Celebration of the Earth: The Faces of Stewardship

Good morning! Welcome to the Unitarian Universalist communities of Laramie and Casper Wyoming’s shared worship service.

I am Rev. Leslie Kee, and I am honored to be the fortunate minister who is shared by both congregations! On behalf of all the UUs and friends here in south and central Wyoming, a very special welcome to anyone who is attending this service for the first time, and as always, it’s good to see so many familiar faces in church this morning!

No matter the color of your skin or hair, no matter where you live or how you make your living; no matter whom you love; no matter the faith of your childhood – everyone is welcome in this beloved community!

We also are welcoming the long-anticipated arrival of spring! This month, our Sunday services will include affirmations of all the ways we honor and value the interdependent web of creation and since one way to see our responsibility to the earth is called stewardship, this morning we will be exploring this good idea as we kick off our annual stewardship campaigns!

April is a significant month for many other religious traditions also, so I would like to send a spiritual shout-out to everyone in the Abrahamic traditions who are observing the Jewish Passover; and those for whom the Christian Holy Week is culminating today in the observance of Easter; and to our Muslim kindred who are beginning Ramadan. And in the Hindu tradition, April’s new moon marks the beginning of the new year.

For me, a Unitarian Universalist who practices an earth-based spirituality, April is the perfect time to celebrate the web of creation, culminating in my favorite, Earth Day!

Welcome again everyone, to this Wyoming hurry-up-spring-and-get-here-already service! If you have a candle you would like to light at this time, I will light the chalice as Barbara reads our opening words, a poem by ee cummings.

Chalice Lighting  

“i thank You God for most this amazing” by e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings
1894-1962  This poem is in the public domain.

Leslie:  Unison Covenant

Please join in sharing a unison covenant, the words should have appeared in your chat box. We are going to unmute everyone for this part so unison won’t exactly be what happens, instead we’ll have cacophony of echoes and delays and it will be a joyous and beautiful noise! But, if this cacophony of beautiful noise is too noisy for you, please feel free to adjust the volume on your device accordingly.

Love is the spirit of this church and service is its cause.

This is our great covenant, to live together in peace,

to seek truth in love, and to help one another

James Vila Blake (adapted)

Prayer

Homily    April 12, 2020   The Age of Stewardship, Reverend Leslie Kee

The first time I remember becoming aware of the word ‘stewardship’ was one summer I was staying with my Aunt and Uncle who ranched north of Sturgis South Dakota. The view from their front porch was a panorama of the Northern Black Hills – my birthplace and spiritual home. 

I must have been in my later teenage years because I was having a serious conversation with my very politically conservative Uncle (John Birch conservative), about why he didn’t want the government telling him what he could or couldn’t do with the land his family had owned for over 100 years.

My uncle was an intelligent, self-made man who I respected and loved very much, and despite our very different political vantage points, in retrospect, I have come to understand two important things about our relationship which have contributed to my philosophy of life.

The first is how to have a civil, mutually edifying conversation. No matter how diametrically opposed our political opinions were, we always found a way to value our differences, and in the end, the bonds of family and love always prevailed.

So I know from personal experience, it is totally possible to find ways to talk to each other in the larger community and insist that empathy and a degree of mutual respect prevail.

The second is how my uncle saw himself as a steward of the land on which he was born and raised. Ranching and being a rancher were things he never questioned; it was who he was and he was good at it.

So things like doing chores were just part of life, for example, checking water – a chore that was done in the scorching August heat or in the frigid cold of January… the cows needed water and that was that: no whining, procrastinating, or feeling sorry for yourself. The humans were responsible to make sure the water tanks weren’t dried up or frozen: end of discussion.

Despite his staunch belief in private property rights, I always got the feeling my uncle saw himself as a steward not possessor. Not only did he treat his cattle humanely even though they were a commodity, he seemed to have an almost personal relationship with his animals and his crops, be it alfalfa, oats, or wheat – he liked them all – and they thrived under his stewardship.

Make no mistake, my Uncle was a good and no-nonsense businessman (as was my Aunt, his partner), and the accounting side of ranching was always part of the decision-making process.

