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  • Arlene Cossum

Most of Life is Lived in Plan B

Sermon Presented to Arlington Congregational Church on July 18, 2021

by Arlene Cossum

Years ago, I found and bought a button. I am not given to collecting buttons, but this one caught my fancy. It said, “most of life is lived in Plan B.” Somehow over time I lost the button, and while I am continually on the lookout to replace it, the perspective it gave me has remained.

It allowed me to realize that I wasn’t the only person for whom life

held disappointment and pain. For a button to be made there must be

plenty of others who shared the experience of broken dreams, of hopes

and plans having been thwarted, dissipated or otherwise not being able

to come to fruition, and reached the realization that they needed to

regroup - - to formulate new goals, to channel their resources and to

proceed with life creatively.

I think more importantly, it allowed me to realize that this is what life is about, to not expect only the wonderful, but to experience living through suffering, and sometimes to accompany that suffering with Plan B. For me that understanding turned out to be one of the markers of becoming mature.

Plan B may be one of the keys to living a life of ultimate meaning. Possibly more so than Plan A, Plan B is a humanist and theistic response of high order. It recognizes reality and helps us prepare or it. It both feeds and is fed by the human spirit.

That great book on the psychology of human behavior, the Bible, is told through narrative mediated largely by plan B. The unimaginable, the improbable, and even the rationally impossible occur, and by so happening, meaning is conveyed.

Sarah had a child by her 100-year-old husband Abraham when she was 90. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to become chief counselor to Pharaoh - - the genesis of the Exodus story.

Moses bloodied the waters of the Nile and parted the Red Sea when Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites leave the land of Egypt, and who, after letting them go, decided they should be recaptured.

Who would think that a 90-year-old woman could have a baby, or that a shepherd tending his father-in-law’s flock, and who expressed the inadequacies he so keenly felt about himself, begged God to send someone else to deliver God’s people, would move a story which without their presence would have ended?

We know that Sarah was incredulous, laughing when told she would conceive.

And Jesus - -

Would he have started his ministry or at least not antagonize the powers that be so forthrightly had he known at the outset of his ministry the terrible end that awaited him?

He had come to break down the barriers that divided persons. He had come to make every person feel that they counted, that they had supreme value regardless of their station in life.

Yet he lived his life at the end in Plan B with his choice to live it with complete integrity to what he held most dear. He could have turned away from Jerusalem that Passover. He could have even fled from the Garden of Gethsemane just before his betrayal and capture.

As he prayed that night while his disciples slept, he asked God to preserve his life, “Father, if you are willing remove this cup from me.”

If you are willing –the acknowledgement that we humans cannot control all the circumstances of our lives.

Jesus knew that the cup held all the bitterness of betrayal by those he loved, of vilification, torture and death by his enemies and even those who were neutral - - the faceless crowd which reveals the maelstrom of the id when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away.

And yet, the choice he makes, the plan he follows with the words - - - “yet, not my will but yours be done” reveals a life of one piece, congruent with a refusal to repudiate the values he taught and by which he lived his life. It was, I believe, his conviction to affirm the will of his Father in heaven that allowed Jesus to choose Plan B.

The knowledge that one is living an authentic life, consistent with values, conscience and integrity is a resource with which some individuals respond to the challenging issues of life.

Many, if not most persons in the Western world, and many, though not most persons in the Eastern hemisphere look to the Bible as the foundation on which the doctrines of their faith are based.

For many it is also the literal account of how humankind and the rest of the universe was made and evolved through the direct influence of an omnipotent God.

Though not mine, I believe this is a legitimate perspective. It has influenced so many persons and brought to the living of their lives unselfish example, integrity, and gracious character.

I, on the other hand share with many liberal thinkers an approach to the Bible with a statement that we engage scripture not in terms of what the words say, but rather what they mean.

I view the Bible in terms of its value to me as a commentary on human nature, that is, how humankind responds to life in all its complexities and dimensions - - goodness and evil, exultation and disappointment, joys, and sorrows. It is also a guide for living, in the words of Jesus, the abundant life.

This will most surely turn out to be a life not of uniform happiness, and possibly one of great travail and very little happiness as we as we commonly define happiness.

But the choice of living abundantly offers the potential of carrying out our lives marked by deep meaning, integrity with our values, faithfulness to our responsibilities, and relationships invested with a good measure of other-centeredness, nurture, kindness, and mercy - - in the face of that which we cannot control.

Because of its relevance to today’s sermon, I would like to read the 23rd Psalm. Read the 23rd Psalm here.

This Psalm speaks to me in several ways relative to living life in Plan B. When the Psalms were analyzed as to typography including those of praise, a number of categories were identified, including those of praise, thanksgiving, instruction for life, help, deliverance from severe distress, royalty, pilgrimage and others.

The 23rd Psalm is a psalm of thanksgiving, but thanksgiving for what? For victory in battle, for recuperation from dire illness, for safe travel through the wilderness? These are frequently identified suggestions for the genesis of this Psalm.

, interpretation I ascribe to was the common practice in ancient Israel, both in the religious and civic context, to provide sanctuary in the temple for persons who were falsely accused of serious crimes.

Though completely confined, to all extent and purposes to house arrest, accused persons were protected from legal retribution. At the same time, their families were free to pursue evidence to exonerate the accused.

This concept of sanctuary has remained sacred to this day. Congregations that were in the forefront of establishing sanctuaries in and through their churches when the need to provide safe haven for those fleeing Central American tyrannies presented itself can be proud of their courage in upholding their sense of humanity,

And we experience the shock and revulsion today when terrorism invades the sanctuaries of religious groups.

