Audio podcast of this sermon is available here.
Reading – For a Time Such As This by Jake Morrill
As a part of our monthly theme, this Sunday, we were supposed to explore the question: when in your life have you experienced a plot twist? Back in September, when decided on these weekly questions, we were like, hmm, plot twist, great that will be interesting….But then, this past Tuesday night, I suddenly realized plot twists are only “interesting” in retrospect. The middle of a plot twist isn’t interesting, it’s traumatic.
It was around 10:30 on Tuesday night when the trauma started to hit; like millions of people all across the country, our staff team was texting each other in earnest: what is happening?
Up until that point, I thought we’d been preparing for any outcome, regardless of how the election went, the message for Sunday and in all of our work together would be the generally the same – in the midst of a divided country, our faith’s good news of the inherent worth of all and our ultimate interconnectedness – the faith that we “need not think alike to love alike” – offers us the tools and the responsibility to connect across differences, heal the divisions in our country and in our hearts, and weave a new shared story together. No matter the results, I thought, this would be the message.
Over the course of the night, however, I realized, I’d been fooling myself.
It started around 7:30, maybe 8. I was in a meeting when my partner, Carri, started to text. Our daughter had been watching the election returns with a friend, and had come home sobbing, sure that she and/or her friends would be sent to Mexico. My daughter, Gracie Ella is Hispanic – her birth father was Mexican – but she was born in Denver, and we are her legal parents – both of us. She’s been with us since she was three days old. But, it’s confusing. Kids don’t get it – grown-ups don’t always either, as we’ve seen – so while we have reassured her that no one can take her from us, there’s still an underlying sense of risk that we can’t entirely reassure in her, or truthfully, in us.
When I got that text from Carri, a lump started to form in my throat, and all night as the returns came in, it grew bigger and bigger, as I imagined all the Hispanic kids across the country, all the Muslim children, the *trans youth, the women who have experienced sexual assault (which is about 1 of every 5), and all the people working so hard for our planet, this lump just grew and grew, as I felt so many people all across the country, like my daughter – scared, hurting, all of them sobbing.
The lump in my throat told me: all of our plans were wrong. I mean, they were good, still true, but they’d been plans for a different world, a different story than what was emerging – they were assuming a world of greater safety, greater predictability, a level of continuity – a world that could no longer be counted on. We needed a new plan, for Sunday, and likely, for everything.
Our nation woke up Wednesday morning into a new world.
The transition from sleep to waking has always been hard for me. I’m usually disoriented, bleary-eyed –angry, irrational – I’m not a very good mom or partner when I’m trying to wake up, and it’s a slow process. I resist the idea that sleeping is over, grieve the loss of my cozy quiet, and fight the requirement to do something new, like, move or talk, or see things with my eyes open.
This is exactly how I’ve been feeling since Tuesday night. Disoriented, angry, grief-stricken. I managed to get the letter out to you all about the election results and invite the vespers service on Wednesday, but immediately after that I sat there at midnight sobbing the way I imagined my daughter had a few hours before. And the lump in my throat, it was still there – is still there, even now.
We woke up Wednesday morning to a new world, but it wasn’t like the world wasn’t there before. So many of our lives have been so much more at risk than most of us have been paying attention to – black lives, immigrant lives, queer lives, the lives of the poor, the chronically ill, children’s lives – really all of our lives – are so fragile. And so many of our social systems are inadequate, or broken, and racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia – these are real, and systemic and generational. We know this, but also, we try not to think about it – especially those of us who don’t have to think about it.
We take for granted a certain inevitability of moral progress – assuming that as time moves forward, so will the reach of justice – that it must be that as each day passes, the world becomes more inclusive, more compassionate, more loving – this story exists deep in our consciousness – we assume that progress of any sort means progress of all sorts.
As Unitarian minister Theodore Parker’s quote that both Martin Luther King Jr and President Obama have referenced: the moral arc of the universe surely bends towards justice.
