The Impossible Will Take a Little While*

A sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Rosa, March 12, 2017

Listen to it here.


There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
two results.
Love and fear.
Love and fear.
Michael Leunig

I was asked to speak to you today about our sixth principle. For those of you who may be visiting a Unitarian Universalist space for the first time, one of the things to know about us is that we covenant to affirm and promote seven principles.  Today we’re just going to focus on number six.

So all I have to talk about is this:

The goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Seriously? World community, with peace, liberty and justice for all?

Lately when I read those words, I think of a song I sing with my favorite 3 ½ year old boy:

“Once there was a silly old ant
thought he’d move a rubber tree plant
everyone knows an ant can’t
move a rubber tree plant

but he had high hopes
he had high hopes
he had high apple pie
in the sky hopes…”1

Does it seem to you that the goal of world community, with peace and liberty and justice for all, is just pie in the sky? An impossible dream? When you consider the whole bloody history of humankind, all the horrific things going on the world right now, including in our own nation, does any part of that goal seem likely to be accomplished? Are people for whom it is a core theological statement nothing but a bunch of naïve simpletons?

Well, to go back to that song…it doesn’t stop with the high apple pie in the sky hopes. It goes on:

“…so any time you’re feeling bad
feeling kind of sad
just remember that ant—
oops there goes another rubber tree
oops there goes another rubber tree
oops there goes another rubber tree plant.”

In the song, everyone may know an ant can’t move a rubber tree plant, but the ANT doesn’t know it. Or if it does know, it tries anyway. And oops, there goes another rubber tree plant. The ant accomplishes the impossible.

Okay, enough with the ant and the rubber tree plant! That’s just a silly song, right? And the message is just as foolish and naïve as the idea of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. The ant does something impossible. Which, by definition, means it can’t be done, so just give it a rest.

But wait…have you ever watched an ant carry something several times the size and weight of its own body? Have you ever watched a bumblebee fly, those tiny wings supporting that enormous body? I’ve read that the laws of physics would predict these things to be impossible, but they do happen, every day. And then when you get a whole group of ants together, watch out. I’m guessing the ant in the song was not acting alone. A whole colony of ants would have no difficulty in moving a rubber tree plant. Ants, like bees, and also like humans, are obligatory social animals. Alone, even if we are really strong for our size, we may feel small and powerless in the face of great obstacles. But in groups, bound by common purpose, we are exceedingly powerful.

There is a line in a Billie Holiday song that goes: “The difficult I’ll do right now, the impossible will take a little while.”2

What can that mean to us as religious people facing the greatest crisis in the history of the world? By that, of course, I refer to the interwoven catastrophes of climate change, mass extinction, war, and the rising tide of fascism threatening to trample human rights into the dust.

To begin, let’s go back to the reading I just shared with you. About love and fear. And let’s think about the stories we’ve heard this morning in its light.

Jennifer’s story is one of love, of what it looks like to live one’s ordinary life from a place of love. She could have been fearful of her Latinx neighbors and of the quality of public education, and taken her kids to a private school. Instead, she has chosen to love her neighbors—her actual neighbors, not hypothetical ones—and keep her children at the neighborhood school. She has formed genuine community with people different from her, and she can’t help but be involved in their concerns. She is not just dreaming of a better world but actually building it. She is, in Mahatma Gandhi’s words, being the change she wishes to see in the world.

The story of Kunkush is another story of love. The love of a mother for her children. The love of human beings for other kinds of beings. Also a wider kind of love in which people from all around the world act together to help others whom they’ve never even met. Clearly, world community is not only POSSIBLE, but it already exists, because people are capable of acting from love rather than fear.

