Returning to Nature, Returning to Self

Returning to Nature, Returning to Self

A Sermon Offered at All Souls Church Unitarian Universalist

January 26, 2020

Rev. Shayna Appel

Lynn White wrote,“More science and technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crises until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.” This week we will explore what it means to be a people of integrity in the face of climate change as we re-think our old religion and find the mana we need for the journey ahead.

Welcome & Announcements

Chalice Lighting by Shayna Appel

Even as we settle into winter

daylight is slowly returning.

So we light our chalice this morning

in awareness and in gratitude,

and in the hope of our collective illumination,

reclamation, and occupation of hope,

understanding, compassion and commitment.

Hymn#1 May Nothing Evil Cross This Door

Opening Words ‘Heal Thyself’by Saki Santorelli

I believe that much of what we call burnout is associated with our intention to be of help and our desire for specific, knowable, well-controlled results. This is an impossibility, sure to generate addictive momentum or sinking depression. There is no way that we can make things happen in some pre-ordained manner. Life is too compassionate, too wild, too free for tat. Our work is to be, and from that stillness, to do. To develop an internal stance, an inner posture that allows us to sustain our work in the world over the long haul.


Time for All Ages

Reading #1 Mother Earth Speaks by Katherine Barratt

[Written as part of Post Oil Solutions grant to produce “Climate Change through the Arts]

You discarded your gum wrapper under a bush as you sauntered down the Avenue.  It was no longer visible to one’s eye, tucked into my lower branches, but I felt it.  Multiply that small infraction by the infinite numbers who turn their heads away as thoughtlessly, never to realize the unfathomable mayhem and damage on a far greater scale. 

I choke on the putrid odor of pollutants reaching into my upper bounds to damage the protective layer I once gave you. 

As you drill and frack, wounds linger where I have been pierced leaving schisms that plunge deep, sapping my underground infrastructure.

You strip bare my rain forests that now allow the sun to decimate the last drops of dew & fertility; my skin is laid barren to dry and scale.  


The water has warmed & cannot cool my Artic shoulders so they droop, too puny to hold up the integrity of its wildlife; so too, aquatic migrations are drawn astray into foreign zones where there is only death.  

The natural synchronicity of events – perfected over eons – is erratic, so that song birds arrive- salamanders emerge- pollinators flit: all of them much too early.   

You think you are the master of my riches – there for the taking without a thought or deed to restore what you have used. You may leave me no choice for my own survival to take all you have built upon me and annihilate your structures through powers I hold way, above human comprehension, leaving the human race nothing but rubble, destitution and mayhem in your midst. Take heed !.

Where are the voices of your ancestors who lived with me, through me and for me? 

Reading #2by James “Gus” Speth

I used to think that if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I once thought. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.

SermonReturning to Nature, Returning to Self

This morning, we gather again around the theme of ‘Integrity.’ If you recall, two weeks ago, we explored the idea that integrity generally requires us to pair down rather than add on. Rachel Naomi Remen, in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom put it this way. She wrote: Integrity rarely means that we need to add something to ourselves: it is more an undoing than a doing, a freeing ourselves from beliefs we have about who we are and ways we have been persuaded to “fix” ourselves…In other words, integrity calls us back to the selves we were before the world told us who we should be.

Today I want to explore the intersection of integrity and nature, integrityand our beautiful blue boat home. Lynn White, writing on “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crises” back in 1967, wrote that “More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crises until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.” [Science 155, March 10, 1967.] So, today we look at the issue of climate change through the lens of faith and ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be a people of integrity where climate change is concerned?”

Regarding the question of finding a new religion or rethinking our old one, I will confess at the outset that my faith is in us, in Unitarian Universalism. I firmly believe our religion is up to the task of equipping us to take on climate change. And, it may require some rethinking of our faith!

Before we go any further, I want to acknowledge how difficult a topic this is. This is hard, and it’s big and not just a little scary. And it’s not just that way for Unitarian Universalists. In his book “Climate Church, Climate World,” (which I hope you are all reading), Rev. Jim Antal addresses the difficulties of hearing about climate change, especially in church, and his context is Christian. Specifically, his context is largely shaped within the United Church of Christ.

