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If All Life is Sacred How Shall We Live


“How precious it is to be together in spiritual community. How precious it is to learn what is on each other’s hearts and minds; to hold and care for each other in times of sorrow and grief; to smile, clap and cheer for each other in times of joy and success. How precious it is to be reminded: each of our lives tells a story worth knowing, each of our lives harbors deep and abiding truths, each of our lives is sacred; and then to know by extension—to know, to trust, to believe—all life is sacred. All life is sacred.”[1]

Familiar words to the members and friends of this congregation—words I’ve developed over the last 20 years, words I say every Sunday I’m in this pulpit, words I would miss if I did not say them, words that land on a uniquely challenging, even unsettling notion: all life is sacred.

I suspect you typically don’t feel challenged or unsettled when you hear these words. I suspect you typically experience these words as a kind of affirmation: yes, of course all life is sacred, all life has value, all life carries a divine spark. That’s what we believe. That’s what we mean when we talk about the interdependent web. That’s what we mean when we talk about universalism. All life. As I say these words, I don’t typically feel challenged or unsettled. I say them as an affirmation, not a challenge. I say them with the intent to calm, to sooth, not to unsettle. Yet I am keenly aware there is a challenging and even unsettling question waiting in their wake. If all life is sacred, how shall we live?

For me this question has always been central to Unitarian Universalism. Ours is not a faith focused on life after death, on future rewards and punishments. Ours is not a faith filled with elaborate metaphysics. Our Unitarian Universalist faith is primarily—not exclusively, but primarily—focused on this life, a faith for here, a faith for now. We’re concerned less with the question, “What shall we believe?” and more with how we shall live.

I sense it is true for most people—I know it is true for me—that as we take stock of our living, our day-to-day routines and patterns, our eating, our spending, our decision-making, how we pass our time—when we genuinely reflect, examine, probe our living—we find we’re not always living as if all life is sacred. We believe it, but the belief hasn’t changed our lives. A simple (though actually quite daunting) example: we know greenhouse gasses contribute to the climate crisis, yet we still drive cars that produce greenhouse gasses. Our living doesn’t always—and sometimes can’t—align with our most deeply held values. So what would it mean to more intentionally let this belief challenge and unsettle us, to ask the question more regularly and forthrightly, “how shall we live?”

Credit where credit is due: Julia Caruk purchased this sermon at last year’s Goods and Services Auction. When she and I started talking about this service, she said, essentially, that she was struggling with this notion that all life is sacred—not with whether or not it is true, but with how to respond. If the lives of not only humans, but animals, fish, insects, trees are sacred, how can we honor that sacredness with our life choices? She recognized that our living does at times cause harm. In fact, causing some harm is unavoidable. So how can we minimize that harm? She recognized that the natural world provides some guidance, yet in the natural world there is considerable violence and killing. Creatures survive by eating other creatures. One can’t witness this violence and easily draw the conclusion that nature respects all life, or that nature regards all life as sacred, at least not in the ways human beings typically define concepts like ‘respect’ and ‘sacred.’ Witnessing nature informs us that “How shall we live?” is not an easy question to answer. Exploring the question is a trek through trade-offs, compromises, gray areas, temporary answers, a lot of unknowns, and doing our best to do the least amount of harm. This is my understanding of the tension that lives at the heart of Julia’s struggle.

I think we all live with this tension, but we don’t always call the question. We don’t always let our belief in the sacredness of all life challenge and unsettle us.

Thank you Julia, for inviting us to consider this question this morning. Thanks for purchasing this sermon. I remind all of you that at least one sermon, possibly two, will be up for bid at the Goods and Services auction scheduled for next Saturday at 2:00 PM. We hope to see you there!

I asked Julia to share with me her answers to the question. If all life is sacred, how shall we live? I want to share her answers with you. One caveat: though she thought deeply about her response, I’m not sure she was completely satisfied with it. But given all the grey areas, the complexities, the reality of the food chain, I’m pretty sure complete satisfaction is impossible. Most of our responses to this question will be contingent and will evolve as we gain new learning, insights and awareness. About her response Julia said “the more I think about it, the more I feel that empathy is really the key: always striving to learn to see different perspectives.” I note her emphasis on “always striving.” This is an ongoing question in our lives, whether we ask it or not. It never leaves us. We are always striving, not to find final answers, but to find the endlessly evolving best answers given the realities of our lives.

Julia divided her response into two categories: “Activism” and “Daily Choices/Lifestyle.” Underlying her activism, she says, is the belief “that other beings exist for their own reasons and not to provide anything for me.” Activism means “Standing up for social justice,” which for Julia includes: women’s rights, civil rights, immigrant rights, animal rights. There are many ways to pursue activism. Julia identifies voting and being politically active and informed; learning true history rather than white-washed history; consuming media written by and centering women, people of color and and LGBTQIA people; going to demonstrations; and donating money (with a focus on women, people of color, and LGBTQIA-led organizations).

