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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 23, 2014

A Meditation on Life & Death, Intoxication, Sobering Up, and Saving the World

I am circling around God,
around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don't know
if I am a falcon,
or a storm,
or a great song.

— Ranier Maria Rilke

Not long ago Meredith Garman, an old friend and colleague currently serving as minister of our congregation in White Plains, New York, and I found ourselves talking about extraterrestrial life, flying saucer claims, and the SETI project. What can I say? Conversations just go that way once in a while. It gave me a chance to rehearse my oft repeated line that the very reason I'm past confident there are other intelligent life forms out there is also the reason I don't think it likely we'll ever make contact, and certainly that we haven't been surreptitiously visited by flying saucers kidnapping people for the purpose of probing them. It's the very bigness of it all.

Meredith, who was a philosophy professor before he went crazy and then to seminary, replied how actually the math suggests otherwise. The physicists Enrico Fermi and Michael Hart worked that math and found something curious, a paradox. The article on it at Wikipedia presents the issue succinctly. “The apparent size and age of the universe suggest that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it.” By Fermi and Hart's math the galaxy, ours, the Milky Way, should have been pretty much completely colonized by some vastly earlier civilization by now. But, it hasn't happened. And, so, hangs the question: Where is everybody?” It's called the Fermi paradox.

There have been any numbers of responses to the paradox. Some are quite inventive. But one in particular haunts me, has even made it hard to go to sleep sometimes. Put simply it suggests that it is in the nature of intelligent life, at some point, to destroy itself.

We are a pretty violent species. Nuclear weapons done right could do the job. And that's certainly not off the table. But, I'm thinking, fearing, I'm searching for the appropriate word for that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, that, you know, well, we could just poison the planet bit by bit until we hit some tipping point; maybe kill the oceans, or set up a spiral that makes the air un-breathable by creatures that use lungs.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarized the consensus of the scientific community about this when they reported “Human activities... are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents... that absorb or scatter radiant energy. Most of the observed warming over the last fifty years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” This view has been endorsed by our American National Academy of Sciences as well as the national science academies of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, India, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

People who object to the relentless truth of climate change and the harsh truth that the cause is largely in our human hands are with a few exceptions outside the scientific community, and rather are motivated by religion, politics, and, let's face it, some enormous near term profits. The situation isn't helped by those concerned with ecological catastrophe who look for it in every out of the ordinary winter storm. There is a real issue and we in our collective are not facing it in a helpful manner. Summing much of this up rather nicely is a posting from a Facebook friend, who is also a friend, not, of course, always the same thing, when a few weeks ago she wrote:

“So I believe in climate change and all, but I'm beginning to get annoyed with all of the articles telling me that soon the world is going to end--probably in 20 years--but first my kids and I will have to do some tribal live off the grid stuff and then probably eat each other to survive. Please, someone tell me that some of this is hyperbolic. Yes, I know climate change is irreversible. Yes, I know that one day the human species will meet its doom. Yes, I know that there is nothing I can do but really good pastoral care while we die. Human beings love an apocalypse. But seriously, this is depressing me. I don't like camping. I could not survive for even a day during tribal warfare…”

This was of course a spontaneous moment of emotion, not a thought through statement. But, it contains a lot we need to pay attention to, particularly those of us not caught in the snares of science denial.

Among the interesting things in the comments to this posting was the current running right through them that there was nothing to be done. There was pretty much a consensus. We are doomed. And fair enough, we do face some ecological tipping point. And the really hard part is you don't know when you've crossed one, until you have. My colleague's nightmare of people fighting to the death over long expired cans of dog food is not the worst scenario we're facing. Doom in two decades, not even likely. But. I think of those silent stars. I think of those silent stars.

So, here, with all that, all of it, hanging in the air, including that terrible silence from the stars, let me share a word of hope, and an invitation.