Here are some of the reasons he offers regarding why folks don’t want to hear about climate change, especially in church;

  1. Living day to day is already hard enough. Church is supposed to give me rest and refreshment and to recharge me for the next week.

  2. Climate change isn’t going to affect me; it’s someone else’s problem.

  3. The challenge is too enormous; there’s nothing I can do about it so why should I think about it? I come to church to be inspired, not depressed.

  4. Climate change is a political issue; politics doesn’t belong in church. [Antal, pg.123]

Taking these reasons one at a time, my personal opinion is that #2 (Climate change isn’t going to affect me; it’s someone else’s problem.) and #4 (Climate change is a political issue; politics don’t belong in church.) are not where our difficulties lie at All Souls Church.

For one thing, we here in Brattleboro, as well as those across the state of Vermont, have already been directly impacted by climate change in a number of ways. Remember, for example, August of 2011? What began as a hurricane for a brief stretch over North Carolina, transitioned into an extratropical cyclone while in Vermont. It dropped as much as eleven inches of rain in some parts of our state and in Brattleboro, it sent the Whetstone Brook over its edge in a fury that left our downtown district under several feet of water. By the time it was over, damage estimates across the state tallied in at $733 million, and all told, damage to the eastern seaboard checked in at $143 billion, making Irene the sixth costliest hurricane in American history. (

Regarding the forth belief, that climate change is political and politics don’t belong in church, let me offer this. Having spent the last two years at All Souls unpacking white power and privilege, we are all painfully aware that climate change impacts poor people and poor neighborhoods disproportionately…and many, if not most of those neighborhoods, house primarily people of color. Is that a political issue? Hell yeah it is! Does it belong in church? Hell yeah it does! Anytime the question of how we live together arises in the public square it is fodder for religious thought. After all, the question of how we will live together is at the core of all of the worlds religions. We cannot live as people of faith, live as people of integrity, if our faith does not address discrepancies in justice that disproportionately impact those we live with. And I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know here which is why I think #2 and #4 on Rev. Jim’s list don’t really apply to us.

So let’s turn our attention to #’s 1 & 3. In the list of reasons people don’t want to hear about climate change, especially in church, #1 on Rev. Jim’s list is, “Living day to day is already hard enough. Church is supposed to give me rest and refreshment and to recharge me for the next week.” Well, living day to day IS hard enough. And church SHOULD be a place where we can come in from the storm and get some rest and refreshment. But if that’s all our religion is good for, for rest and refreshment, than we risk becoming what Karl Marx alleged to be true of all religion – the opium of the people.

To be frank, I have no interest in being a leader of that church – Our Lady of Rest and Refreshment Only. And I don’t think you all have much of an interest in being members of that church. Here’s the good news. We’re not!

Consider, for a moment, the Six Sources of Unitarian Universalism. We affirm and promote seven Principles, which we hold as strong values and moral guides. But we live out these Principles within a “living tradition” of wisdom and spirituality, drawn from sources as diverse as science, poetry, scripture, and personal experience. ( Listen for a moment to some of the language contained in our Six Sources.

-Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which MOVES us…

-Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which CHALLENGE us…

-Wisdom from the worlds religions which INSPIRES us…

-Jewish and Christian teachings which CALL us…

-Humanist teachings which COUNSEL us…and WARN us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.

Now, does that sound to you like opium? Does it sound to you like The Church of Unending Rest and Relaxation? Of course church should be a place where we can pause for a moment on the forming edge of our lives and stop long enough to be refilled, refreshed and renewed. And I believe we ARE that. But I don’t believe we are, or ever have been, only that.

Turning to reason #4; The challenge is too enormous; there’s nothing I can do about it so why should I think about it? I come to church to be inspired, not depressed. Yes, the challenge IS enormous. But thinking we can’t do anything about it is a lie. How do I know that? Let’s consider our history, and herstory.

As most of you are aware, Unitarianism and Universalism have their roots in the early Protestant tradition in America. And you would be hard pressed to find a single movement for social justice in this nation that Protestants didn’t play a significant role in. Abolition, suffrage, child labor reforms, mental health care, prison reform, civil rights, LGBTQ rights and marriage equality – for better AND for worse, first the Protestants, and then the Unitarians and the Universalists, and finally the Unitarian Universalists have played key roles in every movement for social justice in these United States.

