Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

What Will Be — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached April 18th, 2010


A few years ago,

I was presenting a worship service

at a small UU fellowship in Indiana.

The church had asked for me to center the service in Unitarian Universalist history,

focusing on our liberal faith movement’s commitment to social justice.

For the Story for All Ages, I chose to tell a story

from the childhood of William Ellery Channing,

sometimes known as the father of American Unitarianism,

about a time his father took him to hear a traveling preacher.

The preacher had spoken that the end of the world was near,

that there would be destruction and fire,

and how all the sinners would fare very badly

through the upheaval and turmoil that was coming.

The child William was very frightened by the sermon,

and afterwards expected his father to tell him

how their family was going to pack up everything they owned

and head for someplace safe, perhaps up in the mountains…

but certainly away from the coming disaster.

Instead, after the service, his father

went about his normal Sunday routine

of speaking to neighbors and friends, as if nothing was wrong.
What young Channing realized that day

was that you did not have to take everything someone said literally…

that you had to use your own reason, follow you own heart

in deciding what was true and what was not.

And you did not have to believe everything a preacher said

just because he or she was a preacher.

After the children left the worship service

that particular Sunday morning in Indiana,

I preached a sermon that looked at how William Ellery Channing

was a leader of the abolitionist movement,

as well as advocating for equality for Native Americans

and education for the poor.

I compared the efforts of Channing to change the world around him

to how modern Unitarian Universalists practice Social Justice.

I concluded the sermon by introducing the

Unitarian Universalist Statement of Conscience on Global Warming,

and mentioned the coming environmental disaster our world is courting.

During coffee hour, one of the board members of the congregation

came up to me and asked if I had meant

to link the story for all ages and the sermon.

When I asked him what he meant he said,

“Well, in the story, a preacher scared Channing

by telling him the world was going to end…

and then, in your sermon, you scared us

by telling us the world was going to end too!”
So much of the rhetoric, stories, and information

that exists in the public sphere today

on the issue of Global Warming and Climate Change

does seem like the kind of hellfire and brimstone preaching

that William Ellery Channing must have heard during his childhood.

Listening to many of the activists and even preachers

who speak on environmental justice,

it is hard for me not to draw comparisons

to the Baptist church I grew up in.

I myself have made some of the same kind of

end of the world predictions from the pulpit.

Truly, there is a crisis upon us.

We cannot escape hearing about melting glaciers and ice caps,

about increasing green house gasses, about sinking water tables,

about hurricanes and displaced weather patterns.

From the television, from the radio, from newspapers

and from the internet

that message has been in the public mind for over fifteen years.

And yet, for myself, it has been a fight not to dismiss it,

to dismiss all of the evidence, all of the stories,

the same way I learned in my teenage years

to listen to the hellfire and brimstone sermons of my childhood minister

and then go to fellowship hour as if nothing was wrong.
We have learned to tune out

the most common message of environmentalists,

because it is a message based in fear and guilt,

not in hope and possibilities.

Our world’s need to address climate change is a message

often presented like it is from the righteous to the sinner,

or from the saint to the damned.

But it is not the kind of message that would be presented by a prophet… or at least not entirely.

One of the great things about seminary for me

was that it forced me to re-encounter the Hebrew scriptures

with the spirit of a seeker.

I had last read them when I was in my mid-twenties,

and I thought I knew what I would find within the prophetic books…

predictions about all of the bad things that would happen

if the Hebrew people did not do what God wanted,

as told to them by the prophet.

Kinda like what I often expect to hear

from many environmental activists…
But in this more recent exploration of those texts,

I have found something that I did not see before,

and that is that the Hebrew prophets rarely leave their message

only in the doom and gloom.

The prophet does not only critique the cultural ills

and misdeeds of society and individuals,

the prophet does not only predict the coming doom,

the prophet does not only chastise the people

for not seeing and preventing.

No, even in the darkest hours, the prophet also gives at least an image

of hope for the future, a vision of what the world will one day be like.

Even the most negative of these prophetic books,

the book of Jeremiah does not end with all hope lost,

but with the exiled king alive and safe in Babylon.

This trend in these prophetic books towards hope

was most clear to me in the book of Ezekiel.

