I’m sure you’ve seen the commercial—where the couple is talking to their financial advisor, and shares that they are going to be grandparents. So they want to “change their plans” to begin a savings account for the new one(s). Then they see new apartments that are closer to the growing family—and return to say “change in plans”—and in the longest version, Grandma is encouraged by her daughter to sell some of her recent paintings—and once more, back to the financial advisor, who greets them with, “Let me guess, A Change in plans?”
Now let’s get out of the way that these people have more assets than most who are probably seeing the ad. But it gets at a truism for human life, we are always having a change in plans. Whether it be a job move, or an unexpected diagnosis, or a pandemic, or just the way life works, we all have had to deal with “a change in plans.” In fact, there is an old Yiddish saying that goes, “Men [and I’ll add Women] plan, God laughs.”
The world that we live in is not static. It is forever throwing us curve balls, and serving up obstacles we did not foresee, and making our lives difficult. Life is much more enjoyable if we can learn to be flexible, and to recognize that no matter how much we plan, sometimes, through nobody’s “fault”—there is a change in plans.
And when it is not just you involved in making decisions, changing plans becomes more frequent. This is even true of God. As we have marveled before, our God has chosen to be in an intertwined relationship with us—wanting to be a part of life here and now. But sometimes that means God has to change plans as well. That’s part of the story we read from the first book of Samuel today. Israel has been constituted a people—God has rescued them from enslavement in Egypt, marched them around a desert for a long time, brought them into the promised land, and has been communicating with them all this time by prophets—those who are willing to interface with the awesome One.
And God seems to be very comfortable with this arrangement. But the people of Israel have now seen other ways—they have been living near (or among) other nations, who do things differently. In particular, they might have had prophets, but they also had kings—someone to make day to day decisions, someone to lead you into battle, someone to wield power. And the people of God looked at the other nations with envy. We want that too, they clamored. Even after God, through the prophet Samuel, tries to paint a picture of some of the downsides of having a king—they still demand that Samuel anoint a king—so they can be like the other peoples in their neighborhood.
For God, it was a not-so-welcome change in plans—but God finally said to Samuel—give them what they want, a king (spoiler alert, God then used this change in plans, several times removed to create the line of David—the line that in the Bible produces Jesus). So, if life throws a wrench in your engine, or gives you lemons, be like God, make a change in plans, and make some lemonade, or better yet, lemon squares.
Our other Scripture lesson from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in gospel of Mark also tells a story where what we think we know gets turned upside down. Here it isn’t the political order that is having a change in plans, but the order of our domestic household. Jesus has had a whirlwind beginning to his ministry, calling disciples, healing crowds of people, casting out demons, having to deal with the religious authorities who are intent on keeping the status quo. And in the midst of all this frenzy, he hasn’t been eating well, or probably sleeping much. Word gets back to his family, we hear of his mother and his brothers coming to see him—wanting to remove him from this disturbance that he is creating.
When Jesus’ family shows up, the crowd lets him know they are there—supposing that he will stop what he is doing, and, like a good son, listen to his mother (and if not her, then be wrestled back to the right path by his brothers). But Jesus sees this as a teaching moment. “A change in plans” he says. Here’s how I see the world, he says. The unit that I’m responsible to, the people who have my best welfare at heart, the ones I am going to call mother, and sister, and brother, are not those out there—trying to pull me away, but you, in here, doing the will of God, being a part of the movement, the ones willing to know they need God in a different way.
Often I am amazed at how radical Jesus really is. I mean, when people become part of a group that tries to redefine their family—original family members might hire someone to rescue their loved one from a cult. And in the gospel of Mark, Mary (Jesus’ mother) appears only in this passage, and one other, in chapter 6 where the people of Jesus’ hometown use her as an identifier. When they hear Jesus preaching they ask “Where did this man get all this?...Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2,3)
(As an aside, I know that different gospels give Mary a different role in Jesus’ ministry—but we are dealing with Mary in this gospel of Mark).
I know that the official interpretation of this passage is that it isn’t trying to displace the order imposed by family structure—no, Jesus was merely trying to say that this community he was constructing would be along non-biological lines—that we all would be able to have a seat at the table. This is underlined in not one but two stories where great crowds of people need to be fed—and Jesus tells the disciples to feed them, as if they were guests in their homes—even though they were out in the countryside. Jesus even opens the doors to little children, proclaiming that “to such as these the kin-dom of God belongs.” But I also notice that it seems that the disciples HAVE left their families, have shifted their allegiance to this new community, this new family structure. Take Peter’s boasting in chapter 10 where he says “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age…” (Mark 10:28-30a)
I guess what I’m saying is that my reading of Jesus’ “change in plans” of who is family might be a little more than opening the circle wider. Of course, the religious authorities of every age have wanted to keep that idea on low simmer rather than full boil—I mean, we can’t have the church tearing families apart!
But we are only two weeks past Pentecost—when we try to remember that the Spirit was unleased upon those who followed Jesus—that from that day forth, those present had a new birth—we even call Pentecost the “birthday” of the church. All this is whirling around in my brain as we look forward to what will church, what will our community look like, as we move out of this pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I have some anxiety about what we should do, and when we should do it, and how it can get done. But this is the message that I hear today.
Don’t be afraid of a change in plans. Both of our stories are describing monumental change—one in the political sphere and the other in who is family. If we are following the Spirit, if we are listening to the whispers of God, if we are moving with a right heart, we can do big things, maybe God insists we do big things. It may take letting go of some cherished memories or being open to seeing things in a new way. But we should remember we as Presbyterians are the part of the Church that has always said, “Reformed and always reforming”—there have been changes of plans in the past, and there will be changes in plans in the future. So, why would the present be any different?
And one of the reasons why we don’t have to be afraid of a change in plans, is that God can work with whatever we decide. God wanted to go with the prophet/priest leadership roles, but Israel went for a King. And then Samuel anointed Saul who was head and shoulders above everyone else—and looked the part, but that didn’t really work out. Then Samuel anointed David, who was a ruddy kid, and didn’t look the part—but God worked with that. And David, even with his mistakes, became part of the line that would lead to Jesus who theologians from Paul to John Calvin would call “Prophet, Priest and King.”
What does seem to be important, in both stories, is that community continues—maybe it is in a new structure, maybe it is with new boundaries, maybe it explodes what community means—but this is not an individual decision, riding off into the sunset alone. The relationship between God and God’s people, even when they disagree, is still a relationship. And Jesus redefines family, while still making the point that we were not created to be by ourselves.
In this Pentecost time, we can remember that the Spirit shakes up our lives and our world, and that is ok.
We can be glad that the Spirit calls us to make time to sit down together, as a family, as when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table. And finally, we can be sure that no matter what we face, no matter how long the road, or how high the climb, no change in plans is too much for God.
May we step into our future together. Alleluia, Amen.