Autumn Equinox: Honouring Our Relations – 24/09/23

Musical Prelude: played by Peter Crockford

Opening Words of Welcome:

Here we gather
In a place made sacred by all those who have gathered here before us
On an autumn morning that has never happened before.
And in the freshness of wind and sunshine outside
May we be open to fresh possibilities in our own lives
Alert to whispered messages of our own hearts
Warmed and strengthened by being together, here, now, in this place
A community of the spirit, united in love.

Words of Welcome and Introduction:

Good morning and welcome everybody to Essex Church and to this our gathered community of the spirit, known as Kensington Unitarians. We are a community created by all who walk through our doors, and created as well by those of you who join us online. And whether this be your first visit or your thousandth we hope that you are touched by the warmth of a welcome that accepts you just as you are, whoever you are and wherever you have come from, whoever you choose to love, whatever identities are important to you – may they and you find a place here with us. Today’s service is a celebration both of the autumn equinox which heralds the changing seasons, and also a celebration and recognition of our kinship with all forms of life. Our chalice lighting words express our sense of a divinity in all beings and connects with progressive communities the world over.

Chalice Lighting: ‘The Divine in All Life’ by Becca Farnum

As we bring flame to our Chalice this morning,
may it spark in our thoughts a reminder of the divine
to be found within all life on this glorious planet –
be it feathered or furred, scaly or smooth,
winged or whiskered, miniscule or mighty.

As we all slither and swim, walk and waddle,
fly and frolic around our various habitats,
may we find beauty in the diversity,
power in the connectedness, and peace in the unity of life.

Hymn 111 (purple): ‘O Brother Sun, Sister Moon’

Let’s sing together now – our first hymn speaks of the kinship of all that exists – based on words written long ago by Francis of Assissi – and yet so relevant now to us 21st century creatures. You’ll find it as hymn 111 in our purple hymn books, or words will appear on your screens – feel free to stand, sit, sing or simply enjoy listening – ‘O sister earth you feed all things, all birds, all creatures, all scales and wings. Let’s sing.

O Brother Sun, you bring us light,
all shining ‘round in fiery might.
O Sister Moon, you heal and bless,
your beauty shines in tenderness.

O Brother Wind, you sweep the hills,
your mighty breath both freshens and fills.
O Sister Water, you cleanse and flow
through rivers and streams, in ice and snow.

O Brother Fire, you warm our night
with all your dancing coloured light.
O Sister Earth, you feed all things,
all birds, all creatures, all scales and wings.

O Sister Death, you meet us here
and take us to our God so near.
O God of Life, we give you praise
for all your creatures, for all your ways.

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve an opportunity now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle and say a few words about what it represents. This time we’re going to go to the people in the building first, and take all of those in one go, and then I’ll call on the people on Zoom to come forward.

So I invite some of you here in person to come and light a candle and then if you wish to tell us briefly who or what you light your candle for. Please do get up close to the microphone as that will help everyone hear (including the people at home). You can take the microphone out of the stand if it’s not at a good height and have it microphone pointing right at your mouth. And if you can’t get to the microphone give me a wave and I’ll bring it over to you. Thank you.

(in person candles)

And if that’s everyone in the room we’ll go over to the people on Zoom next – you might like to switch to gallery view at this stage – just unmute yourselves when you are ready and speak out – and we should be able to hear you and see you up on the big screen here in the church.

(zoom candles)

And I’m going to light one more candle, as we often do, to represent all those joys and concerns that we hold in our hearts this day, but which we don’t feel able to speak out loud. (light candle)

Story: ‘The Body’

This is an African fable, which you may have heard before. It’s an old and simple story which highlights the importance of acknowledging the many aspects which play their part – in any system – be that the human body or human society or the complex interdependent web in which all life exists here on earth. Over the years I’ve used this idea with so many groups of children – my hope is that some of those children might one day soon teach this concept of interdependence to all the world’s leaders, who so foolishly think they can go it alone.

So the story begins as stories often do with …. once upon a time, the various parts of the body began complaining about the stomach.

“Look at me,” says the hand, “I till the soil to plant the seeds, I harvest the crops, I prepare the food. All that the stomach ever does is lie there waiting to be fed. This is so unfair.”

