Sermon: Life is what happens when we’re making other plans

“Life is what happens when we’re making other plans”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
John 12:20-26, Corinthians 4:7-11, 16-18
March 8, 2015

Choir Anthem: “I Choose You”

Sermon Audio

Not many of us like change. It means adjusting to something different, and adjusting is not something we do easily. It is so much easier to keep things as they are. We rely on routines and predictability in our lives for a sense of stability and safety. We seek equilibrium. Sr. Joan Chittister says “we want to sink into the marshmallow of life and enjoy what we have gained.”[i]

Even good change is difficult. Becoming debt-free, or getting in shape, or staring a new job, or moving to a new place, these are all good changes to make, and to make them, takes a lot of determination and effort. But at least these are changes that we want to make; we are ready for them even if they may take time and effort on our part, and even if they are temporarily uncomfortable or stressful. There’s a greater good that we’re working toward and believe we can achieve.

But what about those changes that we don’t chose to make, the ones that come in to our lives uninvited? It’s one thing to decide to find a new job; it’s another thing to find out your current job is being eliminated.   It’s one thing to decide to get into better shape, it’s another thing to find out that your body is doing things you didn’t realize, and exercise alone won’t cure it. I read yesterday about a young man who began to put on a lot of weight. He chose to begin an exercise and diet plan, but it didn’t seem to do much good. He continued to gain weight. He was finally diagnosed with a pituitary tumor that had been quietly growing at the base of his brain and causing all the trouble and required unexpected surgery to cure him.

In life there are changes we would never choose, but if we live long enough, they are a part of life and will come to us uninvited ,unexpected, and unwelcomed. If we made a list of them, all of the items would probably have certain things in common – shock, loss, and interruption. This kind of significant change does more than create a little temporary anxiety or stress, it can make us feel powerless, helpless , overwhelmed, and afraid. In these situations, our natural inclination is to be in denial, to hold off the future, to run away, to escape, to avoid the pain because frankly, loss feels like death, and who wants to die? But because many of the losses we experience in life are inevitable and unavoidable, trying to forestall the future is futile and trying to hang on to the present forever is impossible.

We know that the only constant in our lives is change. Change is present at every stage and phase of our lives, and it is necessary for the sake of carrying us on to the next phase of life. We experience biological and social change; internal and external change. Some of it we control, but much of it is beyond our control. How we respond to it then, is all important.

In our gospel reading today Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth, and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Somehow for Jesus, change and loss are not defeat, but gain; not the end; but somehow a new beginning.

One of the real blessings for me as a pastor having served this church for almost 14 years, is the opportunity to have watched the truth of Jesus’s words lived out in individual lives within this congregation. There are all kinds of stories of unwanted change and loss in this room this morning – and all kinds of struggles in the aftermath, and most miraculously and most beautiful, all kinds of new life that has pushed its way from the earth and into the sunlight. Each of us has a story to tell.

For me, unwanted change came in the deaths of two people closest to me. it was the loss of my mother when I was 35 years old that brought me back to church after many years away; and it was the death of my husband 13 years later that brought me first to seminary and then here.   Both events forced me to think differently about who God is and who I am and what God is calling me to be and to do. In the process, and it is a process because it doesn’t happen overnight, I have come to understand that although they are both physically absent from this life, their lives continue to bear much fruit. And I have come to trust that there was nothing in life or in death that they or any of us has to face that Jesus himself did not experience, and that he walks with us each step of the way.

In both events my life was changed through circumstances I could not control, in significant ways, and I found myself on an unwanted, unexpected path, pushed in a new and different direction, one that has given me despite my grief and loss, a good and a blessed life; and no one has been more surprised than I have been. Paul’s words, Mikell read earlier express it best; In the Message it reads this way: “So we’re not giving up. How could we. Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace. . . .There is far more here than meets the eye.”

I know that for some people that old saw about a door closing and another door opening is a whole lot of hooey! Too trite, too clichéd, too easy, too pat. But nevertheless, for me it proved true. Not that the second door opens immediately after the first door closes. No, there can be a good bit of time standing in the hallway looking for a door, or going from door to door and finding each one locked. Endurance plays a large part. But Paul says elsewhere that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint. And sure enough, it takes a while to imagine, first that anything can come next, and second to imagine what will come next. But we can do more than simply endure. We can rediscover hope, and with hope we can begin anew.

My story is not so unusual – there are many who have experienced new life through the unexpected loss of the old. But even in the most unexpected and most unlikely circumstances, miracles can occur. Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts with you in a Lenten devotional and also in a newspaper article about Kelly Gissendaner. Even though 18 year ago she was found guilty of murder, to which she has confessed, even though she was sentenced to death, she has not died prematurely, but instead, surrounded by death, she has found new life, and she is a new person in Christ. She is not the person she used to be. As the prison doors closed behind her, the door of faith opened wide for her.

Even though we say we believe in redemption, it is still is hard, isn’t it, to imagine such a transformation. And yet it has happened. She has opened her heart in that most despairing of places – death row – to the grace of new possibilities. Through the grace of God, she has been given the opportunity to touch lives for the better even as she has felt hers drawing to a close. And now, who knows. The death penalty is now suspended for the time being. But each day that she has, she is living as fully as she possibly can.

The word for us today, is that change, change we will never be ready for, change that disrupts the very center of our lives, is not the end. There is a gift hidden within it if we have the faith and the endurance to persevere and look for it. It is the gift of beginning again. The gift of growth. The gift of bearing more fruit, different fruit from what we’d ever imagined.   We may be as Paul was, afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but also like him, through the grace of God present with us, we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed.

The challenges for each of us are “what are we able to endure? How long will we persist? How much are we willing to learn in order to begin again?   We have a choice even in change that we did not choose – we have the choice to try to hang on to our present life and inevitably lose it, or to let it go, and somehow keep the life that truly is life for eternity. We have the choice to die spiritually, or to begin again, to be open to possibility, to see God, as Sister Joan says, not only as a caring father, but as a “birthing mother, who brings new life with the rising of every sun and the descent of every inner darkness.” And she says, we have the choice “to grow spiritually in the image of our mother God . . . to be open to newness, to expect surprise, to understand pain, to soothe hurt, to nurture difference rather than to deny it. . . . to [welcome] tomorrow . . . rather than to attempt to cement today into eternity. . . . until, at the end, we find ourselves full-statured and full of grace.”[ii] May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.

[i] Joan D. Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 2003, 20.

[ii] Chittister.