CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


Common as dirt.

Consider with me for a moment, just how common is dirt?

Dirt is remarkably uncommon, in fact miraculous, in the sense that Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of miracles, true miracles, as being: "One with the blowing clover and the falling rain."

We stand here, or rather today sit here, on a thin, incredibly thin, solid shell, between the fires of the deep and the frozen cold of space.

In most places, less than a foot of fertile earth, of topsoil, of mere common dirt, measures the difference between abundant life and sterile death.

It is suitable that we ask, “How did we come to be here?” Well, I want you to turn your mind back in time, not a year or ten years or 100 years or 1,000 years or even a million years or even a billion years.

Try to imagine a morning four or four and half billion years ago, we’re not actually certain of the time. The Earth was a very different place in those days. It was hot and active. There were volcanoes and earthquakes. There was no air to breath. There were gases, mostly nitrogen, very little oxygen. There was constant thunder and lightning, almost constant rain. Not the sort of rain we know, because there was very little water.

And there were no living thing, on the land, in the water or in the air. There was not one living thing. But chemistry had already begun, in fact chemistry had already been going on for billions of years. On this particular morning, in one muddy puddle, somewhere on this planet, a rather remarkable and unique event took place. A new molecule was formed.

Now, that in itself was not unusual because molecules were forming for millions and billions of years before that. But on this particular morning a molecule was formed, either by design or by happy chance that had the remarkable property of being able to replicate itself. This primate replicator is, in fact, the progenitor of all life around us today. It is the ancient, ancient ancestor of DNA, the informational code that we find today in all life, whether it be animal or vegetable, whether it be single cell algae or a human being.

We are the children of the stars but, more than that, we are the direct lineal descendants of that original replicator.

Cookies come from the earth, and so does everything about us and all that we wear on our bodies and, yes, our bodies themselves. We arise from the earth, from a simple intention, from a seed planted, repeating and embodying, each of us, the miracle of millions of generations of life back to that first morning.

Simply put, we are dirt.

You, me, all of us, we are dirt.

First the replicator, then our ancestors and then we, ourselves, each of us arose from dirt and all will return, quite certainly, to dirt.

This common dirt about us, that you might scuff up as you walk out into your garden, contains atoms and even molecules of our ancestors, back 10s, 100s, thousands, tens of thousands of generations.

Now common dirt, the earth beneath our feet, is noble and so are we.

The earth has its life and its moments

It goes to sleep in the autumn and awakens in the spring - bringing forth new life and accepting, without complaint, the husks of lives completed.

I know about earth: when I bed my garden down at Thanksgiving; I know it.

I know about earth: when I run my hands through the warm soil at Easter; I know it.

We have our life and our moments, too.

I know about us: We have each, in our common searching, found our way here, and joined in a congregation, in a covenantal community; I know that.

I know about us: We came here not by chance but with purpose; I know that.

This faith practice, Unitarian Universalism, is at best middle aged, if we trust history, but, in the average length of our individual congregational association, it is really quite young, not yet even adolescent.

Yet, each of us is a grown up, each experienced in our own ways and our own places, in our professions and avocations, firm in family and friends.

However, we came here, to the congregation, to find, to make, a new thing: a communality, a community, a joining of our interests.

Our common interests in learning, in seeking, in finding ways to live well enough, to live our lives without regret but with fulfillment, for ourselves, for our children and, through community, for each other; these common interests have brought us here.

We are each strange to this activity, treading uneasily on soft ground.

We are feeling our way, finding our way, coping with growth, being surprised by change.

We are at times quite awkward with each other.

But, in joining together, we have each agreed upon seven covenantal principles.

The first of these principles is:

That every person has inherent worth and dignity.

Look at the person sitting next to you, your neighbor or one passing you on the street, really, really look:

If you look past the differences in age, in gender, in appearance, in genetic heritage, even past the skin and into the flesh, and down to the bone, we are all the same.

And that sameness is not merely perception, but absolute reality, for we all come from the earth, from common dirt.

If I or you deny the nobility of anyone, if we refuse to affirm their inherent worth and dignity, we deny the nobility of dirt.

Now, I say, dirt is noble and so are we.

We are all far, far more alike than we are different - our similarity and our nobility arise, as did we, from the earth, from dirt.

The second covenantal principle is

That we all hold for justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Justice, equity these are easy, no problem really to understand or to achieve.

In our quest for a just society of laws, not of men or women,

In our quest for equity not caprice, for democratic process rather than autocratic pragmatism,

We are simply trying to reach up to the standard of the dirt beneath our feet.

For the earth, soil, dirt, are part of nature. And nature holds fast to certain laws, as Thomas Paine said, to a "natural power of acting."

Earth knows its' laws and exercises them uniformly, miraculously.

It raises us up, it supports us, it nurtures us and, at the end, takes us back, all without question or hesitation.

In earth, in dirt, there is perfect justice, perfect equity.

Justice, equity, these shouldn't be difficult for us to achieve, should they?

But, on the other hand, consider compassion:

In this we are unique, perhaps the need for compassion is the reason stars died to make the stuff of our soil;

For the human species is the only part of nature; animal, vegetable or mineral, which appears to exercise compassion.

There is no compassion in a wolf, in a tree, in the entire world, in dirt itself, except in us.

But we care for those beyond care, we tolerate the intolerable, and, even, at times, we forgive the unforgivable, with a compassionate smile and a gentle word.

We are a compassionate people.

We have achieved so much as individuals, as a people, as a society.

And yet we are not at ease, we are agitated, we are divided; unlike the earth in fall, its work achieved, we are not slowly easing into a calming rest.

Let me say clearly to each and all of you: we are compassionate, each and all of us.

I doubt this not for a moment.

But, we must exercise this compassion more freely and more often, lest in disuse, we forget how.

Each of you who will stand with me in this, in Shakespeare's words, "Shall be my brother and my sister; be you ne'er so vile; this day shall gentle your condition."

Be you ne’er so vile? There are no vile people - only people who, by occasional mean or thoughtless words or acts, may from time to time, appear unsatisfactory, even undesirable as fellows.

It is not our common nature but our acts, our deeds, our words which raise us up or cast us down in conscience and in the sight of others.

Emerson spoke in 1838 to the graduating class of the Harvard School of Divinity and still speaks to us today:

"In the soul of man (and of course women), there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted."

Let me set you a puzzle: "If I have a dog, and I call his tail a leg, how many legs does he have?"

Let us count together: one, two, three, four. Of course four, only four, because calling a tail a leg doesn't make it so - my dog has no more legs than before I called his tail a leg.

In a similar way, accepting a harsh word with a smile does not make that word sweet or even tolerable. Nor does any, even unacceptable, conduct render an individual unqualified for our continued embrace.

We must, in compassion, embrace any such individual but reject any such act - and in the larger fellowship of community, we must bear witness to both the rejection and the embrace.

We must stand and say, in the congregation, in our community, in the greater community of nations, "You are my sister, my brother, but what you have done hurts me, it is unacceptable. Come let us reason together and find a better way."

Such are the firm foundations and sweet demands of fellowship and humanity.

Let me call upon each of you to undertake two things, two good deeds, two acts of compassion, for yourself and for those in our congregation, our faith practice and thus for the world:

First reflection: Ask, what brought me here and what keeps me here?

We are, each and all, in any association of two or more, present voluntarily. But we need to know, and to tell ourselves, and each other in clarity, why we came and why we stay.

The second act of compassion that I would ask of you is one of reconciliation: Ask, how shall I be reconciled with the earth, with the common yet noble dirt of my nature, and, thus, with my brothers and sisters?

We are, each and all, common in nature and incomplete. But we need to accept, in ourselves and each other, our common defects and work to make them right.

I say, finally, dirt is noble and so are we.

If we are to progress together, we must recognize our common nature, our common needs, our common ambitions and reach out to each other, and especially to others from whom we may be presently separated, in free and easy reconciliation.

We are the earth upright and proud, in us the earth is growing.

Let's not disappoint her.