Toward. Just. Relationship. (Sermon)

[A music- and prose-based worship service originally written for and read to Throop Unitarian Universalist Church on May 20, 2018.]

Toward.

“Toward” is a posture. She is an open body. He is an attuned heart. They wait with loving response.

Toward says, “I will face you, I will come near to you, I will look lovingly, even when it is hard to look.”

When Toward sees your tears, she does not rush to your face, a linebacker armed with Kleenex. She doesn’t say “Shut up,” or “Stop crying.” She doesn’t say, “Ah, it will be okay, don’t worry, I’ve been through it, I totally understand what you are experiencing.”

Toward says: “Ah. Tears are visiting. They come to this world to say something important. I honor your tears. “

When Toward hears the story of your hurt, he does not fear that acknowledging your pain somehow diminishes his. No. He witnesses you as flesh of this world. He leans forward because your experience in your embodiment is wise and he wants to hear it.

Toward is the one who comes over to your family’s home overly enthusiastic about looking at your baby photos. And, after dinner, they do the dishes.

Toward trusts that, if they can just lean into that space between you and them long enough—over the sink, over the hole that was the ground of your earlier life, the dying fire that was the marriage, the frayed trust that was the friendship, the accident, the violence, the vote, the loss, the daily moment-to-moment heaving heaviness that is class, race, and gender—if they can stay on the edge of their knowing in a way that centers your experience, if they don’t rush in to fix, if they don’t flee from disgust, that they will witness something emerge that is sacred.

Toward is one who knows how to wait for what is emerging from the cracks.

In fact, Toward is one of those fools with a succulent garden. Because, you know, drought tolerant planting. And, because he loves a good metaphor about beauty that emerges from rocky soil.

When Toward goes out to dinner, they prefer the stuff that gets sent back to the kitchen because it wasn’t “quite right.” Toward finds the nourishment on every plate; even the stuff that’s a little burned, a little runny, a little unsure of itself, bits of other people’s lives and truths that can be hard to stomach.

Toward drives for Lyft occasionally. They come to you. They pull up to you. Then they ask you “where do YOU want to go?” and when you answer they go with you.

When people say “this campaign… this effort… this movement… may take a long time,” Towards signs up first. To the defectors, she says, “Anything worth doing requires constant movement. If it was simple, it would have been done already.” Toward knows that what is worth doing takes each generation to carry forward. We may not arrive. We must keep moving toward it.

Toward does not need guarantees of success to make something worth doing. She delights in the possibility of holy failure. After all, each plate has nourishment.

Toward makes a promise that when everyone else leans back they’ll lean in.

Just.

If Toward is the direction, Just is our compass. And our compass is future-focused.

Just is a SciFi queen. A futurist. They go to ComicCon. And they dress up for it.

Contrary to crime television, Just does not ask “Who done it? What’s their punishment? Who gets to punish them?”

Just asks, “What would it look like if we survived this? What would it mean if we came out of this more deeply related? How could this tiny moment be one step towards creating that world we dream of? What is needed from each of us to take that step now?”

Just refuses to give over their imagination to an unjust world. They are notoriously off-script. They are the overly-enthusiastic improvisation coach in your high school theatre program that is always on the verge of losing its funding from the state. Just asks us to do something in this moment that is a little unrealistic, a little impossible, a little improbable, a little ridiculous, such that the new world we long for has a big enough crack to enter in through.

This is not child’s play, and yet this is a child’s play: this radical imagining is what will keep us alive. It is the only thing that has.

Because, in this world, you have to have Just’s radical imagination to stand outside of a Police Commission hearing, week after week, with an image of your daughter who died in police custody pasted onto a poster, and believe that you and your daughter’s life are worthy of being listened to and will be. That’s a radical imagination guided by Just.

In this world, you have to have Just’s radical imagination to believe that you and your family and your church and your social movement can survive conflict or sexual harm and come out more connected, more strong, more healed, more accountable, and more related than before you began.

In this world, you have to have Just’s radical imagination to believe, as a teenager, that you and all your friends and all their friends could challenge the NRA.

In this world, you have to have Just’s radical imagination to believe that the stigma of mental and physical disability can be transformed into living in environments and communities that no longer disable you because of their stigma towards you.

In this world, you have to have Just’s radical imagination to believe that your town deserves clean water, that your family deserves nourishing food, that some day you could get sick and will have immediate access to the highest quality health care right there in your own damn neighborhood.

Those dreams are the work of Just’s radical imagination.

In a dominant culture of laws, procedures, and rules, Just turns over the table and tosses out your paperwork. Just is the auntie who speaks in tongues before dinner. He is the mumbling prophet who cries, “The end of THIS world is near!” and means it. A new world is coming, and Just is guiding us there. She is arriving in the moment at every moment—if you’re paying attention and know what to look for. If you are willing to see it, and feed it with your own imaginations.

