Nobel Peace Prize Sermon for 2007 by Rev. Anthony D. Makar

Today inaugurates what I hope becomes an annual event: a sermon linked
to people whose work has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In this
way we are guaranteed to grapple with some of the most compelling
issues and challenges of our day, and we do this in solidarity with
the rest of the world. To all of us, within these walls and beyond,
the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize telegraphs a message of world
urgency and significance. This award says, Pay attention.

And so we turn to this year’s award recipients: The
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Al Gore, Jr., for their
“efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about
man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures
that are needed to counteract such change.” The Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change was founded in 1988 by the United Nations, and
on it are hundreds of scientists from more than 130 countries. Their
fourth report, released earlier this year in February, which has been
described as “perhaps the most thoroughly vetted document in the
history of science,” asserts with more than 90 percent confidence
that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities
have been the main causes of climate change in the past half century.
Thus the editorial headline I saw in my newspaper when the report came
out: “Global warming: stop arguing and start planning.”

And then there is Al Gore. His concern about the climate change goes
all the way back to his college undergraduate days in the 1960s and to
a relationship with one of his professors, Dr. Roger Revelle-the first
scientist to propose measuring carbon dioxide in the earth’s
atmosphere. “I will never forget the graph he drew on the
blackboard,” says Al Gore, “nor the dramatic message it
conveyed: that something profoundly new was happening to the
atmosphere of the entire planet and that this transformation was
happening by human beings.” That’s what Al Gore says, and you
get the same message from watching his movie An Inconvenient
Truth
. Lots of graphs here, too, except this time they are
displayed on a huge projection screen, not a mere chalkboard. Graphs
showing that the average global temperature for the past fifty years
jumps up sharply, rises up like a sharp spike, in distinct contrast to
the relatively flat line representing the previous thousand years. The
jump up in temperature is so great, in fact, that Al, in the movie,
has to use a hydraulic lift to follow the line upwards. He literally
has to pause the flow of his lecture, get on the lift, press the
button, you hear the “mmmmmmmmm” sound of the lift working,
and then only when he’s high enough up there, at the top of the
immense projection screen, does he resume his talk, the spiking line
beside him the mute witness to the almost incomprehensible magnitude
of what he’s saying.

The Nobel Peace Prize is telling us to pay attention. Pay attention.
Already we are experiencing the effects of “global
weirding”-that’s how one environmentalist likes to refer to
the way in which the rise in global temperatures is causing all sorts
of crazy weather like hotter heat spells and droughts in some places,
to colder cold spells and more violent storms in others, or more
intense flooding and forest fires. Global weirding. We already know
this first hand. And, unless we do something dramatic in the very near
future, then what the youngest children among us will know is a world
that will be warmer than it has been for hundreds of millions of
years. Just five more degrees Fahrenheit-and this is not the
worst-case scenario but the middle-case scenario-and what we will
have, in effect, is a totally different planet, with extinction
consequences comparable to what happened 65 million years ago when a
giant asteroid collided with the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs.
The Nobel Peace Prize is saying, Pay attention!

So what do we do? This Unitarian Universalist community of
faith? What will our contribution be to the healing of the planet?
That’s what I want to talk about today, and the path before us is
suggested by something that a wise Rabbi once said. He said that the
whole truth requires each of us to have a piece of paper in each side
pocket. On one piece of paper should be written, “I am of
infinite worth.” And on the other, “I am only dust and
ashes.” Both are parts of the truth, and the whole truth is
ultimately a matter of knowing when to take out which piece of paper.

Right now, it’s time to take out the dust and ashes piece of
paper. That’s what one of our contributions can be. Being a people
of faith that witnesses honestly and openly to the truth of human
hypocrisy around environmental matters. Fact is, most people have
pro-environment attitudes; most people will thrill to our Unitarian
Universalist Seventh Principle that talks about affirming the
interconnected web of all existence. And yet it is a documented fact
that people go ahead and engage in environmentally destructive actions
anyway. Attitude does not necessarily mean action. Why is this? Once
again, we are back to something that St. Paul said in the Christian
scriptures about how his heart is divided in two and he does not truly
know himself. “I do not understand what I do,” says St.
Paul. “I don’t do what I would like to do, but instead do
what I hate.” We must bear witness to the complexities of what it
means to be human.

