Being Together is Better Than Being Apart

I’m taking a poetry workshop this summer entitled “Won’t You Come Celebrate with Me?” The angle of the class is that the greatest celebrations we can achieve will be the celebrations large enough to contain the grief of the past and the mourning of the present. I think of a funeral – in the midst of loss we celebrate a life. Or, on the other hand, the night that Obama was elected – the way our celebration was all the greater because it seemed to be not the victory but a victory over our country’s racist history. Or the way we felt in 2015 when the Supreme Court made marriage equality a guaranteed right under the constitution – the way that a painful history of violence, discrimination, legal and social separation made that highest legal decision of essential togetherness an explosion of overwhelming joy. The description of the workshop online told me that it would be guided by Lucille Clifton’s lines that it is reason enough for celebration that “everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” And I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s the kind of class I might need this this summer.”

My poetry teacher, a very wise and talented writer named Shira Erlichman told the gathered poets on the first evening of class that she prefers small-p poetry to capital-P Poetry. That line has also stuck with me. It runs parallel to my spiritual sensibilities – that our path to the capital-S Sacred is largely contained in the small-o ordinary, the profane, the everyday, the lowercase.

The mystical experience and the experience of a good poem is a transfiguration – the ordinary world, everyday life, is suddenly and temporarily transformed – the robe turns dazzling white, the angels climb up and down the ladder between upper heaven and lower earth, the crucified one rises on the third day, two people who ought not love one another make vows before God that change the course of their lives, two people who ought not embrace embrace with a heat that shimmers our reality – the veil is peeled back and we become witnesses to what is ultimately meaningful. In times of brutality and ugliness, when the bad news is heard more often than the good, it can be comforting and motivating to remember the vision, the dream, the truth that is just below the surface and greater by far than what we can see while stranded in our separate little boats.

If you believe in lowercase-p poetry, just like faeries or UFOs or the deep state, you’ll begin to notice it popping up everywhere. When one of my best friends in life, my college bestie, Hani, got engaged, he and his fiancée, Sarah, asked me to help plan and perform their wedding. When they got engaged, they had been together for years and years, but marriage was a difficult decision for them. Sarah is a white, Jewish, hardworking lawyer with an attitude. Hani is an Arab Christian immigrant dreamer (and lawyer) with an attitude. Differences could be epic, disagreements fierce, and arguments as thorough and exhausting as a capital trial. Cultural and religious differences and expectations between their two families only added to the conflict. But Hani and Sarah also had chemistry, a passion for one another, and a lotta love.

As they were preparing for their wedding, I asked them about the difficulty of their choice to marry – what finally tipped the scale for them? Hani said, “Well, basically, we realized we had reached a point where we either needed to get married or we needed to end it. And we decided that being together is better than being apart.”

For me there is not a capital-R Romantic line in all of capital-P Poetry that can compete with the bare-naked vulnerable truth of that line: Being together is better than being apart. We wove that line into their Jewish-Christian wedding ceremony. It was a powerful celebration. There were so many people who were rooting for Hani and Sarah. And that line, being together is better than being apart, was a beautiful way to allow the difficulty and the troubles of their past into that joyful moment of commitment. And we were able to celebrate more because of it – their wedding day was the victory of together over apart.

We are living in a world and in a time where it seems more sharply than ever that togetherness is under attack and apart is dominating our discourse and our future. The news of parents and children being separated at the southern border highlighted the inhumanity of our immigration system and was a particularly cruel example of the ways in which ICE continues to separate families, which it has always done, through deportation and detention.

Trump’s travel ban has just been upheld by the Supreme Court – an explicitly discriminatory ban against Muslims dressed up and nuanced just enough to give five justices an excuse to believe it’s a rational policy based on national security needs. For thousands of immigrant families from places like Syria and Yemen who were hoping to bring their loved ones to visit or live with them – they will be apart. And thousands more refugees will be turned away, just like at our southern border.

And then the news that Justice Kennedy will be retiring from the Supreme Court. Kennedy’s greatest legacy will likely be writing the decision on marriage equality in 2015 – one of the most significant decisions in US history – and one which was all about upholding together over apart. And with a conservative Trump nominee coming in to replace him, the balance of power in the court will shift, and we see Roe v. Wade, and affirmative action, and LGBTQ rights, and workers’ rights, and who knows what else on the judicial chopping block.

