What is Worth Saving? (sermon)

Village Church, Cummington, MA

May 19, 2013

Karen G. Johnston

Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry


A Stone Jug

A bulldozer digging a pond

on my mother’s family’s land

unearths two stoneware jugs

buried four feet in the ground,

one broken and one intact.

Who put them there? When? Why?

We suppose, but can’t explain.

Those who have come and gone

are gone.  How lost to us

they are whose lives passed here

in the sun’s beauty and sorrow!

And who in a hundred years

will know us as we are

in our present living and dying

here under the very sun, lost

to the future as to the past?

(Wendell Berry)


Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we built,
please give the cities one more hour

and the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor — let their toils
still hold them for another five hours, or seven,

before that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!
I just need a little more time.
Because I am going to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re real and worthy of you.

(Rainer Maria Rilke)


Jamestown was a settlement – the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, established in 1607.  When I lived in the Washington, DC area, my then-partner and I traveled to Jamestown – more at her urging than my interest.  She has always been interested in colonial history, so Jamestown was on our list that also included multiple visits to Colonial Williamsburg.  It’s a good thing to have one’s narrow interests expanded by trusted peoples.

Just a few days ago, on the radio there was a report about the effects of climate change on Jamestown.  The rising sea levels – an average of 2-3 feet world-wide by 2100 — threatens Jamestown from above and from below, because it is on an island, so water is saturating the terrain that holds artifacts left in the ground.  Coastal flooding will increase and without humans proactively deciding to save it, Jamestown could go under.  The report continued, quoting a natural resource specialist who works for the National Park Service:

“We always knew that the island was at some point going to be in danger of being covered over, but we were thinking it’s another 100 years, another 150 years. You know, it could be much — closer,” she says, pausing as though she’s not quite comfortable with the reality.

The report attempted to present the dilemmas involved in saving Jamestown as objectively as possible, though the very fact that the efforts to save it were getting airtime on a national radio show indicates that someone who has decision making power at NPR decided it was worthy, if not of saving, then at least of wider consideration.

We “get to” decide what is worth saving.  Let’s put “get to” in air quotes because “get to” is usually associated with dessert and day trips to the beach or going out to dinner at our favorite restaurant.  We are at a point on this planet and in our human history where we not only “get to” make choices, we must make choices.   Grave choices.

We must make choices and changes because there is a Great Turning at hand, brought on by climate change, by the growing refusal to accept inequitable distribution of both the earth’s wealth, and that which is human made.  There is an urgency that hasn’t been there before, leaving us feeling very much like our reading from Rilke this morning:

Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we built,
please give the cities one more hour

and the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor — let their toils
still hold them for another five hours, or seven,

before that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!
I just need a little more time.
Because I am going to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re real and worthy of you.

Rilke wrote at another time of great turning: the great transformation of the Industrial Age.  Clearly there was a sense of urgency then, felt not by all, but by some.  It can feel as if we are King Solomon — facing the two mothers who both claim one child — but without the wisdom or the solution that seemed to come easily to him.  And the clock is ticking.

In a material world of abundance, in a world of infinite resources and budgets, we could sing a heart song of “save everything!” Of “let nothing be lost!”  Yet that is not how or where we live.  We do not live with infinite resources and to some degree, it’s our living as if our planet’s resources were infinite, that got us in this mess to begin with.

Not only do we not live with infinite resources, we live in a world where what finite resources and wealth we do have is not equally or equitably accessible or distributed.  The rich have more; the poor have less.  The gap widens.  The marginalized are left silent, either struggling just to survive or having their raised voices quashed while the powerful make decisions, more often than not, to benefit themselves.  Well, let’s be clear here, no matter how lacking in resources we feel, how scarcity feels like it rules our lives, we live in the richest nation on earth and benefit from this industrial quality of life: the powerful make decisions to benefit ourselves.

The thing that is troubling about this is that when we decide to save something, it often means that, passively or actively, we are deciding to not save something else. That’s the nature of the material universe.  God’s love may be infinite, but resources and our human time and efforts are not.  As the writer Irena Klepfisz reminds us, “The act of choosing inevitably brings loss.”

