You know what they say; ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans’. Apparently it was Woody Allen who said it. It’s funny and wise – and most of us immediately grasp what he’s on about. I often think of this saying, because I’m the kind of person who likes to have plans and to keep to them. But as Woody Allen knows, and as just about anyone who’s lived any number of years on this earth knows, life doesn’t always, if ever, work out to plan. And God’s plans for us may be different from our own. And sometimes perhaps it’s not exactly that even God has a plan.
Some people think of having a religious faith as a kind of plan, perhaps an insurance policy kind of plan. I think the writer of today’s Psalm thought a bit like that. You know the kind of thing; Do good, be righteous – and you will be OK. Invest in your future by doing some good deeds today. If good people plan to do good then they get rewarded. And if the wicked do their thing, they get their comeuppance. That sounds like a plan. But, of course, we know, in our heart of hearts, that this is not a plan that works. Good people die young. The most loving and gentle people suffer. Sometimes the wicked get away with it. Life doesn’t go to plan. The best laid plans etc etc… To live the best and most mature kind of human life, you actually have to learn to live with uncertainty, without the kind of plan that can be nailed, without the kind of calculations that make us all feel safe.
In the fragment of scripture that we’ve heard today, Jesus talks about some of the times in our lives when having a good plan is really important and where it actually works. We’ve even experienced this recently at our own church. We haven’t built a tower (like the people in Jesus’ example), but we have had a building project and we’ve had to make very careful estimates of costs and time scales. We’ve had to plan very carefully indeed. We’ve even had to get planning permission – permission to have a plan! We have also had to ask our Treasurer if we can afford it and think about what resources we had – and do some financial planning. It would have been daft to take out the pews without knowing we had the money to replace them with chairs, or to take the Victorian panels down from the front of the church without knowing we could actuallyafford to put in windows in their place and that the local authority would give us permission to do it. We would have made complete fools of ourselves if we couldn’t do it properly and we would have got ourselves into trouble as well – messing about with a listed building without proper plans and permission!! We know what it means to have plans. We know what it means to exercise things like ‘due diligence’.
But alongside that piece in the Gospel about the need to be sensible and to make plans, Jesus also says some things that are, frankly, crazy – the kind of things that no sensible person would make plans to do, things that seem very far indeed from good ideas. He says, if you are going to follow me you have to hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters … If you don’t do that then you can’t be a disciple. And if that wasn’t bad enough he says that you have to carry a cross. You have to be willing to die to follow Jesus. And in a final gesture he says, you have to give up all your possessions if you want to become my disciple. What? None of this sounds anything like a good plan at all. Nobody would ever agree that following someone who asked you to hate your mother and sister, who asked you to be prepared to die and to sell everything you’ve got was a sensible plan. No financial advisor, no advisor of any kind really, would tell you to plan to do those things. So, what on earth is Jesus on about?!
I came across a story this week about a pottery teacher who divided a class into two groups; one group would be assessed on how much they created in a given time, the other group would be graded on the quality of the onework they made. They discovered that, surprisingly, it was the quantity group that ended up producing the works of most quality. The quantity group were churning out lots of things and as they did so they learnt from their mistakes so that by the end of the time they were actually producing some good things. But the other group were so obsessed with making a plan to produce the one perfect pot and so afraid of having a go that they had little to show for their efforts at the end. Sometimes we have to take a risk in life and we have to risk failure so that we can get somewhere on the way. This is true not only for pottery students. It’s true for all of us. If we can find it in ourselves to let go of the perfect plan, or the perfect life, or even the life we’d planned, we may find ourselves really living after all… and we may find our lives more fruitful.
I think that’s what Jesus is saying – in a very dramatic and shocking kind of way. He’s saying there are some things you have to make plans for. But for the really big things in life – for the really big stuff – who we love, what we are prepared to die for, what we are prepared to give ourselves and all we possess to… those things can’t be planned for. They can only be found by taking the kind of risks that might lead just about anywhere.