The feet agreed, “Me too, I carry the heavy stomach around all day, I carry him to the farm to get food, I carry him to the river to get water, I even carry him up the palm tree to get palm wine, and all the stomach ever does is lie there and expect to get his ration of food, water and wine whenever he needs them. This is just so unfair.”

The head, too complained how he carries all the heavy load from the farm and from the river, all to feed the stomach who does nothing to help. The parts of the body decided that this injustice must stop. To force the issue, they decided to embark on a protest action. They agreed to stop working and to stop feeding the lazy stomach until the stomach learnt to be a responsible citizen of the body.

A whole day went by and the stomach was not given any food or water or wine. All that the stomach did was groan from time to time while the others taunted him. By the second day of starving the stomach, the head said that he was beginning to feel dizzy. By the third day, the hands reported that they were feeling weak, and the feet were wobbly and could not stand straight. Then it dawned on them that, much as they were visibly supporting the stomach, the stomach was also supporting them in a less obvious but equally important way. It dawned on them that by feeding the stomach they were feeding themselves without knowing it. So they called off their strike action and went back to work to feed the stomach. Their strength returned to all the body’s different parts – and together with the stomach they lived …. How do all the best stories end? ….. happily ever after ….. they all lived happily ever after, together.

Time of Prayer & Reflection: for all who migrate

At this time of year we witness the annual departure of migratory birds, like swallows and swifts and house martins, to their southern lands, they who made the long journey from beyond the Sahara to join us here for the summer and are now returning south. This week we heard of people again making the dangerous sea journey from Africa to Europe. An estimated 1800 people have died already this year on this journey. And our thoughts are also with the people of Morocco as the rescue efforts continue in the aftermath of the earthquake and the people of eastern Libya after the devastating floods there. Let us spend a few moments in silent witness of the sufferings of so many in our world.

And so let us pray, trusting in the divine spirit of life and love to be with us in the times of our power and in our powerlessness.

Here in this world of form and matter, where all beings move towards pleasure and away from pain, when all creatures seek to survive and prosper, let us pray for all who make journeys of migration. Let us honour the adventurous spirit that pushes people to seek better situations for them and their families for surely we know that spirit within ourselves. Let us with humility acknowledge the fear and desperation that forces some people to leave their beloved homelands and seek places of refuge, of safety, of liberty and justice in other lands where people speak a different language and may not always be welcoming.

May all who are fortunate seek to find ways to share their good fortune with others and may we also admit to any mean spirited or fearful parts of ourselves that want to keep the stranger out – in fear perhaps that there is not enough to go round.

May all of humanity be guided towards new ways of thinking and behaving so that we can share what the earth provides more equally, that the truth that there is enough for all may be lived out in practice.

And this day let us send our thoughts and prayers to all who make journeys, to all who risk their own lives rescuing others in distress, to all who have the power to welcome or turn away those in need – in a shared few moments of silence for our own prayers of the heart – spirit of love – guide us in ways to give life the shape of love, of justice and compassion – this day and all days, amen.

Reading: ‘Compassion for all beings’ by The Dalai Lama

One way you can develop empathy (and compassion for all beings) is to start with small sentient beings like ants and insects. Really attend to them and recognize that they too wish to find happiness, experience pleasure, and be free of pain. Start there, with insects, and really empathize with them, and then go on to reptiles and so forth. Other human beings and yourself will all follow.

On the other hand, if you murder little insects and dismiss any possibility of their wanting pleasure and avoiding pain, then when you come to animals that are more and more like us, it’s easy to dismiss them. Even if a dog is wounded and it yelps, you don’t experience the pain. Since you’ve already gotten into the mode of disregarding the pleasure and pain of an insect, now it’s easier to disregard a bird, a dog, and even another person who cries out. With the attitude “I don’t feel it,” you dismiss that pain. You would never feel the empathy until it actually hits your own skin.

If you have greater sensitivity to the pain and suffering of animals, then all the more you will have a greater sensitivity and empathy toward other human beings.

Hymn 189 (purple): ‘We Celebrate the Web of Life’

Time to sing again and our next hymn which is 189 in the purple book – we celebrate the web of life – is a good example of how Unitarian s and Unitarian Universalists bring new words to old tunes. The tune is by German composer Melchius Vulpius and the words are by Alicia Carpenter, a great Unitarian Universalist composer and singer – who died just a couple of years ago. The words are a poem really – here’s the last verse: ‘Respect the water, land and air, which gave all creatures birth; protect the lives of all that share the glory of the earth.’ And Peter our pianist is going to play a verse through for us so we can hear the tune before we start singing.

