In Your Dreams! Impossible Dreams

Preached March 13, 2011 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent:

I will bless you… (Genesis 12:1-4)
Love your enemies… (Matthew 5:38-48)

Singer Carrie Underwood won the fourth season of American Idol back in 2005.
Since then her career has taken off. She’s won multiple Grammy Awards, has been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. She was the first ever female artist to win back-to-back Academy of Country Music Awards for Entertainer of the Year in 2009 and 2010. Tonight’s first song comes from her second album “Carnival Ride” released in 2007. It went all the way to number one on the Billboard Country charts. Let’s try it.

What you got if you ain’t got love
the kind that you just want to give away
Its okay to open up go ahead and let the light shine through
I know it’s hard on a rainy day
you want to shut the world out and just be left alone
but don’t run out on your faith
’cause sometimes that mountain
you’ve been climbing is just a grain of sand
and what you’ve been up there searching for forever
is in your hands
when you figure out love is all that matters after all
it sure makes everything else seem so small

In 2008, Rajo Devi Lohan did something many people thought was impossible. At the age of 70, this Indian woman gave birth to a daughter. She and her husband had been married for 54 years – another feat that seems impossible for many people. They had been unable to conceive, but finally had a child through invitro fertilization – a procedure that was thought impossible before the first “test tube” baby was born in 1978.

We humans are pretty good at doing the impossible. Humans can fly? Impossible, until someone invented an airplane. Walk on the moon? Impossible, until someone invented a space shuttle. Travel at the speed of sound? Impossible, until someone did it. Carry a computer in your pocket? Impossible – but most of us have them right now.

Those impossible things seemed so huge – until we took them on – then suddenly, they seemed so small. The mountain we had seen before us earlier is now just a grain of sand. The impossible becomes reality.

One of my favorite commercials asks, “What would the world be like if we accepted the first thing that came along?” It features people on those old timey bikes with the big front wheels and tiny back wheels, people carrying huge cell phones from the 1980s, and my personal favorite, a guy with headphones carrying a record player.

What if we stopped at the first thing that came along? We’d still be living in caves, beating our clothes on a rock, and listening to vinyl recordings. Instead, humans are creatures who dream the impossible – see it in their minds – and then they bring it into reality. Be it sleek bicycles, tiny cell phones, or mp3 players – we have refined our inventions, and brought the impossible into reality.

Still, many of us see mountains where others see grains of sand. Alice, while she was visiting Wonderland, laughed at the Queen and told her “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

If we can’t bring ourselves to believe in the impossible, Jubilants, we’ll never be able to make it a reality.

It’s so easy to get lost inside a problem
that seems so big at the time
it’s like a river that’s so wide it swallows you whole
while you sitting ’round thinking ’bout what you can’t change
and worrying about all the wrong things
time’s flying by moving so fast
you better make it count ’cause you can’t get it back
sometimes that mountain you’ve been climbing
is just a grain of sand
and what you’ve been up there searching for forever
is in your hands
oh when you figure out love is all that matters after all
it sure makes everything else seem so small

In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning we find an old couple named Abram and Sarai. Like Rajo Devi and Balla Lohan, they had been married many years, and had been unable to have children. In tonight’s passage, God has a message for this old couple:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.” I will make of you a great nation, God told them. Okay, how does that happen? This couple can’t have one child, much less enough to fill some great nation. Later in Genesis, God chats with Abram again, when he is 99 years old, and Sarai was 90, and again he promises to make a great nation out this barren couple. As he makes covenant with them, he gives them new names – the ones we are more familiar with “Abraham and Sarah.” His old name “Abram” meant “exalted father,” but his new name, “Abraham” means “father of a multitude.”

When Sarah heard this news, that she would conceive at 90, what did she do? She laughed! She thought that was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. A mother at her age? Impossible.

God reacts to her laughter by asking: “Is there anything too hard for the Lord?” The literal translation of that line is this: “Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Isn’t that the business the Holy is in – making wonderful things? Things that seem like miracles? Plants, trees, birds, our own amazing bodies that flow with life giving breath and blood? All miracles – all wonderful!

And so, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, whose name means “he will laugh.” Isaac goes on to have two sons Esau and Jacob. It is Jacob who is later renamed “Israel” by an angel he wrestles with all night. And just as God had promised – a great nation was created in an impossible way – through an old man and woman, well beyond child bearing years.

Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Breathe deeply.

Sometimes that mountain you’ve been climbing
is just a grain of sand
and what you’ve been up there searching for forever
is in your hands
oh when you figure out love is all that matters after all
it sure makes everything else…
oh it sure makes everything else seem so small Yeah, Yeah

Thaddeus was in an impossible situation. As a homeless, alcoholic, forty-something-year-old black man, he was accustomed to being looked down on and disregarded. Thaddeus attends the church in Atlanta that ordained me a few years ago. That church, Gentle Spirit, meets at an open-air pavilion in Candler Park each Sunday morning. They call themselves, “The Church Without Walls.”

Thaddeus showed up one day with a battered bicycle, and asked for prayers that he could find a way to get the brakes fixed on his bike.

