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October 6, 2019: “In the Midst of the Trembling Giant”

Sometimes communities have obvious members and clearly defined boundaries.  Sometimes they aren’t obvious at all to their own members, even though every “outsider” recognizes the characteristics that hold them together.  Sometimes the similarities run much deeper than you’d think. 

The first Sunday of each month is food month.  Please bring non-perishable food items and/or toiletries to be shared with Kirtland’s food pantry at Old South United Church of Christ.

The Service will also be immediately followed by a short special meeting of the church’s members, so please plan on staying.

Sermon “In the Midst of the Trembling Giant”        Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

It all started with a complaint.

95 complaints, to be exact.  It’s said that they were nailed to the gate of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on Halloween 502 years ago.  Nobody really knows if he actually nailed them to the gate, but we do know he had 95 complaints about the Catholic Church.  And most of them were about the actions of the priests in the church, selling free passes to heaven.  

See, he insisted that the only path to heaven was through righteousness, and grace bestowed only by god.  Basically, he said priests were immorally selling power they didn’t actually have.

That was the start of the Protestant Reformation, and the beginning of all the Christian denominations we have across the world.  At that point, there were only two Christian churches, the Latin Catholic Church of the west and  Greek Orthodox Church of the east.  They had split up 500 years earlier, and the two sects were divided pretty cleanly … by geography.

But this latest schism was big, and it happened all in Western Europe, from Rome to England.

Immediately, Martin Luther was the head of a new church that was named for him…Lutheran.  

And within 20 years, his protests inspired others — a flood of complaints — giving birth to the Anglican Church which allowed divorce; The Reformed church that returned to the old ways with the marriage of priests and the banning of representational images; and the Anabaptists who stopped baptizing babies and reserved the practice only for adults who were old to make the choice on their own.It might surprise you to know that theologically, we are rooted — among those three early divisions — mostly closely with the Anabaptists, who have morphed over the years into Mennonites and Amish.  Meanwhile, the Reformed church broke down into the Presbyterian church and the Church of Scotland.

But the Anglican Church, 50 years after Luther’s theses, gave rise to the Congregational Church, which was all about simplicity in art, decoration, sacrament and governance.   The Puritans were Congregationalists, and when they came to the New World, they exiled a group to Rhode Island who created the Baptist church, then in 1825 they threw out another group that became … the America Unitarian Association.  

Three hundred years after the start of the Protestant Reformation, there were hundreds of denominations — I dare you to find out exactly how many, because nobody knows for sure — and a whole bunch of huge religious movements hadn’t even begun.   Like Catholic Jesuits, the first religious humanists; or Mormons, led by Joseph Smith — whose mother was Presbyterian and father was a Congregationalist, said to be aligned with the Unitarian branch that hadn’t been kicked out yet.

This is the history of Protestantism, and that history is in the DNA of this country.

Fast forward to 2003.  The United States had been at war in Afghanistan for a year and half, and the vast majority of Americans were itching to go to war in Iraq.  At the same time, the unthinkable was happening.  The Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire sought to ordain an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, and all hell broke loose.  

A bunch of congregations in the denomination threatened to leave if he was consecrated, and when he was, they did.  They joined the ultra conservative African See of Anglican churches.  

And that conflict spawned a whole bunch of other controversies regarding the ordination LBGT people and the marriage of same-sex couples, which in turn helped fuel a firestorm of complaints about the presence of same gender loving people in mainline religions.

The country was unified by war, and divided by love. 

The Lutheran church was turned upside down as the three major denominations split and shrunk, and the smaller ones grew … and mushroomed in number.  Recently, even the United Methodist Church — also an offshoot of the Epsicopal Church — is being torn apart over the inclusion of what it calls “self-avowed and practicing homosexuals.”  Who knows where that will go.  

All of this breaking down of religions traditions, obviously, is about more than just complaining about the power of the clergy and the behaviors of some adherents of the faiths.  

It’s not just complaining for the sake of complaining.  

The breaking down of these faiths gets to the heart of how they see themselves, what they value collectively, and how they imagine their connections and responsibilities to each other now and in the future.  

As fascinating as all this history is, in that it illustrates the fervor with which humans tend to guard our beliefs through the exclusion and even dehumanization of others, the breakdown of “The Church” with a capital T and a capital C, hasn’t really provided much inspiration for me as I try to figure out where I belong in religious spectrum.  

Some of the writings of theologically liberal humanist Catholics — where my familial roots are — as well as the poetry of Sufis and Hindus — which both draw out my curiosity — have given me a bit of inspiration, a bit of a sense of belonging to something greater than myself.

I do find a lot of that in poetry, though.  Especially in a poem like the one by Roque Dalton that Audrey so beautifully read.

…my blood boils up

and I laugh through eyes

that have known the buds of tears.

I’m inspired by this because, like Roque Dalton, 

I believe the world is beautiful

and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me

but in the unanimous blood

of those who struggle for life,


little things,

landscape and bread,

the poetry of everyone.

