Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
Perhaps you have heard the humorous spiritual saying: “If you want to make God laugh tell him your plans.” (Always seems to be a “him” in this saying). “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” It is perhaps derived from an older Yiddish saying that is even more succinct: “We plan; God laughs.”
There is a kernel of truth here, where this phrase points to the ways in which God’s Spirit can move in unpredictable ways that may thwart our carefully crafted plans. It is a caution against thinking we can plan our way out of every possible contingency, or take into account every possible twist and turn of life. It is a reminder that even our best plans to do put us fully in control. The wildness of the Spirit as it moves in our lives is not ours to control.
Still, while I appreciate the humor and truth this saying conveys, I have always felt the shrug of discomfort whenever I hear it. For one, the laughter of God here is a bit ambiguous. It could be good-natured and kindly—seeing our lives from a perspective far removed and more wise than our own. On the other hand, it could a derisive laugh—like: “Ha! You think that’s what you’re going to do? Just wait…”
Coupled with that, though, one could read the message as being: “don’t make plans. God is fickle. What’s the point?”
Jesus’ words in today’s allegory run counter to this Spiritual maxim, which is not, I might add, one found in the Bible.
This passage of the wise and foolish builders, as it is sometimes called, is the conclusion to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus is wrapping it up by declaring that those who follow what he has laid out will be as the wise builders who set up their homes on a study and stable foundation and those who do not will be as the foolish builders building on unstable ground.
A quick recap then of some of the “greatest hits” from the sermon on the mount that we would be wise to follow: the beatitudes (“blessed are those…”), “you are the light of the world,” the Lord’s Prayer, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” “turn the other cheek,” “love your enemy,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Hear this and do this, Jesus says.
Building a house does not happen in a day, however. So there is an inherent planning that must take place. So too with us as people and as a church: Jesus’ calling to us is to be thoughtful and intentional about living the Gospel. We are not to be haphazard with it, nor to do it when we have extra time or when the fancy strikes us. Jesus sets a foundation and we built around those values, planning and working together.
Part of this planning and building happens as we discern how God is calling us to live our our mission of Fierce Justice, Radical Love, and Abundant Grace in the year ahead. These central commitments will steer us as we plan for what might be and how we will manifest these values. To some extent they can and will happen organically, but how much more when we set our intentions together!
Another part of this planning and building is undertaken through this season when we talk about stewardship and ask you to consider your pledge to Cherokee Park for 2020. This is a tandem process with our visioning for our mission in 2020. The Finance Team works hard to put together a thoughtful budget, and huge piece of that planning happens through having each of our pledges to take into account. Pledges make possible so much of what we do here, and they are essential to our ability to plan for and carry out our collective work living out the Gospel to the fullest extent.
We don’t often talk about money. It can be considered impolite or offensive to bring it up as a topic of conversation. Yet the practical, financial aspects of planning are paired with the planning out of our vision and how we live the central tenets of our faith—the faith of Jesus. We cannot just plan out our ideals with no thought to the practical needs it will take to achieve. Just as a builder cannot envision a house and make it so without also accounting for the many details that will make it reality.
Recently, I heard an interview with Ira Glass, the founder and host of the radio show This American Life. In the interview, he talked about starting the show from scratch, envisioning a quirky, interesting new type of radio show that could tell stories and explore themes in ways that were new and interesting and engaging. He had worked with humorist radio DJs, public radio producers who incorporated soundscapes into their programs, story-tellers. He had been a journalist for NPR for a while. Through all this he had a plan, a vision, of starting his own program, which he eventually did.
But his big vision plan also had a very pragmatic plan around funding. In order to get his show picked up by different public radio stations around the country, he had to individually contact them all because each station chose their own content and what to air and when. His strategy to get all these individual stations to play his show was that he would create his own funny, poignant pledge drive spots that they could use during their station’s pledge drive. As a result each of these stations found it very worthwhile to pay him to air This American Life because the response to his pledge spots was really solid.
In one such pledge drive pitch, Ira begins by noting that of people who listen to public radio, only 1 out of 10 actually make a financial donation. That’s 9 listeners who get for free this radio station they listen to all the time. You have a very good thing going,” he said. And to drive home the point, he decided to see if he could get a buy 1 get 9 free deal elsewhere. He called up a phone company asking to get ten phone lines but only pay for one. The person he spoke to on the other end was baffled: “wait, so let me understand, you want to set up ten phone lines but only pay for one?” “Yeah.” There was a long, long pause before the guys says: “Noooo. We can’t do that here.” You could hear the bewilderment in his voice. Sometimes he would do these pledge spots live on the air and he would watch the phone lines light up in response.
In explaining his thinking at the time to the present-day interviewer he said: “There is nothing more common than a really great idea that just never ends up working because it can’t make the business side work.” One can have the perfect vision, a plan to set in motion the highest ideals and make real what we believe, but without the pledges to support that work, to make the plan real, it remains an idea.
We do have that vision, however. And Cherokee Park has a history and a future of making those visions reality. We have anti-racism work to be done, community relations to build, rejoicing and struggling and mourning and celebrating to do together. We gather for worship and reflection and sing and dance together. We unashamedly proclaim that any wall or brick in the path of justice and full dignity must be moved out of the way. We draw near to the source of goodness and life to learn and replenish our strength and ability to love. We find God, improbably, in our midst, over and over and over, learning what grace means.
The precise contours of how we live this all out may take different shapes as we live into the future and heed God’s call, but the foundation is solid—grace, justice, and love—we are laying the plans together. Jesus here with us. Will you join in this live-giving work? That we might build a house where all are welcome and love truly dwells.