“Love,” says Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “is the most universal, the most tremendous and most mysterious of the cosmic forces…it is huge, ubiquitous and always unsubdued…Love is a wild force, a sacred reserve of energy like the blood of spiritual evolution.”3

Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”4

Gandhi said: “If one person can achieve the highest kind of love, it will be sufficient to neutralize the hate of millions.”5

Unitarian Universalist theology passionately affirms these views of love and its power to overcome the fear that causes hate. American Unitarianism and Universalism arose in response to orthodox Calvinist doctrines of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Calvinism claimed that human beings were “totally depraved,” with no free will and no ability to make choices that would bring good into the world. God had elected from the beginning of time which humans would be saved and which would be damned to suffer in a fiery hell for all eternity. Jesus was crucified and died in order to pay the penalty for the sins of the elect. The way to know whether a person was one of the elect, who would be saved and resurrected, was to read the “signs.” One of these signs had to do with how much material wealth a person had; prosperity was therefore a sign of election.6

Universalist preachers John Murray and Hosea Ballou could not accept this concept of God. For them, God was a good and loving father, whose abundant love showered upon everyone equally. This God would no more condemn any of his creatures to an eternal fiery hell than a loving parent would place a child in an earthly fire. What was more, a God who would require a beloved son to die a cruel and tortured death as atonement for the sins of the rest of humanity was not fit to worship.

Ballou, along with Unitarians William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker, believed that people model their own behavior on what they imagine God to be. So the concept of the angry, vengeful God who redeems humanity through violence, and divides people into the saved and the damned, is dangerous. This theology causes people to live from fear. It divides people into the worthy and the worthless, and it sanctifies violence against those deemed to be worthless.

Ballou argued that God’s purpose was to “happify” people, sending Jesus to teach us by example how to live. If we lived in accordance with God’s purpose—to love God and God’s creation and one another—we would be happy.  If we did not—if we lived, instead, separated from God and cruel to each other—we would be unhappy.  We ourselves created our own heaven and hell here on earth.7

Present-day Unitarian Universalism still reverberates with these ideas. While some of us believe in a personal deity and some do not, we all affirm seven principles that are underpinned by these theological notions: an abundance of love, equally available to every person, the importance of caring for this beautiful world here and now, the necessity of meeting all with love and not fear.

I have been speaking of love and fear as Michael Leunig does, as polar opposites, each resulting in a different way of being. But really, they’re all bound up together, aren’t they? If you have ever had a child, you know what I mean in a very visceral way. There is that powerful, intense love for that precious little being, the flip side of which is deep fear that something will happen to it. You may feel similarly about any of your loved ones, human or otherwise. Many of us have the same feelings about our wondrous blue planet. We are terrified right now because all we love is in grave danger. It is our love that gives rise to our fear.

Sometimes fear can galvanize us into action. Other times, fear prevents us from taking action because we are afraid of the consequences. Either way, fear is not a good long-term companion. Contemporary neuroscience shows that Hosea Ballou was right: living in fear is bad for us, both for our personal health and the health of society. When we’re afraid, we don’t have access to our cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that enables us to think clearly. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are racing around in our body, and while we can survive that once in a while, if we stew in stress hormones, they shred all of our cells, including our brain cells. We become less and less intelligent, more and more prone to reacting without thinking. We have less capacity for empathy, which means our capacity for social cooperation is reduced. So the whole world becomes more and more frightening and dangerous, which in turn damages the brain more. It’s a positive feedback cycle.8

So while fear might give us the kick in the pants we need to wake us up, if it does, we need to thank it, and release it, and then draw upon the love underneath the fear for our long-term fuel.

Because love is where the real power is. If we are afraid of what will happen to us if we act, we give others power over us. But when we act from love, when we act joyfully and together with others, in love, our fear falls away, and we take our power back. And we can accomplish what seems impossible. Sí, se puede.

What do I mean by saying love is power? How does love go from being a feeling to being a force that makes real change in the real world? Through active nonviolent resistance. Nonviolence is both a philosophy and a practical strategy that is rooted in love. Powered by love. People who don’t know much about nonviolence dismiss it as weak and ineffective. Or they say it can only work in situations in which all parties place the same value on human life. I’ve often heard good friends of mine say it would be impossible to use nonviolence successfully against a regime as brutal and evil as Hitler’s.