But when sitting around that big welcoming kitchen table, drinking strong coffee, and relishing a piece of homemade pie, the baseline feeling you always got was something more intangible – something that came from the heart, not the head.

I came to understand it as something akin to my uncle’s belief that, like his father and grandfather before him, he had been entrusted with something special, something which needed careful, responsible management and care. He had been raised to understand the fertility of the land, the cattle, and the crops as, not just a source of income and cash-flow, but as living things which embodied the cycle of life.

Birth (or sprouting), growing and flourishing, and then the end of life – harvesting or butchering – was a predictable pattern wherein humans had their own role; a relatively powerful role that was not above or below, but within.

This more relational way of understanding life in all its glorious forms, transcends conventional western paradigms where humans see themselves as having been given the earth in order to have dominion over it, and so what has been lost along the way is the sense of stewardship – of being responsible for the well-being of other forms of life, because we are different from the plants and animals, but this difference does not give humans the right to be so selfish.

I’m not saying anything many of us don’t understand and agree with, but especially now, we have reached a cross-roads where the national vote this fall may actually become an official demarcation of the end of the Industrial Age and the dominance of the fossil fuel industry’s possessorship model. If there is enough impetus for change this coming November, the captains of the fossil fuel industry with its highly-centralized locus of control, can retire with our thanks for having made life-changing contributions to social evolution and the advent of the age of technology-for-everyone.

And since good leaders work themselves out of a job, and the seventh generation is coming of age, it is our responsibility to usher in the Age of Stewardship – better care of each other and of the earth.

There was a good interview on National Public Radio a couple of weeks ago. A young Native American woman had been asked about her traditions and what she had been taught by her grandmother and elders. One comment she shared touched my heart, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, her grandmother told her that one thing humans could learn from going through the Corona Virus pandemic is that we are not really in charge, no matter how smart we think we are, it is Mother Earth we should be paying attention to. Maybe humans could stop and think, perhaps this pandemic is a reflection of how much sickness humans have inflicted upon the earth.

What if we looked at this pandemic as a way to hear the earth telling us she is sick?

What if the earth is sick and that is why we are getting sick also? Chief Seattle said, ‘whatever befalls the earth befalls the people of the earth.’

I believe this with all of my heart, and I know I’m not the only one. But then I got to wondering, does the earth have the ability to communicate with us that she really is sick?

Life exists in many forms, and science is teaching us the mysteries of DNA – those primary chemicals which make up the blueprints for life’s unfolding. DNA is why evolution works because it exists to serve those conditions which cause life to flourish and to shed those which do not.

I am fascinated at how life – that state of being alive – becomes manifest. No matter how simple its form – be it an amoeba, a shrimp, a whale, a chimpanzee, a rainforest, or a houseplant – I believe when something is alive, it doesn’t just exist – it can be in a relationship. For example, my uncle raised cattle, and he was proud of his relationship with each cow – he knew when they were born, what kind of mothering they got, how fast they grew, what kind of traumas they experienced, and he knew when it was time for them to die. Even though they were not domesticated, the cows remembered and, for the most part, liked him too.

I always enjoyed going with my uncle to put out new salt blocks, or bring those sweet-smelling hay bales to the pasture when it was a dryer-than-usual summer and so there wasn’t enough grass to add on those valuable extra pounds. The cattle could hear him coming, and they knew he was bringing the good stuff.

Another interesting relationship my uncle had was with his crops, and I like to think my love of houseplants is my version of growing and tending crops.

I’d like to show you some pictures of my houseplants which, along with my vegetable garden in the summer, are my version of urban farming, which is an important distinction because I don’t raise cattle – just plants.

Each of my plants has a story.

