July 10, 2017

Plan and Action


The lessons for this day are found at this link.

Text: Matthew 11:19b: “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Saint Paul has many distinctions, but in today’s epistle reading he gains one more. Because in his beautifully compact description of the universal human struggle between what we know we should do and what we end up doing—or not doing—he earns for himself the title of Patron Saint of Behavioral Science.

Behavioral scientists are the folks who love to explore our foibles and fault lines. They’re the ones who study why we so predictably make decisions, or do things, that aren’t really in our best interests—even the things we swear we aren’t going to do, or believe firmly we’ll get right. If you’ve read Dan Kahneman’s wonderful book Thinking Fast and Slow, or Michael Lewis’s new book The Undoing Project—which is about Kahneman’s friendship with his research colleague Amos Tversky—you have a kind of basic introduction to the work and the ideas that these scholars pursue.

Paul uses just about the oldest piece of preaching wisdom by avoiding a critical assessment of his audience and instead focusing his criticism on himself. He describes his own failures, his own inability to do what he knows he should do, or to avoid what he knows he shouldn’t do; but he does it in such a way that we’re invited to see ourselves in his words. Yeah, yeah, that sounds like me, too, Boy, do I ever know what that’s like.

By inviting us to reflect on ourselves, Paul opens up the possibility of our coming to grips with the distance between our good intentions and our sometimes pretty poor outcomes. His purpose in this is to help us understand how great is the gift of grace that we are given as people baptized into the Body of Christ, because in  Paul’s view only that grace can accomplish the forgiveness and reconciliation that can span the gap between our intentions and our actions—or our failures to act.

That is good news. But there is a danger in it, a moral hazard, that Paul recognizes. If the grace God offers is all we need to make up the difference between our shortcomings and God’s standard, why should we really try any harder? Shouldn’t we just say, you know, “thanks for the grace!”—and just keep on doing what we’re doing?

Paul sees that might be a kind of logical conclusion from the argument that he has given. Shouldn’t we just sin more, so that there will be more grace? No, that’s not quite it, he says.

But he doesn’t really have much to offer by way of specific ideas or recommendations for how we should minimize our mistakes or improve our capacity for doing what we know we should. The best idea he has to offer comes in next week’s epistle reading, when he talks about making this a discipline of mind: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Okay, that’s good, as far as it goes... but how do we do it?

Setting your mind on something is the first step any of us takes in making a plan. It’s what Jesus is talking about when he says in the Gospel of Luke, “No one who sets his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

If you’ve never plowed a field that line may not make a lot of sense to you; but what it means is, if you want to accomplish a task you have to set your mind to it and have the discipline to keep your mind on it. When you plow a field, you pick out a landmark straight ahead of you and you keep pushing toward it. If you keep looking back at where you’ve already been, you may make interesting designs in the dirt but you won’t end up plowing a straight furrow.

It’s the same with us, no matter what fields we plow. The chances of your good intentions actually bearing the fruit of good results are much, much greater if you make a plan and stick to it.

Jesus doesn’t say, “Wisdom is vindicated by her intentions.” What he says is, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” He’s teaching us that the vindication that comes from right intentions rightly aligned with God’s will bringing forth good works in the world isn’t an accident; it’s the product of disciplined will.

That sounds heavy. But actually it’s not. What feels even heavier is the weight of all those good intentions that pile up on us that seem never to result in accomplishments. That becomes a burden to bear.

Jesus is teaching us that when we simply take on the discipline of translating our intentions into clear, prayerful plans we are going to be much more likely to get the actions we hope for.

He’s also teaching us that we can’t be distracted by what people around us say when we’re moving forward and pursuing our plan. The people who first heard this little story, and the community of early Jewish–Christians who wrote down this saying, they all knew that when Jesus makes that reference to people thinking he’s a “glutton and a drunkard” he’s quoting Deuteronomy; specifically he’s quoting what Deuteronomy teaches parents to do when their kids are incorrigible and won’t behave.

Disciples have the discipline to plan. In our prayers what we should be asking for is not for God to solve the problems and somehow deliver us from the troubles of the world; we should be asking for the wisdom to make plans aligned with God’s purpose and for the strength to keep pursuing them.

When we carry out those plans, people will talk. They will criticize us, and they will criticize the church, on the gap between our proclaimed ideals and our actual performance. But what we know is that everyone falls short in that way; what sets us apart is the virtues that live within those ideals, and the grace we receive, if we just ask for it, to take on that easier yoke of simple, grace-filled disciplines—the wise restraints that make us free.

So let’s plan. Let’s plan to help the poor. Let’s plan to show mercy. Let’s plan to be welcoming, to be hospitable, to be open to change. The church is always a contingent reality. God’s purposes are not. If they carry out God’s purposes, our plans will help us to do the very thing we want to do. Amen.