We celebrate the web of life,
its magnitude we sing;
for we can see divinity
in every living thing.

A fragment of the perfect whole
in cactus and in quail,
as much in tiny barnacle
as in the great blue whale.

Of ancient dreams we are the sum;
our bones link stone to star,
and bind our future worlds to come
with worlds that were and are.

Respect the water, land, and air
which gave all creatures birth;
protect the lives of all that share
the glory of the earth.

Meditation: ‘Surviving through Reciprocity by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Our words for meditation come from author, botanist, indigenous scientist and mother Robin Wall Kimmerer who published a highly regarded book called Braiding Sweetgrass back in 2013. If you’ve come across this book you’ll know what a beautifully interwoven piece of work it is – as Robin brings together indigenous wisdom, the scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants.

The little piece of the book that I’m going to read now is about the way that aspects of the natural world will work together when life gets tough. She calls it ‘surviving through reciprocity’. It’s a similar message to the story we heard earlier on about body parts working together for the good of all. She writes:

‘Scientists are interested in how the marriage of alga and fungus occurs and so they’ve tried to identify the factors that induce two species to live as one. But when researchers put the two together in the laboratory and provide them with ideal conditions for both alga and fungus, they gave each other the cold shoulder and proceeded to live separate lives, in the same culture dish, like the most platonic of roommates. The scientists were puzzled and began to tweak the habitat, altering one factor and then another, but still no lichen. It was only when they severely curtailed the resources, when they created harsh and stressful conditions, that the two would turn toward each other and begin to cooperate. Only with severe need did the hyphae curl around the alga; only when the alga was stressed did it welcome the advances.

When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.’

An excerpt (pp. 272) from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.

Let’s take those ideas of us needing to work together in tough times into our meditation now. Let’s settle ourselves in whatever way works best for us, feet on the floor, backs a little straighter perhaps, eyes gently softened or closed, taking one of those conscious breaths that help us relax a little, breathing down into the belly, imagining the air perhaps travelling all the way down to our feet and beyond, connecting us with our precious earth, connecting us with all living beings.

And we might ask ourselves if there are any particular areas of our own lives where we might work more effectively with others rather than trying to go it alone.

We’ll spend a few minutes in shared silence together and that will end with a chime from our bell and lead into our music for meditation – Beethoven’s haunting Moonlight Sonata.

Period of Silence and Stillness (~3 minutes) – end with a bell

Musical Interlude: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (played by Peter Crockford)

Address: ‘Honouring Our Relations’ by Rev. Sarah Tinker

I wonder if any of you here today or listening to this service as a podcast have ever attended a sweat lodge purification ceremony from the Native American tradition. I’ve been fortunate to join some of these ceremonies over the years, organised by the Deer Tribe Metis Medicine Society, a group committed to spreading teachings around our world that can bring ‘beauty, power, knowledge and freedom’ to all.

If you follow such a spiritual path you will perhaps hear a prayer that begins with the words —“Matakuye Oyasin” from the Lakota people, which translates as “For All My Relations”. The Deer Tribe explain on their website that these words place a spiritual concern for achieving proper relations (involving ‘respect’ and ‘reciprocity’) with all living things, all life, all creatures, all creation and the Creator as a core task for humanity.

Such a prayer recognises the web of interconnectedness of which we are all part, it reminds us that what happens to one part of the web of life affects all other parts – such is the nature of our relatedness with one another and with mother earth on whom we live our days.

And we know the reality of life today where we humans with our ever growing populations put ever more pressure on the animal species who share this planet earth home with us. We use and abuse all other living creatures and we struggle to find ways to live in harmony and balance – with other creatures and with our own species.

It’s hard to get accurate figures for the number of animal species that have become extinct in the last 100 years but quite conservative estimates seem to suggest around a thousand – mostly caused by human activity – over-hunting or the degradation of habitats.

We humans have developed as hunters and gatherers and then farmers. Will we continue to use and abuse our animal relations or might it be possible to develop greater compassion and empathy towards all living beings?

