(This sermon is part of an ongoing series on the Principles of Permaculture)
Every year since I was an intern I have adopted 3-5 goals about how I can serve my congregation and how I can grow as a minister. Well, the year my son was born I was just starting my second year as a full time minister, and I figured “Time management” was going to be an important growing edge for me. I signed myself up for one of those fancy workshops from the Franklin Covey people at a hotel in San Francisco. It was called “First Things First” and that was really the gist of what they had to say; Figure out what are the most important things, and put those into your schedule first, so no matter what happens that day you can say “well, at least I got the most important thing done.” Well, then we spent a good deal of time talking about what is important. And right at the heart of what is important is cultivating and tending relationships. Each week they suggest you make a list of 7 relationships in your life, and what you need to do to cultivate and tend those relationships. Can you imagine a time management seminar telling you that sometimes it is more important to meet with a co-worker or go to your daughter’s little league game than to finish a report?
I think we at UUCAS understand in a real way the importance of relationships. It’s one of the best qualities of this community; we make building and nurturing our relationships to one another a priority. For example, we take time at the beginning of most of our committee meetings, whether as part of the formal agenda or as just something that happens informally before we begin, to “check in” with folks whom we know have been going through something rough, maybe because they mentioned it during Joys and Concerns. When take part in a program like Evensong it is because we want to take the time to get to know one another in a deep way, and to speak from the heart about what is really important to us.
But sometimes we forget the value and power of relationship when we get down to the work itself. We often say things like “it would be easier and simpler if I just did this myself” Easier than making those phone calls to see who else might want to get involved, easier than training someone to do something we already know how to do. I was meeting with a planning team from the Labor and Religion Coalition up in Ithaca recently. We talked about how we needed to grow our core working group, and get different faith traditions involved in this interfaith effort. We talked about events, and press releases, and articles for the web page in order to spread the word. Then I remembered the story of how I came to be part of that group. I was new in Ithaca, and did not yet have a job or friends or a permanent place to live. After a morning of sending out résumés, I started to search the web for “community organizing Ithaca After some dead ends I found a number to call, and reached a lovely woman named Edie who, it turns out, also happened to be UU. We talked for maybe half an hour on the phone, she asked me all kinds of good questions about myself, and told me about what her group was working on. When she invited me to their next meeting, I jumped at the chance. Now it was July, so as often happens at July meetings, only the 2 staff people and I had come to the meeting. We didn’t have a quorum to do business, so they gave me advice on where to look for Job postings in Ithaca, and got me caught up on their work as a committee. After hearing me talk about my passion for the environment, Edie told me she had a project she was working on doing interfaith organizing around global warming, and I jumped at the chance. To this day I am involved in both of those groups, and all because Edie took the time to build a relationship with me. Her kindness grew in two ways; she made a newcomer feel welcome, and because she took the time to get to know me, she understood what I had to give, what I WANTED to give to my new community.
Permaculture is like that. Take Chickens, for example. In the factory farm model, a chicken contributes eggs or meat. But a chicken is more than an egg laying machine. Chickens also like to scratch and peck. If you let them run around in an area you are cultivating, they will with their scratching and pecking clear the ground of weeds and pests for you just because it is in the nature of a chicken to do that. They will also, how shall we say this, turn their food into nutrient material to build up the soil. But if they are in a cage, they are frustrated and irritable that they can’t walk around and scratch, and now you have to clean up their poop. Conversely, if you allow the full complexity of the relationship between a chicken and her environment, there are myriad benefits for the farmer and for the farm. What else does a chicken do naturally? They eat bugs! And kitchen scraps! They are like a walking fast acting compost bin these guys. It turns out that if you put your green house on the south wall of your chicken coop, the body heat of the chickens helps keep the green house warm over night, and in the early morning when the greenhouse is gathering sun, it helps warm the chicken coop. Moreover, the carbon dioxide exhaled by the chickens as a delight to the plants in the green house. It seems like it would be simpler, easier, to put the chickens off by themselves somewhere and just bring them food and take away their waste, but the chickens are actually more productive, more helpful with the health of our whole garden if we give them the opportunity to be in relationship with our garden, with our orchard, with our greenhouse.
