… a sermon from James 4:11-17 by Rev. Elizabeth Hagan preached on November 12, 2017
This morning, I’m wondering for each of you, how much do you plan ahead in your life?
Are you the type of person who lives and let’s be—having no idea what you’re going to do until you actually do it?
Are you the type of person who keeps a schedule on your phone or on a paper calendar and then considers at the beginning of each week what your calendar says you committed to do?
Or are you the type of person who lives by a plan with dates mapped out for what you’ll be doing well into the future? 2018 for you is on its way to already being booked!
I thought I landed in “the planner” category but that was until I met my friend’s mother. This mom regularly calls her to both let her know what her plans are for visiting her months in advance but also to plot where they’re going on vacation together as family one year or sometimes even two years at a time. Blaming it on her love of being an amateur travel agent, this mom finds those “buy in advance deals” that she believes she can’t pass up and drags her daughters and grandchildren in to committing when they’re going to take time off even before they considered they had time off to take!
No matter where you are on the planning spectrum, there’s one belief that all of us hold about our lives. It is that we’re in control of it.
Now, I know that’s not a churchy thing to say. I’m in control of my life. Of course, the “right” answer in a sanctuary like this would be something more like, “God is in control” Or, “Whatever is God’s will, will be” Right?
But, deep down in our hearts, we just don’t believe that’s true.
We believe we are meant to always be in the driver’s seat and thus, operate our lives on principles that could be summed up by cultural wisdom like: “Opportunity does not knock, it presents itself when you beat down the door.” Or “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it.” Or “If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.”
Then, when good things happen, we believe we made them happen (or at least sort of made them happen).
With all of this true, as seek to get real this morning about our notions of what makes our life go—the book of James is a great conversation partner. For James, unlike any other book of the Bible really hits it to us straight. James speaks wisdom into our cultural notions of planning and accomplishment. And James reminds us we all have enough for now.
James, different from other epistles in the New Testament, is not compiled by an actual person, scholars help us understand. Rather, the book of James comes from a wisdom tradition ascribed to the faith of James, the biological brother of Jesus.
Such an honor came to James as he was a teacher with a unique place in the early church. Different from the Apostle Paul, James, was not a missionary or a church planter. James was a pastor. He was a pastor with a congregation in Jerusalem that consisted of Jewish Christians who, much like the audience of the gospel of Matthew, sought to figure out how to be faithful to the wisdom traditions of Judaism and still follow Christ. And James the pastor spoke directly to his people (much like I am doing this morning) who were faithful disciples to a culture that didn’t understand their faith. And to this particular context this wisdom emerged in verse 13 of our text:
“Come now, you who say, today or tomorrow we will go to such and such town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.”
Or in other words this scripture asks—why are you planning ahead so much? Why?
I don’t think this is because James was so anti-plans. James didn’t want the congregation to live la vida loca. No, it’s true, plans can be oh, so good for helping us all move in the right direction.
But what James wanted to call out in this wisdom was arrogance.
Arrogance. James grieved with his well-to-do congregation’s arrogance. For it was their arrogance that led them to plot out their days. It was their arrogance that assumed their intellect would get them exactly what they wanted. And it was their arrogance that believed they could speak something into existence and simply make it happen.
And all of this was called arrogant because it left out God.
One commentator put it like this, James challenges a view of the world based on “a closed system of limited resources, available to [a person’s] control and manipulation, yielding to market analysis and sales campaigns.”
James’ wisdom, you see, would go against all the most brilliant minds of the public relations and fundraising departments in any corporation— the wisdom if we just tweet the right messaging, if we just put more money into the right accounts, or if we show up on ads in the right people’s Facebook pages, then, we’ll be successful.
Sure in the short-term it might feel like success but, it wouldn’t be success that lasted. It wouldn’t be success that could be controlled. Or plotted on a growth chart forever.
Just ask those friends of ours who had their lives turned upside down this fall by hurricanes, fires, gun violence or unexpected financial failure. Nothing is certain forever when it comes to earthly success.
For as James 4:14 says, “For [we] are a midst that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
None of us is in control, even as much as we would like to be.
This morning, I want to offer you a word of personal testimony about this wisdom from James. I learned much from the school of hard knocks about this “I’m not in control” business within my own story.