Sophia, is a 50-something-year-old transgender member of Gentle Spirit. She volunteered to get the brakes fixed on the bike. She had a 10-speed bike in storage and intended to swap the brakes out when it dawned on her that she hadn’t ridden that bike in years.

Two weeks later, she presented Thaddeus with a shiny, barely ridden, 10-speed.

Paul, the pastor of the church, writes:

“That happened 4 months ago. The same week he got the bike Thaddeus found his way to an AA meeting, within 2 weeks of that he had gotten a doctor’s appointment, gotten referred to a therapist and did what he swore he would never do and found a shelter in which he could stay for as long as it takes to get his feet firmly on the ground.”

Sophia did more than just give Thaddeus a bike, Paul said. Instead “in this one little thing, she convinced a broken man that he counted, that he was worthy and his life was important.”

That, my friends, is a miracle. That is what it looks like to do the impossible. That’s the magic of the Holy, if only we’ll pay attention.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song is all about magic, and our power to perform great impossible works in this world. The rock and roll threesome known as America burst onto the musical scene in 1972 with hits like “Horse with no Name” and “Sister Goldenhair.” Our next song peaked at number 8 on the Billboard charts in 1982. It’s called “You Can Do Magic.” Let’s try it.

I never believed in things that I couldn’t see
I said if I can’t feel it then how can it be
No, no magic could happen to me
And then I saw you
I couldn’t believe it, you took my heart
I couldn’t retrieve it, said to myself
What’s it all about, Now I know there can be no doubt

[Chorus] You can do magic
You can have any – thing that you desire
Magic, and you know
You’re the one who can put out the fire, you know darn well
When you cast your spell you will get your way
When you hypnotize with your eyes
A heart of stone can turn to clay
Doo, doo, doo …

In our Jesus story, we find our guy continuing his famous Sermon on the Mount. This is one of my favorite parts of this sermon because I get to quote from it whenever someone accuses me of “twisting” the scripture, whenever I dare to assert that gay and lesbian people are made and loved by God.

I don’t think reading love into the Scriptures is a “twisting” of its ultimate meaning, but my response to people who accuse me of such is simply this: “I’m in good company, because that’s exactly what Jesus did.”

In this passage we find him using a recurring phrase: “You have heard it said … but I say.” For instance he says, “You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, “Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

He also says this, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

In his first phrase he quotes the Jewish law to his listeners – he quotes them their own scripture. So, what he’s saying here essentially is this, “You’ve read this in the Bible, but I say to you …” Try putting your own laws above the Bible today and you’ll be branded a heretic faster than the Road Runner eludes Wiley Coyote. Like that commercial though, he’s asking people, “What would the world be like if we accepted the first thing that came along?”

Instead of accepting a world where people settled scores in an eye for an eye fashion, and hated anyone they considered an enemy, Jesus proposes a new kind of world – one that sounded both then and now – downright impossible.

“Do not resist evil?” Are you insane, Jesus? What about the woman beaten daily by an abusive spouse? What about the oppressed in the world, beaten into submission by dictators and evil government systems? How can we advise them to not “resist evil”? That’s impossible!

As author Walter Wink explains: The Greek word translated as “resist” (antistenai), is literally “to stand (stenai) against (anti).” The term is taken from warfare. When two armies collide, they were said to “stand against” each other. The correct translation is given in the new Scholars Bible: “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” The meaning is clear: don’t react in kind, don’t mirror your enemy, don’t turn into the very thing you hate. Jesus is not telling us not to resist evil, but only not to resist it violently.”

Take for instance his example of “turning the other cheek.” This has been interpreted to mean that we should just meekly take whatever abuse someone is dishing out, but that’s not it at all. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, they have backhanded you, which is what masters did to their slaves. By “turning the other cheek” and offering the left cheek, the master could no longer backhand you. He could not hit you again because only equals fought with fists. By “turning the other cheek” then, an oppressed person has told his attacker that they would no longer be the subject of their humiliation. It is a way of standing up to evil in a non-violent manner.

The other two examples track the same way. Roman soldiers could force Jewish citizens to carry their packs, but only for one mile. They could get into trouble if they were found to be forcing a Jew to carry their gear any further, so by going the extra mile and refusing to put down the pack – the Jews made themselves a dangerous choice to carry a pack. A soldier might think twice before he forced his burden on a Jew intent on getting him into trouble with his superiors.

Same with the cloak. If someone wins your outer garment in a lawsuit, give them your undergarment, too, Jesus said, and stand naked before them. In this instance the one who is shamed is not the naked person, but the one who took every last stitch from someone else. In all these examples, the power system is disrupted, and not a drop of blood was shed.

Political and spiritual leaders like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have taken this lesson to heart – refusing to return violence for violence when faced with great evil. Both men, though they lost their lives, were ultimately victorious over the evil that oppressed them and their people – all without firing a shot or becoming as violent as their oppressors. In short, they did some fierce magic in this world that seriously needs repeating.