Just is the creative imagination of a world committed to warm unfolding against all of our attempts to freeze it and each other, control it and each other, and script it and each other.

Just is the monarch butterfly. Imagine being a caterpillar, eating everything in sight, getting bigger than ever to the point of being immobile, and when people ask you “What are you doing?” your response is, “I’m thinking of flying to Mexico! To the birthplace of my parent’s parent’s parents! They never made it back there. I want to see it.” Then, when you go to wrap yourself into a silk sleeping bag, and people ask you “What are you doing?” your response is, “I think I’ll hang upside down, disintegrate into soup, and wake up with wings.”

No, really. Picture it. It’s ridiculous.

That is the work of Just.

Just is a quality of being where we are committed to the possibility of ours and each other’s wingedness. Nothing less than fullness, nothing less than belonging, nothing less than dignity, and nothing less than care. [And, in the case of the butterfly, nothing less than silk.]

Just doesn’t settle for how can I hurt you to show you how badly you hurt me, Just doesn’t settle for “well, I guess this is good enough, I guess this is all we deserve, lets go home,” Just isn’t here for a buffet of bones.

Just is here for the feast of our profound belonging. And she begs us not to give up our imaginations to a pre-scripted world of domination and violence.

Science fiction author Octavia Butler remembers a story that took place when she was nine-years-old: it was 1954, and she went to one of her first B-movie films. She remembers, quite clearly, coming out of the theatre saying: “Someone got paid for writing that story!” and “Jeeze, I can write better than that!”

Indeed. People are getting paid for writing the story we are living in now.

Just says to us, “We could be writing this better.”

“I Need You To Survive” as performed at UU General Assembly 

Relationship.

“I need you to survive.” This is such a tender, theological commitment.

I love you, you are important to me, I need you to survive– this is true in our most intimate, relationships.

I won’t harm you, with words from my mouth, I love you, I need you to survive– because our social movement depends on you and us. Our community depends on you and us. Because you are not just important to me, but to us.

“I need you to survive” because you and I are both the flesh of this world. There is no other world beside the one in which we are embedded in the thickest possible web of relationships. There is nothing that falls outside of our relatedness.

The space we tend between us is a portal to the world we are creating where we survive.

When we say, “We imagine a world with clean water. With no prisons. With health care. With reproductive care. Without gun violence by the state or by each other. With good food, with loving bodies, with beautiful shelter.” We are not talking about a world that will make it possible for someone out there to be more alive—we are talking about the people in this very room.

In this very room are those of us stigmatized for our disabilities. For our genders. In this room are those of us who lack secure housing, health care, meaningful work, a living wage. Us, our families, have been impacted by mass incarceration, guns, racism, sexual harm. We struggle with the PTSD of foreign wars, we breathe smoggy air, we cope under the strains of capitalism and the legacy of colonialism that leaves us struggling to stay connected to each other. We’re not just talking about some of our beloved people in some distant out there somewhere (although they are included): we are talking about us, the people seated next to us right now. We honor the people farthest away from us by honoring the people nearest to us.

But we don’t know that about each other unless our religious practice is to live in relationship with each other. We don’t know that unless we treat each person, each relationship, like a sacred portal to the world we are building. We don’t know that if we buy wholesale the dominant culture’s argument that problems happen to individuals who behave badly or just don’t try hard enough. We can’t see the etchings of systems of harm on each other’s bodies if we refuse to get close to each other.

“I need you to survive” begins the moment we say, “I’m gonna make this personal.”

When we say, “We go out and love the world from the heart of Pasadena,” we are saying “At Throop Unitarian Universalist Church, our religion is to make this life and this place personal.”

Personal—which is not to say “make it private.” It is to say, make it “particular.” It means that I can picture the particular face of the one I love who is most impacted by this issue because I know them and love them intimately. I can picture the dirt and soil and water of the place I live that is most impacted by this issue because I know it and love it and put my hands in it and grow my food in it.

I have moved toward what I love and imagined a future where they survive and I will fight and create for that future.

It is personal. It matters to my person. I have a stake in it. Our relatedness is not just a theory to me. It’s personal. I am close enough to my own self, and to this person, to this place, that I can see the etchings of a system on their flesh that is my flesh, and I love them, they are important to me, and I need them to survive.

So I’m gonna show up, I’m gonna give, I’m gonna be uncomfortable, I’m gonna be scared, and I’m gonna do it, because its personal.

“I need you to survive” means I take your future as our future personally.

What would it mean for us to take that to heart?

How could we each carry that knowing closer and closer with us in our bones?

“It goes on one at a time,” says Marge Piercy…

“… it starts when you care to act, it starts when you do it again after they said no, it starts when you say ‘We’ and know who you mean,  and each day you mean one more.”