Rev. Jill Komura
Year B, Proper 6 (11) (June 17, 2012)
In my chaplain role, I worked with a patient at the hospital (we’ll call him “Bill”) on and off over the span of about two years, during which time he seemed to be in and out of the hospital every six or seven weeks. Bill was well into his eighties, a former railroad man, and a widower of about four years when I first met him. He was a man of quiet faith, but I could hear the depth of his belief in the way he spoke about the loved ones he had lost over the years: the men he’d served and fought overseas with during the war, his wife of 63 years; their first son, who had died while still an infant; some of his crazier buddies on the railroad, and his cranky but beloved Uncle Walter, who, once upon a time, had taught him how to fish, and then, dragged him as a boy “all over the landscape” as a partner in his fishing adventures. In Bill’s heart of hearts, despite the other tragedies and setbacks of his life, he believed his relationships with those people were as essential a part of God’s plan for his future as they were for his past.
After about a year and a half of this cycling in and out of the hospital, Bill was once again a patient, and he called me to his room to talk. He had concluded that he was never going to be well again. I thought perhaps he needed to process this a little, so, I asked him: “What does that mean to you, not ever getting well again?” Ever the railroad man, he responded, “Well, at first I thought of a train—and what it would be like to run out of rails.” His eyes got kind of big and we looked at each other in alarm. I think both of us were envisioning a train running off the end of its rails and crashing, not a particularly happy image. But he continued: “Then, I thought, well, of course, I’m not the train; I’m just the engineer. And now, it’s like I’m being told, it’s time to get off the train and let someone else take the next run. Maybe… I can go back to fishing…” and his eyes grew misty here—“with Uncle Walter.”
Bill believed that God had a plan. Do you believe God has a plan? It is one of the great dilemmas of faith: How much of our lives is unfolding according to a providential plan regardless of our choices and actions, and how much are we free to determine the direction of our own lives? What about you? Do you believe the book of time is already written, or that it unfolds pell-mell, with complete randomness? Can it be that all the events of life have no pattern or logic? Or do you ever make connections and see patterns across eras, or between particular people you know, and wonder if the plot of your life hasn’t been mapped out in advance by some cosmic author? We’ll set aside Augustinian and Calvinist theories of predestination and we’ll set aside Evolutionary and Creationist debates. But there is still this basic question of faith: Do you believe God has a plan? Let’s take an informal poll here: Show of hands– How many here believe that God has some sort of plan? How many do not believe God has any sort of plan?
Mm-hmm. Thought so. As people of faith, we tend to fall on the side of believing God has some sort of plan. Part of it is our Christian church culture, which is littered with that assumption. We talk about “Creation,” assuming that via some interpretation of the book of Genesis, “God created (or is still creating) the heavens and the earth” according to some plan. We read scripture with God’s “plan” in mind, looking back at Hebrew scripture through the lens of meaning created by our New Testament understanding of Jesus. The whole storyline of Christ’s birth, ministry, death and resurrection that we follow during the church liturgical year is premised on the idea that Jesus Christ is the living fulfillment of God’s “plan” for humanity.
Historically, religious people have succeeded in giving “God’s plan” talk a bad rap by declaring it synonymous with their own moral norms. Anthropocentric and Cultural-centric humans through the ages have blindly assumed that Divine plan must be synonymous with “our” plan. Acting on that assumption, human tribes throughout time have appointed ourselves more wise or holy or more spiritually or morally qualified than others. We assume we are wise enough to figure out God’s plan, and forge ahead, taking land possessed by someone else, engaging in battles to “fulfill” our view of God’s plan, writing law enforcing what we think are God’s hopes for the society, and undermining or overrunning other people’s (usually a less powerful minority’s view) in the name of “God’s plan.”
“God’s plan” language can also be dangerous because it is inextricably bound up with the “theodicy” question. You know the theodicy question: why does a good God allow bad things to happen? “God’s plan” is often the dynamite that blows apart people’s faith in God. For the mother of an otherwise healthy baby that suddenly dies in the 39th week of pregnancy, the words “God’s plan” are about as profane as any two words can be. I remember visiting a very bitter woman patient who said she had stopped believing in God and God’s plan after watching her baby brother starve to death during the Great Depression. In the Jewish religious community, whole new schools of thought sprang up following the Second World War, attempting to reconcile the ancient Jewish understanding of “God’s plan” with the devastating experience of the holocaust. Many Jews at that point became secular; despite being raised as part of God’s covenant people, they felt that God reneged on the covenant amidst the horror of the death camps.
Even for us believers, it’s also just hard to believe in a plan when you can’t really see what the whole plan is. The walk of faith may be “a journey,” but wouldn’t you feel better if you had some sort of itinerary? We want specifics! How can we know our role in the middle of the play without knowing the beginning or the end? The writer T.S. Eliot writes about struggling, especially as we grow older, to sort out the patterns, like “old stones that cannot be deciphered.” His poetic masterpiece, The Four Quarters, is about “living in the middle way,” the years between “time before” and “time after.” (Eliot, The Four Quartets, 30-31) At one point, he says, perhaps in frustration: “There are only hints and guesses, Hints followed by guesses.” (Eliot, 44)
It’s easy to feel as if it’s all about guesses, as if the process of discerning God’s plan and is like wandering up and down endless hallways, rattling doorknob after doorknob until we find ones that actually open. Just think about all the opportunities you consider applying for or pursuing in the course of your life: job leads and transfers and promotions; school or business interests; personal or professional relationships; loan or housing applications? And now expand that to your family and friends? Your daughter’s taste in boyfriends? Your sister and brother in law’s investment strategy? Your best friend’s dreadful situation with his boss? There is a tendency, as believers in the plan, to constantly ask, Is this the right choice, God? Is this part of your plan? Or should I…. (fill in the blank)? Or, the opposite, when, after how many times butting our heads against the wall, we stand back and say, “Hmmm… I wonder if I’m just not supposed to be his/her girlfriend/boyfriend or a Varsity athlete or First chair in violin or an Administrative Vice President?