There is reason for concern. But more than that, there is reason to resist. The world needs us. It needs a church like Broadway UCC – a place where being together is always better than being apart, a community dedicated to creating a safe place to live and join with one another in all the beautiful ways that people can join together across hateful boundaries that God did not draw.

And, of course, if we want to be a church that can bring New York City together, we need to figure out the best ways for those of us who are here now to come together, and then we need to figure out who else needs to be invited.

I have occasionally heard our congregation talking about how our Upper West Side neighbors are demographically very Jewish and demographically very wealthy. This is a true fact upheld by the official census data. But when someone asks Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells a story about not forgetting to check the ditch on the side of a wilderness road because even just passing along that way makes the one abandoned in the ditch your neighbor. And I wonder about all the people hidden in plain sight in our neighborhood who might need our church and need our ministry: the service industry workers who fill the restaurants and stores that serve us on every block, the domestic workers and nannies who fill the apartment buildings all around us, the homeless LGBTQ youth who live in a nearby shelter, the hundreds of families who utilize the food programs located in our neighborhood churches.

And there’s good news. We’re beginning to do this work. One of our mini-families recently went to see a movie together. Coming together is being the church. And being the church with those here right now is the first step to being the church for all those not yet here.

And one of our newest board members and drag-queen-in-residence, Scott Laubner, decided that our church should invite our neighbor UCC church from downstairs, Rivers of Living Water, to join us in last week’s Pride March. He didn’t do it because the pastor told him to. He did it because he knows deep in his gay-Christian heart that being together is better than being apart. There were eight of us in the Broadway crew if you count Dave’s dog, Gia (and you have to count her because she got more attention than any of the rest of us), and there were about the same number of folks in Rivers’ crew. But as we marched very slowly past the Stonewall Inn decked out in our rainbow colors and Pride swag you couldn’t tell one church from the other. We were together. And it was great.

John and Frankin’s wedding in 2014 was the first same-sex ceremony I had the privilege of officiating. And one of their scripture readings was basically the same reading we heard this evening narrating the highlights of the relationship between David and Jonathan. Now there’s been a lot of debate about whether or not David and Jonathan’s relationship was sexual – were they lovers or just two friends who made vows to one another as serious as marriage vows – a ritual that seems to have included disrobing and holding one another while they wept? Well, my mind’s probably made up, but there’s room for interpretation, I suppose.

In a Romeo-and-Juliette-style twist Jonathan was the son of Saul who was trying to kill David. Any way you cut it, their love was forbidden, taboo. Whether their love was erotic or platonic or a little of both, they decided that despite all the risks and no matter the consequences – even unto death – that it was better for them to be together than to be apart – a choice that no matter how it manifested itself was a subversive choice, a celebration of love, and a little queer. Should men – gay or straight – love one another so much, be so close and so intimate? We marched our answer to that question in the streets at Pride last Sunday. And we have many more miles to march, beloved. The fight ain’t even close to being over.

We feel the power of coming together against expectation and custom, of the beauty of the subverted division that holds people apart, in Ross Gay’s Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street. We read this poem together in my poetry workshop and half the class read it as two straight Hell’s Angels embracing one another and half the class read it as two gay Hell’s Angels embracing one another. It can be read both ways because, ultimately, this one is not about being gay or straight. It’s about how queer it is for two men in our world to decide to be together rather than apart. It’s a subversion of expectation so great it goes full mystical. Something as simple and as ordinary as two people embracing – coming together – blew the top off Gay’s small-p-poetry-seeking brain: He lost control of the vehicle; his father’s death flashes before his eyes; the hummingbirds of the gods burst into fiery existence all around; time moves as if it’s dripping with nectar; the world is transfigured and for a moment the denim jackets are peeled back and love, and peace, and justice are revealed.

Beloved, if we want to get to the Mystical center of things – to have a vision worth living for – and if we want to make a better, more just, less violent, more love-filled world, we need to ask ourselves, who are we together with? Who are our friends and lovers? Who have we made vows and promises to? And then we need to ask ourselves, who are we apart from? Who do we need to search for? Who do we need to invite? Whose problems, and histories, and struggles are we willing to share? Who are we willing to risk the vulnerability of a world-changing embrace with?

Beloved, imagine the celebration we will have when we truly learn how to be together. Amen.