March 29, 2020

The Defects of Jesus, V: Impossible Dreams

Passage: Luke 4:14–21

Click here to listen to this sermon.

The mind is an old crow
Who knows only to gather dead twigs,
Then take them back to the vacancy
Between the branches of the parent tree
And entwine them around the emptiness
With silence and unfailing patience
Until what was fallen, withered and lost
Is now set to fill with dreams a nest.
—John O’Donohue

We continue with our sermon series “The Defects of Jesus”, and today’s topic is Jesus, a man of impossible dreams. Hear now our scripture from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in the gospel of Luke.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee from the wilderness, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

The Lord has sent me
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It has been 14 days since we’ve hosted worship from our sanctuary, and 21 days since you all were here in this holy space. We are grateful to be back in this holy of holies that makes room for sacred music and well, what we thought would be more dependable tech.

There are just 4 of us here: Bill and I, Susan our organist, and our audio/visual expert Joel who keeps us connected electronically. People in these AV roles have become desperately critical these last weeks, all over the globe, so we offer God’s blessing on Joel and on all of those who make way for us to feel connected.

Do we pray for the internet, too? That God might bless our connectional infrastructure so we can remain together despite isolation? Even my Netflix account seems to spotlight our current reality: every handshake and hug, every crowded place or restaurant scene on TV seems to highlight how quickly social distancing has changed us.

Across the congregation, some of you are cooped up and inconvenienced, others of you feel deeply isolated and alone. Some of you are worried about vulnerable family members, or you are in a high risk category yourself, while still others of you are or have been truly sick, trying to figure out how to keep your own families from getting sick while depending on them even more to bring you warm soup or more Tylenol: all with gloved hands and disinfectant spray at the ready. All of us are impacted.

Everyone has advice, too. One of you forwarded me a video from our local Samaracare Counseling Center who suggested among other things to focus on mindful breathing, which, of course, is woven into our faith as part of the ancient Christian tradition of contemplative or silent prayer.[1] Psalm 46 which has long been a favorite says, “be still and know I am God.” Such stillness holds power today, as does the work of resting in the presence of God. I was surprised this week, to “be silent” with someone over the internet: on a now almost omnipresent zoom call, I was astonished that the silence we held between us carried the same kind of prayerful power that silence holds when you are in the same room together. So, find a way to breathe mindfully this week on your own, or ask someone to sit silently with you in the presence of God over the phone or on FaceTime today. It’s all yet possible, in a new way.

Nick Yarris also had a chance to offer some advice on how to survive social distancing.[2] Yarris spent 22 years on death row in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit and was later exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project in 2003 using DNA evidence. He knows what it is like to be isolated, alone, confined. His advice:

First: a simple one. Cut the negativity out of your social media feed.
Second: Spend time focusing on nature and animals. Pet your dog. Go for a walk. Watch the spring flowers push slowly up from the earth.
Third: create structure to your day. Do not let time spill out in front of you. Be an architect of time, so your day takes on meaning.
Fourth: he taught himself yoga in prison using a small wash cloth as a mat, and then he’d use the mat to wash his small cell clean, so, he says, use your body, feel the muscles under your skin, clean your closets, sweep your floor, do the exercise video your coworker recommended, clean out your closets, he said.
Finally: Yarris says, kindness and being polite cost us nothing and give us everything. Kindness he says, will decrease your stress and give you strength.

Cardinal Van Thuan—who also spent years in solitary confinement—said something similar. He said “live in the present moment and fill it with love.” Cardinal Van Thuan is, if you’ve been following along this season of Lent is at the center of our sermon series on the defects of Jesus. He was a Catholic priest during the fall of Saigon in 1975 when many of the priests were arrested. He was a gifted leader and charismatic preacher who was suddenly thrown in prison, taken away from his people, and offered no easy way to communicate with the outside world. In fact, many Catholics, in that 13 year period assumed he had died since they hadn’t heard from him in so long.

In the heat, surrounded by mosquitoes, he wrote letters to his people in those early days but when his captors moved him to North Vietnam, he realized this would be a complete reorientation of his ministry. The prison yard, he said, became his cathedral. It was a prison, yes, but he said, but it also became for him “the most beautiful of cathedrals.” The people he was with—1500 other prisoners—became his church, the place where he could continue his ministry, where he could “live in the present moment and fill it with love.”

So that’s what he did. He loved the people he was with, the other prisoners or the guard who watched over him. It was an impossible dream that Cardinal Van Thuan held onto for 13 years. “Live in the present moment and fill it with love.” Even when he was suffering. Even the 9 years of solitary confinement. Even when his life was in danger. “Live in the present moment and fill it with love.” He said, deep in the anxious beginning of his time in prison, when he felt physically weak and mentally fatigued, he realized, “You are still rich with the love of Jesus.” He held onto an impossible dream.