When I used to conduct weddings, I was often struck by how crazy and unreasonable is a promise that you will love someone and stick with them for the rest of your life. But that’s love. When I think about the people I know in some parts of the world where to be a Christian is to risk your life, I wonder at how fantastically brave they are and how I almost envy them that call to place everything in God’s hands and to risk everything for the Christ who loved us so much that he died for us! And when I hear the story of Saint Francis who gave up the life of a rich, coming man of the Renaissance to follow the one who said ‘blessed are the poor’, then I get goosebumps. And I sense that crazy as all those things seem – they get at what it means to be truly alive. Risking everything for the sake of love and truth and other people – seems suddenly so much more inspiring than making sure your pension plan is bombproof.
There are those who would say that it’s only when we come to the very end of what we can plan in our lives, that we actually find, in the moment where we are powerless and spent, a kind of strength and peace that just weren’t there before.
As someone called Rob Bell puts it,
‘….. true life comes when we’re willing to admit that we’ve reached the end of ourselves, we’ve given up, we’ve let go, we’re willing to die to all our desires to figure it out and be in control. We lose our life, only to find it.’
I wonder how many of you can identify with that moment, the moment when you stop telling God, and anyone else who will listen, your plans … and you let go of your life, only to find it. There are lots of ways, of course, in which we can reach that moment.
It might come, it often comes, through suffering. We become ill. The career we had planned crumbles. A partner leaves us. We lose our savings… We lose control over our lives in our old age. Our plans crumble to dust. We find ourselves without the love we thought we couldn’t live without. We find ourselves facing pain or without the security we thought we had. And then, and then, by grace, we find that in that very moment when we have lost whatever it was, we are found and we find ourselves. And if we have nothing else, we have God with us.
I remember once I was reflecting with someone about how and why it is that the churches are emptying in Europe and North America. Why is it that people don’t come in great numbers anymore to worship God and be part of our churches? And I was asking how we could make church more attractive, more appealing, more enticing to the people around us. The reply shocked me – at first. My conversation partner said, ‘You have misunderstood what Christianity is. It’s a call to take up a cross. It’s not meant to be part of an appealing life plan.’ And I realised that she was right. Of course, I do believe that the Christian faith is the way to life, but it’s not at all like the kind of way that the gym or the yoga group or celebrity offers. It’s not life enhancing in a way that you can market or advertise. It’s not the kind of thing that can fit nicely into your plan to live a better life. It won’t make you richer or healthier or more beautiful. It’s not like a Sunlife plan where you put something in and you know what you are getting out. There is no service user agreement. It’s not a deal. That’s why, I think, Jesus says, ‘If you want to follow me, then carry a cross’. ‘If you want to follow me, then sell all your possessions’, or ‘If you want to follow me, then it won’t help you get on better with your family.’ To follow Jesus is about risking everything, risking all the things that we might have planned to do and be, risking our security, our success, our very lives…. for the sake of something more than we are. Given how we are made it’s nothing short of miraculous that human beings are sometimes ready to give up everything for the sake of something higher or better or deeper than our individual selves. This is why the essence, the heart of Christianity, is revealed to us when we see someone who is ready even to die or to sell up or to offend their relatives for the sake of something so important.
To be a Christian is to be like the Polish Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger in the death camp at Auschwitz. To be a Christian is to be like a young woman who defied her family’s dreams that she marry and have children and nursed wounded soldiers in the Crimea instead. To be a Christian is to be like the woman who shared her house and her table with the poorest of the poor, and who walked the streets of Calcultta picking up abandoned babies to give them a chance. We know Christianity when we see it. But we also know when we live it in our own humble lives, when we know that there we do not live only the planned and sensible lives we present to the world, but that deep down we would give everything for the sake of something bigger than ourselves.
Because we are not building towers or fighting wars. We are being built into the alternative world of the Kingdom of God. We follow one who gave up everything to die for us, who calls forth from us a love as deep as any, and who can show us a world more beautiful and more grace-filled than anything money can buy. We belong to Jesus Christ who is with us when life’s best laid plans fall to dust and who will be with us in those moments when we find ourselves again, the selves that lie beyond our health and youth, beyond our CVs, beyond our security and our achievements. God may laugh at our plans, but God has a plan. It is only this; to love us without measure or end. God is leading us into the fullest kind of life there could be. And God gives us all we need for life and more. It’s not because we earned it or calculated a way to get it. It’s just that’s it given. And so often, at the very moment, when our own plans have come to an end. There, while lost, we are found. Thanks be to God, Amen.