Ezekiel is very upset about the state of the temple in Jerusalem,

how it was filled with corrupt men who took bribes,

sacrificed in the wrong way,

and generally were not following the priestly law.

He saw this same kind of corruption

in many of the people in the city of Jerusalem,

and he predicted that the city would fall if it did not change its ways.

Ezekiel’s language is harsh, his metaphors enough to frighten anyone who heard him…

and yet it was all to no avail.

The city of Jerusalem did fall, the temple was destroyed.

But, when word came to the Prophet Ezekiel that Jerusalem had fallen,

the message of the book begins to change

from fear and guilt to hope and possibility,

from condemnation of the past to an inspiring vision of the future.

Ezekiel tells the Israelites then exiled in Babylon

that not only will they one day re-inhabit Jerusalem,

but the line of the king will be restored.

He crafts for them a detailed and inspiring vision

of the newly rebuilt temple.

Though I believe this text was written and intended mainly to inspire

the Hebrew people of 2,500 years ago

and not meant to apply directly to life in Palestine today,

it does have an important message for us of Liberal Faith.

No greater gift could Ezekiel have given

to a people then in exile and defeat.

Let us set aside for now the question of whether

this prophesy was divinely inspired,

and let’s just think about what it must have been like

for those around Ezekiel.

Their temple had been destroyed,

their nation defeated.

Many were being held in slavery or servitude in a foreign land.


They had to be wondering if what their religion

had taught them to believe was true.

They had to be fearing for the future,

and uncertain even of their own understanding of the past.

Into this moment of despair, Ezekiel gave them

a vision of hope and possibility.

He gave the exiled Israelites a vision of

what their world would someday be,

of how they would be liberated and restored.

How their temple would be rebuilt.

It does not matter to me

whether this vision came from divine inspiration,

or whether the people of Israel simply needed hope,

and Ezekiel provided it.

It does not matter to me even that this book of Hebrew scripture

was possibly compiled from the teachings

of several different prophetic sources.

What I find inspirational is that it was not the fear and guilt message

that caused change in the hearts and minds of the people,

but rather the message of hope and possibility.
Hope and possibility can change the world

in ways that fear and guilt never will.

A vision of hope and possibility can light ones soul,

give someone a purpose to work gladly for,

and create a dream that generations later

still inspires the hearts of many to its fulfillment.

I believe that our modern focus on the doom and gloom

of the consequences of Global Climate Change

have caused the belief that it is either not really happening,

or that there is nothing at all that any of us can do to prevent it.

Our attempts to motivate people

to the kinds of changes our societies need to make

through fear and guilt have had an effect opposite our intention…

instead of lighting their souls, we have doused their flames.

When I think of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist,

the idea of us as a Prophetic Church is a central theme for me.

Like the Hebrew prophets, we seek to speak truth to power,

to point out the injustices in society,

and do our best to address them.

We seek to direct this prophetic voice not only at the world at large,

but also at ourselves, to see more and more clearly our own roles

in the injustices of the world

and to change.
Dr. Melody Knowles, Professor of Hebrew Scriptures

at McCormick Theological Seminary

says that the “Role of the Prophet is to unmask our duplicity”

our own deception of ourselves.

The Buddha might have said something similar,

in calling us to let go of our delusions

about ourselves and the world we inhabit.

But if that were all of the prophet’s mission,

Ezekiel would have issued a loud “I told you so!”

after the fall of Jerusalem and been done with it.

He did not, and the vision of the rebuilt temple

that he gave to the Israelites held them through their exile

and even inspired their grand children

and great grand children to rebuild the temple.

Did the knowledge of the future create the vision,

or did the prophet’s giving the people the vision create the future?

Either way, the temple was rebuilt.

If we wish to create a world

for our grandchildren and their grandchildren

in which the environment is protected,

in which nature is the rebuilt temple,

we of liberal faith must vision together

what that kind of world will be like,

and then speak together as a prophet would,

proclaiming a vision of what the world will be like after we have learned

to be stewards of the air, water, and land.


We must vision together and then impart to the world a positive vision

of what a world would look like

when each of us realizes and takes responsibility

for our place in the interdependent web of all existence.

