Rev. Stacy Swain
I love a plan. I love planning what will be so that when that time comes, all just seamlessly unfolds — according to plan.
It is good, to plan for retirement and to plan for our children’s college education. Learning plans for kids and lesson plans for teachers are essential. Plans for the end of life make all the difference as we make those difficult decisions on behalf of the departing ones we love.
A plan is a good thing. It gives focus and intention in what could otherwise be a confusing and disorienting landscape.
And we at the church are engaging in planning. You know that this is our stewardship season. We are planning now for all we hope to do and be in the coming year and we are planning how we will meet the budgetary needs our life together will bring.We are also planning for committees and leadership for next year. And we plan on asking you all to consider how your interests and passions intersect with the life of the church and how that may inform your plan for how you will choose to participate in our life together next year.It is good to have a plan so all just seamlessly unfolds — according to plan.
But having a plan does not that things will always go according to plan. Sometimes plans are sidelined by happenings we could never have imagined, let alone planned for. Sometimes, when plans are sidelined, I have heard people say “Well, I guess that was just not part of the plan.“I guess God has something else in mind for us.”
In those times when our plans fall apart, when we may not feel in control of our lives, one can find comfort in trusting that God has a plan, that God is in control of all life.
I saw this most strikingly when Mark and I lived for several years in post civil war El Salvador. We lived in a very rural area of the country with people whose lives had been completely upended by brutal civil war and who were now trying to live off increasingly depleted land and an increasingly erratic climate. These were people who knew what it was to not be in control of their lives and yet had to find a way to live. The public health work that we were doing together required a lot of planning and at that time there were no phones, no texting or email. So every six weeks or so,all of us health promoters would meet up and make a extensive plan to guide the work during the weeks ahead and we would each meticulously write it down the plan in our calendars. We would plan which village would have a vaccination campaigns and when; which village would have a well child clinics and when;which village would begin their water project, what supplies would be needed and when work would begin. And at the end of all our planning and looking over our calendars, Mark and I would say. “Ok, see you then.” And our Salvadoran partners would inevitably reply: “Si Dios quiere!” God willing.;”Si Dios quiere.”
If it turned out that things didn’t go according to plan, well that would be OK because it just meant that God has something else in mind. Trusting that God, not us, ultimately holds the plan for our lives works just fine. Until it doesn’t.
Until something so hard, devastating or abhorrent happens that believing it was part of God’s plan would be so appalling that one would just have to stop believing in God all together.
A devastating illness strikes. A relationship ends.A hurricane destroys. A girl in Pakistan is shot in the head for wanting to learn. A gun man kills 26 in an elementary school in Newtown. None of that was ever, could ever have been part of God’s plan.
And this week we remember the Holocaust. That horrible indictment of humanity.
So in the light of our personal losses and collective failings, there comes a time when I think we have to ask “Does God really have a plan for us?
As I pursued these questions this week, I started pulling books off the shelves in my study and soon found myself in the midst of a head spinning cacophony of voices of theologians across the centuries arguing the question. With impassioned voices all around but no consensus to be found, I did what any well schooled minister in the 21st century would do (apologies to my professors in our midst) — I “Googled” it.“Does God have a plan for our lives?” I typed and hit enter. Do you know how many entries that Google search pulled up?135,000,000. Million!!
So this question “Does God have a plan for our lives?” has not only been on the hearts and minds of theologians throughout the centuries, but it turns out that it continues to be in the minds and hearts of millions now.Well I think because it speaks to the very heart of our relationship with God. What is the essence of that relationship? If God really loves us and the world, then God ought to have a plan for our well being, right?
It is on the knife edge of this question, that we enter the story today.
For “Does God have a plan for our lives?” is the question that Peter needs answered more than anything.For I imagine it was the question the others had been asking him in the days and weeks leading up to today.Ever since that night when Jesus was arrested in the garden and handed over to the religious authorities and then to Roman rule, the disciples must have been whispering amongst themselves and outright asking Peter “What is the plan?”For Peter had always been right at Jesus’ He was recognized as a leader among them. He was the one who always knew the plan.
“So,what’s the plan now?”I can just hear them asking Peter with increasing urgency. And if Peter had had wi-fi, I bet he too would have Googled it!But he didn’t and he didn’t have centuries of theologians lending their thoughts. He only has what he knows and somehow at this point that just does not seem quite enough. And so, in answer to their question, he says:“I’m going fishing.” “I’m going fishing.” he says.