The first part may not sound hopeful, but I suggest it is critical to see. Here are some facts on the ground as it relates to us as human beings, which we need to understand. We are born to take care of ourselves, and our immediate kin and, it sure looks true for most of us, we are driven relentlessly by our biology to continue the family line. For as long as there's been history we've seen how human beings act from this inner drive. It is natural, and even has much about it that is admirable.

And among those things that seem to be innate among us, as precious few as they are, is a sense of fairness, an inclination toward harmony. However, we have those other things going on within our hearts at the same time, the desire to foster our personal and often immediate advantage, so at the very same time we want fair, we also are inclined to cheat, to seek personal advantage, for ourselves or ours. I gather people who track traffic patterns use these two truths to calculate how traffic will flow. If we can reduce the number of moving parts, in that case, having a limited number of routes one can take, we're pretty predictable.

Taken together, our desire for it being fair, and our inclination to cheat has in some form of balance proven to be very good at advancing us as a species. Too well, actually. When I was born there were about two and a half billion people on the planet, today there are some seven and a half billion of us. We all need food, shelter and energy, and we all want more than that. And in our relentless pursuit of these things by fair means and foul, we've actually run up against the finitude of our planet and have in fact disrupted the ecosystem. Looking with honest eyes we are in real danger, maybe not tomorrow, probably not in two decades. But problems are already with us. And they will get worse, eventually much worse. Unchecked we can kill the planet. Think of those silent stars.

And. Truthfully. Honestly. I don't think it has to be that way. Here's why. Here's the secret that can save us. We, all of us, you and me, and everyone and every other creature on this planet are related. All the other things about us contending on behalf of ourselves and our own is true, but we forget the real extent of who is ours. In fact we are all of us family. We are one. We are all children of this planet; the earth is our mother. Her blood is our blood.

And, this is not just philosophy, words unconnected to our real lives. It is a truth we know in our bones and marrow. But it is a latent knowing. We often forget it in the headlong rush of our individual needs, the immediate situations we find ourselves in. That said, forgotten or not, we are all deeply connected. We just need to remember this truth. If we do, we change our behaviors.

It is like we're drunk on the short term and the immediate need. But we are capable of sobering up. And the sober truth is we are related. This truth haunts our dreams and informs our religions at their deepest places and is the great source of that sense of fairness we feel in our bones, even if we are capable of violating it. Our immediate task is to sober up, to remember, to re-member, to look into our hearts as well as our minds and to find this truth of intimacy as the deep truth, as your deep truth, as mine.

It comes to us in the moments of the silent and unspoken. And seeking some of that in our lives is important. But it is not the only way. Sometimes it comes to us in the depths of disaster and war and violence. It comes whenever the ordinary comes in, the mysterious and compelling ordinary all by itself dispels the stories of isolation that we repeat to ourselves to justify the short gain. It recalls us to something.

The great Rumi sang to our hearts a warning. “Sit, be still, and listen, because you are drunk and we are at the edge of the roof.” Follow that all the way down, and we will find our way off the roof. Find the silent places, perhaps a quiet time every morning. Now, it can come unbidden, and at any time, but it is more likely if we ready ourselves to see it, to hear it as it presents, sometimes as angels descending from heaven, sometimes as a child plays in the dirt. Gifted with the moment, notice the intoxications that take you away from your life, from our lives right here at the edge of the roof. Find the moments in your heart. They occur every day. Find the spaces that allow you to be what you were born to be, a true freedom known when you see we are all one family, which allows you and us to back off the roof. Sober up and see the world as it really is, then you know what to do.

Do this, and, perhaps out of this doing we will become the planet that sings out into the night, that we do not have to pass away because of shortsightedness, or grasping, because intelligent beings succeed and then in their success destroy themselves.

Rather, we can proclaim the universal truths of intimacy, of our intimacy within ourselves, and with each other and with the world.

Good news, indeed.

Do not despair. Hope.

These are good tidings. Breathe.

There is a way. Pay attention.

Right here. Right here. Look around.

See your mother. Know the family.

And from that knowing of bone and heart, act.

It can save us all.

It really can.