In 2008, my Kevin and I were ready to welcome a child into our lives. We’d been married a year. We both had stable jobs. We lived in a townhouse in Northern VA with an extra bedroom. We both believed that we were called to parenthood. So why would we not get pregnant right away? We talked about baby names. I mused on where I might buy a crib. Our mothers couldn’t wait to have grandchildren. And my church at the time kept talking about wanting to have more babies in the nursery. And why would I not want to help them?
But then month after month passed. Nothing new to report. Agony. Doctors said we were healthy. But still nothing happened.
Then, as we stared down for the first time the label that sent us to medical specialist several months later: infertile, we did so with a lot of feelings of despair, hopelessness and wondering why God sent us to a childless desert (when all our other friends lived happier places called baby showers, birth announcements and the baby aisle at Target!). Life felt so very unfair. Cruel even. Why was this our path to walk? Was God not hearing our prayers?
I am here to tell you that this unknown lasted 8 years.
While there were moments when our hopes were raised by promises of fertility treatments, potential adoption placements—the season could now be summarized by how much money we spent on Kleenex, how much time we spent sobbing into the rug on our bedroom floor and how many friends we lost for no one seemed to know what to say or do to fix our pain.
I came face-to-face with this false idea I’d believed for most of my life as James writes in verse 13: “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such and town and spend a year there . . .”
I had believed, you see, that I was the author of my own life. And if I just worked hard enough at the medical options offered to us to have a child, then I’d be successful. Key word: I.
But my faith journey, you see, offered a different path. It offered me this: “Give up what you want for your life. Give it up.” The path that James speaks of in verse 15— “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’”
For this is what I most learned through our long years of waiting—God’s invitation of hope for us came in living in the present. Not what I wanted my life to be five weeks from now. Or five months from now. Or even five years from now. But NOW.
And, I tell you once this idea of living in the present and letting God take care of the rest sunk into my being resurrection came. I saw the world differently. I dreamed new dreams. And peace came to my weary bones. Slowly my love of Kleenex went away. Even if nothing about the number of people in our family changed.
In the same way, church, this morning, it’s time to consider anew how God wants us to live in the present.
Over the course of the time that I’ve been at The Palisades Church, I’ve heard from a lot of you your hopes for the future, your strategies for growth, and your fears about all the what ifs if we don’t become all that you might think we can be.
And I’m here to tell you on this the second Sunday of stewardship month—the month we’re doing thinking together about the kind of church we want to be, church: it’s time to let go of control.
It’s time to let go of “it must be this way” ideas.
It’s time to let go of our arrogant plan making.
It’s time to let go of “have it our way” future.
Church, this morning, it’s time let it go.
It’s time to lay aside our best laid plans even just for a second to hear what God wants first.
Did you hear me say that? We must ask ourselves in this present moment—what does God want?
And let us see with our own eyes that we in fact have enough for now.
Author Cheryl Strayed has said: “You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt with. [But] you have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you’re holding.”
How are we going to play the hand we have now, church?
Hear me say this morning, if I’ve learned anything in my “I love the future” planning ways it is that, sometimes all our peering into what might be is in fact a defense mechanism that keeps us from seeing what is right in front of us (on the inside). For it’s so scary to stand still, stay put long enough to do that work in the here and now.
But, in fact, the only thing that might truly save us and set our feet onto the most abundant paths of living is to DO THE WORK in the place of life we’re actually in.
For me, doing that work in such a “stuck” season, birthed a whole other kind of mothering, mothering I would have never expected to do in my middle of the night cries about why I couldn’t get pregnant.
Mothering that looks like what I shared with you about earlier in the service, pouring energy into Our Courageous Kids so that youth growing up without champions in international orphanages can be able to go to secondary school, college or have Christmas presents. Kids that might be otherwise left out or forgotten can know that faces like yours are thinking of them today and are including them in your family’s resources. I tell people all the time, I now have more kids than I could have ever imagined back when I was just asking God for one.
And isn’t that grace?
I don’t know what your “enough for now” path will look like as you keep following Jesus. But I do know you’ll be able to start uncovering it as you simply stay put for a minute and don’t rush off to the next thing.
A friend of mine recently offered this prayer on a devotion site and I couldn’t help but think it’s the prayer we all need today.
We can never know everything that our days will hold –
But we can know that God will be with us.
Take a breath.
Let God prepare you for the unknown.
Be present here today. Give. Love. Serve. Preserve. Trust in what you can’t see. It’s enough for now.
Church, hear me say this morning again- you have enough for now.