We each have to find our own way to recognise and live within our interconnected web of existence as a participating and positive member. But perhaps the core is holding and honouring ‘all our relations’ in our awareness, respect and compassion, finding an ethical path that works for us, honouring the paths chosen by others, remembering that it’s rarely easy to live harmoniously within the greater whole, with its many competing needs and desires.

I’ve been reading recently about the concept developed by a group of geologists that our planet earth has experienced not five but six mass extinction events over the past 450 million years – and that we now live within a new geological time frame – the Anthropocene era, where changes are being made to the earth itself, and all life forms, by human activities.

I find such measurements of time hard to comprehend. The life of our planet and the slow evolutions of life upon it are almost unimaginable to me. I was astonished to read that an estimated 99.9% of species that have ever existed here on planet earth are now extinct. That’s evolution. And that’s a different process from the human caused extinctions we are witnessing in our lifetimes. In the face of all this science I’m left with a sense of just how very precious existence is, how very precious all our relations are – each unique, each with gifts to bring the world.

Last week this congregation was celebrating a traditional Harvest Festival – a favourite time in many of our calendars. And on Friday it was the time of the autumn equinox when day and night are of equal length here in our northern lands. The equinoxes are sometimes viewed as a time to reflect on balance in our own lives and in the life of the world, knowing that to achieve balance when we’re riding a bicycle or attempting to stand on one leg – to balance requires constant small adjustments to be made. I wonder what small adjustments, or maybe large changes, you’re having to, or wanting to, make in your lives at the moment. I wonder if humanity as a species can make the needed changes required of us now. As one human race we are all going to be required to make some big changes if we wish to leave a planet for future generations to live comfortably on. Our planet is demonstrating this need for change with more extreme weather – our downpours and high winds here in London this week seeming so very minor compared with the devastation experienced in parts of Libya recently.

Did you notice the news report this last week of a scientific discovery about our ancestors some 900,000 years ago? A new technique analysing modern genetic data suggests that a group of pre-humans – ancestors of us all – survived in a group of only 1,280 individuals in Africa. It took another 117,000 years before the population started to expand again. What especially interested me was the information that this number of around 1,200 breeding individuals is the minimum number of animals that are considered necessary to keep a species alive.

Had those early hominids not survived, how different might this world have been? Could life on earth have looked very different if we homo sapiens had not become dominant? Hominids with the ability to think – that’s us – now how will we learn not just to think but to act in unison for the greater good of all. That’s the message from the Braiding Sweetgrass book – about algae and fungus learning to live harmoniously in order to survive – ‘surviving through reciprocity’. We humans currently seem a long way from achieving that – but let us remain hopeful, and let us be active – moving away from differences that divide and moving towards compassion and harmony and love. Those qualities in us may just save the day.

I’ll end with a version of the all our relations prayer, a prayer than honours life and all its elements:

“All our relations. I honour you in this circle of life with us today.
“we are grateful for this opportunity to acknowledge you in this prayer. . . .
“To the Creator, for the ultimate gift of life, we thank you.
“To the mineral nation that has built and maintained our bones and all foundations of life experience, we thank you.
“To the plant nation that sustains our organs and body and gives us healing herbs for sickness, we thank you.
“To the animal nation that feeds us from your own flesh and offers your loyal companionship in this walk of life, we thank you.
“To the human nation that shares our path as a soul upon the sacred wheel of Earthly life, we thank you.
“To the Spirit nation that guides us invisibly through the ups and downs of life and for carrying the torch of light through the Ages, we thank you.
“To the Four Winds of Change and Growth, we thank you.
“You are all our relations, our relatives, without whom we would not live. We are in the circle of life together, co-existing, co-dependent, co-creating our destiny. One, not more important than the other. One nation evolving from the other and yet each dependent upon the one above and the one below. All of us a part of the Great Mystery. Thank you for this Life.”

“When we walk in balance, with gratitude in our hearts and knowledge of our interdependence, the daily requirements of living — like making syrup — become a blessing rather than a burden. Labour becomes a prayer and work is no longer empty toil but has a satisfying purpose. Because the gift of community sweetens every task.” (adapted from Gary Kowalski’s book Blessing of the Animals: Celebrating our Kinship with all Creation) So may it be. And thank you for listening.