  1. This beautiful violet is the first one I haven’t killed in the 40-some years I’ve had house plants. It was given to me by Ann Krug, whose husband was a beloved member of this UU community, when they downsized and moved into a smaller apartment. Ann has a green thumb, and when she gifted this violet to me, it was a happy plant because it liked Ann and she liked it—they had an understanding because she gave the violet what it needed and in return, the violet’s beautiful blooms gave beauty and happiness to Ann and Bob.
  2. This shamrock plant was given to me by a dear friend who lived across from us on South Elm Street where we raised our family and lived a pretty wonderful “Mayberry” life for over 25 years. Shamrocks are hearty, but this one took a while to adjust to our move to Casper, and it’s made its displeasure known to me. We’ve come to a truce as you can see by the little white blooms.
  3. This philodendron was about the size of the violet when it was given to me as a housewarming present in 1981. Obviously, this plant and I have a good relationship because it keeps threatening to take over while living on top of my china cabinet all these years, but we have an understanding and it behaves itself.
  4. This hoya plant is very special because my aunt, the one who ranched with her husband, my uncle, gave me a clipping from her hoya plant almost 40 years ago. I try not to spoil it or play favorites, but this pretty plant does have a very special place in my heart.
  5. And then there is this bossy spider plant. It too was a baby when a friend gave it to me in 1978 when I moved out of the dorm and into my first little college rental house in Spearfish. This plant and I have been through a lot together, and it reminds me of this every so often.

Now before you get to thinking I’m a bit crazy for having such personal relationships with my houseplants, I have to tell you, I see myself as a steward of the earth and therefore I am responsible for caring for, in particular, these lovely embodiments of life which are also daily reminders of the love and wonderful memories which are true blessings in my life. And, because they are alive, I do have a relationship with them. For anyone who also has houseplants, you know for a fact, plants and their caretakers can and do communicate with each other!

Case in point, the shamrock made itself sick with splotches on its leaves, droopy stems, and a significant die off until I moved it back to the spot in the living room it likes the best. Same with the violet, I moved it so I could put out Christmas decorations, and it too let me know it would only grow and bloom in the spot it liked and wanted to be in.

But the spider plant has made a believer out of me. Several years after we’d been living together, I had moved into a new house and this plant had been thriving in one of those nifty1970’s macro-may braided hangers that hung from the ceiling.

Well, this one time, the ceiling hook failed and this spider plant crashed to the floor and ever since, I have not been able to hang it. Whenever I have tried, it gets sickly and quits thriving until I put it firmly on the ground.

That happened over 30 years ago and my traumatized companion has never forgotten how scary that fall was and so only thrives when it is firmly situated in a sturdy stand on the floor. I swear this is a true story!

It makes me smile whenever I think about how my uncle and I understand ourselves to be in mutual relationships with growing alive things; and as I’ve been mulling over the concept of stewardship, I have come to appreciate the stewardship-overlap between actual living things, like plants, and non-living things like churches. I have decided the object of someone’s stewardship isn’t really the point, instead, I think it’s probably the magic in the word itself.

As we begin a new budgetary cycle, we soon will be asked to return our pledge letters so the boards can begin putting together next year’s budget. The annual letters are different this year in that all of us are very aware of the impact these weeks of staying at home is having on finances at every level.

The decision was made by both boards to go ahead and launch this year’s stewardship campaign so we can develop budgets with realistic numbers, knowing that some of you may not be able to pledge at the same level, or to even pledge at all. That’s ok, we understand. Please return your form anyway, as always, everything you share is confidential.

Stewardship is a unique and wonderful thing – it’s a verb and noun, and so it has a kind of magical ability that calls each of us to be stewards in many unique and wonderful ways!

In this time of unique challenges, we who love our UU community must be able to adapt. My houseplants adapted every time they found themselves in a new place; just like my uncle’s crops adapted when they had too much rain or too much drought.

I think because so many folks are starting to understand the overlap between human-made life-embodying forms, like churches, and mother nature’s handywork, maybe now is the right time to usher in a new age – an Age of Stewardship where humans can get even better at caring for each other and our beloved earth.

Thank you again to Laura Miller, Barbara Bogart, Laura Gossman and Megan Jessup our tech host behind the scenes. And thank all of you for coming this morning. Before we extinguish our chalice and move into our virtual coffee half-hour, let us close with the lovely farewell song:

 “Be Safe, Be Well,” written and performed by Dan Berggren, a member of the UU Music Ministers Assoc.

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