>And what comes next?Well they say, “We will go with you.” And this is the first good newsin the scripture today, the first teaching. When things fall apart we tend to do the same right? We as people together tend to fall a-part when things get too hard, to go our separate ways, to let the ties that bind unravel. We who are in pain tend to isolate ourselves while the rest of us tend to pull away from the one in pain. But not these disciples, it turns out!“We will go with you” they say. Peter may have left Jesus alone in this time of need, but the disciples will not leave Peter and each other alone, now in their time of need and there is
And so they go fishing together.But after a night of doing what they know best their nets are still empty. I imagine that they must feel such a sense of emptiness at this point. Sure they know how to fish but there are no fish.Sure they know the physical relief of working hard through the night but for what? What does the dawn bring?
And then, as the sun crests the low lying hills, they see someone on the shore who shouts out to them.“Cast your nets on the right side,” he says and the remarkable thing is they do! I mean really. Would you?If you were cold and tired and discouraged from a night of fruitfulness toil, from three years of what now seems fruitless toil, would you cast your net out again at the word from a stranger on the shore?
But they do, and they catch a boat load of fish. And in the abundance of it all, they recognize Jesus. Being ready to risk, to step out into what on the surface makes little sense then, brings them face to face with God. Face to face with the truth that God is at work even in the midst of the empty and aimless places in our lives. This is the second teaching of the passage, the second proclamation of good news. God is working to bring abundance out of emptiness, hope out of despair, purpose out of aimlessness.
And then there is this incredibly tender interlude in the text that I just love. It is as if Jesus knows that all this learning and unlearning is exhausting for the disciples and so he gives them this tender time out.Jesus cooks them breakfast. (The first Java Gents!) Jesus knows that they are tired and hungry and cold so he lights a charcoal fire, a charcoal fire – let that detail not be lost on us for it was around a charcoal fire that Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus makes a charcoal fire and cooks some fish and has some bread and invites them in.
And after Peter has dried off and warmed up and perhaps even began to integrate the good news that his best friends and God are with him still, Jesus calls him aside to ask him three times a question that not only will undo the failings of Peter’s denials but that will point Peter towards his future.
Do you love me?” “Feed my lambs!” “Do you love me?” “Tend my sheep” “Do you love me” “Feed my sheep”
In each question and response, Jesus claims and then sends Peter. Claims the love between them that cannot die and then sends Peter out to love
Turns out there is a plan after all. And you know what? It is a really good plan. Love and be love.That’s it really. Love God. Let God love you and then be love in all that you say and do. That’s the plan. No matter what comes. No matter if what you hoped for works out or crumbles around you. No matter what, love and live love.
By way of closing, I’d like to share with you the story of a woman that I met in the hospital during the year of my clinical pastoral education training. I will call her Sam.
I met Sam as she came in for what all presumed would be some routine testing but that uncovered instead a terminal illness.Sam was just a bit older than I was. She was an active woman with many friends and many plans. As I sat with her in those next few days as more tests confirmed the diagnosis. As we sat she tried hard to make sense of what was happening, but just kept shaking her head and saying “This was not the plan.” “This was not the plan.”
Once the final diagnosis was confirmed, they started coming. Friends by the scores. Young and old, men and women from all parts of her life. They just kept coming. Day or evening, I would knock quietly on her door to ask if I could come infor a visit and I’d find her with one, two or many more people. With their presence they were saying “Where ever you are going, we are going too, at least as far with you as we can.”
Then one late afternoon, I came into her room in one of those rare moments when she was alone.As I sat down beside her I could tell that something had changed in her. She was completely present.It’s hard to describe but no longer was she chasing after something that was no longer to be. It is as if all of herself had come home and was now fully dwelling in one space now. And then she said “You know, I am not angry any more.I was angry because I love living so much.I love living so much and I wanted so much to live out a long life. But you know what I think I love the most about living?I think what I love the most about living is love.So that’s what I am going to do.I am just going live this love I feel for life, for you, for all my friends right now and in the next moment and the next and that’s enough.I’m not even the least bit afraid anymore of what comes next.No not the least bit afraid.In fact I’m down right curious,” she added with a laugh.
So let’s go ahead and make plans. Good plans. Let’s plan with wisdom and let inspiration lead our life together as we move into next year and the next. Let us plan how our pledges, time and talents will help grow the vibrancy and reach of this beloved community. But let’s also remember that beneath, above, before, behind, in and through all, our good planning is God’s plan.That we love, love God with all our hearts and minds and strength and that we love each other and all the world as ourselves. When we live love, singularly and steadfastly, regardless of whatever may come, to borrow a phrase from Julian of Norwich “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Sounds like a good plan to me!
Thanks be to God.Amen.