Tuesday, October 31, 2006

trusting in the impossible (mark 10. 17-31)

It was a grim and graphic interruption to the daily drumbeat of news: ten children shot in a classroom, five of them dead, a small idyllic Amish community in rural Pennsylvania. In between the latest arrest of Paris Hilton and one football player stomping on the head of another player, in between the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and news of the predatory behavior of a congressman, there was this interruption.

Now the Amish do not seek public recognition, and they asked to be given space for their private grieving, which the media struggled with, and to some extent perhaps succeeded at. I did hear a reflection on the murders one evening this week which I have continued to think about. A secular reporter for one of the public television news programs commented on the response of the Amish people, the victims going to the home of the murderer and offering words of forgiveness, the families of the victims inviting the wife of the murderer to attend one of the funerals and to remain in the community. The reporter contrasted this behavior with the retaliation that seems to mark most of the world’s responses to injustice and violence, even the responses of believers in God. She used words, to describe this unexpected and unusual act, such as “otherworldly” and “strange”, she and at the end of her report she concluded, “I stand in awe of their unfathomable grace…” .

A man asks Jesus, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus repeats the commandments and the man says, “I have kept all of these”. Then Jesus responds, “sell what you own and give it to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven, then follow me”. The man is shocked and leaves sadly, for he is rich.

One of the realities of being in a church for a few years is the awareness that you begin to preach on the same passages, because of the lectionary cycle. Three years ago I preached on this text, and went into detail about what it says about money, possessions and faith. This morning I want to focus on how the disciples respond to this encounter, and the lesson Jesus gives to them, and to us.

After listening in, the disciples comment, “Lord, it must be hard for those with possessions to enter the kingdom”. Jesus responds, “it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”.

Then who can be saved?”, they ask. And here is the lesson: with mortals, it is impossible. But not for God; for God, all things are possible.

Here is the lesson, and within it the tension that is knit together within the heart and mind of all who seek a faithful way of living. With us, it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible.

A small community responds to the grim and graphic murder or five children with forgiveness and acceptance and reconciliation. How does this happen? With us, it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible.

A Georgia church makes a movie, the members themselves are the actors, and it catches the interest of the public and even of the media, costing two hundred thousand dollars to make and already having made millions, about facing giants. How does this happen? With us, it is impossible. But for God, all things are impossible.

A denomination has a vision of a school that will train Christian leaders on the continent of Africa. A Bishop of the church comments that it will be like “pouring money down a rathole”. Fifteen years later, thousands of graduates later, Africa University is strengthening the church, reforming the nation, spreading scriptural holiness across the continent, saving lives. With us, it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible.

We all live in the tension between what is impossible and what is possible. Both are true. With mortals, it is impossible. This is true. Some things are beyond our grasp, our vision, our energy. But for God, all things are possible. Nothing is beyond God’s grasp, God’s vision, God’s energy.

If you know the story of the scripture, you know that for God all things are possible.

Abraham and Sarah are childless. God says to Abraham, your descendents are going to be as numerous as the particles of dust on the earth”, and God says to Sarah, “you will be the mother of many nations”. Sarah and Abraham fall on their faces in laughter, and they say to God,”we are old, we are really old! But they were faithful, and then they learned the lesson: for God all things are possible.

The Israelites were slaves to Pharoah, the most powerful political leader on earth, and God finds someone working on his father-in-law’s farm and says “Go to Pharoah and say, “Let my people go”, and Moses has all kinds of excuses, “who am I, they won’t listen to me, what if they hurt me, I’m not a good speaker…”. But he was faithful, and then he learned the lesson: for God all things are possible.

Israel is taken into exile later in the story, the northern kingdom crushed by the Assyrians, the southern kingdom violated by the Babylonians, the temple destroyed, the people demoralized and disheartened, and Ezekiel is taken out into the middle of the desert, and he sees before him a huge graveyard, and the Spirit of the Lord asks him, “Can these bones live?” And Ezekiel says, “You know the answer, Lord!” And the Voice said, I will put my spirit within these bones, and flesh upon them, and they will live. That would be the lesson: for God all things are possible.

God’s people are waiting for a Messiah who would establish justice and righteousness and peace. A messenger comes to a young girl, Mary, and says, “you have found favor with God…you will conceive and bear a son and you will name him Jesus.” How can this happen? “The holy spirit will come upon you…”, and then the Voice says, in the lesson of Christmas, to Mary, “For God nothing is impossible” (Luke 1. 37).

