If you told a caterpillar that one day it would become a butterfly, would the caterpillar believe you? How is it possible that a worm with short stubby feet that munches on plants can transform into a creature with huge, elegant wings, long, slender legs, and a straw-like tongue that sips from flowers? Surely such transformation is impossible. But it’s not.
How does the caterpillar know to form a chrysalis? Does it know what will happen to it when it does? Does it have any idea that its body will literally break down into a kind of genetic goop, that its tissues and very cells will disintegrate, that it will digest itself before being reborn in a completely new form? Is it terrified? Is it eager? Is it answering a call that only it can hear? The idea that any creature would willingly undergo such a destruction of itself seems impossible. But it’s not.
Right now, millions of monarch butterflies are wintering in the mountains of southwestern Mexico, after traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles from all over North America to get there. Monarchs of North America are the only butterflies that make a yearly migration. It might seem improbable that an insect that weighs less than a gram could travel thousands of miles to get to its winter home, but what truly seems outside the realm of possibility is the fact that the butterflies that took as long as two months to get to the Mexican state of Michoacán are the great-grandchildren of the monarchs that made the journey last year.
The average monarch butterfly lives only about five weeks. But every four generations or so, something impossible happens—a generation that can live for eight months. The butterflies of this generation were made to migrate. They follow the path of their great-grandparents, stopping in the very same trees along the way to Mexico that their ancestors did the previous year. And before long, their children will begin the journey back north. But they won’t make it to Indiana. You see, the northern migration takes several generations to complete.
How is it possible that, having never met its parents, much less its great-grandparents, a butterfly knows where to go, and exactly which trees to rest in along the way? Surely such a phenomenon is impossible. But it’s not.
So much of our lives and our worlds are limited by what is imaginable, by what we believe about what’s real and solid and true and possible based on our surroundings and our circumstances. Can the caterpillar believe, based only on the reality of its present circumstances, that it will grow up to be a butterfly? Never. It’s not about belief, it’s about faith. It’s not about what’s real, it’s about what we can imagine. And it’s not about what other people tell us we can do or be, it’s about the call we feel deep inside ourselves. The knowledge of who we are, what we are meant to do, and who we are meant to become.
When a caterpillar breaks down inside its chrysalis, there are highly organized groups of cells that survive the destruction. These groups of cells first form when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, and then they wait, dormant, until it’s time for the caterpillar to become a butterfly. Then they direct the process of transformation—each tiny cluster of cells is in charge of a different body part: eyes, legs, wings, and so forth. These all-important groups of cells are called imaginal discs.
Imaginal discs! These cells carry the imagination of flight, of wings, of a new form and a new world. Something deep within, held in just a couple of cells, knows—and directs—the caterpillar’s destiny.
Trans people know a thing or two about faith and transformation and imagination. When I was a child, I was told that I was a girl, and that all people are either girls or boys. But something in me, deep in my cells or perhaps in my soul, knew that this wasn’t true. And thanks to generations of people who refused to believe what they were told about gender, I was able to imagine, and articulate, my truth. That some people who are told that they are girls grow up to be men, that some people aren’t girls or boys, that gender isn’t a set of boxes but rather a galaxy of possibilities. We are told that these things are impossible. But they’re not.
There is a stand of trees a short walk from my childhood home, in the midst of the largest wild open area in urban Milwaukee County. Every year in September, the monarch butterflies arrive at this same stand of trees. And every year, a small but dedicated group of butterfly lovers, including my dad, treks out to welcome them and rejoice in their brief visit on their journey south.
But fifteen years ago, this stop on the monarchs’ migratory path was threatened by development. The butterflies’ stand of trees and the habitat around it were in danger of being razed, and as the surrounding area was developed, the monarch numbers began to fall.
