The Rev. Frank
Note: This sermon was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation showing the photos below with along with others. Some of the photos below are linked to a larger version of the picture.
In the mid to late 80s, I worked as a photojournalist. First the Warner Robins Daily Sun, then the Rome News-Tribune paid me to spend my time documenting life and I loved it. I saw people at their best and worst and was sometimes in the thick of things, feeling involved, connected. I documented everyday life—kids playing, festivals, the first day of school. I also got access to other events, including photographing the Braves, the Falcons, Georgia Tech and the Georgia Bulldogs from the sidelines. Then there were those odd moments, like the bride and groom stopping off at a car wash to help make a clean getaway after friends decorated their car at the wedding reception. I loved all of it. It was what I wanted to do with my life.
One odd little event stands out from this time period—the strangest coincidence. In 1985, I was at Parris Island Marine Corps Recruiting Depot to document how the Corps turns raw recruits into Marines. Marine basic training was a great assignment and I would end up getting a Georgia Press Association award for the series of photos.
While on the rifle range, the instructor shown yelling at a recruit in this photo showed me and Terry Smith, the editor with me, around the range. During the brief tour, the instructor showed us the clips the recruits were using. They came in little cloth bags held shut with black safety pins. Terry suggested I hang on to one of the safety pins and the instructor said that was fine. I tucked the safety pin in a pocket in my camera bag and forgot about it.
A little over two years later I was photographing a girl’s high school basketball tournament. Armuchee was playing Coosa in a very close game. In the last seconds of the game, two girls ended up tussling over the ball. One of the girls jerseys ripped. The ref called a foul. She would get two shots, but everything stopped. The player was standing in the middle of the court trying to hold her top on, with the strap on the sleeveless jersey now torn. The referee turned to the officials’ table. I’m sitting on the floor under it when he says, “Does anyone have a pin or something?” I remember Parris Island and reach into my bag and there is the black safety pin. I can’t avoid the conclusion that it was put there for this moment as I walk the pin out to center court. The crowd applauds, the game continues. The girl with the jersey pinned together with the Parris Island safety pin sinks both baskets and wins the game for Coosa High School. I have always assumed someone in the gym was praying for that pin.
About that time, my addiction to news started to concern me. I enjoyed being around house fires and car wrecks for the adrenaline rush of getting the news and I was pretty sure that was not who I wanted to be. Victoria and I started planning and saving money to hike the Appalachian Trail. Time to figure out Plan B for our lives.
After the Trail, it took a couple of years of work to move to Plan B. In the meantime, I worked as an Art Director for a trade association in Alexandria, Virginia for us to get one book written and have a chance to move on. Plan B was that Victoria and I would work freelance at writing and photography while raising our newly born daughter Griffin. We were glad to get out of the Washington, D.C. area, pledging never to live anywhere like that again.
Plan B was great, even if it did involve never knowing where our next paycheck might come from. For six and a half years Victoria and I shared duties in taking care of Griffin and wrote books and magazine articles. But in the midst of living a dream life, God continued to call me to full-time, ordained ministry. Already, Victoria and I were very involved as volunteers at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. I had ministries. I even had a job I loved. But God was calling me to something in particular—Plan C. Plan C meant going through a lengthy discernment process in the Episcopal Church, then selling the 125-year old house we had just finished fixing up after 4 years of work, and moving back to Alexandria, Virginia for seminary.
But God did know best and Plan C feels like it was something God had in mind all along. I look back at the many experiences I had and skills I picked up prior to seminary and see that like that safety pin, God was tucking away things that would be needed later.
Our Gospel reading for today is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, up until the birth itself. In this reading, we are introduced to Joseph, the earthly stepfather of God’s son Jesus. Joseph is kept so busy following God’s dreams in Matthew’s Gospel that he has been called the errand boy of the Incarnation. And in all that rushing about, we learn something of Joseph’s plans.
Plan A for Joseph was to marry Mary. They are betrothed, which at the time was an official ceremony that contractually bound a couple together. The couple would not yet live together, but entered a yearlong engagement, which took a divorce to break off. During that year, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant and he knows that he is not the child’s father. Now comes Plan B.
Matthew writes, “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” This is to put it mildly. We later read how in Jesus’ ministry he prevents the public stoning of a woman caught in no less a public disgrace. Being engaged to Mary, Joseph could have denounced her publicly and cried out for her to be put to death by stoning. But, we learn that Joseph would never consider this. Instead, Plan B for Joseph is to quietly make some arrangements to break off the engagement without Mary facing an angry mob.
Then God intervenes with Plan C. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream to assure Joseph that this was God’s plan all along. In God’s plan, Joseph will take on the minor public dishonor of having everyone assume the child that would otherwise be born out of wedlock is his own. Joseph marries Mary, she has a child who Joseph names Jesus, which means “God saves.”
God will save and God will do it through Jesus. But Joseph and Mary were essential to the plan. Mary had to consent to the pregnancy and Joseph to the marriage. I promise you; this is not the life of which either of Jesus’ parents dreamed. It wasn’t their Plan A or Plan B. But it was God’s plan all along.
I think there is a reason this pattern repeats itself. We have our own desires, our own plans and dreams. Then life throws things at us we never planned, a pregnancy, a sickness. Who knows what it has been or will be for you? But somewhere along the line, you start looking for another option. Like Joseph who decides God’s will must be to put Mary away quietly, you don’t always ask God’s opinion in making plans for life. But God is still there. For me in a small and unimportant way and for Joseph in history changing way, getting our own plans out of the way can help God to lead us to the life he had for us all along.
For those of you who have lived longer than me, you certainly know better than I how life is made up of a number of little lifetimes. The time when you were in the Navy. The time you lived in Seattle. The time with your first husband, or wife. There are a lot of plans we have had. Some went very well. Some not so well. The amazing part of the story is that even if you already worked your way through the alphabet and are more likely on Plan CC, God is still ready and willing to be part of your plans.
God told the prophet Jeremiah, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you” (Jeremiah 29:11-12).
Whether it is Plan C for you or Plan Z, God’s plans for your life will be more and better than anything you would think to ask for or imagine. This does not mean that God is calling you to be a priest or the stepfather of the Messiah. It may mean that God is calling you to something like working with the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, or some other ministry in our church or community. Probably God is also calling you to be the sort of builder, or accountant, or secretary, or sailor, or teacher, husband, wife, son or daughter that God desires. No matter what it is God is calling you to. I can assure you of two things. 1) It’s probably not what you first thought it would be. and 2) You’ll be happier with God’s Plan C than with own Plan A.
Today’s Gospel tells us the amazing human story of Joseph who let go of his own plans to be a part of God’s plan to bring God with us. God is with us now and wants to be a part of your daily life. What are the plans you need to let go of to be the person God dreams of? Listen to God’s advice to Jeremiah, he has plans for you to prosper and to have a future and a hope. Call on God, pray, and ask God to shape your plans. God will hear you and answer in surprisingly delightful ways.