The 23rd Psalm may well be a prayer of thanksgiving for sanctuary. Lacking want - - with food to eat, having a peaceful place to lay his head - - “he leads me beside still waters”, and with the specter of possible death hanging over his head, living in Plan B, the psalmist has made lemonade from lemons.

For some persons, while not being oblivious to the unfortunate aspects of life, the ability to see what life is affirming and deal creatively with it,

or in gratitude for it amidst travail is a personal resource which helps them deal with the challenging issues of life.

Another way that this Psalm is symbolic for me of living life in Plan B, comes out of a World War II story. In the rural French village of Le Chambon, 5,000 Jewish people were given shelter by the town’s people.

Taken into villagers’ homes and absorbed as if they were family members, each Sunday the disguised refugees would accompany their benefactors to church

It is the custom in traditional Christian church liturgy to read one selection each from the Psalms, elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures, one of the Gospels and one of the Epistles. In more liberal Christian churches, a selection of only two or even one of these sections might be read.

Each week of their shelter, for the duration of the Nazi occupation, the village priest, with exquisite sensitivity to the sensibilities to the Jewish refugees, and with the concurrence of his parishioners, read only selections from the psalms.

In the face of certain death for the refugees and their Christian hosts should the ruse have been discovered, living life for both in Plan B, allowed the villagers to tap into a wellspring of uncommon yet resident compassion and courage.

I have always been intrigued by the parables told by Jesus. In seminary I came to enjoy the exercises in trying to find their meanings. One of the more popular parables to decipher was The Knock at Midnight from the Gospel According to Luke.

In brief, the tale is told of a man at whose home a guest has arrived unexpectedly late at night. His larder is empty, and he goes to his neighbor to ask for some loaves of bread. In response to his knocking on the door, the neighbor calls out to him to go away, his children are asleep, he is in bed, and he’s not going to get up.

The would-be borrower perseveres, however, and finally to get rid of him the neighbor gets out of bed and gives the man the bread. This parable is most frequently interpreted as the reward for incessant prayer - - seek and you shall find, ask and you shall receive.

Rather than return empty handed to his home, his refusal to stop knocking at his neighbor’s door demonstrates the efficacy of Plan B.

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard always puzzled me more than any other and antagonized my sense of justice as well. This is the parable which ends with, “So the last will be first, and the first last.

In the parable a landowner hires laborers to work the day in his vineyard. Halfway through the day he hires more workers to do the same. With one more hour of work left, he hires still more. At day’s end, when he pays all the laborers the same wage, the ones who had worked the longest were outraged.

In an ingeniously crafted sermon. The gifted preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, brings meaning to this parable. She invokes Plan B not by describing a new course of action, but by reinterpreting the events of life not just as isolated occurrences, but as part of the whole experience of life.

She tells us that, yes, we have at times been treated unfairly, but how many times have we been recipient of unearned grace or favors, sometimes at the expense of others.

Thirty-eight years ago, a congregation which I would ultimately serve years later sponsored a refugee family from Viet Nam - - a father and his three adolescent sons. The members were extraordinary in their care and nurture of this family. So were the local public schools.

After the family left our sponsorship and moved to California, I wanted to demonstrate my gratitude especially to the elementary school where 2 of the 3 boys had been students. I volunteered as an assistant in the school’s resource center.

I was assigned to work with a small group of exceptionally bright children, another group of youngsters with some slight learning impediments - - as I recall more behavioral than intellectually based. And one 13- or 14-year-old boy who was extremely developmentally disabled. His I.Q. may have been in the 50s.

I still recall, with a combination of both pain and awe of the human spirit, the youngster with beads of perspiration running down his face, struggling to grasp the understanding that was eluding him. His life was lived in Plan B - - or was it?

Perhaps his parents might have thought it was. It most certainly to have a child like him. I do not know how parental joy or disappointment the circumstances of his life posed for them. There may have been the possibility that for them Plan B was bleak.

For the youngster, however, Perhaps Plan B was living life to the fullest he could, with whatever resources he had. In Plan B we often find the greatest triumphs in dealing with the issues of life.

And finally, there are ties in life when we are too overwhelmed,

demoralized, too exhausted to respond, to think creatively, to identify

the positive, to think of life in the entirety of its context, to accept the

balance of events or circumstances that mark the fullness of life, and,

there are times that a life of integrity does not assuage the pain, and that

optimism fails. This, too, is a legitimate response to Plan A.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon based on the Parable of the Knock at Midnight, talks about choices we make. He says - - “the church stands where it has always stood - - the place where the stranger can go at midnight. Will he find a welcome?”

In one sense we are all strangers. It is my belief that when one among us finds him or herself in the midnight of the spirit, like the good people of Le Chambon, we have a corporate responsibility to be available as participants in Plan B of that person.

This congregation has stood that test time and time again. Our embrace of Family Promise is a case in point. Our intensive engagement with so many of our local organizations and persons give testimony to the life sustaining support we provide to so many trying to find meaning in their live as they negotiate Plan B.

We, as a church have started on our own Plan B journey, with its exciting possibilities and opportunities to grow as robust as our vision and vigor will take us as we search for new ministerial leadership.

I have every faith that we can accomplish this.


The Scripture Lesson for 7-18-21 From Matthew 7: 13-14

The Parable of the Narrow Gate

Enter through the narrow gate;

for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction,

And there are many who take it.

For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life,

And there are few who find it.

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