as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, December 12, 2021
This is my second sermon on the theme of reimagining possibilities. Last week, at the end of my first sermon on the series, I invited you to attend to the world and share with me something beautifully unanticipated that you encountered: an exquisite movement, an inspiring sound, or a wondrous object. Several of you did, writing of: “Nighttime walk… dazzling colorful outdoor lights, connecting from… tree to tree, enveloping the whole block. A magical feast… A stone remembered, found it when I was younger, so smooth, so warm to the touch, realizing that the stone was alive with energy… a bridge across Brays Bayou… [with] a royal blue pipe… [is] unexpected and attractive… A spider… somehow made a strand of silk from a squash on our table to the pepper grinder. [Perfectly] parallel to the floor. [How can] a spider… do that?”
How can a spider do that? The purpose of the exercise was simple. I hoped that by inviting you to pay attention and look at, hear, feel, the world a little differently you might experience the possibilities within it more intensely. Take the spider and her silk… They have inspired a host of inventions: high-tech surgical tape, body armor, walking robots, fabrics, playground equipment, artist’s pavilions… Or city lights, those inspirations for poets, photographers, and painters, almost infinitely interpreted: a lamp caught through a window, refracted by rain; clean lines on canvas, bold colors, an attempt to capture something of the urban grid; these words from Anne Waldman, “aria for the dancing light & shadow / light & shadow upon the dancing globe / light & shadow on the child’s arms / in a park under trees & towers.”
Beauty, possibility, the creation of art, seeds for human invention all around… The unofficial theme poem of my short sermon series comes from Diane di Prima. Her work “Rant” is too long, and maybe bawdy, for a Sunday morning service. But, even fragmented, it contains much wisdom:
the war that matters is the war against the imagination
all other wars are subsumed in it.
… There is no way out of the spiritual battle
… There is no way you can not have a poetics
no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher
… every man / every woman [/ every person] carries a firmament inside
& the stars in it are not the stars in the sky
The stars in it are not the stars in the sky. We humans are born with unknown possibilities embedded within us. Each of our lives will contain creative acts, large and small, blessed with the power to alter the world. Each of us will imagine new things into being–perhaps inspired by the beauty of the world, perhaps inspired by empathy, perhaps inspired by the pursuit of justice…
Imagination, the Protestant preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, is “the human ability to form a mental image of something not present to the senses.” When we cultivate our imagination, we can begin the process of creating things and ways of being that do not yet exist. Expanding the sense of the possible, opening new paths for the imagination, this is one of the purposes of our religious communion. We gather each week, after all, not to just celebrate what is but also to speak of what should be.
The prophets have always done thus. We can turn to the Hebrew Bible and find words from Micah prophesying about “the days to come:”
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not take up
Sword against nation;
They shall never again know war;
Buy every man shall sit
Under his grapevine or fig tree
With no one to disturb him.
We can look to the middle of the last century and find James Baldwin telling us:
… we … have a responsibility, not only to ourselves and to our own time, but to those who are coming after us. (I refuse to believe that no one is coming after us.) And I suppose that this responsibility can only be discharged by dealing as truthfully as we know how with our present fortunes, these present days…. and it cannot be too often repeated in this country now, that, where there is no vision, the people perish.
These present days, where there is no vision, the people perish. We can listen in these days and hear the words of the Rev. William Barber II and the Poor People’s Campaign reminding us:
we can afford to ensure universal health care, living wages, fully funded public education, affordable housing, and a robust program to address the climate crisis…. We’re demanding the reconstruction of everything.
The reconstruction of everything… What does it mean, in these days, to reimagine what is possible? In our own lives? In our religious community? In our city? In this country? In this world? Or even, in our solar system?
The poet Tracy K. Smith encourages us to imagine that far. She invites us to imagine “The Universe is a House Party.” Not an unfriendly place but a space for celebration, a place blessed with possibilities, a place where we discover we are not alone but rather surrounded by unexpected friends. Do you know what she’s talking about?
I can testify to something of the possibility of which she writes, for certainly, in my years, I have wandered into jazz clubs and dancehalls across the continent, and over the ocean, where, sometimes speaking the language, and sometimes not, I have encountered magic moments of possibility where, united by music or dance or poetry or art or just good food, the limits of the world seem to drop away and someone opens their heart, offers friendship, hospitality, unexpected gifts.
Gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere.
Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.
Of course, it’s ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.
The words have a different valence, a different meaning, when they come from one of the preeminent living Black poets than when they come from me. Smith’s assertion, “If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours,” is freighted with the possibility that the Earth could be, is, a common treasury, a source of rich beauty and joy, not just for the privileged, the powerful, but for all.
