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The Best-laid Plans…

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We recognize that plans have to be flexible or else we would all go crazy. As one of you said in your response to today’s question, “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.”

Today’s texts – Philippians 3: 4b-14 and John 12: 1-8

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

Some of you may be fans or followers of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team. It’s been a challenging year for that group coming off a specular season last year. They lost too many games early in the season, then their legendary coach Bo Ryan quit unexpectedly in early December.

The team had to adjust to a new head coach who in turn quickly started to adjust some of the plans for the way they played. By the end of the season, even if they had not repeated the success of last season, they had a respectable record and played exciting games.

These were a group of folks that had one plan at the start of the season and then had to adapt and adjust in ways they probably never considered as the season unfolded.

In some ways, that’s the nature of sports. And of life. I think it sets a context for the question posed for our reflection today.

One of our members wrote: “We are advised to plan ahead, but life just rolls so fast with happenings that cannot fit into the plan.  Is it not just okay to take it day by day and hope we are near to what Our Lord has in his plan? Keeping positive is very hard.  How to live in this world is my question?”

It’s a question that really elevates the discussion on how we make plans in our lives to a spiritual issue.

So I think the reading we heard today from Paul’s letter to the people of Philippi in northern Greece helps put this in a spiritual context.

Remember, Paul’s plans for his life had been thrown drastically off his original course. He was a proud Jewish man, a Pharisee, an enemy of this new group of people who followed a carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus. And then he had a transformational experience on his way to Damascus and became one of Jesus’ most ardent followers, taking the carpenter’s message well beyond the boundaries of Judaism – like to places such as Philippi.

Here’s what he wrote to that Christian community in Philippi that he loved so much: “Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached the goal but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”

So to the person who posed today’s question: yes, it is fine to take it day to day and hope – I would say trust – that what we are doing will fit in with God’s vision for the world.

But of course there is more to this whole question that a simple yes or no answer.

I suppose there are some people who don’t make plans and are quite content to glide through life that way. But I think for most of us – for some more than others – we need to make plans to move along with life, whether it’s figuring out what to seek as a career or how to plan a wedding or how to save for a house or how we want to approach retirement.

When we gather here on Sunday morning, to take just a really simply example, there is a lot of planning that precedes your arrival here – planning on your part to get the kids organized or to get breakfast done before you leave or to make sure you have a ride – or to set your alarm clock ahead an hour.

But there is also a lot of planning on the part of many people so this all runs more or less smoothly.

Someone schedules the liturgists and the ushers and the sound person and the nursery attendants. Jonathan selects music and rehearses with the choir. Rebecca – or today, Kaitlin – gets a time with kids ready and our teachers make plans for Sunday school.

When we have communion, Mary Upshaw bakes bread. In the office, Jean Lepro gathers all the threads of the service and the announcements and what’s to come and lays out and then prints the bulletin.

Oh yeah, and I write a reflection.

There’s lots of planning before we get here. And sometimes things change along the way. We adapt. We recognize that plans have to be flexible or else we would all go crazy. As one of you said in your response to today’s question, “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.”

But navigating the unexpected, watching our plans get disrupted, being forced to adapt to things we did not wish for are all hard work and they can leave any one of us on any day more than a little grumpy.

Let’s go to that story of Jesus that we heard a little while ago. He’s with his good friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary for dinner. Suddenly, Mary comes in with some expensive perfume, anoints Jesus muddy and tired feet, drying them with her hair. This was not part of the plan for dinner and it made Judas grumpy.

Now yes, I know that the Gospel writer wanted to portray Judas as a bad guy, a thief and all that. But let’s focus on what Jesus said about this woman who showed such a spontaneous act of love – spontaneity being the antithesis of planning.

He talked mysteriously about how this oil was being used in preparation for his burial, foreshadowing what was to come with his execution later in the week. He later would echo her generous act by washing he feet of his followers at the Last Supper.

Let me suggest, taking an idea from Jacqui Lewis, a pastor in the East Village of New York City, that what we saw in this story was not a woman wasting perfume or Judas being grumpy but what love of God embodied by Jesus can call out of us – extravagant acts of generosity toward others.

That fits in with some of the responses I received to this week’s question – beyond the idea God finding humor in our notion that our plans will all work out.