Of the many approaches to this, one comes from a fascinating paper by
Thomas Gladwin, William Newburry, and Edwin Reiskin, entitled
“Why Is the Northern Elite Mind Biased Against Community, the
Environment, and a Sustainable Future?” Talk about an imposing
title-one which, among other things, acknowledges the key role that
first world post-industrial societies like America have in this, as
well as issues like race and class. Even in the face of global
disaster, current patterns of human development are not sustainable
and not healthy, and so the question: “What could possibly
explain this pervasive manifestation of collective human
irrationality?” I can only offer a glimpse of their fascinating
answer here, which seeks to integrate findings from across the
disciplines. It ends up pointing to the nature of our biological minds
inherited from our ancient ancestors, to the mechanistic enlightenment
worldview we still operate in, to our timeless human capacity for
self-deception, and to the mental programming of our market and
media-driven contemporary society. It all explains why we are so much
like frogs in kettles, which tend to ignore dangerous yet gradual
changes and so can end up being boiled alive. It’s why we so
easily fall into dualisms in our thinking, so that we put humanity on
one side of things and then nature on the other, as if
environmentalism is just about what’s out there beyond us and not
the all-embracing reality it really is. It’s why when, confronted
with huge problems, we can numb ourselves to our true feelings, or we
can take our feelings of terror and angst and project them outwards
onto others, scapegoat others, demonize others, create conspiracy
theories, blame anything else but ourselves. It’s also why we keep
on measuring value according to the economic bottom line, or keep on
pretending that there are no limits to consumerism and material
expansion, or keep on thinking that what’s going to save us in the
end is more technology. More technology, more of the same. But
here’s what I’ve heard about expecting different results when
you continue repeating the same old solutions. They call it insanity.
That’s what they call it.

The paper is an ambitious one, and I mention it only to illustrate the
kind of work that is out there, which seeks to get at the complex
roots of why so many of us profess pro-environment attitudes and yet
the attitudes don’t necessarily translate into action. Sometimes
the findings are ironic to the extreme. For example, well-meaning
environmental regulations can sometimes themselves be part of the
problem. One instance of this is pollution standards which require
manufacturers to use tall smoke stacks. Tall smoke stacks send the
pollution a farther distance away, thus diminishing the effect for
local citizens (which is what the pollution standard is trying to
ensure). And yet, where does the pollution go? The tall stacks
disperse it into the upper atmosphere, where winds send them to
Canada! What an absurd result! The point here is not that
environmental regulations and standards are bad things. The point is
that, for them to be effective, people have to be honest and wise.
People have to avoid focusing on the letter of the regulation and
remember the spirit; people have to resist trying to beat the system.
It’s about people. People’s hearts and minds have got to
change. Dust and ashes, dust and ashes….

And there is yet one more dimension to look at. Why do we have an
attitude/behavior gap where the environment is concerned? Because of
what happens in our families. This became clear to me when I returned
to Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and thought
about it a bit more. You may remember how, interspersed with all the
graphs and charts and data, there are brief interludes where Al Gore
shares more personal stories. He talks about how his Dad taught him
the moral necessity of caring for the land, and how his Mom read to
him and to his sister the classic environmentalism book Silent
Spring
, by Rachel Carson. He talks about how he takes his own
family, as often as possible, into untamed natural places, to shake
off what he calls “the urban frenzy.” He also talks about
the unique power that parenting has to change your life-how, when his
young son was hit by a speeding car, this was the turning point in his
life when he asked himself with an intensity and a depth he had never
before mustered: “What really matters? How do I really want to
spend my time on earth?” His answer was to cherish his family and
then to focus on healing the earth. Two commitments that trumped
everything else. That’s how Al Gore achieved clarity in his life.
I went back to all of these personal stories, and what I ended up
realizing was that Al Gore might not have become environmentalist Al
Gore and definitely not Nobel Peace Prize winning Al Gore without
having had these crucial family experiences. In other words, the
attitude/behavior gap is easy when children do not grow up with
messages from parents that the earth is sacred and that there are
specific things we can do to care for the land. The attitude/behavior
gap is easy when we never get out of “the urban frenzy” to
be among the peace and grace of wild things. The attitude/behavior gap
is easy when we don’t connect the dots and realize that it is our
own families we are fighting for, our own children. The gap comes so
easy, then.

It’s that piece of paper in one of our pockets: dust and ashes. We
are but dust and ashes. We’re facing a planetary emergency;
tomorrow is today; there is such a thing as being too late-and is
humanity going to be up to the challenge? Can we go far, quickly?

Now is the time to reach for that other piece of paper, the one that
says, “I am of infinite worth.” It means that we are
stronger than we know. Trouble creates a capacity to handle it; all
that we are asked to bear we can bear; God gave burdens but also
shoulders. Unitarian Universalism is a religion that does not just
call us to do better; it says that we CAN do all that we ought to do.
Within us is a spark of the Divine, a deep well of wisdom and
resilience. Without us is a world full of wisdom traditions from many
lands and times, and so we do not stop with one source; we draw from
as many as we need to, to live lives that are faithful to the cause of
justice and love. This is the other thing we can do as a community of
faith: bear witness to the hope that goes before us and draw strength
from this so that we can do the work we are called to do in our time.
Don’t inspire me to work on the basis of fear. Don’t preach to
me “I have a nightmare.” Preach to me a dream. Preach a
dream!