This week we awoke to the reality that our Native American siblings have been living with for centuries: there is nothing inevitable about the march of justice. Sometimes, the moral arc bends away from justice, just as suddenly as it had moved towards it. And sometimes the new day brings not greater clarity or goodness, but chaos, fear, and loss.
It can be terrible waking up. Since Tuesday, many of us have been bleary-eyed and grieving- just wanting to pull the covers over our heads. We’ve started rationalizing or blaming, turning the whole thing into an intellectual exercise – why did the polling go wrong? Maybe the third party voters are to blame – or the two-party system. The Electoral College, or the media. Or, we bargain, maybe it’s not so bad, maybe he didn’t mean all the things he said. Or even, maybe now we will have real change…..maybe this will turn out to be a good thing….burn it all down.
We are each coping in different ways to this global plot twist – this trauma – depending on how personally we feel the potential impact, how vulnerable we or our children are, the story we thought we were living in about how the world should or does work, and maybe most of all, how committed we are to the cozy quiet and the not seeing things with our eyes open.
Before Tuesday, my coping strategy had been what I’d called “the long view.” I’d been channeling my teacher Vincent Harding, I quoted him a few weeks ago – he’s the one who said America was in the process of birthing a new story, and it was our job to be midwives for a new day.
Since waking up on Wednesday, I’ve needed something more than the long view – it’s what I call the “longer view.” Because Dr. Harding died last year, meaning he lived to see the first African American president – he call him Brother Barack – but he did not have to see his brother hand over the presidency to a man endorsed by the KKK.
So instead of Dr. Harding I’ve needed to think about those people who lived in crazy times, terrible times, and who died with the world still terrible, but who were still a part of the resistance and the resilient love, their whole lives. People like Susan B. Anthony who died before women got the vote, or Sojourner Truth who died after the civil war, but long before seeing the real liberation for African Americans and women that she fought for her whole life, or Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein, or a thousand other gay men and women and *trans and gender-non-conforming people who loved and survived and claimed their truth, even at the risk of imprisonment or death.
As Theresa Hardy wrote this week:
“I got out of bed this morning because of all those who had to get out of bed before me:
Martin and Coretta, the day after his home was bombed. (What did they tell the children?).
John Lewis, after nearly escaping death on the Edmund Pettus bridge.
My ancestors, who were dragged to the U.S. in chains,
laid flat like chattel on ships… and survived.
They survived and got out of bed each morning.
I am sick and tired and grieving and ready to quit this country.
But I got out of bed, shamed by the thought of letting these ancestors down.
And for now that’s how I am getting through this day.”
One of the ancestors I’ve been drawing on these past few days has been Theodore Parker, he of that troublesome quote on the arc of the moral universe. Parker’s life was filled with plot twists, traumatic and heartbreaking. Seven of his siblings and both of his parents died of tuberculosis before he’d even entered the ministry, and that grief inspired his search to understand and experience an unadorned and true God. His search led him to reject traditional religion, as well as traditional thinking when it came to slavery. His faith in a loving, freedom-insisting God required abolition, and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act – as well as numerous other social and political reforms.
We Unitarians consider ourselves to be quite progressive today, but back then, while some of us were anti-slavery, we were not abolitionists – we supported a more gradual transformation. We couldn’t risk the cotton money that flowed through our churches – besides, it was the law.
All this meant that Parker was scorned and excluded by the other Unitarian ministers, even while his bold claims for a loving God and a deeper justice created a huge and committed following in his church. He often saw 2,000 people on a Sunday, which for his time was incredible.
Still I imagine Parker was often lonely, and on many days wasn’t sure if all his sacrifice was really making a difference. See, Parker died in 1860, a year before the outbreak of the civil war, three years before the emancipation proclamation. It is from this context that I’ve realized we need to hear his famous quote – which I’ll share in full:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was known for his refrain – how long? Not long.
But this week I’ve been thinking: How long? Long. Maybe very long.
Considering the story of his life, I believe that Parker knew this – and so did Martin Luther King, of course.
