Greg Levoy said it, in his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life: “The best way to make God laugh is to proclaim your five-year plan.”
I’m remembering two friends of mine who met in grade school, fell in love in high school, and got married just after college: they, in fact, had what was well-known to all of us as “the five-year plan.” And it was a plan that was reasonable, well-thought out, and very prudent – basically, that over the first five years of their marriage, they were going be settled in their respective careers, they were going to purchase a home and get it fully furnished; make sure that both their car and truck was fully paid for, and put away a substantial amount of cash for the future. After five years, when all of this and more got done, then and only then would there be talk of raising a family.
And it was all working out very well… until… about three years in, when one warm summer evening I got a phone call from my friend who said to me, “Guess what? We’re going to have a baby!” Now, understand, I’d known this couple since we were all in first grade; I was best man at their wedding! Nobody was more loving and supportive of these two than I was; and so as my friend shared this incredible news with me, the only thing I could say was, “But you’re only three years into the five year plan!” And my friend said, “I know! I was thinking about it going home tonight, and I almost drove off the road!”
John Lennon was right, you know – life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans! Or, to put it a bit more spiritually, from Ecclesiastes, “[God] has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (3:11) It’s not that we shouldn’t have a plan, or set some realistic goals for ourselves – on the contrary, most of us would be much better off if we did – it’s just that making plans that cannot change and setting goals in concrete is fraught with peril; because the story of life is riddled with the unexpected, there’s nothing more constant than change, and oftentimes our final destination ends up not being the one we’d first imagined.
Not that that’s a bad thing; it turned out, for instance, that “three years in” was the perfect time for my friends to start a family; truly, so many of life’s greatest blessings end up being the ones we weren’t expecting. At the end of the day, our life’s meaning – its depth, its purpose and, yes, its ultimate joy – comes down not to what we have mistakenly perceived as its destination, but is found in the journey itself; this mysterious and sometimes arduous pathway of life that God has set before each one of us on which to walk and to live.
And how else do we deal with such a journey, except by faith?
In our gospel reading this morning, we have yet another seemingly inappropriate request of Jesus, this time from James and John, to be granted favored positions beside Jesus in the kingdom of heaven. “Arrange it,” they say, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory – one of us at your right, the other at your left.” (The Message) Remember, as Mark tells the story, this all comes on the heels of the disciples having already squabbled about who amongst them was the greatest, and Jesus’ teachings about the stiff requirements of discipleship. So for James and John to return to this subject now comes off as misguided, extremely petty, and more than a little selfish! Simply put, they just don’t seem to get it!
But this time, I think I actually understand where they were coming from. I’m wondering if perhaps what James and John were really concerned with was their destination! Think about it; after all, these were the ones who’d left everything to follow Jesus, and it hadn’t been altogether easy to walk with Jesus along his pathway, especially given all his talk about becoming servants, being last in order to be first, and then about his betrayal and death! It’s understandable that James and John would want to have at least some small sense of where it was leading for them! In other words, Lord, we know you’re the Messiah, so when everything finally comes together and the kingdom comes, let us be right there with you in ruling your realm.
And in truth, you and I kind of ask the same things, don’t we – like, I’m a good Christian person, Lord; I do “do unto others” and love as I have been loved; so shouldn’t that mean a good and prosperous life for me? All I’m asking is that when you bring peace on earth, could some of that peace please trickle down into my life and that of my family? Where will I end up in all this, Lord?
See what I mean? I think this is why, when James and John make their request, Jesus responds not with anger or a rebuke; he just answers simply and not unkindly, you don’t know what you’re asking. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,” Jesus says, “or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” You see, for all their planning, Jesus knew something that the disciples didn’t – that this road that Jesus was walking was a road that led to torture, to death on a cross. There would always be a cost along with the joy of their discipleship – that’s why Jesus went on to say that the disciples would drink the cup he drinks, and would be baptized with his baptism. But exactly where that would leave James and John; well, that was yet to be determined. What you all need to be concerned about, says Jesus, is the journey, and what happens along the way; that you’re walking this way as my disciples, remembering that the Son of Man who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” That’s what this journey is about; that’s faith.
William Willimon puts it this way: “Christianity is not a set of beliefs, first principles, [and] propositions. It is a matter of discipleship, following. Faith in Jesus is not beliefs about Jesus. It’s a willingness to follow Jesus …a simple willingness to stumble along behind Jesus. The faith is in the following.” Or as Martin Luther said, it’s “imitating the moves of the master in all we do,” taking as our own the very nature of God “to exalt the humble, to feed the hungry, to enlighten the blind, [and] to comfort the miserable and afflicted.”
Friends, one of the beautiful contradictions of our Christian faith is that while we are saved by divine grace and not by what we do, nonetheless the depth of our faith often comes down to just how closely we’ve chosen to walk with Jesus on the journey. It is no accident that of the earliest names for followers of Jesus was “The Way.” A way of life, yes; but most prominently, a way of walking; understanding that to believe in Jesus means you’re not going to stay in one place in your life; but involves movement, growth and change – all in tandem with God’s purposes as we go.
That’s where James and John got it wrong. To quote Willimon again, “Jesus is not a technique for getting what we want out of God; Jesus is God’s way of getting what God wants out of us.” And what God wants from us is to walk “the way” with Jesus! That doesn’t mean that we’re always going to be walking inerrant in a perfectly straight line for the rest of our lives; because we’re human and we’re inevitably going to get ourselves mired in life’s “puckerbrush.”
That’s why in the baptismal service this morning, when we’re asking Becca and Nick to raise little Ryder in a Christian manner by witnessing “to the work and word of Jesus Christ,” we add the words, “as best you are able.” Because we know that their journey will be full of twists, turns and unforeseen detours; no matter how careful or faithful they are, they’re going to stumble; that’s just the nature of the journey! But we also know that “according to the grace” given them they’ll pick themselves up, they’ll grow as persons and as a family, and they’ll keep moving on the Way. And along that way, there will be incredible joys and wonders to behold, things they can’t even begin to imagine at this point; blessings that came about by virtue of the journey itself.
The good news of the gospel, friends, is that there is a “final destination” for us as believers – but not a single one of us here can say we’ve arrived at that destination until that moment when we stand face to face with the Lord in the Kingdom of Heaven So it follows that each one of us still has “a long and winding road” ahead of us as disciples – and each new day, every new experience, all of our relationships are meant as great opportunities for love, joy, new hope, and the deepening of faith along the journey.
It might not always be an easy way to walk; oftentimes it’ll lead us in a direction and to a place we weren’t expecting, and maybe didn’t even want to go. There very well may be some suffering that goes along with the walking, and we might just have to carry a burden that seems to slow us up and weigh us down; and we’ll ask ourselves if the journey’s even worth it. But somewhere along the way we’ll realize the burden wasn’t quite as heavy as what we thought – and that maybe we weren’t alone in carrying it.
That’s the thing, you know. Life is a journey, and each of us has a pathway to walk. But as the song goes, we’ll never walk alone.
May God guide us and keep us faithful to the journey that’s ahead of each one of us, and may our thanks be unto God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry