Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sermon: "God and Galapagos" (Delivered 12-6-09)

So, I return from my sabbatical with all these experiences. I spent two months traveling in South America plus another month working on research and writing projects. And now there is the question of how exactly to share all of this with you. From time to time during my travels I mused that if I ever came down with a case of writers’ block, I could just give you a Sunday morning slide show and travelogue. I have more pride than that. But, on my first Sunday back, I find it impossible not to share an image from my travels.

Picture this scene from the Galapagos Islands. We had just passed through airport security on the island of Baltra in the Galapagos Islands and the ten other passengers and I stood on a crude concrete slab waiting for the dinghy that would take us to the sailing vessel. The sun blazed in the noonday sky. Fortunately, there were some wooden benches in the shade created by a metal roof. Unfortunately, a family of sea lions had staked out the shade of the benches and was lying across them. We had to watch our step. More sea lions were sunbathing on the concrete platform where we stood. They were joined by snoozing marine iguanas and lava lizards that scampered underfoot attempting to catch flies. A pelican sat on the railing a few yards away. A bit further out, a blue-footed booby dove into the ocean. Lava gulls displayed gull-like behavior. By the time we had boarded the sailing vessel and had sailed a few miles to our first nature hike on Seymour Island we also had seen several green sea turtles, dozens of hammerhead sharks, and hundreds of frigate birds.

There is no challenge to spotting animals in the Galapagos. After a few days some of the animals can almost seem to grow annoying. Sea lion, you are in my personal space again. Iguana, you are on the walking path; go sleep somewhere else. Blue-footed boobies, go get a room.

The Galapagos are a grouping of volcanic islands located in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Many of the islands are arid. Some of the islands are only a few square miles in size, a few square miles that may hold all of the members of a species found nowhere else on the planet. It is a place that is ancient and fragile.

Needless to say, biological science is a big deal on these Islands. But, not all of the scientists and naturalists see eye to eye. There seem to be two competing approaches among the naturalists. However, the naturalists agree far more than they disagree. The two schools of naturalists agree about stopping illegal whaling and fishing activities around the islands. They agree about stopping poaching. They agree about the elimination of invasive species that wreak havoc on the populations of endemic species. They agree about educating the inhabitants of the islands to live in ways that are less destructive to nature. They even agree about helping to increase the populations of some animals to compensate for and offset destructive human activity through the years that has caused the populations of some animals to dwindle.

They agree about intervening in cases of human destructiveness and correcting human impact. Where the two schools of naturalists disagree is whether to intervene in natural processes.

I invite you to play out the following scenario in your mind. Suppose a vicious and deadly virus is wiping out the giant tortoise population on one of the islands, threatening the tortoises with extinction. Now, suppose biologists study this virus and determine that the virus did not come from a tourist who sneezed on a tortoise and the virus did not come from mainland animals that were accidentally introduced. The biologists discover that the virus is a naturally occurring mutation of a naturally occurring virus. And, suppose the biologists discover that this virus is easy to combat.

One school of thought says that the naturalists should go out and give flu shots to all of the giant tortoises to save the species from possible extinction. It would not be that hard. The island is very small and 600 pound tortoises aren’t exactly stealthy or hard to locate.

But, there is another school of thought that holds that human beings should not intervene. If the virus kills off all the tortoises, that’s nature. Extinction is a part of natural selection.

I turn this hypothetical question to you. Suppose we are all a group of naturalists working on the Galapagos Islands. The deadly virus is killing tortoises. We have syringes. Let’s vote. Who says we let the tortoises die naturally? If that means extinction, it means extinction; that’s natural selection. Who says we go out with our needles and vaccinate the tortoises?

Actually, I don’t think that there is a right answer to the question. I am torn. I am torn between heart and head. My heart feels a deep kinship with those walking giants, some of which are so old that they may have actually met Charles Darwin! My head, however, deals in abstraction. My head tells me that the Galapagos Islands, of all places, should be a place where natural selection should be allowed to, well, naturally select.

When you leave church today and someone asks you what your minister’s sermon was about, your answer is very important. Whatever you say, please don’t say that I spoke about why we should let the Galapagos tortoises die. Instead, I think the hypothetical scenario that I have just posited, as flawed as it is, might have the power to speak to us.

At first I thought this hypothetical scenario about the tortoises might speak to us in some way about religious belief. As Unitarian Universalists we are part of a religious tradition that teaches that revelation is not sealed and that religious ideas evolve over time. We understand that religion is ever-changing.

The Galapagos Islands themselves are at once ancient and impermanent, just like religion. Each of the islands is moving slowly to the east on a tectonic plate and slowly receding into the ocean one inch at a time. To the west, volcanic activity slowly and violently raises a new island up. Might religion work analogously? Won’t some beliefs, over time, naturally deselect themselves? Some beliefs lumber on with far less elegance than a tortoise. I think of beliefs that claim that the world is 6,000 years old, that scripture is inerrant, or that a bearded male God sits on a throne in the sky. These beliefs seem evolutionarily disadvantaged, but they also exhibit surprising staying power.

Next, I wondered if this hypothetical scenario involving the Galapagos tortoises might speak not just about religious beliefs, but also to religious communities. What religious traditions are not evolving and adapting to thrive in a modern context? It is easy to look at other faith traditions and judge what we think should evolve. For example, consider the major shortage of Catholic priests. A priesthood that persists in accepting only men who take vows of celibacy may not prove to be viable. In saying this I am in no way denigrating priests like those I’ve worked with in Kansas City who are devoutly committed to working for better lives for immigrant families and serving the poor. Yet, many of those priests confess to being weary. I recall a point made in a speech by my colleague John Cullinan, in which he said,
A long-time friend of mine, a Catholic priest who for years was the director of vocations for a diocese in Massachusetts, once told me that he felt the major reason for the crisis in vocations that the Catholic Church was experiencing was that the nature of the job had changed so radically in the past several decades. The priestly role had been diminished and been overshadowed by the role of administrator, the balance between the two had been lost, and “who in their right minds,” he asked me, “would willingly profess vows of chastity and poverty so that they could take up a career in middle management?” (Emphasis mine.)
Of course, it is easy to point to traditions in other faiths and call them evolutionary dead ends. I’m just saying that as Unitarian Universalists it is just as likely that we cling to practices, traditions, and attitudes that could stand to evolve just a little bit as well.

But is not where I want to dwell. As much as I am tempted to explore clever and intelligent analogies comparing conservation efforts on the Galapagos Islands to different religious beliefs and different religious practices, I want to take my remarks in a different direction. After all, Unitarian Universalist sermons that aspire to be only clever, or intelligent, or interesting may prove to be an evolutionary dead end for us.

Instead, I want to turn away from talking about religion and try to talk about life in a religious way. Examining the history of human behavior on the islands helps us to understand something about our own nature as human beings. Some humans have traveled to the Galapagos and have acted with destructive greed. Others have come to the Galapagos holding the Western European viewpoint that the natural world is a big scientific laboratory for conducting experiments.

But, to me, the Galapagos Islands help me to contemplate the impermanence of things. They hold up a mirror and help me to understand how I respond to loss and death, to change and transformation and adaptation. The late UU theologian Forrest Church famously said that “Religion is our human response to being alive and knowing that we will die.” In other words, religion is our human response to living within a changing world, a world that will end for each of us with our own personal, ultimate, and final change.

Before the sermon we read from the words of the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote,
Is it beyond thee to be glad with the gladness of this rhythm? To be tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy? All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind, no power can hold them back, they rush on. Keeping step with that restless rapid music, seasons come dancing and pass away. Colors, tunes, and perfumes pour in endless cascades in the abounding joy that scatters and gives up and dies in every moment.
Do these words feel overwhelming to anybody else? Tagore’s words are an ode to change and impermanence, a hymn to Samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth that is the story not only of each lifetime, but also the constant story of the churning Universe.

And what is our response to this? When faced with these facts, how many of us, truth be told, can honestly and authentically be glad in the gladness of this rhythm? How many of us can actually find abounding, dancing joy in this process and say that, yes, we actually do delight in the endlessly cascading colors, tunes, and perfumes? Tagore’s words are like saying that we want a New Orleans Jazz funeral procession, but that is not exactly true. We want it later, not now. We want delay. We want it put off. We want it put on hold. One of our favorite hymns begins, “Let it be a dance we do.” But, after reading that passage by Tagore I think about saying, “You know, I think I’ll sit this one out.”

I’ve been asking us to probe our own feelings about mortality, impermanence, and change. The funny thing about returning from sabbatical is this: for the last three months we have been living in parallel. I have been doing my thing. I have been doing my searching, experiencing, reflecting, and discerning, my reading and writing, my studying and practicing. And you have been doing your thing, experiencing different voices and different perspectives in worship, and hopefully doing some of your own searching, reflecting, discerning, studying and practicing as well.

And, in returning, one of the key things I want to tell you, one of the presuppositions I hold about what it means to come together and worship, is that in joining together in worship what we are doing is entering into a discourse about our shared life together. The movements of this shared life together include the celebration of joys and sorrows, time for prayer and reflection, praise, and a few flawed words that attempt to speak to some aspect of our common journey together.

As you go forward this day, pay attention. Measure your own response to each piece of evidence of life’s impermanence. Take stock. Cultivate awareness. Notice when it is that you hold on to something tightly, cognizant of the fact that what we hold too tightly we may smother and suffocate. The paradox is that we may need to hold delicate things loosely. And, when change is hard, be kind to one another and good to yourselves.