July 19, 2015
“If you want to make God laugh, tell God
I’ve heard that bit of proverbial wisdom
often enough to think that it contains some truth.
And sometimes I think that Iowa City is
the proving ground for this—it’s the place where plans go to be changed. The
walls of the Hamburg Inn are filled with photos of any number of people who
came here to tell of the great plans they had for this nation—if only enough
people would go along with them—plans that for so many were never given a
And just on a side note here—Donald
Trump’s comments here in Iowa yesterday might have gone a long way in
obstructing his plans. You know that as we read through First and Second Samuel
we’re thinking a lot about religion and politics—and Mr. Trump has given us
lots to consider. So I’ll most likely have some further thoughts on this in a
couple of weeks.
On a more positive note, several times
in my eight years here I’ve talked with people—members of this congregation and
non-members alike—who say that they came here planning to stay a couple of
years—often because they or their spouse were working on a degree or because
they found some entry-level job. After that it would be time to move on, since
Iowa City was the last place they were going to live for any length of time.
Now ten, twenty, or fifty years later they’re still here; happily, it is the last place they are going to
And God laughs.
You know what it’s like, don’t you.
Even with all
the preparation, the situation changes once you’re in it.
obstacles show up.
possibilities present themselves.
Please don’t get me wrong. I think that
planning and preparation are important. They provide a good and necessary
foundation for whatever we do. Planning is important for the lives of
individuals and the lives of families. Planning is important for careers and
It’s just that, well, God has a way of
finding things to laugh about.
In our walk through First and Second
Samuel we’ve come to the point at which David is really starting to look like
the king he is known for being. Having brought the Ark of God to the capital
city of Jerusalem, he has consolidated religious and political power in one
place. Peace has come to the land. David lives in a wonderful house.
Seeing all of this, David develops a
plan. He will build a house—a temple—for God. While his plan seems
audacious—the creature building a house for the Creator, the king building a
dwelling place for the sovereign God—while his plan seems audacious, it
certainly fits with all that David has done, coming to power through bold
action that grew out of the confidence that God was with him.
In a way, there’s nothing exceptional
here. Other ancient Near Eastern kings did the same thing, building great
temples as a way to legitimize their rule and ensure the favor of their gods.
David tells his plans to Nathan, the
prophet. Now, as events will show, Nathan doesn’t always approve of David’s
actions, but this time Nathan gives David a building permit: “Go, do all you
have in mind, for the LORD is with you.”
The author of the Letter of James knows
how plans can change. We hear this advice: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or
tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing
business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring.
What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then
vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do
this or that.’”
James warns against the arrogant
thinking that sees life as in our
hands—the strange idea that tomorrow’s activities can be secured without
reference to God.
Such a way of thinking suggests a view
of the world as a closed system of limited resources.
fragile—we know that. How does the hymn put it? “Time, like an everflowing
stream, soon bears us all away. We fly, forgotten as a dream does at the
opening day.” Accidents happen, illness runs its course, bodies fail. The
fragility of life was a common theme in ancient literature. And even now—for
all of our progress, all of our focus on security, and all of our planning—even
now the fragility and uncertainty of life continues to be a part of our daily
An awareness of this fragility can lead to fear and to envy—the outlook
that having is the same as being, the mistaken idea that “selling
and getting a profit” is a way of securing the future. We know that securities are not always secure. And yet, an awareness of the
fragility of life can also lead to a deepening sense of grace—God’s care for
creation, and for us, in our prosperity and through many dangers, toils and
When James suggests that we bracket all
of our plans with “If the Lord wills it” he is not advocating an exercise of
empty pietism—hedging all of our hopes for the good with devout sounding “…God
What James recommends is a way of
speaking that grows out of a profoundly different understanding of reality than
we usually have.