So, overcoming evil with non-violence is hard – but not impossible. Jesus’ next “but I say” statement is a bit harder. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

That seems like an impossible task. Okay, I think I can pray for those who persecute me. I can pray for their early, and perhaps painful, demise – but perhaps that’s not what Jesus means.

We are told to “love” our enemies, not like them – and King says that’s good news:

“‘Like’ is a sentimental and affectionate word. How can we be affectionate toward a person whose avowed aim is to crush our very being and place innumerable stumbling blocks in our path? … That is impossible. But Jesus recognized that love is greater than like. When Jesus bids us to love our enemies, he is speaking neither of eros nor philia; he is speaking of agape, understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.”

This is good news – we don’t have to feel “eros” or romantic love for our enemies, neither do we have to feel “philia” or brotherly love toward our enemies – we only have to feel “agape” – or the kind of love that wishes for redemption, that wishes for understanding, that wishes for goodwill.

If we can do this, Jesus said – if we can walk in this world with love, rejecting violence, and instead creating goodwill and compassion with every step – we will become “perfect.” Again, we are faced with what could be an impossible task – but not so fast.

Much has been made of this word “perfect.” Sure, Jesus, being the son of God and all, could be perfect, but we’re mere mortals – so perfection is the ultimate impossible dream. Again, we have a little translation problem here. The Greek word used here means “mature” or “complete.”

Jesus is telling us that our lives are only complete – our faith only mature – whenever we can actually love every single person in this world – whether they are someone we like or not.

That’s the definition of a mature faith – someone who does the seemingly impossible – like love everyone just as God does. Because, you know, I have a feeling God doesn’t really like us sometimes. We behave like spoiled children – throwing tantrums and destroying the wonderful planet She’s given us as a home. I suspect even God has trouble mustering up eros or philia love for His creation half the time. But, it is our good fortune to know that the Holy loves us – and in that love seeks “understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill” for all of us.

Breathe deeply.

And when the rain is beatin’ upon the window pane
And when the night it gets so cold, when I can’t sleep
Again you come to me
I hold you tight, the rain disappears
Who would believe it
With a word you dry my tears

[Chorus] You can do magic
You can have any – thing that you desire
Magic, and you know
You’re the one who can put out the fire, you know darn well
When you cast your spell you will get your way
When you hypnotize with your eyes
A heart of stone can turn to clay
Doo, doo, doo …

I’ve done some serious magic in my life, Jubilants, and I know you’ve done some in your own lives. If you were to predict the course of my life it would seem a fantastically improbable tale.

A young girl has a dream of one day being a preacher like her daddy, but she’s told that’s impossible, because that little girl is the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher – and Southern Baptists don’t ordain women. So, she gives up that dream and turns to her other love – writing. She makes a decent living as a writer in journalism, but eventually she comes out as a lesbian – and she’s told that her dream of being in pastor is really and truly impossible now – not just because she’s a woman – but a gay woman at that.

Finally, she begins to follow the trail of her dream and finds herself in seminary – but takes a degree that isn’t supposed to lead her into a pastorate position. Instead, she takes a degree that should lead to a doctorate and a teaching position down the road. She finds a church, however, in Atlanta that is willing to ordain her, and they do, but just as the dream is about to be realized, she moves to South Carolina. D’oh! So close.

In South Carolina she finds a church that’s willing to take her on as an associate pastor, and even lets her preach on occasion. The impossible dream is coming true! She stands in the pulpit and preaches! Several years later she feels called to do something else darn near impossible, start a new church! Jubilants, welcome to my impossible dream.

Want to know how I did the impossible? I followed St. Francis’ old formula. He said: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

I did what was necessary, I made a living by writing, then I did what was possible, going to seminary, and before I knew it, I had done the impossible.

Each of you here has the ability to do the impossible. A friend told me I lived a charmed life, but I think we all do. If only we’ll start to believe that we can do magic – we can do the impossible. When we think we can’t – or refuse to try – we limit not only ourselves, but God.

“Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

God’s question to Sarah is one she asks of us every single day.

“Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

No, Jubilants, there is nothing too wonderful, nothing too hard, for the Holy to accomplish. I invite you today to dream your impossible dream – put that dream into the hands of the still speaking, still loving, still living, still acting God – and watch what you and the Holy can create together.

If you want proof of the power of the Holy, I invite you to take a look around this world. This is the creator, the architect, the artist, who created it all – and it’s all a friggin’ miracle! It’s all magic. The good news is, you have that magic within you, and whatever you can dream, whatever you desire, you can make a reality, with the help of God.

Get over your fear, get over your ego, get over you apathy, get over your procrastination. Wake up, and get to work. You and God have some magic to do.

And If I wanted to I could never be free
I never believed it was true,
But now it’s so clear to me

[Chorus] You can do magic
You can have any – thing that you desire
Magic, and you know
You’re the one who can put out the fire, you know darn well
When you cast your spell you will get your way
When you hypnotize with your eyes
A heart of stone can turn to clay
Doo, doo, doo …
You’re the one who can put out the fire …

Oh, Yeah!