So here we are: we get to decide what to save.

Sometimes we are drawn to the shiny, the attractive, the hyperbole of “the best and the brightest.”  There are those Hollywood movies – I’m thinking here of the movies, “Contagion,” and “Deep Impact,” and “2012” — always talking about saving the best and the brightest for our next chance at human civilization: genius scientists and architects and engineers and computer wonks and diplomats and military strategists and doctors and…

That stuff is good for a Hollywood script but when I watch those movies, I often wonder how many prima donas can fit into a bunker or the lone escape spaceship or even a vast wasteland to start humanity anew.  I wonder who is going to build the bridges, not just design them.  I wonder who is going to apply not only the medical salve to the wounded, but the spiritual salve.   I wonder who will plant and grow the food.

And whether when that food is grown, whether it will be grown from Monsanto genetically-engineered seeds – ones that are self-terminating so that they do not produce new seeds for the next crop – or whether they will be seeds that come from common farmers and gardeners, perhaps ones that have been saved over centuries by people like you and me.

It makes me think of a story my friend, David Bollier, related after he visited India.  On this trip, he met women from the village of Erakulapally, who spread a blanket onto the dusty ground and carefully made thirty piles of different seeds:  their treasure, the symbols of their emancipation.    These women are dalit, what used to be referred to as “Untouchables” which means they are members of the lowest – and therefore poorest – social caste.

For them, these seeds are not just seeds.  For them, food had once been unaffordable – now, by the time Dave met them, they were feeding their families, often completely being self-sustaining.

Some history is important background information.  Not only did the women’s social caste contribute to their hunger and poverty, so did the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.  Though the Green Revolution initially helped to mitigate hunger, it also introduced monoculture crops – growing just cotton or just rice, rather than a variety of crops like in the olden days – and not just monoculture crops, but ones that were not adapted to the local ecosystem.  Not to mention the sources of the seeds for those crops were profit-driven corporations, with little interest in the well-being of the local community or the lives of these women.

So what brought about this transformation, particularly given that the odds were stacked against them?  Dave describes how it happened:

It turns out that traditional crops are far more ecologically suited to the semi-arid landscape of Andhra Pradesh and its patterns of rain and types of soil.  But to recover the old ways of biodiverse farming, the women had to find dozens of old, nearly forgotten seeds.  They asked their mothers and grandmothers, who often had small bags of seeds, and they searched in private storage spots.

Eventually, they acquired enough of the seeds to multiply them through many rounds of cultivation.  Soon they had enough to grow their own crops, for free.  They didn’t need to buy proprietary seeds, hybrids or genetically modified seeds every year.  They didn’t need synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

The women have created an extraordinary commons-based system of “food sovereignty” and “food security.”  They directly control their own seeds, grow their own food and manage their own lands – an achievement that has enabled them to escape the high prices and volatility of food markets while growing more nutritious, local organic foods.

I know this sounds familiar to some of you because this is not only happening in India.  It is happening all over the planet.  This is happening here in Cummington.  Both the move by big agri-business to gain control over the production of seeds and to genetically modify them AND the actions of saving seeds as a form of resistance, as a form of saving our world, saving our lives.

At the last leadership meeting here at Village Church, the question of whether to support a local version of this was taken up as an item on the agenda.  Our own deacon, Kathy Harrison, let the leadership team know that “the seed savers need space for meeting, a couple shelves and a spot for a little freezer to store a seed bank.”  The vote was a resounding yes.  Just yesterday, across the street at the Community House, the Hilltown Seed Saving Network held its first annual Spring Seed and Plant Exchange, where people brought seeds, seedlings, and perennial divisions to share.  More than seeds were shared: knowledge and wisdom, vision and solidarity were exchanged and amplified.