Unitarian Universalists, here’s my dream for our community of
faith-what we can do. Three things. One has to do with tapping into
this congregation’s care of earth resources. A group like Ens and
Outs, for example, which has been around since the mid-70s, has a
wonderful focus and blends environmental activism with enjoyment of
outdoor activities. We’ve had a very active Green Sanctuary
program in previous years. Many people here, passionate about our
living earth-and so, at the invitation of Ed Arnold, we have the
Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy here with us today,
Rita Kilpatrick, who will be speaking after the second service today
about global warming solutions in rooms 209 and 210. So many
environmentalism resources available to us, already within this
congregation and in easy reach of it; and so, going forward,
here’s what I’d like to do. Pencil in on your calendar the
following date: Thursday evening, January 31. This will be an
organizational meeting I’ll lead, in which as many people as
possible will gather around one table, to identify past
accomplishments and involvements, to identify strengths and passions,
and then to frame a shared success vision going forward into the
future. We can’t do everything; but we can do something. So what
is it that we will do in the next 3-5-7 years? We are the ones we have
been waiting for!

Now the second thing we can do: to set side by side with the Care of
Earth Initiative the Healthy Families Initiative. This is another
growth initiative I’ve been talking about, and I hope you already
see, given my comments about Al Gore’s family from earlier, how
healthy families lead to a healthy world. Nearly 100 years ago, Sierra
Club founder John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by
itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Healing the earth is no exception. If we want to stop the
attitude/behavior gap regarding environmentalism, or anything else,
we’ve got to stop it at a key source-and that source is all about
the quality of our relationships. Parents who have strong parenting
skills. Functional family relationships, as when an adult mentors a
youth and is there for them. Supportive family relationships of all
kinds that can give us strength as individuals to do the right thing
in life. And so, here is another date to pencil in on your calendar:
Sunday, February 3. On this day, in worship, we are going to do
something very special, very cutting edge for Unitarian Universalism.
We’re going to engage in what’s called a congregational
census, to get a clear snapshot about where we are right now as a
community-the concerns and needs we feel in our relationships and our
families. This marks the start of our Healthy Families Initiative.
Sunday, February 3.

This leads to the third thing we can do, which is building a strong
foundation for the two initiatives. Building the base. To go far,
fast, as Al Gore says we need to, we have to manage the project.
Dreams are fine, but then there comes a time when we have to attend to
practicalities and give those dreams feet. It means that we enhance
and expand the power of our worship and music program. Worship and
music sustained the Civil Rights movement through terrible times and
was a constant source of inspiration and renewal, and it can be that
for us as well. Just imagine the exponential increase in the power of
this sacred time if we were to add to it a constant visual, multimedia
dimension-images have impact and get under your skin like nothing
else. And then imagine a full-time music director leading us to new
heights, helping us find the song of our hearts that is ours to sing!
We make this happen, and then we do another thing: we pay close,
careful attention to cultivating healthy relationships in this
congregation-not allowing anxiety to lead us to imagine bad intentions
in the other person, not allowing ourselves to believe that if people
don’t see things our way, then they must be anti-environment,
anti-family, anti-Unitarian Universalist. We need to pull together and
not apart! That’s what we need to do! Finally, we do a third thing
so as to build a string foundation for our initiatives: we are good
stewards of our resources. Financial generosity in this congregation
continues to grow and thrive in wonderful ways, but we cannot forget
about generosity of time and talent. Without sufficient congregational
friends and members stepping up to volunteer, we won’t be able to
develop or improve programs. You can’t put programs before people.
We can talk all day about stuff we’d like to see happen, but if
there are few or no congregants willing to help, then it won’t
happen. We are the ones we have been waiting for. More about this in
my sermon series for January.

One, two, and three: three aspects of the dream. All to the end of
becoming that dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists Martin
Luther King Jr. once talked about. I dream that this community grasps
and is grasped by this urgent moment in history and is thereby taken
to a new level, and in our music and in our prayers we feel the full
strength of the Spirit of Life flowing in this place, energizing us,
calling us to action in a new day. In one pocket the piece of paper
says, Dust and ashes. In the other pocket it says, You
are of infinite value
. Both say the whole truth about who we are;
flawed beings, frail beings, beings that are immensely
self-frustrating. But also this: beings who, at some level, already
have all the wisdom and strength they need, so what remains is just to
choose that, to choose life, to choose the kind of future we want. We
can do it. It’s up to us. Amen.