One person who has faced no shortage of struggles in her own life wrote: “It makes a difference to – first – have a good reason to get up in the morning and – second – to promise that every person you meet or talk to will feel better for knowing you.  As you are being positive and hopeful for others it is easier to be positive and hopeful for ourselves.”

One of the older folks in our midst who has seen a lot of life wrote: “Always balance self-interest equally with interests of others…help other people every day. Be genuine. Be approachable. And smile a lot.”

But if you feel that the curves that life has thrown you are unfair, that you thought you were doing everything right but your life is still not turning out the way you had hoped, those smiles can be hard to come by.

Then sometimes it’s a matter of just looking for those small moments that can elicit a prayer of thanksgiving for the sunrise, the bird songs in the spring, the friend who called to see how you are doing. As one person wrote. “It seems to me that if we can keep a sense of gratitude, even in a difficult time, we are more likely to be positive.”

(Speaking of gratitude, let me digress a moment to say thanks to all those who posed questions for this Lent and those who sent in responses. You helped create a dialogue here around some of life’s key issues.)

Here are a few more ideas.

In this season of Lent, we are heading towards a week when, if we are paying attention to the stories and the rhythm of the days, we are going to feel whipsawed by what happens to Jesus.

Triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, tables overturned in the temple on Monday, dinner with friends on Thursday followed by a betrayal, execution on Friday and then his followers reaching Saturday stunned by feelings of abandonment.

As Rev. Chris Davis from the United Church of Christ national office put it, “Beloveds, we know a thing or two about death … and Good Friday.  And Holy Saturday. And then waiting for what is to come. We have seen it enacted in the lives of those we love. We’ve lived into what we have thought we could not survive.”

But wait, there is one more day in this story, one more day in Jesus’ story. It’s that Sunday when hope breaks through despair, when love overcomes hate. We’ve seen that in our world as well and I’ll bet many of have experienced that in our lives at some point.

Which I think takes us to the issue of trust in God, which I think is deeper question in what we are considering today.

How much to do plan, how much do we trust that what we are doing is God’s vision, how much do we trust that with God, it will all come out OK?

One person wrote: The issue of how to ‘let go and let God’ is the underlying issue.  Trying to live a penciled-in life while trusting God has the pen can be difficult.”

Indeed it is. So we are back to planning being a spiritual issue.

“Finding or keeping meaning and purpose is the key for me,” one person wrote, which I think is pretty central to all of this.

While we need plans and we know they are going to have to adjusted along the way, what really matters is the sense of vision we bring. For me, the North Star is the life and message of Jesus. Others may have different guideposts along the way, but we need that overarching sense of meaning and purpose to navigate what comes our way.

And I’m not yet at that point in life where age and aches and pains and heartaches and disappointments have piled up to create what seems like an unbearable burden. But I know people do reach that point. And that gets to the trailer question that came in this week: “I still question celebrating long life when it is so difficult.”

Surely in the Bible, there are many verses describing those who live to an old age as particularly blessed. Of course, old age in those days was not as old as in our time, but life was still plenty hard. We know that people often reach a point in their lives when going on is very difficult or when they are just ready to let go of life.

A number of years ago I knew a woman in her 90s who knew the end was drawing near. She was not suffering a lot, but she was tired and she knew it was only a matter of days till death would take her. She was ready for that.

One morning she woke up around 5. Her daughter was in the bedroom with her. The woman opened her eyes, looked at her daughter and asked, “Am I still here?” Her daughter answered yes. And her mom just said simply, “Damn.” A few hours later, she had left this earth.

So yes, old age can be hard. I’ve watched people suffer physically, emotionally, spiritually as age treats them harshly.

Paul wrote about this in his letter to the people of Philippi as well. “The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ,” Paul said, “the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.”

We celebrate long life because of what those who have lived over a long span of years have given to us and because on many days, we hope that we will have more days ahead.

When the joy of life begins to fade, then I hope that I can cling to the trust that God’s love and care is still with me even I am beyond making plans for having life go the way I want it to be.

I hope that my love for God and God’s love for me will produce that abundance of care that Jesus experienced that night a his friends’ dinner table and that I will be able to not count the cost but simply revel in God’s grace.

There’s a hymn about that. It’s #206, “A Woman Who Did Not Count the Cost.” Let’s sing it together.