If your third grader ever memorized and recited the 10 commandments here at Kenilworth Union Church, you already know our faith is a story of  impossible dreams, too (and I’m not talking about the impossibility of memorizing the 10 commandments, though at times that, too, might feel like an impossible dream). We come from a long lineage of impossible dreams. Just the 10 commandments alone seem impossible: honor the sabbath by taking one day of rest each week for God’s sake (who even did that before this shelter in place order?) Do not lie. Do not steal. The foundation of our faith sits on impossible dreams.

Before that, Moses had an impossible dream that one day there would be a way out of slavery. And before that, even in the beginning, God had an impossible dream, that all this—sunrise and moonrise and the great cacophony of life on earth would be called good.

Cardinal Van Thuan, while serving time in his prison-turned-cathedral was often asked why he followed Jesus. Why would you risk everything for the sake of the gospel? And the Cardinal would reply: I love Jesus, but most of all I love Jesus’ defects. It wasn’t Jesus’ perfection that Van Thuan loved, but instead, the imperfections of Jesus. So Van Thuan articulates some of Jesus’ many defects: he had no long range plan, he had no common sense, he was bad at math, he took imprudent risks. But those defects, those shortcomings of Jesus, were the very things that amplified Van Thuan’s love for Jesus.[3] So I would add that one of Jesus’ defects is his impossible dreams.

It’s no surprise that Jesus has impossible dreams: his way of seeing the world was influenced by the poetry of the psalms and the urgings of the prophets who said that the lion would lie down with the lamb and the good shepherd would prepare a banquet for us in the presence of our enemies. The bible is one long story of impossible dreams, one after another.

Today’s scripture passage is exactly that: the thesis statement of Jesus’ impossible dream. By quoting ancient scripture and then preaching an eight word sermon, Jesus sums up his whole plan, his entire impossible dream.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor
The Lord has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus’ impossible dream is one of healing and reconciliation. It is about healing our physical bodies and healing our economic lives as well. It is about the possibility of a return to community, and an increase of justice. So Jesus’ impossible dream has the power to speak to us today. There are health ramifications of our current situation, and there have been, are and will be social and economic ramifications. That Jesus’ impossible dreams include economic justice should not surprise us and might even help us to frame and understand how we respond in the days ahead. Jesus is constantly approving of the sharing of resources, giving to the poor, offering physical ways out of suffering, working toward the healing of the nations.

The scripture passage Jesus reads comes from Isaiah 58 and 61 which point to an even more ancient impossible dream of God’s people—a dream in which people help one another, share bread with the poor, shelter the homeless, set people free from economic bondage.[4] These are ancient values that have tangible consequences and make possible healing and hope.

And, it’s happening today, too. I am hearing from you that you are reaching out to neighbors, helping homeless shelters, caring for medical workers and their families. You are feeding the hungry and comforting those who are grieving. You are rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. You are living into the impossible dreams that Jesus sets before us today. God is calling us to something new in these impossible days. There is work to be done. Living under the banner of Jesus’ impossible dreams, we will find a way to care for the sick and tamp out this virus.

We will teach our children from home. We will work from home. Or deep in the trenches of essential roles we will work harder now than we have in years. We will live more isolated and alone, just for this season, just for this moment in history. We will make new kinds of sacrifices. There will be loss, grief, tenderness. We will live into everything that is impossibly hard about this. We will have hope. We will develop a routine. We will laugh. We will be kind. We will be creative. We will be community, even though we are apart.

We will make music. We will rest. We will love. We will be mindful and silent and dwell in the presence of God. We will join Jesus in his impossible dream to proclaim good news to the poor and to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, And to proclaim the way God’s love is possible, here, now, in the midst of it all. May it be so, for you and for us, an impossible dream in these impossible days. Amen.

Our benediction from the words of Cardinal Van Thuan.

You are still rich with the love of Jesus
So live in the present moment
and fill it with love.
For real love does not reason.
does not calculate
does not measure
does not create barriers
does not remember offenses
does not impose conditions.
You are still rich with the love of Jesus
So live in the present moment
and fill it with love.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

[1] Mitchell, Scott. "How to Maintain Good Mental Health During the Covid-19 Pandemic." YouTube, uploated by Samaracare Counseling March 23, 2020,

[2]Sanders, Jessica. "Ask an Exoneree: Nick Yarris." Instagram, March 26, 2020,

[3] Sources for the life and ministry of Cardinal Van Thuan include (1) Van Thuan, Francis Xavier Nguyen. “Testimony of Hope: Spiritual Exercises of Pope John Paul II”. Pauline Books and Media, Boston. 2000. (2) "The Late Francois-Xavier Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan with Raymond Arroyo" YouTube, July 19, 2013 EWTN Global Catholic Network.

[4] Ringe, Sharon. Luke: Westminster Bible Commentary 1995. Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY. 1995, p. 68.