We have been this nations Presidents and poets, revolutionary war leaders and comedians. We have been her First Lady’s and States representatives. We have been Nobel Laureates, authors and reformers – movers and shakers, founders and inventors. We have been Senators, educators, architects and feminists, journalists, cartoonists, astronomers and educators.

Is climate change enormous? Yes it is. Can we do nothing about it? A reasonable question. But just think. What would this nation look like today if we had looked at the issue of slavery and decided it was too big to tackle? We are stunned and breathless at the injustice of children being separated from their parents at our boarders, but this isn’t the first time families of color have been torn apart here. And let us not forget how much of this nations economic structure was built on the backs of those enslaved people. You want big? I’ll show you big! Abolition threatened to undo the very backbone of this young nations economy and completely upend a privilege some whites had thought was their birthright. You gotta think that the folks who took on that injustice were more than a tad daunted from time to time.

How about Suffrage…the movement that secured women’s right to vote? I mean, it took activists and reformers nearly 100 years to win that right and the campaign was not easy. There were disagreements over strategy that threatened to cripple the movement on more than one occasion. Those women who stood up were told to sit down, threatened, harassed. What if they had said, “Forget it. It’s too big an issue. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Read accounts of the Civil Rights Movement and know the depths of mayhem that so often accompany great movements for justice. By the time the 60’s rolled around our nations streets were on fire, and students were being shot dead on our college campuses. The very fabric of our nation seemed to be coming apart over Black rights and the Vietnam war. Those were big issues, and I’m sure people thought they were too big, from time to time. But they never stopped bending the arch of justice for human rights, and now it falls to us to bed the arch for environmental rights. Yes, the challenge is enormous. Is there anything we can do about it? You bet there is!

The second part of reason #4 says, “I come to church to be inspired, not depressed.”

Well, friends, that’s fair, but that’s up to you. What you do with the rest and refreshment you receive here is what makes the difference between being inspired and being in despair. I mean, you can be inspired, inspirited, activated, animated, encouraged, energized, motivated to move mountains…but if you don’t do something with that inspiration, especially in light of the crises before us, I promise you will get to a place of hopelessness and despair, if you’re not already there.

My friends, “we are the first generation to foresee, and the final generation with an opportunity to forestall, the most devastating effects of climate change.” (Antal, pg.126) As Bill McKibben is fond of saying, “this is an opportunity for which the church was born.” It is our call. Now is the time. Inaction is not a choice that resides in integrity for us…it never has been.

I want to close this morning with a reading from the epistle James, 2:14-18.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Blessed be and Amen.

Hymn#112 Do You Hear?


It has been said that one bee is annoying, but a swarm is a game changer! Small acts in big amounts are a force to be reckoned with. Imagine if we all took 2 minutes a day to pick up litter and recycle it. The amount of waste collected would be monstrous. And what if everyone in the U.S. reduced their meat intake by one day per week. It would save 1.4 billion animals from being raised for meat and would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road!

How do we get from small acts to big amounts? By supporting organizations like 350 Brattleboro; a group of people who meet regularly, organize together, and take action to grow a stronger climate justice movement in the greater Brattleboro area.

One dollar is annoying…but a plate full? That’s a game changer!

Please give generously as we collect and receive this morning’s offering which we will be sharing with Brattleboro 350.


Blessing Candles of Joy & Sorrow by Thich Nhat Hanh

Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds.

Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves.

Let us be aware of the source of being,

common to us all and to all living things.

Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion,

let us fill our hearts with our own compassion

towards ourselves and towards all living beings.

Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be

the cause of suffering to each other.

With humility, with awareness of the existence of life,

and of the suffering that are going on around us,

let us practice the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.

Unison Affirmation

Hymn#114 Forward Through the Ages

Extinguish the Chalice By Debra Burrell

We have basked in the warmth and beauty

of this flame and this community.

As the chalice flame is extinguished,

let us carry its glow within.

Let us kindle new sparks within these walls and beyond.