We must vision together

and then impart to the world a prophesy of the future…

one that is based in hope and possibilities, not in fear and guilt.
A few years ago I was asked to do a joint reading

of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

The idea was to have that particular prophetic vision presented

by both an African American and a Caucasian American,

by a black man and a white man together,

in the town square on Martin Luther King Day.

As I went back to the text of the speech

several times during the week prior,

I had a personal realization about it.

Like the Prophet Ezekiel, Dr. King began that particular speech

with a scathing critique of society

and its treatment of African Americans.

He called upon the nation to live up to the ideals

it had set for itself in its own founding documents.

I believe it would be hard to find

a more powerful prophetic critique of society

and its treatment of minorities than the first two pages of that speech.
But Dr. King, in the true style of a prophet, did not leave it there.

In the last third of the speech he began to prophesy about the future,

with the words “I have a dream”.

He dreamed that one day his children would be judged

not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

He dreamed that one day the nation

would live up to its ideal that all are created equal.

Martin Luther King did not simply see this as a possibility…

he did not put it forth as one possible path

among many paths we might follow.

He did not say “it would be wonderful if we created this kind of world”.
He said that in his dream he saw that world,

and that one day that world would come to be.

His dream has inspired millions, of all races.

It is not fulfilled, but it continues to inspire us to its fulfillment.

Part of my personal realization came when my colleague and I

together looked at the speech before we presented it .

Both he and I knew the last half of the speech almost by heart,

but we had each heard the first half only a couple of times.

I believe that it will only be a positive,

hope and possibility filled vision of the future

that will inspire us to the societal changes and personal changes

that will be necessary to rebuild the temple of our natural environment.

We of liberal faith must begin to see that our prophetic task

is to create and promote that vision.

We need to join together in prophetic community…

to creatively envision what the world will be like

when the reality of our interdependence upon each other

and the world we inhabit becomes a core idea in our society.

And then, as both prophetic individuals and as a prophetic church,

we need to share that vision with the world,

and inspire the world with it.

The resources are out there to make this kind of vision a reality.

What is lacking is the will.

The Hebrew Prophet Ezekiel did not rebuild the temple in Jerusalem…

that was done by those who had been inspired by the vision.

We must step beyond the fear and guilt of most of the current environmental activism,

and move into our hopes and dreams.

Our ministers and leaders need to take those hopes and dreams,

and from them craft the positive, hope-filled vision

of a world restored, and humanity in balance with it.

This vision will include the environmental concerns

that are on our hearts and minds this Sunday of earth week,

but I believe it will be much larger than that.

I believe it will have to include racial equality and justice,

economic justice, equality and justice in our gender and sexual diversity,

and much more if it will truly be Tikun Olam… the repair of the world.
I cannot proclaim this kind of vision…

for it is beyond any one of us.

It may even be beyond any one religious tradition.

It can only begin to come into being

if we enter into the role of the prophet together,

as a prophetic liberal religious movement.

I can, however, begin to share some of my dreams and hopes.

Some of what I believe the world will one day be,

at least on the issue Global Warming and Environmental Justice.

It will one day be that the use of fossil fuels in our world is found

only in museums.

It will one day be an understood fact of life

that we do not own the land, air, and water,

but that we are part of and composed of the land, air, and water.

It will one day be more important to people

how they get from here to there,

than how fast they get from here to there.

It will one day be that people will not have to choose between

what they can afford to do,

and what it is environmentally conscious of them to do.
It will one day be that there will be cities

where no one needs a car of their own,

because the public transit is safe, efficient,

and gives access to everywhere.

It will one day be that the government does not have

to force companies to protect the environment,

because those who run the companies can see far enough into the future

to know their survival depends on such protection.

It will one day be that the human race has learned

how to provide for our energy needs

in co-operation with the land, not in contamination of it.
It will one day be that society’s leaders will realize

that the first kind of Homeland Security

is the protection of the environment.

It will one day be that when our great-grandchildren

study biology in school,

they will not study about the human caused extinction of species,

but rather the human discovery of the existence of new species.

It will one day be that nations of the earth will come together to protect

this Blue Boat Home that carries us all,

and that the health and vitality of this spaceship earth

is the ultimate national interest.
It will one day be that preachers giving sermons during Earth week

will present the history of the vision

that changed society and saved the world,

and will remind their congregations

that the process of visioning must always continue.

It will one day be.  So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.


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