Is there anyone here who has made a plan for a long term project and had everything happen exactly as they planned it? Yeah, me neither. My favorite example of this involves technology. We were upgrading the computers in our New York office and had budgeted two weeks to complete the changeover. On day 2 we encountered the infamous blue screen of death on each computer we had set up the previous day. That significantly changed the plan for us, and it took a month and a half instead of two weeks. I am sure that each of us has our own horror stories about plans that went awry on us due to some variable we hadn’t considered in our planning. At some point we have to recognize our inability to account for every possibility. As the leader of the Jerusalem church James must have seen the plans he made fall by the wayside more times than we can count. As Jesus’ brother he saw Jesus’ plans change a few times when people were just that crazy. From those points of perspective James must have been awfully frustrated with people who made their plans and figured that God would follow their plan.
13Come 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.” 14Yet 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. 15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin. James 4:13-17
James was seeing people make plans about the future without even consulting the one in whose hands the future rests. God has a mission, and God’s mission has a church. James is reminding us that we need to be looking for God’s plans, for God’s activity, especially if we want to have what we do make any kind of difference beyond our lifetime. Planning as a follower of Jesus requires us to ask: “Does this plan show that I love the Lord my God with all my heart, mind and strength, and love my neighbor as myself?”
It is no coincidence that James brings money and business into the picture. How many of the business decisions that we make involve any kind of consultation with God? From my experience, and to my own personal chagrin, I am going to have to admit that less than 10% of the business decisions I made involved any kind of prayer or seeking after God’s will. It is so easy to allow the faith in our lives to be compartmentalized and cut-off from the rest of life, and that is why these reminders are in our scriptures. Every single one of us is under pressure to make our decisions and order our lives according to the ways of the world. We are taught to do the best we can to make as much money as possible so that we can be comfortable and secure, and that the God stuff needs to stay on Sunday and really doesn’t have anything to do with “real life”. This is a consequence of the modernism that underlies both liberal and conservative thought. Both of those movements come from a cultural context that has sought to create and enforce arbitrarily assigned categories, which we call labels, and then used the categories to determine which label we can apply to lump groups of people together. I have had the privilege of spending time with both liberals and conservatives and want to tell you that the rabbit hole of labeling seems to have no bottom; each culture continually develops more and more labels to compartmentalize themselves and others into. Nobody seems to be asking the questions of what these labels serve to do or if it is appropriate to assign labels to people we don’t know. Maybe we can start asking the questions, at least of ourselves at first: Does using these labels affirm or deny the image of God in others? Am I using a label as an excuse to not love my neighbor? While modernism did not exist in biblical times, I think we have something we can pull from this text as an important reminder here that anytime we allow the tribal influences of the culture we are part of to rule our decision making and planning process we are putting ourselves under a different master than God, and that master does not have our best interests in mind.
This text has something to say to that myth of individualism, that pull yourself up by your own bootstraps mentality, as well. Namely it says that we are not the masters of our own destiny, that we do not have the ability to control events around us, or whether or not we succeed. Indeed, we can’t even know if we will be alive tomorrow. We are told from the very beginnings of our lives we have the ability to set the course for our life and keep it on the pathway to success, happiness, fulfillment, and that those who don’t have those things made bad decisions to get there. Many of you now know that the reality is much more complicated. Sometimes making good decisions have bad consequences. Sometimes bad things happen to us because of other people’s bad decisions. Believe it or not Friends because we live in a broken world being honest, truthful, and ethical will sometimes negatively impact our worldly success. I used to work for an engineering firm, and one day the owner asked me to bring a brown bag lunch to the building inspector who was doing the final inspection on a project. The bag seemed a little large and heavy to hold a lunch, and I refused. This did not do well for my promotion prospects, or my continued employment, and I ended up moving back home to start again. One of the variables we forget to account for is our and other people’s brokenness. God has a much better understanding of this and uses the writings of the prophets, the words of Jesus, and other New Testament writers like James to remind us to avoid arrogance by depending on God. God is truly the source of our life and worldly success is definitely not an accurate measure of faithfulness. Indeed, some of the writings in the scripture can be read to suggest the opposite. One thing that needs to be pointed out is that things are not hopeless and this is not a call to fatalistically give up on making plans. That would be a grave misinterpretation of this text. James is not attacking plans, he is going after the attitude of triumphalism, that just because we are Christians making plans they will go exactly as planned since God has a vested interest in making us appear prosperous. Ummm…No. We are called to make plans with humility, knowing that a time may come when we are shown an action that is the right thing to do which will set our plans back or even make us give them up because we see a much better way than our plan. Being humble in our planning means having clearer vision when we are trying to carry them out, because we are less emotionally invested in a specific path and we then open ourselves up to seeing our plan improve. This way when we see something right that we absolutely must do to remain faithful we can let go of our plan, place ourselves in the hands of God, and avoid working against God.
Getting ourselves to this point is not going to be one of those “3 easy steps to a new you” plans, but is going to require some intentional work on our part. If you are anything like me there is no way you are going to go from less than ten percent to 100 percent overnight. We have to begin exercising our spirits to keep ourselves aware of God’s presence in our days. One way to start is to pray every time you look at the time. Ask God into the decisions of the hour to come, into the relationships at work, home, school, and running errands. Welcome God into the joys and sorrows of daily life, knowing that God is right there with you as you feel. As we hold this presence in our minds, and as the awareness of our loving God’s presence grows to fill more of our days we will find it much easier to invite God into our decisions and trust him with our futures. Join me in our time of open worship to absorb these words, to hear new words, and to initiate the communion that can be part of every hour of every day of our lives.