Impossible? In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep saying that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”9

In fact, nonviolent movements have succeeded in dismantling oppression of all kinds in every part of the world. Through nonviolent resistance, India freed itself from the British Empire. African Americans won equal civil rights. Mexican-American farm laborers won the right to be treated like human beings. Black South Africans and their allies faced down apartheid. Nonviolent movements brought down Milosevic in Serbia and freed Poland from the USSR. In Argentina, the Mothers of the Disappeared demonstrated nonviolently for twenty years, and finally fractured the military regime. The tiny republic of Estonia took up singing instead of arms and won its freedom from the Soviets.10

And what of the example of Hitler? The one regime people believe could not be touched by nonviolent resistance?

Consider this: In Berlin, in 1943, the Nazis began rounding up all Jewish men remaining in the city. The men were still there because they were married to German women who were not Jewish. But now they were being held at Rosenstrasse before being shipped to camps. Their wives and children began gathering and demanding their release, and over the next few days the crowd grew and grew. Soldiers fired warning shots and the crowd dispersed, but the next day the women and children were back, with other citizens who were not married to Jews. Rather than lose control of more than just this situation, the Nazis returned the men, and later released all intermarried Jewish men from all the camps, all over Europe.11

Even Hitler’s regime was vulnerable to the power of love.

The difficult I’ll do right now, the impossible will take a little while. It may be that world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all is an impossible dream, so far out in the future that none of us here will ever see it—if humans make it that far. Nevertheless, we must persist. As religious people who believe in the power of love, we must continue to hold the dream, because anything we do in its service brings it that much closer to fruition. We can’t know what the effects of our actions will be. In times of great social change, often nothing seems to happen for a very long time, and then everything suddenly changes all at once.

It’s kind of like childbirth. There’s a lot of work for a very long time, and it hurts like hell, and then suddenly a whole new being lands in our arms!

The great civil rights lawyer and filmmaker Valarie Kaur asks:

“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?”12

And she says:

“In labor, we don’t breathe just once and push the rest of the way. We breathe, and push. And breathe. And push. And we do this holding the hand of someone we love. So find your sister or brother or partner or friend today — and be one another’s midwives. We can only do this together. Breathe, and push.”13

May it be so. Amen.


*Title borrowed both from the Billie Holiday song (see below) and from the marvelous book, The Impossible Will Take A Little While:  A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, by Paul Rogat Loeb.  Basic Books, New York, 2004.

1This version of High Hopes by Mary Miche on Animal Crackers.
2Crazy He Calls Me.  1949.  Music: Carl Sigman.  Lyrics:  Bob Russell.
3Meynard, Thierry (ed.) Teilhard and the Future of Humanity, Fordham University Press, New York, 2006.
4Washington, James M. (ed.) A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Harper & Row, New York, 1986.
5Gandhi, Mohandas.  “It is possible to live in peace.”  Reading #577 in Singing the Living Tradition, Unitarian Universalist Association, Boston, 1994.
6Parker, Rebecca.  Lecture in “Unitarian Universalist Theologies:  Modernity and Postmodernity,”  ST 4019 at Starr King School for the Ministry, Berkeley, California, February 25, 2009.
7Ballou, Hosea.  A Treatise on Atonement.  Originally published 1805.  Edited and introduced by Ernest Cassara, Skinner House Books, Boston,1986.
8One good book on this is How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman.  Ballantine Books, New York, NY.  2009.  It’s really about how spiritual practice changes the brain, and useful for learning ways of releasing fear.
9The Princess Bride.  Also a book by William Goldman, but the film is much more fun.
10Ackerman, Peter and Jack Duvall.  A Force More Powerful:  A Century of Nonviolent Conflict.  Palgrave, New York, NY. 2000.  11Ibid, pp.236-238.