It is like how the weight of Malcolm X’s words, “I believe in human rights for everyone,” carry the full force of a fundamental reimagining what is possible for humanity. Embedded with in them is the power to end white supremacy. A simple statement, “I believe in human rights for everyone,” they are an invitation to awaken a new order of things, one in which the dignity of all humans is celebrated, one in which what is wrong has been set right and there are not different orders of justice, different classes of citizenship, for people of different races.
“I believe in human rights for everyone,” spoken by me it is probably an anodyne phrase–presenting little challenge to the established order. Offered by the man Ossie Davis named a “black shining Prince,” they demand a reimagining of the possible, an upending of what is and its replacement by what should be.
Reimagining the possible, my invitation to reimagine the beautiful and my reminder that we are called to speak of the world as it should be are, in truth, invitations into faith. Faith is sometimes described as trust in the power of things unseen. I am offering you a slightly contrasting definition. Rather than trust in things unseen, I am suggesting we trust in things little seen, or not noticed as they should be. The beauty of the Earth can unfold for us if we ready ourselves for it. Hope for justice is available in the ideas and actions of all who have come before, and who are now living, who have struggled to make the city, the country, and the planet better for those who will come after.
Our sense of the possible is opened up when we look outside the confines of our own cultures. As someone who was raised a Unitarian Universalist, and whose family background is Jewish and Protestant, I have found myself inspired by the ways in which sayings and fables collected by Muslims prompt me to reimagine Jesus.
Jesus is revered as a prophet in Islam. He makes many appearances in the Koran. The text even offers a miraculous account of his birth narrative. He is so important a figure in the Islamic tradition that the scholar Tarif Khalidi has assembled more than three hundred texts about him from Arabic Muslim literature.
In many of these texts, we find Jesus challenging us to reimagine what is possible and calling us to be open to where we might encounter the divine–which might be another way of saying where we might find the beautiful. In the story we shared with you earlier, Jesus castigates one of his disciples for having insufficient faith, which appears to mean insufficient imagination, and failing to walk on water. “Stretch forth your hand, you man of little faith. If the son of Adam had a grain or atom’s weight of faith, he would walk upon water,” Jesus tells his follower. The implication is clear. If the disciple could but imagine the possibility of walking on water, which is to say reimagine what is possible, then the impossible would be rendered the actual. Like Jesus, the text suggests, the disciple would be able to walk on water.
In another text, we find Jesus in debate with Satan. The prophet asks the Devil, “what is it that truly breaks your back?” To which the evil one replies, “The neighing of horses in the cause of God.” Within the animal sounds, the text suggests, can be found referents, moments of beauty, that bespeak of the divine. Why? The text does not tell us. Perhaps it because, like the stone, the lights, or the spider, you shared with me, the world is imbued with the sacred. And the Devil is most upset when we recall this.
… every man / every woman [/ every person] carries a firmament inside
& the stars in it are not the stars in the sky
I have told you these things as encouragement to reimagine what is possible. The world is a hard place for so many of us right now. The pandemic, political instability, the ongoing resurgence of white supremacy, the climate crisis, rising inflation, the horrible storm that devastated Kentucky, the assaults on reproductive freedom, democracy, and transgender rights here in Texas, the list goes on and on. At such a time, we are called, as a religious community, to offer the testimony that things can be different than are. Does not the prophet Isaiah speak of the possibility of world where he might be:
… a herald of joy to the humble,
to bind up the wounded of heart,
To proclaim release of the captives,
Liberation to the imprisoned?
Is offering a similar testimony, in these days, not one of the tasks of our community?
I have told you these things as part of an invitation, and a celebration, and a response to the fourth principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. It calls for us to commit to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” In lifting up the reimagining of possibilities, the possible beauty and the possible justice, of the world, I have been suggesting that such a search begins not by considering exactly what is but rather what might be. It was, after all, Albert Einstein, that great scientific discoverer, who said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
How might you imagine the world differently if you see the glory in a spider’s silk or hear the words of the prophets or uncover that “The Universe is a House Party” or listen to the stories of the Muslim Jesus?
At the beginning of the sermon, I offered you the claim that each person has their own poetics, their own way of imagining the world. Well, here is a little of mine: each of us contains within something of the universe’s infinite possibilities. We are each born with the potential to bring more beauty, more joy, more justice, and more love into the world. One of the purpose of our religious communion is to aid each other in unleashing that potential and expanding the possibilities for nurturing the human spark inherent within each of us.
Or, as William Ellery Channing told us, “I am a living member of the great family of All Souls.” Would you like to say it with me, “I am a living member of the great family of All Souls.”
May each of us remember that and, in our recollection, open ourselves to the creativity and ability to birth the possible within each us.
Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be.