And there is one more thing that is important about these chickens. They are living beings. Permaculture has at its heart a life ethic. According to which recognizes “the intrinsic worth of every living thing.” Does that sound familiar? Look at the back of our order of service- the inherent worth and dignity of every living person. Permaculture takes this one step further, and extends it to every living thing. So a chicken doesn’t have to be productive to be valuable. It has some inherent worth just because it is a living being Says Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture “A tree is something of value in itself, even if it has no commercial value for us. That it is alive and functioning is what is important. It is doing its part in nature; recycling biomass, providing oxygen and carbon dioxide for the region, sheltering small animals, building soils, and so on.” I know that’s a pretty radical thing to say, that even though on the open market a farmer can sell that chicken for $.89 per pound it actually has more intrinsic worth than an iPod, even tough the iPod can be sold for more on e-bay.
Now think about the value of relationships in times of trouble. Remember everything we heard this morning and last Sunday in Joys and Concerns. Last Saturday when I came down with that gas pump to pump out the basement, after JC and Joan had gotten the generator going and hooked up work lights so we could see in the basement, they had taken the gas pump to help a neighbor pump out their home. There was a while when it was just me and Alexa and Morgan in the basement. Let me tell you I’d take Alexa and Morgan for my team any day of the week, but it was clear after a while running up and down those steps that this job was too big for us. And in come Carol and John. Boy was I glad to see them. And we worked for a while, but still it felt like a big job. The pulling into the parking lot come Doug and Susan with a carload of cleaning supplies. Now there’s a team shop-vacing and mopping the basement floor, a team running stuff up the stairs, a team cleaning and sanitizing and sorting the stuff that comes out of the basement, and a team out helping the neighbors. And just when we were feeling overwhelmed again,here come Jack and Diane. Katie and Aurelio and Chris call, they are at the airport and on their way. And it feels like we can do this. Eventually folks did getting tired, and we started to close up shop for the night, because we know when we come back on Sunday, there is a web of relationships that will carry us through this. And then.
And then folks are talking on Sunday morning, wondering “what more can we do for our neighbors” and suddenly there church is providing lunch and a place of respite for the whole neighborhood all this week. Diane will be the first to tell you that every step of the way there have been folks bringing donations, helping get the word out, making sandwiches. In a moment of scarcity-- no power, no clean water, for a while there no vehicles allowed into the area at all -- we are overwhelmed by the abundance springing from relationships.
Think about this like a garden. For example, over at West Haven Farm where I work, their onion bed is filled with flowers. Why flowers? Because they attract beneficial insects which protect the onions from pests. Marigolds help control eelworms that eat our tomatoes, and the chemicals they release into the soil deter weeds like bindweed (Permaculture in a Nutshell p. 24). A plant called Comfrey has also long been used as an herbal medicine for bone fractures. But it serves not only the health of the people who plant it but the garden as a whole, because Comfrey draws nutrients form the soil like potassium and when Comfrey returns to the garden as compost, or is left there to rot as mulch, it brings potassium to the other plants that need it. Moreover, when we mix flowers into our vegetable gardens, they look lovely. Maybe fewer people would hide their vegetable gardens behind their house if they were full of vibrant flowers. Maybe if our gardens were right between us and our driveway, we’d be more likely to notice the ripe zucchini on the way to the car, instead of noticing too late a fruit that has gone past its prime because we only trudge back to our vegetable gardens on Saturday. A row of onions alone is vulnerable to pests, and requires a lot of human intervention. But Permaculture suggests that when plants grow in balanced community, they support one another in subtle and complicated ways.
Think about all we experienced this past week. If Diane had shown up here all by herself with a pot of soup, would the same magic have been possible? If Joan had shown up here with her generator and shop lights and faced that basement alone, how quickly would she have become discouraged?
Now I know that relationships are anything but easy and simple. Were you ever introduced to someone whom you were going to “just love” because you were so much alike? It doesn’t always work out the way you want it to does it. I have more than once planted a flower that was supposed to repel snails only to see it eaten down to the ground within days. Relationships take work and patience and commitment. But this moment, right here, right now, is the best example I have ever known of a time when there is real scarcity and profound abundance. We only have to walk down Main Street to see that loss is real, that people have gone without power, without their own home, without a kitchen to cook in. Last week we saw bulldozers scooping out of the mud so many of their material possessions we spend a lifetime of work accumulating. It is becoming clear that some of these homes and businesses are never going to be what they were. And yet there is a hope in the air unpredicted by the destruction we see around us. Real abundance, the abundance of a community reaching out hearts and hands to one another, caring connections old and new are a lasting abundance that persists even when the flood waters have receded. True abundance springs from relationships.