The boy grows up to be a teacher and a healer, he is followed by some, rejected by others, and then, finally, crucified by a few. He dies on a cross, he is buried, but after three days he is raised from the dead, and He is alive. This is the lesson of Easter: For God all things are possible.

The story of scripture, from beginning to end, is all about what is impossible and what is possible. And the more deeply we search for a faithful way of living, the more we discover that the story of the scripture is the story of our lives. The impossible is all about obstacles and burdens; sometimes we call it “reality”. The possible is about removing those obstacles, carrying those burdens. Sometimes we call it “the dream”.

When there is too much reality, and not enough dream, we collapse into despair. When there is too much reality and not enough dream, we fall into fatigue. And the reverse needs to be said: when there is too much dream, we may be avoiding reality. When there is too much dream, we may be escaping responsibility.

The reality and the dream. The impossible and the possible. Despair and hope. I came across an interesting way of expressing this: it is like looking through a microscope or a telescope. In one we see the grain of sand, in another we see the stars. Both are true.

It helps to confess that we have limitations, that some things are impossible for us. Christianity is not a self-help movement. It is first the admission that I am flawed, that something is wrong with me, I may have strengths or gifts, but I have limitations. I love the Rabbi two-sentence definition of Judaism: There is a God. You are not God.

Some things are impossible for us. We do forget this. In the language of AA, “our lives had become unmanageable”. Can you or I save ourselves, heal ourselves, fix ourselves? This is about as likely as a camel going through the eye of a needle.

Thankfully, the teaching does not end there, the lesson of Jesus is not yet complete. Then who can be saved?, the students ask Jesus. You see, the original question was “What must I do to enter the kingdom? Do you hear the nuance? What must I do to be saved? And the answer is clear: Salvation is something God does, something God gives. For you, it is impossible. That is the bad news. But here is the good news: for God, all things are possible. Even your salvation.

It is not accidental that Jesus ties this teaching to money. Money is a powerful force in our lives, money can bless, money can curse, money can heal and money can destroy. Perhaps for the man who encountered Jesus there was a sense that the money was an obstacle to the eternal life. Give it to the poor, Jesus said, Follow me.

It was a vivid encounter, one of those experiences that people remember, and it led to the teaching of Jesus, one more teaching about discovering a faithful way of living. Jesus is consistent, totally consistent with the way God had been working in the lives of His people since the creation of the world.

Remember Abraham and Sarah, Jesus might have said to them. Remember Moses.

Remember Ezekiel.

Remember those who said, of me, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Remember the paralyzed man who was brought to me?

Remember the man chained to the graveyard, whose sanity was restored?

Remember the daughter of Jairus who was healed?

Do you remember how we fed all of those people with only five loaves of bread and two fish?

Do you remember the child with epilepsy who was healed?

Do you remember when I taught you that if you had even the faith that was in a mustard seed you could say to a mountain “move” and it would move? Why? Jesus said, “if you have faith…nothing will be impossible” (Matthew 17. 20).

Sometimes, when I think about it, what we are trying to do here, as a church, is pretty impossible. We are trying to get people to come here, every week,

to worship a God that they cannot see,

to profess faith in a Lord that they cannot see,

to come into contact with people with whom they occasionally disagree,

to serve others who do not always express appreciation,

for results and outcomes that are difficult to measure,

that may at times add no value to the world,

to give their hard-earned money to a cause that seems,

outwardly, to have little effect on the world.

It seems impossible, and it could almost lead a person to despair.

But we are searching, in the midst of it, for a faithful way of living.

An unfaithful way of living reckons that it is all up to us.

A faithful way of living trusts in the power and provision and purpose of God. An unfaithful way of living sees only through a microscope.

A faithful way of living sees also through as telescope.

An unfaithful way of living is expressed in the words of the old children’s book: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…”. Finally the steam runs out! With us, it is impossible.

A faithful way of living remembers the words of the spiritual, that God will make a “way out of no way”. For God, all things are possible.

I have to believe that for God, all things are possible.

Couples can reconcile.

The sick can be healed.

Children can return home from the far country.

The lion will lie down with the lamb in the peaceable kingdom.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares.

The hungry will be filled with good things.

Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

I have to believe that for God, all things are possible.

The world will tell you that it is impossible. Every bone and muscle in your body will tell you that it is impossible. But if you read this book, and if you remember that the story in this book is your story, you will discover a faithful way of living, you will begin to trust in the impossible, you will begin to see the miraculous.

In a world where there is too much reality, and too little dream, we need to hear this. Brothers and sisters, do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12).

Let us confess the truth: with us, it is impossible.

But let us also rejoice in the truth: for God, all things are possible!


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