A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 21, 2013 (Earth Day)
Job 12:7-10 GNT
Some years ago, when we lived in Middle Tennessee, I regularly attended the Southern Festival of Books that is held in Nashville’s Legislative Plaza every October. The festival brings in authors, publishers, and book venders from all over the country for a three-day celebration of books. One of the speakers that I was privileged to hear was writer Marilou Awiakta. Marilou spoke about her Cherokee-Appalachian heritage and her recently released book titled Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom. It is a book about our relationship with the Earth. Well, I was to learn that Awiakta grew up right here in Oak Ridge. Her Cherokee and Appalachian heritage, and her upbringing in Oak Ridge, made her sensitive to human-Earth relations. One of the dangers that Marilou points out in her book is the human tendency to look upon Earth as an “It.” Something to be taken from, used, looked upon only in terms of what Earth can provide for us—without any respect or loving relationship with the Earth whatsoever.
Awiakta operates on the principle that “everything is in physical and spiritual connection—God, nature, humanity. All are one, a circle.”1 “We have never really understood,” she contends, “that we are one small part of a very large family that includes the plant world, the animal world and our other living relations.”2 Native Americans in general, it seems, have always had a healthier respect for Earth or Creation than the general population. Another Native American, Teton Sioux Chief Luther Standing Bear, spoke for many Native Americans when he said, “Kinship with all creatures of the Earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle.”3 And Awiakta’s contention is that humankind has been guilty of using, abusing, and taking from Earth without the proper love and respect, and consequently, we are beginning to reap the consequences of both our attitude and actions. One of my favorite passages in the book is Marilou’s poem titled “When Earth Becomes an ‘It’”.
When the people call Earth ‘Mother,’
they take with love
and with love give back
so that all may live.
When the people call Earth ‘it,’
they use her
consume her strength.
Then the people die.
Already the sun is hot
out of season.
Our Mother’s breast
is going dry.
She is taking all green
into her heart
and will not turn back
until we call her
by her name.4
I will return to Awiakta in a moment. But in looking at the scriptures, whether he realized what he was doing or not, the author of the book of Job also spoke of a close relation with the Earth when he said, “Even birds and animals have much they could teach you; ask the creatures of earth and sea for their wisdom” (Job 12:7-8). There is much that we can learn from creation, if we are willing to be in a relationship of mutuality and respect. The Earth has so much to give to us and share with us, but too often humankind has responded to Earth in an ungrateful and haphazard manner.
A good example of humankind’s misuse of the Earth is the plight of the Amazon Rainforests. Numerous medicines—including drugs to treat leukemia, malaria, high blood pressure, mental illness, and others—come from trees and other plants that only grow in the Amazon Rainforests. In fact, it is estimated that 25% of all modern medicines originally came from the rainforests. But scientists believe that only a fraction of the potential drugs and medicines in the rainforests have been tapped. There are many plants and life-saving drugs yet to be discovered. In other words, there is an untold wealth of natural medicines hidden away in the rainforests.
But the sad news is the rainforests are being depleted at a rapid rate. Whereas rainforests once covered 14% of the Earth’s land surface, now they cover only about six percent. Scientists estimate that the Earth is losing well over 100 species of plants and animals every single day due to rainforest deforestation. The exotic woods—teak, mahogany, rosewood, and others—are being cut and sold for profit. And in other cases the rainforests are being cleared and turned into grazing land for cattle. And all those potentially life-saving drugs and medicines from the Amazon Rainforests are disappearing before they are even discovered. As Awiakta says, here is another instance where Earth is being looked upon as an “It,” being exploited and used up, rather than being respected for the wonderful gifts that Earth seeks to give us. Such is what happens when we look upon Earth as an “it” to be used instead of feeling a sense of kinship with all beings of the Earth.
Creation care writer Thomas Berry also speaks of a “returning to a sense of kinship with all beings.”5 The book titled The Sacred Universe is a collection of Berry’s lectures and writings that were published after his death. It is another one my top ten, all-time favorite books. Berry contended that “we now urgently need human-Earth integration.”6 “Simply put, we are Earthlings. The Earth is our origin, our nourishment, our educator, our healer, our fulfillment.”7 “To recover such a situation where humans would be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner,” Berry says, “I believe we must return to a sense of intimacy with the Earth akin to that experienced by many indigenous peoples of earlier times.”8 “Our most urgent need at the present time is for a reorientation of the human venture toward an intimate experience of the world around us.”9
So, to put it bluntly and succinctly, for the good of the Earth and for our own good and survival, we need to revisit our relationship to creation and bring about a change in both our attitude and actions that will result in better care for the Earth. To put it even more bluntly, we need—as much as possible—to stop fouling the nest we live in, not only for the nest’s sake, but for our own sake as well. As Chief Seattle put it, “Continue to contaminate your own bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.”10
But such a revisiting of our relationship to creation and change in attitude and actions has an added benefit. Such can provide us with a greater sense of satisfaction and joy and personal harmony in our everyday lives. As Berry notes, “We are most ourselves when we are most intimate with the rivers and mountains and woodlands, with the sun and the moon and the stars in the heavens; when we are most intimate with the air we breathe, the Earth that supports us, the soil that grows our food, with the meadows in bloom.”11 And near the end of her book, Awiakta likewise observes, “It’s a beautiful feeling to understand who you are, why you were created and that you’re part of the universal family—Mother Earth and all that lives.”12
So again, what is needed is a change in both our attitude and our actions. Perhaps our attitude toward creation would change if we would open our eyes and ears more to experience the beauty and miracles of creation that are all around us. As we take time to reflect upon God’s creation, we come to realize just how dependent we are upon the different aspects of creation. We depend upon fruits and vegetables to satisfy our hunger. We depend upon trees and other green plants to supply the oxygen we breathe, and to provide us with many medicines we take for granted, such as aspirin that comes from the bark of a tree. And in many ways, various aspects of creation depend upon us for their survival as well. We come to realize that we are part of one big interdependent web of being.
And then, when we experience a greater kinship with Earth, with all creation, maybe it will lead to a change in our actions, as we are more inclined to love and care for that which we hold to be our own kin. Such is what Suzanne is hoping to do with her Mission 4/1 Earth tips of the day—lead us to change in small steps our actions that will result in greater care for the Earth.
May this Earth Day week and our Mission 4/1 Earth programs prompt us to revisit our relationship with Creation. Amen.
1Marilou Awiakta, Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1993, p. 67. 2Ibid, p. ix. 3Kent Nerburn, Ed, The Wisdom of the Native Americans. New York: MJF Books, 1999, p. 36. 4Awiakta, p. 6. 5Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe. New York: Columbia UN Press, 2009, p. XV. 6Berry, pp. 44-45. 7Berry, p. 69. 8Berry, p. 94. 9Berry, p. 132. 10Nerburn, p. 74. 11Berry, p. 95. 12Awiakta, p. 250.