by Dave Swanson
Psalm 138, Isaiah 51:1-6
Friends, we were conceived in the womb of impossible promises. Each one of us here and we, the worshipping community, have been brought together and formed by impossibilities made possible in God. We worship the God of Israel, who we name as a Trinity, who we see in Jesus, and to whom we beckon, asking her to join with us as Spirit. And this God has, from the beginning, brought something from nothing, life from struggle, success from defeat.
Isaiah sings in Chapter 51:
“Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
To the quarry from which you were dug.
Look back to Abraham your father
And to Sarah who brought you forth.”
Isaiah speaks hope to a people decimated. The people of Israel were in exile in Babylon and it seemed God was nowhere to be found. The prophet wants his readers, which is us, now, to be courageous enough to remember and celebrate where we came from. We came from nobodies–two random people full of unfulfilled longings. Sarah’s empty womb is the one from which we were drawn. If Abraham was a rock, he was a monument set up to bear witness to his own listlessness and sorrows. In that time and place your legacy was your children, who would carry on your name and your life on the Earth. There was no afterlife theology to speak of, so hope beyond the grave was about kids. Abraham and Sarah had none. Further, they had gotten old.
Remembering Abraham and Sarah is like remembering an accident in which you got injured. It’s like a slow motion train wreck much of the time. After God’s promises came to them, they wandered the Middle East without knowing where they were going. For most of us, aimless wandering is also known as being lost. They were afraid for their lives, so much so, they pretended to be siblings instead of spouses, which was a disaster. They kept wandering, without home or legacy. Abandoned, it seems.
And then miraculously, these two sterile old bodies produced life. God’s impossible promise seemed laid before them like an open wound, the then, life happened. But even after the miracle it did not get easier. There was the rivalry with and abuse of Hagar and Ishmael. After disaster and more disaster, God tells Abraham to destroy the one blessing he had—his biological son Isaac.
This final ordeal breaks over the story like a wave. There is Abraham stumbling up the mountain with his son beside him. He must have been going crazy as he felt himself slowly being torn in two and as he realized everything he thought he knew about his God, El, must have been wrong.
This saga, one of grief, suffering, confusion, testing, failure, is the rock from which we have been hewn. It’s a story in which flourishing seems to be off the table—a non-option—again and again.
But somehow, in the midst of great struggle, in Sarah’s barren womb, life takes hold—one cell, dug deep into the soft and nourishing tissue of love. God made an impossible promise that made no sense then and makes no sense now. But out of misery and hopelessness life is birthed. Laughter happens. The struggle is still there, but it means something different. Love, somehow, wins.
This is our heritage. We were conceived in the womb of impossible promises. And when we gather on days like today, we do it to say to God, to sing to God: you are the giver of life, you are the one who makes impossible things real. The psalmist sings: “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” And this is what this God does: strengthens our souls when we cry out in praise or in anguish. In terror and in celebration God meets with us and makes us impossibly beautiful.
Which we need. We desperately need this beautiful life. Because, did you see it? Did you see that gun-metal gray Dodge Charger speeding down the Charlottesville street, ramming the crowd, then backing up just as fast, bumper dragging. Did you see the clubs and shields and swastikas and confederate flags? What about the torches and the chanting? “Blood and Soil.” “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.”
Abraham Lincoln closed his first inaugural address with the expectation that the common memory of America, touched by the “better angels of our nature” would produce a harmonious union once again. He reasoned that in creating the constitution, Americans had demonstrated their true high character and created something powerful and beautiful, which was still binding on the states in Lincoln’s moment. It’s a beautiful ending to a beautiful and troubling speech. But his speech followed the secession of seven states, and preceded the secession of four more and the onset of civil war. Lincoln wrung all the honor he could out of the America’s past, hoping to inspire his country to see room for friendship. But, in the end, for all his wisdom, he failed to be honest.
The vision of peace and fellowship he claimed was bankrupt because the American experiment sprung up from indigenous bloodshed and genocide, and was then built on a slave economy. From the beginning, the mindset of the settler was included in its notion of freedom. I was listening to an old interview with comedian and activist Dick Gregory, who died last week, and he said of Christopher Columbus: “If you can discover a country that’s already occupied… then I can go out in the parking lot today and discover your car with you in it. ‘Shut up. Get in the back, and teach me thanksgiving.’” Somehow, in America’s bones, is the idea that one group is legitimate to hold land, to hold power, to be free, and others are not. Some of our language aspires beyond this, but it is there in our psyche, and it shows itself in obviously grotesque ways like in Charlottesville, but also in the social and physical landscape of our neighborhood. As you travel toward Braddock, it gets poorer and blacker. If you go up the hill toward Edgewood, it gets richer and whiter. That’s the way it is.
Life in community takes its shape from the bedrock principles and perceptions at work human relationships. The danger with Charlottesville is to imagine ourselves separate from, immune to, or untouched by the torches and the murder. But in the end, the flags and torches are representative of instincts we all have and practices we all employ. We’re all in it, by the color of our skin, the jobs we work, the places we live, the money we have. We are all caught up in the web of ugliness that showed its head in Charlottesville. It was the dramatic enactment of instincts we all share – self-preservation, seeking and keeping power at the expense of others, ensuring our own security by whatever means.
And what this means is we need a way out of the cycle. All these things that showed their face in Charlottesville are rooted in fear. So we need a way to be reminded to live beyond fear and beyond ourselves. And so we worship.
We worship because we need to remember that despite the sucking pull of despair and the times when hope seems lost, we were conceived in the womb of impossible promises.
We worship because we need to remember that when it seems logical to put up walls and defend ourselves, to blame others and claim the moral high ground… Or, when it seems right to stay in our group, keep the world at arms length, or forego sharing our lives with others… we were conceived in the womb of impossible promises. We are here because we have been brought here by the pull of God’s promises. We are who we are because God has promised us life when we let ourselves live in God’s economy. And God’s economy is the one that is built on the promises of a faithful and beautiful creator whose creativity knows no bounds, who loves tenaciously, who is unafraid of all our issues and our fears.
We worship because the Nazi flag, the Confederate flag, the sticks and guns and shields all want us to believe that in they end they are right: it is about self-preservation, ensuring your dominance, and securing your future. Only when we give up illusions of our own mastery and control—the idea that our destiny and security are in our own hands—will we become open to letting God’s impossible promises hold us. We will be free when we can see that struggle and the limitations of our life are the soils in which God’s promises take root and reveal themselves as true. In worship, giving praise to a God that is not us, who is bigger and more surprising than we could ever be or want, we can finally be coaxed to let go of our fears and our need to protect ourselves first. In worshipping God we have an opportunity to learn to let our anxieties go, remembering that God has us, no matter what. We were conceived in the womb of impossible promises.
Knowing that God has us means we learn to have and hold each other. Worship means we will care for one another. We need to be God’s impossible promises for each other. So, friends, listen to each other. Listen to each others’ stories, listen for how people are doing. Hold each other. Share meals together. Talk about what moves you. Talk about what motivates you. Pray together. Protest injustice together. Work for peace together. Be still. Allow yourself to be held by God’s love. Move. Act. Love. Shine. Laugh. Celebrate.
Cheer each other on.
Hold on to each other.
Don’t let go.
Be God’s impossible promises.