For daily choices and lifestyle, Julia’s list is extensive. She’s looking for the ways her life intersects with non-human life and asking, given the sacredness of this non-human life, how can I live in a way that causes the least amount of harm? In those words I spoke at the beginning of the service from the naturalist Sy Montgomery, her tool of inquiry is not just her intellect, but her heart.

First, Being Vegan. Not eating anything that came from an animal. Buying toiletries that were not tested on animals and do not contain animal ingredients. Not wearing fur, leather, wool, down, angora, or any other animal skin, feathers, or fur. Related to veganism, she adds avoiding palm oil and purchasing fair trade coffee, chocolate, and bananas.

Second, Caring for the Planet. Installing solar panels and heat pumps. Driving a hybrid car. Reducing plastic use and overall consumption. Joining the UUS:E Sustainable Living Committee and co-leading an environmental group at work. Mowing as little as possible and not using chemicals on my property. Making my property wildlife friendly.

Third, Adopting Rescue Animals. Never buying a pet and rescuing as many as possible. She says, “I spay and neuter them, but not without qualms about how this violates their rights. I try to see the world from their perspective to make their life as good as possible.”

Fourth, Rethinking “Pests.” Are they invading my space or did I invade theirs? Not killing critters in my house or on my property. Taking bugs outside rather than killing them. Note: I make exceptions for blood suckers like ticks, fleas, and mosquitos, but not without qualms.

Fifth, Valuing Trees and Wild Spaces. She didn’t elaborate on what this might entail, but when we spoke, she was wrestling with the idea of sentience, the capacity for perception and feeling. That is, when we say “all life is sacred,” perhaps we mean “all sentient life is sacred.” But she quickly realized sentience is too limiting. What about trees, producing oxygen, sequestering carbon, providing habitat for countless species? What about algae, fungi, mosses, ferns, all the flora in any ecosystem? It’s all part of the interdependent web and contributes to the whole. Surely it is sacred and deserves our respect. Julia didn’t say this, but given the significant data showing that trees communicate with each other, who are we to say they aren’t sentient?

Julia concluded by pointing out there is always more to do and learn. “It is a journey,” she said, “and none of us is perfect.” Thank you Julia!

I’ve been thinking about my response to the question. Given that all life is sacred, it is important to me to be as present, attentive and supportive as possible when people in my various circles are struggling and suffering. This includes family members, friends, neighbors, parishioners, co-workers and colleagues.

Like Julia, activism matters to me. I understand my activism as building power to change systems and institutions so that their outcomes are more fair, equitable and just. Essential to building power is building relationships. I spend considerable time building relationships not only with people in this congregation, but with faith leaders, labor leaders, nonprofit leaders, issue campaign leaders, elected officials, government workers, and a variety of activists across the region.

Like Julia, caring for the Earth matters to me. We don’t have solar panels on our roof at home, but we’re getting closer. We conserve energy, recycle, compost, limit food waste. We never use chemicals on our lawn. We mow as little as possible. We live in complete harmony with 100 chipmunks, 20 rabbits, 10 squirrels, a few woodpeckers, owls, hawks, foxes, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, and bobcats. I was unsuccessful in my attempt to adopt veganism, but we do conscientiously limit our weekly intake of meat. Like Julia, I take bugs out of the house. I let spiders stay in the house (unless they’re really, really big). If there’s an infestation, say of carpenter ants, I have to address it. In the end I use ant-traps in an effort to protect the integrity of the property. It’s a trade-off. I have qualms. When it comes to caring for the Earth, I have never felt that the way I live is sufficient given the magnitude of the crisis we face. For that matter, I’ve never felt that my presence when people are suffering, or my participation in efforts to build power for social justice have been sufficient. Yes, I feel like I’m doing the right thing, like I’m living as I ought to live, yet it never quite feels sufficient.

This feeling of insufficiency may be the result of perfectionism, but there’s more to it. I also experience is as the ongoing presence in my life of the question, “given that all life is sacred, how shall we live?” I experience as the ongoing invitation to probe more deeply, to ask: Is there more I can do? Is there a better, more effective way to do it, a more reasonable and sane way to do it? Are there ways I am still living that don’t align with my values? Can I let them go, make more room for how I ought to live? What am I learning? Am I integrating new knowledge into my living? In short, I don’t let this feeling of insufficiency become a negative self-critique. I receive it as an invitation to keep asking the question. As Julia said, “there is always more to do and learn. It is a journey, and none of us is perfect.”

I leave you with the invitation to contemplate your response to the question, if all life is sacred, how shall we live? Your answers won’t be the same as Julia’s or mine. They won’t be perfect. They may come with trade-offs and compromises. They may come with costs, some beyond your ability to pay. Most will live in that gray space between black and white. Your attempts to live your answers may still leave you feeling unsatisfied. The good news is that the question—how shall we live?—is always with us. It certainly resides at the heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith. My prayer is that when we encounter the notion that all life is sacred, we will choose to be challenged and unsettled, and we will ask the question, how shall we live?

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For those not familiar with the worship services I lead at UUS:E, I say these words at the conclusion of our weekly sharing of joys and concerns.

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