Listen to sermon here: We Plan, God Laughs
2 Kings 5:1-14
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on July 3, 2016.
According to the Jewish ‘sage’ Woody Allen, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” It’s a wonderful aphorism that he likely culled from the shorter Yiddish saying: Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht (“We plan, God laughs”). And many believe this saying has its roots in the Psalms, especially Psalm 2 in which God laughs at the plans and plots of the nations (2:4). And in this morning’s Psalm, we read about someone who boasts of his plan to enjoy life completely unperturbed, saying, “I shall never be disturbed…[God] has made me as strong as the mountains.” And yet in the next verse, his plans are quickly upset by the experience of an overpowering fear. And Psalm 33:10 says it most blatantly: “God frustrates people’s plans.” We plan, God laughs.
In our reading from 2 Kings, we encounter another example of a man’s frustrated plans. When Naaman learns of a prophet in Israel who can cure him of his leprosy, he plots his healing out to a tee. He expects the prophet to greet him with open arms, conjure the power of the Israelite god and then perform a shamanic healing ritual over his leprous skin in order to enact a dramatic and magnificent cure. However, the Israelite prophet Elisha does not even give him the courtesy of greeting him at the door. Instead, he sends a messenger to tell him to wash seven times in the Jordan, a muddy river that pales in comparison to the beautiful rivers of Syria. Naaman is, of course, outraged not only because of Elisha’s peculiar instructions to basically wash in mud and his apparent lack of hospitality (which is a serious offense in near Eastern culture); he is also outraged because things simply are not going according to his plan. He wants to be healed of his leprosy, but he also expects to be healed according to his schedule and his sense of custom and aesthetics. Thanks to the advice of his intrepid servants, he decides to let go of what he had planned and to follow the prophet’s instructions, no matter how bizarre and humiliating. As a result, he ends up completely healed of his leprosy, with skin like that of a young boy. Naaman learns that God’s healing is at work, even when almost nothing goes according to his plan.
Naaman learns the spiritual lesson that mythologist Joseph Campbell invites us to learn when he says, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” These words have been a consistent source of challenge and encouragement to me over the years, especially since I often make plans that simply don’t work out. I guess I make God laugh quite often. Although occasionally some things do work out according to plan, I have found that to be the exception to the rule.
For instance, my ordination process felt long and sometimes frustrating and did not necessarily follow my preferred schedule. It was about a seven-year process (give or take) and I often felt like I was walking through muddy and opaque waters. And I am now in the seventh year of my doctoral program and hoping against hope that I will soon be healed of the “leprosy” that is dissertation writing. Now perhaps I’m being a little melodramatic, but I think we can all relate to Naaman to a certain degree as we find ourselves sometimes wallowing in the mud of our frustrated plans.
And yet healing does come as we learn to let go of the life that we have planned and embrace the thrilling and unexpected adventures of the life that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell also said provocatively, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” It is often the adventures that are most unexpected and unplanned that prove to be the most transformative and healing. And it is often when our future seems most obscure that “the God of surprises,” in the words of Desmond Tutu, will play “his most extraordinary and incredible card.”
So why make plans at all? As much as I might like the idea of making God laugh with my many ill-fated schemes, I’d rather be working in cooperation with God’s will and plan for my life. I find some helpful guidelines for making plans in this morning’s Collect and this morning’s Gospel. The Collect reminds us that we can follow all of God’s commandments by simply loving him and loving our neighbor. Let our love for God and others serve as a lamp to light our path and guide our plans. By cultivating a loving devotion to God and fostering a “pure affection” for one another, we inevitably cooperate with God’s will and plan for our lives.
When it comes to the details, however, I find the Gospel to be especially helpful. In appointing his disciples to be travelling healers, Jesus gives them peculiar instructions as we learn that Hebrew prophets are wont to do. He says, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Offer peace; if it is rejected, don’t worry about it. Eat what is set before you. If people welcome you, then bless them and heal them. If they reject you, then just let it go; let go even of the dust that clings to your feet. And then move on.”
Underneath the initial peculiarity of these words, I hear Jesus inviting us to do what former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori would often say: “Travel light,” meaning “Be open. Be adaptable.” In other words, Make your plans to love God and love your neighbors but hold all the details lightly. Be willing to be surprised. Be vulnerable to unexpected adventures, including rejection. Make your plans, but hold them lightly because they will ultimately make way for God’s plans.
As a result, the disciples have the time of their lives. They return, overflowing with joy because they tapped into God’s healing power. They let God’s plans override and overwhelm their own and subsequently they brought freedom, wholeness and new life to all who received them.
So let us go ahead and make our plans prayerfully and pursue them, guided by love for God and neighbor. And even though they might seem like the most holy, God-ordained plans in the world, let us still be prepared for them to be frustrated so that they might become even more fully aligned with God’s plans for us. And let us be willing to immerse ourselves in the muddy and unclear waters of the Jordan in order to be transformed by the God of surprises who ultimately seeks to heal us and to heal the world through us. We can hold ourselves lightly and even learn to laugh joyfully (and rejoice) with the God who laughs at our plans because we know our names are written in heaven. And we can rejoice with the Psalmist whose upset plans led him to a renewed intimacy with God, who seeks to turn all of our mourning into dancing and to make our hearts sing forever. Amen.