Our eyes, and our lives reach but a little ways – the moral arc is long, long, and often longer. We can’t complete the figure by experience of sight, only by conscience.
In this moment, maybe in a number of moments to come, we may not be able to see the good, the just – but we can feel its righteousness, feel what is right in our hearts, our guts, and by our faith. By our faith, we know, that in the longer arc, there is more love somewhere, and we shall overcome.
Over these last four years with you, I have tried to draw a line between liberal religion and liberal politics, I have urged us to remember our mission as the former rather than the latter. Despite what you may have taken from all that I have said this morning, I remain committed to this distinction – because it is our faith that has something to say about that lump in our throats.
No matter how we voted, or how we feel about the results, our faith calls us to see the tears of our children, our Hispanic children, our black children, our Jewish children, our disabled children, our children who are different in all sorts of ways, who are homeless, or hungry, who were already too vulnerable. It asks us to take seriously the potential appointment of Sheriff Joe Arpaio that was floated this week– the terrorizing Sheriff who was finally ousted from Arizona, who is now being considered as the head of Homeland Security. It asks us not to turn away, but to keep waking up, each day, again, and more.
You may be wondering if you’re up for this, if we’re up for such a task, and how.
But also….have you heard the reports, the stories being shared, the chants of “Build that Wall,” the calls to “make America White again,” they say that hate has been “unleashed.” I keep hearing people use that word, the word that incredibly – we carefully and boldly declared was our word, just a couple weeks ago – that we would unleash courageous love.
And I can’t help thinking, it is possible that we were made for a time such as this.
Like Queen Esther, we need not act hastily, but only deliberately. As we have this morning, we need to gather together first – and then again and again over time – in prayer, in song, in tenderness, in community. Because while we feel the fierce urgency of now, we cannot calculate the curve of this moral arc; it could be a long, long road ahead.
Which means, we need a regular practice that tends to beauty, cultivates wonder, awe and gratitude, allows us to renew and to sort out all we are seeing and feeling along the way.
Which is to say, these are the days when we need to keep coming to church – and the days when we need to invite our friends. I know UUs are often shy about our faith, but this too needs a new plan. Too many are grieving and struggling, and could use this community, and we need them. Bring them all, and bring yourselves in more fully, more often. We need each other, and the world needs us to coordinate and work together.
Inviting our friends to church is the easy part, of course. The harder part is putting into practice the courageous part of courageous love.
What will be asked of us, what risks of comfort, stability, clarity or safety will our faithfulness require? We are just starting to learn – from early reports, the schools are a place to start – K-12, but also CSU and Front Range – surely our ministry with and for families and children and youth, and immigrants will also need a new plan – but even this is not clear.
For this morning, we have two small yet meaningful ways to unleash love in the coming days. The first is to wear a safety pin as a sign of solidarity with potentially targeted groups. The idea originated after Brexit, when the UK saw a 57% increase in anti-immigrant attacks – people there wore a safety pin to signal they were safe. We have safety pins– take one and wear it, and as you do make a commitment to speak up, to shield, to risk your comfort on behalf of another.
The second is a practice being called, “Neighborhood Love Notes.” We have chalk for you, and we’d like you to take it, and then go out and write messages of love and solidarity – wherever you feel that love is needed. Which is, everywhere.
When you write a “love note” please snap a photo, and then post it to the Foothills Facebook page, with the hashtag #unleashlove – or send it to us and we’ll do it on your behalf. And also, any other time that you are witness to what you’d call courageous love, feel free to use that same hashtag #unleashlove.
After any trauma, the healing process begins with baby steps, little ways of beginning to move forward, which can be hard because some of us want to launch forward with giant leaps. The time for giant leaps will come, but we don’t know enough yet, which I know, can make our fear debilitating instead of motivating. And so I want to end with this quote from activist and writer Rebecca Solnit, who reminds us, while “The future is dark, [it is] a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave.”
Steady yourselves friends, and lean in closer, the great labor is just beginning.
I love you.