Plans and Dreams

Texts: Jeremiah 29: 10-14

Matthew 22: 24-40

Rev. Barrett Ingram

October 25, 2020

In Alice in Wonderland, there is a great exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat. Alice asks, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where.” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “…so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.’”

So where are we going exactly, and how will we get there? Well, we need plans. We’re all here today because of any number of plans. Your PNC and I had plans for how a new pastorate might begin at Clarkton Presbyterian Church. On a very practical level, we had to plan this worship service that we are experiencing right now. Planning goes on and on, because we don’t get very far in life without making some kind of plans. Planning is essential.

But who among us, traveling along this journey called life, has not discovered that the Scottish poet Robert Burns was correct? He famously said, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” That line has been with me through much of 2020. Every week, it seems like we’ve had to change plans for something: longstanding programs cancelled, important trips postponed. And let’s be honest, this is a strange time to begin a new ministry together. There aren’t many guides for starting a new pastorate during a global pandemic! We take so much for granted in this life, and when things are working out according to our plans, it’s easy to do that. But, then something like COVID-19 comes along, and we discover that there are limits to what we can control about our reality. We do our best, planning to be careful and safe, but there are no guarantees. Because, the best laid plans… often go awry.

Our lesson from the Old Testament comes from Jeremiah. It was a letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. God’s people are living with plans that have gone terribly awry. In 586 BC King Nebuchadnezzar sacked the city of Jerusalem, the Holy City – Zion. The first temple – the one King Solomon built – was destroyed. The nobility of Jerusalem, including the most influential elements of that society, were hauled off to Babylon.

For so long their plans had been working out and they were on top of the world. David consolidated the empire in a united monarchy, and Solomon’s reign had started out with such promise. But now it was all gone; their hopes were dashed to pieces. All their planning had come to naught, and they sat by the waters of Babylon and wept, according to Psalm 137.

For most of us, the idea of exile is a remote one. But no matter who we are, no matter where we are in life’s journey, we will have difficult times. God’s people are not immune from troubles, and nowhere are we promised that life will be easy. Our Lord Jesus said, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.” And we all at times feel as though we are being held captive by forces larger than ourselves.

God’s word applies to us as well as to the ancient people to whom it was written. Like them, we have our times of defeat, discouragement, depression, and dislocation. In such times, we are ready to give up. Why even try? we ask ourselves. How can we sing songs of hope when we are in a foreign land?

In this context of sorrow, the people of God remembered the message from God. “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” In our times of sorrow, we too can remember that word from God and let it speak to us. The message reads: “I have plans for you. Hope again. I have a future for you.”

It is precisely at these low times, when we feel like hanging our happiness on the weeping willows, that God’s word can give us hope. It is precisely at times of dislocation that we can discover that our true home is with God, our heavenly Father. We might find ourselves in a faraway country, but those who know they are lost really listen when God calls.[1]

There’s a Yiddish proverb that says, “We plan and God laughs.” Or another version says, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” When we stop telling God our plans and start listening, then things start to turn around. The Lord says, “Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

Meanwhile, we are left to wonder how it is that they made it through the 70 years of Exile. How do we make it through those difficult times? There are many possible answers, but I think one key is to dream.

We know that the Exile did eventually end. The Babylonians were conquered and the Jews were allowed to return home. The walls of Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt. But it started with a dream, I think. Any time we want change to happen, we need a dream – a vision for what this new reality might look like. The writer Simon Sinek gave a TED talk a few years ago, and he was talking about how great leaders inspire action. One of the people he mentioned was Martin Luther King, Jr. And he said King gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech. If we’re going to make things happen, we need a dream. Perhaps we can imagine the people in Babylon dreaming of the day when they could return home. The people could have planned all they wanted to, but they had no control over their lives as political prisoners, and they knew that. All they could do was dream of their freedom and the restoration of their beloved city. And Nehemiah was the great dreamer who had a vision of the wall of Jerusalem being rebuilt.

Now, like all great dreamers, Nehemiah faced great opposition. (You can read about it in chapters 4-6 of the OT book that bears his name.) The naysayers show up and scoff at this fool’s dream. Isn’t that always the way it is? This week as I was filing away my files, I came across a few quotes. The first was a Western Union internal memo from 1876: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” In 1920, David Sarnoff was trying to raise money to promote the radio. And an investor wrote to him saying, “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” And then six years later (1926), the radio pioneer Lee De Forest said, “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”[2] All of these impossible, impractical devices are now a part of (most of) our lives. So, the naysayers were wrong – just as they were wrong in the days of Nehemiah. Despite all of the opposition, Nehemiah pressed on with God’s plan and the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt – and in a remarkable 52 days! Sometimes you have to dream big.

In the teachings of Jesus, we get a glimpse of God’s ultimate plan. Jesus would often begin a parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” The Kingdom of God, the Reign of God… these are different ways to describe God’s ultimate plan. We pray about it every week when we say together the prayer Jesus taught us: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We are praying that earth and heaven will come a little closer together; we’re praying for God’s will to be carried out here, just as it is there. That’s sounds like a dream, especially when we think of the state of our world! Jesus does not offer us a step-by-step plan for bringing the kingdom. But he does give us teachings that help us dream about what it might look like… teachings like the one we heard in the Gospel lesson. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God and love your neighbor. We’ve all heard these words of Jesus, and they sound simple enough. The hard question is this: have we tried to live them out in our daily lives? What would the world be like if we really loved God and neighbor? We need a dream, a vision, a hope of what that world would look like. Once we are grasped by the hopeful dream, we can begin taking steps to make that dream a reality.

There’s a song in the Sound of Music, and I’ve always appreciated the words. It’s sung by the mother superior.

Climb every mountain, search high and low

Follow every byway, every path you know.

Climb every mountain, ford every stream,

Follow every rainbow, ‘til you find your dream!

A dream that will need

all the love you can give,

Every day of your life

for as long as you live.

Climb every mountain, ford every stream,

Follow every rainbow, ‘til you find your dream!

The best laid plans may in fact go awry, but God does give us dreams to dream, visions to pursue, and purpose to keep us going. We will have to make plans as we bring those dreams to reality, but we must remember that God says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

[1] Ronald Lavin. Saving Grace: Another Look at the Word and the Sacraments (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2004), p. 118.

[2] Gary Vaynerchuk. The Thank You Economy. (New York: HarperCollins, 2011)