We are connected.  We belong to one another and to this earth because we move about the same land, nurtured by it, nourished by it.  We sweat and bleed into it as we care for it, so that it can return the favor.  And it produces for us food … bread … and poetry for everyone.  Not just Mary Oliver. I haven’t really tended to find spiritual connection in nature.  I’ve joked repeatedly that in the woods, I don’t find God, I find rocks.  And dirt.  But that’s changing … mainly because science, of all things, is proving that non-human life is way more intelligent, diverse and and necessary to the life of the planet than we ever thought.

Have you ever been among the Quaking Aspen trees of the western United States?  We have them here in Northern Ohio — it’s cold enough for them — but they are amazing in the high dessert states of Utah, Colorado and Idaho.  They turn an amazing gold that stretches for miles, and they stand so close to one another, even if you know nothing about what is going on underground, even if you have no idea that they are actually one enormous single organism, you get this sense that they need one another to survive.  

And because they are so close together, tall and thin, their papery autumn leaves make an incredible sound, A sound that gives the impression that in their quaking and rustling they are talking to each other like an anxious but serene crowd.

It’s not that outlandish an idea that they would be talking to each other.  Scientists have proven plants communicate with one another by releasing chemicals — volatile organic compounds — into the soil through what is known as the rhizosphere: the complex web of trunk roots and tendrils that connect them all.   If there is some predator threatening or attacking one section of plants, they can let others in their community know so that those other plants can release their own chemicals early enough to repulse the attacker and protect them from destruction.  

How cool is that?  Plants thinking, communicating and protecting.  That, for me, totally changes the meaning of life, and makes me rethink how I understand what it means to be sentient.  And sensitive to life.

Lately, I’ve been noticing that mushrooms spring up all over my neighborhood.   Because they spread by Rhizome, they are not just related, they are one giant organism, spreading much the same way Pando does, only much less densely.  

It turns out that Pando may be the largest living organism in terms of mass, but it covers only about 106 acres. Armillaria ostoyae, or, as it’s nicknamed, the “Humongous Fungus” is much more vast, covering 2,385 acres … that’s almost 4 square miles of the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. 

On my walk yesterday, I saw three different kinds of mushrooms.  There are two that I always thought were the same, but obviously they are not.  There was one variety that had turned black and died overnight as the temperatures dropped below 40 for the first time in months.  The remaining, similar mushrooms sparkled in the damp, sharply angled morning light.  They seemed to love it.  

And there is a third, which looks completely different, clumped in mounds of delicate umbrella-like shoots that are a beautiful mix of color….amber and dark ochre.

The thing that inspires me about them is the way they intermingle and spread across town.  There’s a little bit of each kind of mushroom in every yard, across every neighborhood.  They seem to be able to live not just alongside each each other, but intertwined and mutually supportive in a way that we humans aren’t able to do as effortlessly.  Even though most of us want to.

Switzerland, which keeps track of these things on purpose, reports that about one-third of its approximately 5,000 species of mushrooms has disappeared.  And Pando?  The Trembling Giant is in danger. It’s trees are deteriorating from drought, bugs and disease.  While that’s not unusual for large stands of aspens, new trees aren’t growing.  Multiple sources cite cattle and mule deer as the culprits.  As cattle herds grow for human consumption and mule deer find fewer food sources, they eat the tender new shoots before they have the chance to form into larger, self-protected trees.  With less exposure above ground for photosynthesis, the mass underground can’t survive.  

I find myself wondering how these trees and fungi are communicating amongst themselves.  What are they saying?  Are they complaining about humans and what we’ve done to them?

One thing I’m glad for: here in Kirtland, where our churches and faith communities are deeply rooted in the Protestant reformation, we’re gathering to try do do something to help the earth.  We’re putting aside our differences and learning together, hopefully in the process learning more about each other and what we have in common.

Over the next three weeks, On Wednesday Nights, I’ll be working with Seth Bryant from the Historic Mormon Temple and Ian Lynch from Old South United Church of Christ, to present three classes called “Dominion with the Earth.”

Ian will start by looking at the early biblical understanding that we are one with the earth and that our fate is deeply intertwined with the fate of the earth and its non-human inhabitants.  

Seth will be exploring the colonialist idea of manifest destiny and the nearly universal belief of early Americans that the beauty and abundance of the earth was theirs for the taking.

And I will wrap up by unpacking the birth of the environmental movement, a new understanding of our human responsibility to care for the planet, and how the more we learn, the more we realize that we don’t know much. 

The thing that I love about working with these two guys is that their history of conflict is real.  While we may have historical conflict with them through our Unitarian and Universalist roots, East Shore wasn’t part of the fray.  This congregation didn’t exist.  But the two of them did!  The members and minister of Old South Church, which I think was then Presbyterian, were the main aggressors in violently driving the very new Mormon sect out of Kirtland.  

We’re not complaining about each other’s theology.  We’re putting aside the past, accepting different beliefs, and working off commonalities. Together, we are listening to the complaints of the trees and the mushrooms.

Maybe, just maybe, if we listen closely enough, we can learn something from the trees and the mushroom and the rhizosphere. And start to make a difference.  Before it’s too late.

May it be so.