The world is not a closed system of
limited resources. Out of our faith and friendship with God we begin to
understand the world as an open system “created by God at every moment and
infinitely rich in resources provided by God for humans to exist and prosper in
As we open our lives to this God, we discover
the abundance of life given to each of us that we might use it, share it, and
expand it for ever increasing numbers of people and all creation.
But let’s get back to David for a few
As it turns out, God has plans that are
different from David’s. God will build the house, not David. And the house will
be a dynasty—not a temple, not a home.
Instead of a house, a promise.
Instead of a conditional covenant, the
unconditional, steadfast love of God.
Instead of a human work, the grace of
Even later, when the kingdom of David
has fallen, when the people of Israel have been taken into captivity in
Babylon, they will hear the assurance that the promise remains: God is not
finished; God’s promise will endure.
And we Christians hear in this the promise
of the Christ who comes to bring God’s presence close to all the circumstances
of our lives—planned and unplanned.
Our plans meet with God’s compassion as
we move into the future.
Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must
be saved by hope. Nothing which is truly beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are
saved by love.”[i]
“Faith, hope, and love” describes the
way of God’s people—working together over time in one continuous story. The
current chapter—and even the last chapter of that story—are not separated from
all that has gone before.
A couple of examples:
This morning we welcomed Miriam into the
church through baptism. In doing so, we gave expression of “the hope and
happiness that come into our lives by the presence of a child.” We also showed what
has become that particular United Church of Christ virtue of hospitality, of
welcome. We don’t know Miriam yet—and we don’t know her parents as well as we
hope that we will over the coming years. So rather than depending on what we
know, we trust in God’s love and God’s grace—as, really, we do in all of life.
We are reminded today that in baptism we
are brought into a loving community far wider and older than our own
family—indeed, far wider and older than this congregation as well. We are not
alone. We have one another. We have, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the
“communion of the saints” to sustain us in weakness, to support us in despair,
to bear our burdens as we run our race.
By faith we baptize in the hope that an
infant—or a teenager or an adult—might in time grow, not just in her or his own
faith, but in the faith of the church, that is, in a community of belief and
action that moves toward love and justice in the world. So this morning, Miriam
finds herself surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses—as everyone baptized in
this place has been. We have taken on a unique responsibility for her—not just
on our part but on behalf of the entire Christian church as God’s plans for her
unfold throughout her life.
In a similar—although more mundane—way
this morning, we are meeting after worship to consider moving ahead with
upgrading—renovating, remodeling, whatever you want to call it—our kitchen.
Many have been waiting for this for some
time. There’s been a lot of planning.
We listened to those who said we shouldn’t move forward with this until we know
how we want to use the kitchen. And I think we have a pretty good sense of
that: making it a place that supports our hospitality and welcome for this
congregation, for our visitors, and for the wider community.
But as we seek a “building permit” from
our congregation, I’m especially excited about the unknown ways in which our
kitchen, our building, and indeed our congregation will be used by the living
God in the years ahead. We can come up with the money and oversee the work, but
it is God who will make even our kitchen a place of welcome.
We have our plans.
And God always enjoys a good laugh.
Through all of this, the hope that saves
us is the hope that our work for the good will be taken up by others who can
see the flaws, who can see the good better than we can and who will, with the
forgiveness of another age continue toward the goal.
We are faithful people, not in isolation
but in community. By the grace and mercy of the living God, that community
extends not only in space but also through time. We are united in faith and
struggle with those who came before us just as we are untied with those who
come after us.
And that work, of course is unfinished.
It is our work in this time and this
place. We will work for justice: seeking to make sure that the hungry are fed
and the homeless are sheltered and deep wounds of racism and sexism and homophobia
are healed for the sake of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. We will work to
be a place of welcome and solace.
This is what we are
actually building in this place, in these days. And if we are successful in
sharing our faith, that is, in making clear that we worship and serve a living
God, by the grace of that God our children and their children will continue
running the race set before them and us, knowing that they, too, are held in
the unfailing love and grace of God.
Niebuhr, The Irony of American History.