And so now for our announcements with more giving of thanks. Thanks to Ramona for tech-hosting and Jeannene for co-hosting. Thanks to Brian for reading. Thanks to Peter and Benjie for music. Thanks to Marianne for doing coffee and to Juliet for greeting. For those of you who are here in-person, please do stay for a drink and a natter after the service – it’s served in the hall next door. If you’re joining online hang on after for a chat with Jeannene.

We have various small group activities during the week. Margaret will be running her ‘Finding Your Voice’ singing class after today’s service, free of charge, all are welcome. Heart and Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering, takes place twice a week online. It’s a great way to get to know people more deeply. This week’s theme is ‘Holy Work’, and you can sign up with Charlotte for Sunday night or Maud for Friday night (their contact details are in the Friday email or on the OOS).

This autumn we’re going to be starting up a regular Community Singing group on Wednesday evenings, twice a month, it’s a collaboration with a local musician who’s been running a singing-for-fun group in the area for over twenty years and who has very kindly offered to branch out and start a spin-off group with us. Everyone is welcome and you don’t need to read music or anything; the repertoire is mostly classic pop songs I believe. The first session is going to be on Wednesday 11th October, that’s at 7pm, free of charge. It’d be really good if we had a decent turnout of congregation members for this as it’s a great opportunity for us to make connections in the local area – and I think it’s going to be fun too – so do come along.

In a few weeks’ time we have the Induction Service which – on 14th Oct at 3pm – this marks the official commencement of the new ministry, even though Jane has been here a while – there will be tea, cake, and bunting and for friends from all over the place to join in celebration. More than that it’s a chance to express our hopes and intentions for this ministry and to pledge our commitment to the future of this congregation and its mission. We’ll need people to help with greeting, to bake cakes, and generally to help out on the day (Patricia is coordinating). We’re expecting about 50 people in the building (please RSVP if you haven’t already) and at least 20 online so it should be a great occasion.

Jeannene will be here next week with guest preacher Stephanie Bisby on ‘Listening to Trees’.

Details of all our various activities are printed on the back of the order of service, for you to take away, and also in the Friday email. Please do sign up for the mailing list if you haven’t already. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch, look out for each other, and do what you can to nurture supportive connections.

Hymn 216 (purple): ‘Wide Green World’

And our final hymn now celebrates our wondrous world and reminds us of our human power to damage our home and the home of all life that we know and love. The words were written by June Bell – a powerful woman, member of Edinburgh Unitarians, who did so much for so many social justice causes. Let’s sing it in her honour.

Wide green world, we know and love you:
clear blue skies that arch above you,
moon-tugged oceans rising, falling,
summer rain and cuckoo calling.
Some wild ancient ferment bore us,
us and all that went before us:
life in desert, forest, mountain,
life in stream and springing fountain.

We know how to mould and tame you,
we have power to mar and maim you.
Show us by your silent growing
that which we should all be knowing:
we are of you, not your master,
we who plan supreme disaster.
If with careless greed we use you
inch by extinct inch we lose you.

May our births and deaths remind us
others still will come behind us.
That they also may enjoy you
we with wisdom will employ you.
That our care may always bless you
teach us we do not possess you.
We are part and parcel of you.
Wide green world, we share and love you.

Benediction: ‘Our Kinship with All Life’

Our closing music today played by Benjie Del Rosario and Peter Crockford is a beautiful love song of the 1950s – ‘the very thought of you’, with its lyrics expressing the yearning of romantic love for one other person:

I see your face in every flower
Your eyes in stars above
It’s just the thought of you
The very thought of you, my love

But for our benediction let’s embrace instead the possibility of falling in love with our whole world. Yes let’s fall in love this coming week – let’s fall in love with flowers and people and insects and animals – even algae and fungae, bacteria and viruses, as well as birds and trees and soft green grass. Let us be the people who recognise our kinship with all life forms, made as we are of the same chemical elements, with human and animal and plant DNA showing similar patterns, and the cycles of oxygen and carbon dioxide keeping us miraculously alive as we spin together upon our planet earth home, the only home we ever will have, the home we must share.

May our sharing with our kindred spirits be both loving and compassionate, knowing that our survival depends on reciprocity, on our ability to share and on our willingness to embrace other perspectives. Amen, go well all of you, know that you are truly loved and so blessed be.

Closing Music: ‘The Very Thought of You’ by Ray Noble (played by Benjie del Rosario and Peter Crockford)

Rev. Sarah Tinker

24th September 2023