Finding Joy in the Impossible


A sermon on Matthew 9:35-10:23; Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Romans 5:1-8

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here; photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash]

In Lewis Carol’s fanciful world of Wonderland the White Queen boasts to Alice that she can believe “six impossible things before breakfast.” The pronouncement comes in response to Alice’s claim that she cannot believe things that are impossible, to which the Queen replies that she simply needs practice. The queen herself used to practice believing impossible things for 30 minutes a day, which resulted in her impressive early-morning credulity.

What the White Queen does NOT explain is why it is valuable to practice believing impossible things. From a rationalist point of view, it’s a horrible skill to practice! Why would we want to deliberately undermine our own reason? Why would we cultivate a habit of rejecting the evidence of our own senses and logic? Maybe that makes sense in Wonderland, but not in the real world…

But in each of our readings today, we are confronted with the invitation to believe impossible things.

In the reading from Genesis, Abraham and Sarah are asked to believe that Sarah will bear a child, despite their advanced age and her barrenness. Sarah finds the promise so unbelievable that she laughs!

In the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he tells us that suffering actually leads to hope that does not disappoint – flying in the face of every person who has ever prayed for a healing that did not come.

And in the gospel, the call to impossible faith is even more staggering: Jesus instructs his followers to go out as workers of impossible miracles, with “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” But then he tells them to give away all of this healing without payment, even though he also tells them to go virtually without provision. And if that weren’t enough, he predicts that enemies will “hand (them) over to councils and flog (them)…and (they) will be dragged before governors and kings…” but not to worry, because God’s Spirit will give them the words to speak.

Sure… that makes it a totally doable mission, right?

Of course not! All of this sounds impossible. But it’s right there: in commissioning, after teaching, after story. Apparently, God, like the White Queen, wants us to believe in impossible things.

This is a real problem, if we are feeling content with predictable and familiar circumstances. In moments when life is comfortable… the Bible can be incredibly disconcerting. It’s not just the supernatural events, the babies born in old age kinds of stories… even more challenging is the way that the Jesus calls us to live our lives in ways that are utterly unnatural:

Loving our enemies;

Taking up our deadly crosses;

Leaving behind everything that is comfortable and pleasant about our lives in order to faithfully follow him.

We want to love and follow Jesus, but it all just sounds… impossible!

Except… what about when it’s the world around us that feels impossible? Might we be more open to God’s call to the impossible, if we realize that “impossible” changes; impossible miracles; impossible love…is exactly what we need?

It seems that is what happened for Etty Hillesum. Etty was a young Jewish woman in Holland when Nazi Germany invaded. Prior to the invasion she was not traditionally religious, but when her familiar, comfortable world disappeared, she discovered God’s realness. More than that, she experienced a call to bear witness to God’s presence in the most horrific of circumstances. While imprisoned at Westerbork, before she was sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, she wrote this:

“There must be someone to live through it all and bear witness to the fact that God lived, even in these times." [1]

Etty Hillesum somehow found the faith to witness to God’s reality “even in these times.”

And I wonder, is it possible that even in our own times we can discover the same truth? Can we believe that it is especially in these times that a God of the impossible is what we need?

Because, looking at the world around us… everything feels impossible.

It’s impossible to stay isolated long enough to eradicate the COVID virus, but it’s also impossible to imagine enduring another 100,000 deaths – or even more – with a second or third wave of cases.

[And now numbers are starting to spike in the states that first started opening up[2], but it feels impossible to reverse the momentum toward lifting social distancing guidelines.]

And it also feels impossible to heal the newly and violently exposed wounds from our country’s long history of insidious racism.

But it is also increasingly clear that it is no longer possible, or moral, to cover over the problems and maintain the status quo.

And in the arguments over these twin crises it feels utterly impossible that we could all collectively abandon our partisan posturing: stop lining up on our sides, reacting to our conditioned tropes, and actually listen to each other: that we could somehow take seriously the humanity, and the pain of people on the other side.

The truth is, in a moment when we are supposed to all be in this together, togetherness, and love of enemies feels utterly impossible.

These conditions could lead us to despair. They could drive us to retreat. They could cause us to hopelessly long for more comfortable, predictable times … times when we could just close our Bibles when they called us to believe or to do the impossible.

Or… these times could invite us to wonder what might happen if we took the White Queen’s advice and practiced believing impossible things. Beyond that, what might happen if we followed the example of Etty Hillesum and took up the call to bear witness to the believability of God’s presence in impossible situations?

Might belief – might unreserved, incautious trust in God – change us?

Might it strengthen us, as Paul promises – turning suffering into endurance, and endurance into character, and character into a hope that does not disappoint because it is a hope in God, not in our circumstances? If we lean into God’s impossible promises, might the economic, social, and emotional suffering from the virus and the social unrest transform us into more patient, more loving, more hopeful people?

And might belief also change what we need, as it did for the first disciples? They were sent out without money or provision, and with the promise – moreover – that they would face harassment and imprisonment for their witness. But they didn’t turn away from the call to be Christ’s witnesses to a broken world.

Could trusting in our God of the impossible teach us that we actually can bear the discomfort of this moment of racial reckoning? Can it teach us to ground our identities NOT in our partisan allegiances, but in our allegiance to God’s mission of healing for a broken and bleeding world? Can it teach us that we can bear even to confront our own biases, and privilege, and -yes - even racism?

Can we stop worrying about “how we are to speak,” or whether we will say the wrong thing and get shamed… and accept that correction, or even rebuke might be the cost of learning… the cost of learning how to love… And that the cost WILL be worth it if it opens the door for God’s impossible healing?

Trust me, I know these words are hard. I know I am asking the impossible – but that’s what God’s Word does to us. It asks the impossible.

God asks us to believe much more than 6 impossible things before breakfast.

And – believe it or not – that’s good news. Because once we let go of our ideas of what is “possible,” once we stop trying to protect ourselves from unsettling change, trying to define the limits of reasonable expectations and once we start believing in miracles…

The first miracle we see is in our own soul… In the new life and hope that springs up in us… even in these times.

When Sarah first heard God’s impossible promise, she laughed. It was too ridiculous to believe. But her laughter of scorn was turned to the bursting laughter of joy when the impossible happened. New life was born.

And today, God is inviting us to believe that the impossible can happen for us too. We can hope. We can heal. We bring forth new life in these times… through the Impossible power of our God of Love.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Etty Hillesum’s story is recounted by Debie Thomas at : https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2661

[2] https://www.healthline.com/health-news/covid19-cases-rising-states-reopened.

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