Though we talk about seed saving, just like for the women of Erakulapally in India, this is about far more than saving just seeds.  This is about saving the world, one seed, one plant, one little town, at a time.  As Kathy says, “We can’t fight the big guys in court. They own the judges and they have unlimited resources. We can only fight them in the supermarkets and in our backyards. We can grow our own and support farmers who don’t use genetically modified seeds. We can learn how to source and save our own seeds.” Amen, sister.

The decision to support the seed savers is not the only decision to save something worthy that the Village Church has made recently.  In fact, in this past year of discernment, nearly every decision has been a “get to decide what to save” decision, a “what is worthy” decision.  Over and over again, we ask this question and we, haltingly, thoughtfully, painfully, joyfully, uncertainly, spirit-boundly answer: this we save.   And over and over again, we haltingly, thoughtfully, painfully, joyfully, uncertainly, spirit-boundly answer: this we do not save…this we let go.

Though I will refrain from sharing my opinion about Jamestown, my guess is that in this room today, we have a variety of opinions about whether Jamestown is worth saving.  I can tell you that I had a very long, and rather out-loud diatribe with my car radio about this very dilemma after listening to that report.   There are well-reasoned and legitimate opinions on this matter that contradict each other and cannot co-exist – the people who have them can co-exist with each other, but ultimately, a decision will be made about whether to dedicate the resources to save Jamestown or not.  And if the decision is to save Jamestown, it means that some other community, some other worthy historical site, will fade away from neglect or be destroyed by the ravages of our changing climate.

Like that National Park services staff person, it’s an uncomfortable reality.  One that many of us – most of us? – would rather tune out from or disparage the truth of it…at least some of the time.  Yet here we are, on this planet, and decisions are being made.  Because we are people of faith who value this life on this earth, our own and that of other creatures, we must be brave to step into the active process of not letting decisions be made, but to make decisions.

And at this church, the same is true.  This past year of discernment and the coming second year of discernment continues this pointed, poignant process.  What is worth saving? A resounding yes has been the answer regarding this church community.   Yet just because something is worthy of being saved does not make it so.  It is up to us, over and over, to decide what is worthy of saving and what is not.

Last May, a year ago, the church nearly closed for good.  You made the decision to save it.  You are deciding what is worthy of saving and what is not – the prayer shawl ministry?  The Christian focus in worship? The number of worship services?  The active presence in helping Cummington ready itself for the Great Turning? How your part-time co-ministers are directed to spend the precious few hours allotted to us and how each of you – particularly the deacons, but really, each of you — spends your time: all this is a decision on what is worthy of saving and what is not.

When I was 17, I came across a quote from Elissa Melamed and added it to a notebook (I still have that notebook of collected quotes – clearly, I decided it was worth saving…).  You can find the quote at the top of the order of worship.  The context is the peace movement responding to the nuclear arms race of the 1970s and 1980s.  It gave me consolation then, as it does now:

I don’t know how long we have.  We have to do this work because we believe in peace and in building peace.  We start with ourselves, our communities: the circles get larger.  If the bomb falls tomorrow, there’s something so valid about living this way, that we would live this way anyway.

May we live into the true and wisdom of that vision.  May we lead with love as our guide, stepping outside of selfish privilege, as we decide, daily, what is worth saving.  May we take inspiration from the dalit women of Erakulapally, but not stop there: may we learn from them and apply those lessons to our lives and communities here. May we breathe deep, slow down, and listen to the earth and to each other as we decide, daily, what is worth saving.

Amen.  Blessed be.


Berry, Wendell.  Given: Poems, Counterpoint, 2006.

Bollier, David.  “The Seed Saving Solution,” David Bollier: news and perspectives on the commons, ,January 19, 2011.

Joyce, Christopher.  “With Rising Seas, America’s Birthplace Could Disappear,”

NPR, May 14, 2013

Klepfisz, Irena.  Dreams of an Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays, Speeches and Diatribes by Irena Klepfisz and Evelyn Torton Beck, The Eighth Mountain Press, January, 1993.

Rilke, Rainer Maria.  Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Riverhead Books, 1996.

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