Maybe “God’s plan” isn’t about all that personal achievement stuff at all. God may care enough about you that every hair on your head is counted (as it says in Matthew and Luke), but “God’s plan” may not be all about our professional and personal aspirations. Maybe that’s just our anthropocentric assumptions. Maybe God’s plan is better hinted at in verse 7 of today’s First Samuel reading: “the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Hmmm. So, God sees what we do not or cannot. God’s view and plan are not the same as the human view and plan. Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions about our role in God’s plan. We certainly witness that in the story from First Samuel today. The prophet Samuel balks when God tells him to go anoint another king. Samuel still mourns for Saul, but God has already written Saul out of “the plan” for Israel’s future. Eventually, Samuel gets over himself, and goes to Jesse’s house, as God requests. With some pretty heavy-handed “hints” from God, he anoints the youngest of Jesse’s son– a shepherd boy to be King of Israel in the presence of his brothers.
No doubt David’s family, looking at their littlest brother, whose total leadership and war experience consisted of taking care of his father’s sheep and battling predators with a slingshot, was probably a bit skeptical that day about “God’s plan.” You think you have reservations about the American political primary system and the electoral college?(!) David, of course, goes on to become perhaps the greatest of Israel’s Kings. Truly, “God does not see as mortals see.”
Jesus’ parable today about the mustard seed and bush also alerts us that God’s plan and God’s goals may look nothing like human plans and goals. In the Hebrew Bible, it is common to see great kingdoms and nation states referred to using the metaphor of huge spreading trees. But when Jesus talks about God’s Kingdom, he talks, not about a majestic and prominent tree, but about– a mustard bush (!?). The Mustard bush is to Palestine what – I don’t know–Scot’s Broom? is to the Pacific Northwest– an invasive and persistent bush that spreads quickly, roots deeply, and is almost impossible to get rid of. So, God’s kingdom is like a weed?! Not only are we asking God the wrong questions about our role, but it seems the only logic we can discern about the Kingdom is that will be the reverse of all our ordinary expectations.
Maybe when it comes to God’s plan, we must do what Paul talked about in second Corinthians, and walk by faith, not by sight. Maybe fitting ourselves in with God’s plan is about us learning to trust. Since, as Americans, we, a) like to feel as individuals we are able to decide what is best, b) resent being told what to do, and c) have difficulty trusting decisions that make no sense to us, this may be one of our greatest challenges as contemporary people of faith.
At one point in the Four Quartets T.S. Eliot writes:
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
Confused? Yes; that was his point. In God’s topsy-turvy logic, we ‘re supposed to arrive somewhere by experiencing its opposite. So instead of aspiring to be a prominent tree, you must work to become a ubiquitous weed. Fitting ourselves into God’s plan may involve letting go of everything we think we know, and then doing the opposite of everything our culture might originally have taught us to expect. God may not have a problem with the American Dream of a job with paid time off, health insurance, a house for your family and your dog. But that part of life may be “six of one/half dozen of the other” as far as God’s plan is concerned. Again, “God does not see” as mortals see.”
The time-bound control freaks among us who need to be “in the know” can hold out hope, like the Apostle Paul, that maybe one of these days, God will fill us in on the whole plan, so that, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then, face to face.” But maybe, like a lot of Jewish Buddhists I know, we need to simply trust in God and let things be. Let go of our worrying selfish need to know the plan. Like the sower in Mark’s parable, sometimes we must just sow the seed and trust in God’s grace to provide the grain for us to be able to harvest. As Wendell Berry put it, “no leaf or grain is filled by work of ours; the field is tilled and left to grace.” That may be the essence of “God’s plan” as far as we’re concerned. Even Eliot, at some point, concedes, “For us, there is only the trying; the rest is not our business.”
Since, in God’s view, though, the tiniest mustard seeds of beginnings hold the potential for what God apparently considers great things, perhaps we can stop worrying about applying ourselves to produce grand works of goodness. If God’s plan for the Kingdom is about what grace can grow from the least conspicuous of seeds, maybe we should be paying more attention to the small, otherwise “insignificant” choices, gestures, and actions of our everyday lives. Maybe this is the part of God’s plan that the acquisitive, appearance-driven, rushing culture around us overlooks, but is the most important part of living.
Those small moments when we can be present and act in love may be the mustard seeds that will put forth great branches to serve others and their communities—an offhand comment or minor favor that God will grow to provide the shade and shelter that help the Kingdom to flourish. To be part of the plan of building God’s kingdom may require less worrying on our parts about providing for a comfortable existence and notching achievements as creatures of time, and instead focusing being present in love with one another in every moment. Maybe this was what Eliot meant, when he wrote, “Love is most nearly itself /When here and now cease to matter.” When every act and gesture is done for this person and these people we are with, then we may catch a glimpse of God’s plan for the building of the eternal kingdom.
Every small word or gesture done in love has the potential to sprout like the seeds of Mark’s sower, often well beyond our place in time, and maybe even our capacity to foresee it. Maybe we will be like Uncle Walter, who, decades after he last dropped a line in the water, managed to reach back into time, and give reassurance and comfort to his nephew Bill, in his moment of greatest need. All this talk about seeds reminds me of the words of Meister Eckhart:
The seed of god is in us.
Now the seed of a pear tree
Grows into a pear tree;
And a hazel seed
Grows into a hazel tree;
A seed of God grows into God.