These extraordinary times require extraordinary light. It will not be enough to attempt to keep everything that came before this pandemic, to expect the same thing of ourselves and others. We will need to shine brighter for one another, encourage each other, and lift each other up. We will need to tap in and tap out to keep our lights sustained for each other. We were made for these times.
Like many of you, I have taken to walking my neighborhood, once on my own first thing in the morning, and once for a family walk after dinner. If you can do this practice, which for me has become sometimes exercise, other times adventure exploring, and often a walking meditation, I recommend it- for mindfulness, mental stability, and body and earth awareness.
It was Tuesday of this week when the words appeared on the sidewalk. Written with pastel chalks, in a child’s hand, the messages, as though sent from a bottle for lonely shipwrecked islanders, wrapped around the entire block, and they began as encouragement for runners and joggers.
“You can do this!”
“Never give up!”
“Just keep going!”
I didn’t pay them much mind, at first, I thought they were merely a cute window observation of the many joggers who run these sidewalks each day. But then, as I continued walking, the messages kind of fell apart.
The scribe just began to write words, every few yards or so. Words like, “us” and “family,” eventually the word “love” and then, “together,” appeared, and I slowed down my walk, speaking each word as a mantra.
Then came another, “inspiring” then another, “friendship,” and they became watchwords for my week, holding me together, binding me to all my neighbors, then came the word, “beauty,” followed a few steps later by “life,” and then each morning on my solo walk, I found myself searching for the for the words, delighting when I found them, and they echoed in my heart throughout the day.
They were a message, from someone filled with hope and encouragement and ideas, and they had something they wanted to say to me. Little old me. The days passed, and the words became scuffed and rain clouds threatened and so I resolved to write them down, here, in a sermon. For you.
As we learn to use zoom, and we learn to use group chats and all the newest ways to communicate, we must keep the old ways too. Graffiti chalk on the sidewalk, postcards, phone calls and other messages between us and beyond us. We are not the first ones to live through a pandemic. Our ancestors, spiritual or actual, have a message for us too.
In preparation for this sermon, I decided to revisit David France’s excellent 2012 documentary film, How to Survive A Plague. Beginning in 1986, France documents the earliest work of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP.
These were the New York City-based AIDS Activists who organized successfully to improve treatment and by force of will, anger and strategy, forced enormous federal institutions such as the FDA, the NIH, and the DHHS to address their homophobic bias that had so far resulted in stagnation and indifference. ACT UP’s activism moved the needle forward, and as a result of their effort, these behemoth government agencies moved AIDS drugs to a higher priority and urgency of release.
Their relentless energy included such actions as; a massive protest resulting in hundreds arrests at New York’s’ city hall, and staged a massive kiss-in at St. Vincent’s hospital to protest gay discrimination. They traveled to Rockville to stage massive protests in front of the FDA, and rode a big gay bus to Bethesda, Maryland to attend meetings at the NIH.
They created a medications task force, reading medical journals and staying updated on all the international science in new AIDS drugs, setting up an underground dispensary for the newest medications that could only be purchased outside the United States. Most famously, they protested a mass at St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City where Mayor Ed Koch worshipped, against the cardinal whose abstinence-only messages were killing young people everywhere.
They met every Monday evening in a church basement, and at each meeting reading the names of people who needed legal assistance, or medical assistance. They cared for each other, and they united in anger to fight for the services they needed, facing a government that wasn’t willing to fight for them.
Their lives were at stake, and the lives of people they loved. They united in glorious, beautiful rage.
Do you know why I do not despair in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic? Because there was one person who went down to that church basement, who sat with these activists, who faced their anger, who listened, and who accounted for his department’s failure in leadership. That person was the current director of Infections Diseases at the National Institute of Health, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is basically the lead scientist and the adult in-charge of this crisis in our administration. He was there in that church basement, and he brings his memory of those activists’ passionate fight for their own lives into this current moment.
It’s been over 30 years since ACT UP began their silence equals death campaign, and all those bold activists, artists, lawyers, actors, PR men, scientists, mothers, doctors are speaking to us now, in 2020, as we figure out how to survive another plague. We must unite in all the ways that we can, and it won’t be in church basements, this time, but we will be connected. We will shine our lights for one another, and it will be across the miles, across the phone lines and the worldwide web.
We will unite in anger, in despair, in fear, in joy, in anxiety, in hope, in laughter, in playfulness. We will unite.
Okay, but here is how:
Even if you are a small forest surviving off of
Your light is extraordinary.
In those moments when you can find it, and light the way, your extraordinary light will be enough for someone else. No matter how dark the night becomes, someone has left a message for you, across the ages. A roadmap for how to survive.
Whatever name you give to the source of your faith, I would like to offer you another: Your relationships.
Now is the time to live in service of your relationships.
Kneel down and give thanks for your relationships.
Exalt your relationships, praise them.
Lament your relationships.
Above all, serve them. This is how we will shine our extraordinary light, however dim, across the distance. This is how we will survive a plague.
My friend Micah Bucey, a gay Christian minister in New York City, wrote a poem this week, and I’d like to read his words in closing this morning.
A prayer of Gratitude for those who have known a plague too well.
Ever since the day I embraced my gay self,
I have been prepared to die of a plague.
Little queerdo whose mother first responded to my coming out with a loud “Be careful!,”
Then realized she should follow up with a hushed “I love you.”
Ever since the day I was embraced by my community,
I have heard stories unspool,
Watched sobbing flow,
Felt sadness and fury gurgle beneath even our brightest spurts of joy.
I have memories that are not my own running through my blood.
I have history I cannot understand giving rhythm to my every breath.
I have anger against government inaction that still surprises me with its vitriolic strength.
And I have something else, thanks to my forequeers.
I have hand-me-down knowledge that is threadbare, but covered in glitter.
And I, knowing the continuing violence of religion against my scarred, sassy people, have a different kind of faith, a faith that is not the opposite of fear.
My elders took faith and fear and mixed them into a movement.
My elders acted up so that I might not die in dread, but live in love.
My elders taught me that adjustments in physical distancing need not be the end of communal connection,
That we can be safer, without spreading illusions that we are ever really safe,
That the balance between “Be safe!” and “I love you” is essential to survival,
That rage can be righteous when connected to a collective roar.
And now, I take this legacy and hold it in my beating heart (since I can barely hold anything in my cracked, scrubbed-raw hands), fearful of a plague, but buoyed by the work of those who know one too well,
Those whose voices and bodies blazed the trail that we must now all travel together.
Because we should always have memories that are not our own coursing through our blood.
We should always have history we cannot understand invading our every breath:
Smallpox massacring native peoples,
Influenza ravaging 1918, 1919, 1920,
AIDS stealing lovers, friends, progress, and time.
We should always have names and lives and deaths echoing in each elbow bump:
Larry Kramer, Cliff Morrison, Barbara Vick.
We should always rage against our government when it deflects, delays, and downright lies,
When it demonizes entire populations and calls reality a hoax.
And while we remember and breathe and bump and rage, may we offer thanks to the fighters,
Because gratitude feels so much more fierce than grumpiness,
Because action feels so much more generous than stagnation,
And because hopeful vision (dolled up in some appropriately-doomsday drag) is the least we can offer those awesomely-ornery saints who keep giving us all the tools to fight,
And fight fabulously.