Similar threats across the continent, as well as climate change, have brought the species to a crisis point. In the groves of trees in Michoacán where the monarchs spend their winters, there were once so many butterflies that the sound of their wings was described as being like a rippling stream or a summer rain. But illegal logging has increasingly endangered the butterflies and their winter home. In 2017 their numbers had fallen by 27% from the previous year and more than 80% from the mid-’90s. And 2020’s count showed an even worse decrease of 53% from the previous year, reaching a point that scientists say could cause the collapse of the migration.
The monarchs can’t continue their impossible journey alone. In Milwaukee, my dad and other advocates came together to fight for the butterflies, and succeeded in preserving twenty-three acres of land as a protected butterfly habitat zone. After years of habitat restoration, the past few years’ monarch migrations through Milwaukee have been the largest ones in decades.
We can’t just wait for the impossible to seem possible before we believe in it and work toward it. We have to imagine the impossible and join together and work to make it possible. As a non-binary person, I might have been able to come into an authentic understanding of who I am, and survive. But without other people around me who saw me as I truly am, believed in me, and supported me—and continue to do so—I never would have been able to thrive.
Do you believe in butterflies, even though everything about them seems impossible? Then you can believe in non-binary people, even if you don’t understand what it’s like to not be a woman or a man. It’s not about belief, it’s about faith. It’s about letting go of what you’ve been taught is real, and having faith that what is currently beyond your ability to understand or imagine, is possible. Because it’s only impossible until it’s not.
Educator, writer, scholar, and spoken word artist Walidah Imarisha has said that all organizing is science fiction. Organizers and activists dedicate their lives to envisioning and creating another world—a world none of us has seen, a world that the current reality of our circumstances says shouldn’t be possible. But we have faith that a different reality is possible despite all evidence to the contrary. We have to imagine the seemingly impossible—not only for ourselves individually but for us all—a world free from oppression and exploitation, a world free from war, a world where all people have a safe home and enough to eat, a world where all life is honored. Can we imagine a world with no prisons, no police, no borders, no weapons of war? We need to. It’s impossible until it’s not.
Once the imagination is unshackled, says Walidah Imarisha, liberation is limitless. But oh, how hard it is to free our imagination from the constraints of what we’ve been told about what’s real and what’s possible.
Given the current state of politics in this country, it is so hard to imagine a reality in which the United States is not ruled by two warring, ideologically divided political parties. Perhaps we can imagine abolishing the electoral college so that all votes matter equally, perhaps we can imagine establishing campaign finance limits so that candidates can’t be bought, can’t spend billions of dollars in a single election simply on achieving office—perhaps we can imagine what else we could do with billions of dollars.
But can we imagine a reality in which, instead of two behemoth parties, the United States has eight political parties represented in its national legislature, like Iceland does? How about a reality in which the original Indigenous nations of this land have true sovereignty and equitable representation and decision-making power? How about a reality in which the United States as we currently know it no longer exists? Can we imagine these realities? We need to. It’s impossible until it’s not.
Two years ago, would you have believed that it was possible to abandon your church building and have worship services online instead? We are living in impossible times in so many ways. And there is grief, and there is so much loss, but there is also possibility. If you are longing for a return to normalcy, a return to the way things were before, that makes so much sense. But as artist Kate Deciccio said at the beginning of the pandemic, “if we get this right, we’ll never go back to normal.” Because what’s normal, possible, and real is what led us to this place. This place of rampant inequality, climate catastrophe, needless suffering and death, and a deeply divided nation.
I want to pose to you today that the work of imagining the impossible and then working to bring it to life is a spiritual practice, and it’s the most important spiritual practice of our lives. Supporting each other in making the impossible possible is the only way we will survive—as individuals, as a people, as a species.
And it starts right here. It starts right now. It starts every time we have faith in an impossibility and work to make it real—whether it’s a 4,000-mile flight of a butterfly, a non-binary person like me, a liberatory political structure, or a world without violence.
