take such drastic steps as installing solar panels on our roofs.  But we can take smaller steps so as to reduce or counter balance the carbon footprint we are leaving behind, as I have already noted.  Things like reducing our driving when possible, reducing our use of electricity when possible, planting trees or donating to an organization that is planting trees on a massive scale, and eating lower on the food chain more often, since eating higher on the food chain requires much more energy and natural resources.  In his book, Serve God Save the Planet, J. Matthew Sleeth quotes a government website that says that if every household in the U.S. replaced just five light bulbs with the energy efficient ones, it could result in the shutdown of twenty-one coal plants.  And as  Thomas Berry contends, “What is needed is a new spiritual, even mystical, communion with Earth . . . a sensitivity to Earth’s needs, a valid economy of Earth” (p. 73).

You may not agree with everything I have presented in this sermon; and that is okay.  But I suppose a primary point we can take from today’s sermon is just being more aware of the fact that each of us is leaving a footprint behind on the earth as we live from day to day.  That is a given.  There is no way for any of us to completely reduce or erase the footprint we are leaving.  But maybe, just maybe, we can make conscious decisions to reduce that footprint a little.  And by so doing, take a little better care of God’s good earth.  Amen.

 Sources quoted:

Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

J. Matthew Sleeth, Serve God Save the Planet.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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