“The Impossible and the Difficult”

Philippians 4: 4-13; John 6:25-35

Jesus Christ does the impossible, so that we can do the difficult.

By this point, I’ve talked about it enough that we all probably know that today’s sermon was brought about by Nancy Covell, who won the raffle at last winter’s gifts and greens fair, by asking the question, “How can science fiction and fantasy improve our lives of faith?”

I had originally planned on having a different message for this particular sermon as opposed to the 9 AM children’s message, going into the shared questions that science fiction and fantasy and the Bible ask; questions about what it means to be human, the nature of evil, how we relate to the past, and who owns the future.

And those questions I might revisit later this year, possibly in the summer- it’s something I’d love to explore more fully, possibly over a sermon series.

But then I realized that the expanded version of today children’s message that I preached at the 9AM service was a gospel message that I couldn’t simply ignore, so this is my current answer, but not the only answer to your question, Nancy, that you posed to me to inspire this sermon:

Science Fiction and Fantasy can improve our lives of faith because when we see, hear, and experience stories of people doing what at first seems like the impossible, it reminds us that we can do the difficult.

The skills we gain in learning to read, hear, and experience these stories, be they in movie theaters, watching the exploits of Luke Skywalker, Black Panther, or through reading NK Jemison, JRR Tolkien, or JK Rowling, can also be applied to our stories in the Bible and our lives of faith.

To back up for a second, a quick note on what it means for us to experience these stories of struggle.

All of us, in our families somewhere, have some sort of story of struggle. Whether it’s an immigration story, of No Irish Need Apply signs, institutionalized slavery, or hunger and poverty.

These are the stories of the struggle of our parents, grandparents and ancestors, that get told when a job is lost, when money is tight, when things aren’t going right.  These stories ground us, help us to make sense of our own struggles.

We feel the weight of history, see ourselves in those stories. We know that as they endured, so can we.

But these are not the only stories that we have and integrate into our own lives.  Sometimes these stories come not from our families of origin, but are shared in a culture. These are stories like the struggle of the First Thanksgiving that the Pilgrims had, and these shared stories help us to integrate into existing communities, or sometimes to create new communities, places where we belong.

For any kid who was alone on the playground, science fiction and fantasy novels and other works offered a new world, a place where we belonged.  We knew that if Luke and Leia, Harry and Hermione or Frodo and Samwise could do impossible things, then we could do the hard things.

We knew this, because this message sometimes came from inside the stories themselves!  JRR Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings was a devout Roman Catholic, and writes this conversation between Frodo and Sam, two Hobbits- three-foot tall food loving domestic homebodies who are in way over their heads, facing down great evil and doing the impossible.

“But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same; like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”

This particular passage is interesting because it works on two different levels, as part of the story, and as what we call “meta fictional”, that is, it tells us about how stories work.

Just as Sam and Frodo are inspired by the old stories, that tell of people enduring hardship and difficulty not because they are the chosen ones, for a bit of sport, or because they are especially gifted, but because that’s how life works, that is how their paths were laid, so too are we, the readers, inspired in the same way.

Learning to read stories in this way, to let stories inspire us, and remind us that we too can finish the race is one of the ways- certainly not the only way- but one of the ways- that we should read the stories of the bible.

We’ve talked about this before, but the Bible itself is a collection of books, written over about eight to nine hundred years, covering a variety of genres.

We know this; the psalms are poetry, Chronicles, Samuel, and Kings are history, Leviticus is a legal document, and the epistles are letters.

And although all of them are the words of God, just as we read poetry, history, legal documents, and letters differently in our secular lives

(or perhaps don’t read legal documents at all, but that’s a story for another day)

So too, do we read different books of the bible differently.

It’s not about making any of the words in the bible any more or less true, but making sure that we best understand the many layers of truth that are already in them.

Let’s take the story about Moses and the Exodus, and in particular, the episode about Manna from heaven as an example. 

In it, Moses is given what seems to be an impossible task; to lead huge group of people- a mixed multitude if there ever was one- from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land.

We should remember too that Moses doesn’t really even want this job.  He has to be talked into it.  But he does it, because as Frodo says, sometimes we walk the trails that we’re on.

When we talk about Moses, we don’t really talk about the day to day administrative hassle that he must have endured, and instead remember the miracles- the parting of the Red Sea, the receiving of the ten commandments, the appearance of Manna- a bread like grain coming like dew in the morning when the people start going hungry.

But I don’t think those miracle moments were the hardest parts of Moses’ journey, and neither necessarily does Jesus.

It’s easy for us to think of these stories as all being about Moses doing the miraculous because he was so holy.

Jesus reminds us that this is not the case. Jesus reminds that it was not Moses who did the miraculous work of bread, but God. 

Instead of seeing Moses as a miracle worker who provided food from heaven from nothing, making us feel in awe of Moses, Jesus tells us that God is the one who does impossible things, and because of that, Moses is able to do the difficult work of leading the people of Israel.

Jesus does the impossible, so we can do the difficult.

If we are to draw strength from these stories, its not that these are miraculous stories about perfect people who did impossible things, and thus that we are to be in perfect awe of them.

The message that Jesus reminds us of is that in the old stories- the ones that really matter- and to the Jewish people, the story of Moses really matters- is that he was ordinary person who through perseverance and faith did extraordinarily difficult things.

I think this is part of what Paul is saying to us and to the church at Philippi.

Any difficult thing Paul is able to do, and the things he urges the church to do in the beginning of the letter are difficult, they are able to do through Jesus Christ, who strengthens him. 

This isn’t to say that hearing the stories about Jesus, be they stories of the last supper, the loaves crucifixion and resurrection, are the only way that He strengthens Paul, but I believe they are one means that God uses to strengthen us. 

And I don’t know about you, but I can take all the help I can get.