It starts when we embrace the challenge of imagining the best that this church community could be, the biggest, most impossible ways we could live into our values, and then work together to make those impossibilities come to life. This period of disruption of everything that felt “normal” or “that’s just the way things are” about this congregation is a moment when we can ask: who could be we if we never went back to normal? What could this church community do if we weren’t constrained by what we thought was possible? What if we are currently caterpillars? What transformation are we being invited into?
I need to tell you that as I see it, this religion of ours is at a crucial turning point—as is our society, our country, our world. We have a choice to make. Will we take a leap of faith, will we transform, will we willingly undergo a destruction of all that we know in order to be reborn in a new form? Or will we stick with what feels most familiar, most normal, most possible.
For decades, Unitarian Universalism has attracted, and raised, thousands and thousands of queer and trans people, people of color, disabled people, neurodivergent people, Spanish speakers, undocumented people, poor and low-income people. Who would we be if all of these people had stayed, instead of the vast majority of us leaving disappointed, or feeling pushed out, with the sense that this couldn’t be our spiritual home? What would this faith look like, be like, act like if all of us had stayed?
I am so grateful that I was raised in this religion. But despite being a UU for thirty years, and visiting dozens of UU churches, I have never found a UU congregation that truly felt like home to me. The sort of UUism I was raised to believe in and practice, the sort of UU church I need, is multiracial, and multilingual, and multigenerational, and multi-theological. It is full of queer and trans people, and gospel music and pop songs, and all kinds of ancestral wisdom and magic and saints. I need a UU church where children run up and down the aisles, shrieking with laughter, during worship services. Where service means community care, not charity. Where no one is forgotten or left behind because they don’t have any money, or don’t have a ride, or don’t have a home, or can’t climb stairs, or can’t hear or see, or are in recovery, or are isolated for any number of other reasons. Where every. single. person feels a deep sense of belonging and the knowledge that here you are cared for, here you are held in love, here you are safe.
Can you imagine it? Seriously. Close your eyes. Imagine what this church could be.
That’s the church I need. And you know what? I know I’m not the only one here who needs it. I know I’m not the only one here who is longing for this church, and for Unitarian Universalism, to transform. To grow and evolve into the best of what we can be.
Does it seem impossible? Don’t forget, the magic of the butterfly was buried deep inside the caterpillar, long before it entered the chrysalis. Remember those imaginal discs? The essence was there all along, since before the caterpillar was born, it just had to allow what was inside to direct it beyond the limits of what seemed possible.
The imaginal discs of who and what this church community can be, of who you are meant to become, are already within you. You see, I wouldn’t be urging you forward if I didn’t know you already have what you need to succeed. Resistance to moving beyond what’s comfortable and normal comes from not believing that, together, we already have everything we need to be transformed. But it’s not about belief, it’s about faith. It’s about allowing ourselves to imagine the impossible, have faith that it is in fact possible, and know that trying is worth the risks.
So my charge to you today, my dear friends, is to imagine. To resist the temptation to return to normalcy and to seize every opportunity to be reborn into something seemingly impossible.
Because, my friends, we must hold the seemingly impossible not only as possible, but as sacred. Walidah Imarisha asked: “Are we brave enough to imagine beyond the boundaries of ‘the real’ and then do the hard work of sculpting reality from our dreams?” For me, the answer is clear.
Political activist and author Arundhati Roy once wrote: “Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.”
May we all work to sculpt reality from our dreams, and support each other in doing so, and, together, bring another, better world into being. May we all have faith in the impossible. Because it’s only impossible until it’s not.
Amen, ashe, aho, and blessed be.
Notes: A version of this sermon was originally delivered on November 1, 2020, at the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty, Clarklake, Michigan, on the occasion of the ordination of Rev. Dan Miyake.
The title of the sermon comes from the beautiful song “Impossible Until It’s Not” by Carrie Newcomer. Wisdom from Walidah Imarisha comes from the introduction to the book Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. The quote by Arundhati Roy comes from her book War Talk.