Priorities (2 Kg. 5:1-19; Gal. 6:7-16; Lk. 10:1-11, 16-20)
Ancient and modern literature is full of examples that suggest care in choosing what we deem important and valuable in the world. What seems, initially, to be of first importance, may not be. There are priorities in life. Sayings such as “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” or “Nice things come in small packages,” or even “Look before you leap” offer the lesson that common cultural values are not necessarily the ones that will lead to lasting satisfaction in life or are of the highest priority. Even an old Beatles’ song has the lyric: “I never cared too much for money, money can’t buy me love.” Yes, and most of us know that there’s much more that money can’t purchase as well, suggesting that as necessary as money is, it isn’t the highest priority in life.
I remind you that back before Maxine and I came to La Crosse, our church took time to think about our values and set priorities. After discussion and reflection, we agreed that, our priorities are worship, community, inclusiveness, soul liberty, and spiritual journeying together. These are our core values or high priorities for the life of this congregation.
The Bible is a library of books that offers many lessons for individuals and communities as they seek to select wise priorities for life, and ways to prioritize values of high importance from those that are down the list. Jews and Christians both have claimed high authority for the sayings, poems, stories, songs, letters, etc., in the Bible as containing the very wisdom of God, gathered by God’s people. Today’s scripture lessons encourage us to set our priorities in ways that were quite counter-cultural in their original setting, and our in our own culture as well. Let’s begin with the lesson in 2 Kings 5, which, as I said earlier, we used as an Old Testament Lesson just a few weeks ago.
This story presents us with a caution not to decide who’s important on the basis of social or economic status, or, perhaps, we could widen it to say, we need to be cautious about using external criteria to judge the value of others. In the story of Naaman, none of the people who were socially or culturally “important” actually got it right. Not Naaman, an important man in Syria, but with a miserable skin disease; not the King of Syria nor the King of Israel who didn’t know how to fix Naaman’s problem. Rather, the little slave girl from Israel had it right; the prophet Elisha had it right; Naaman’s own servants had it right. Again, the lesson set out without saying so: “Be careful in thinking that wealth, position, and power are first level priorities in God’s world.” These things aren’t nearly as important as either physical or spiritual wholeness. Furthermore, spiritual wholeness is more valuable than physical wholeness. It is priceless. What solved the crisis in Naaman’s life was not social or economic position, not political or military power, but an understanding that God is in control of things.
As Christians, especially here in North America, it is a constant struggle not to allow bigness, wealth, and success be the gauges of what is right and valuable for us to be about in the world. This is manifestly true of our government (both sides of the aisle), and I must tell you that much of the North American church is envious of those who are big, wealthy and successful. Otherwise what we used to call mega-churches wouldn’t continue to hold such interest for so many. (By the way, I don’t know what we call them now, they’ve never been an interest of mine.) Almost daily, my mailbox is inundated with slick, colourful and clever suggestions that echo the advice of Earl Butz, who was the Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon, who said to farmers back then: “Get big or get out.” We were recently in Maxine’s hometown and one can see the pillage of the good land that has followed from the corporate farm interests that have bought up large tracts, used the land and moved on. One of the most popular sayings in the world today is “Go Big or Go Home.” It’s a song, too. The suggestion has been made that real churches have to be a certain way, whether that’s big or rich or whatever. Be careful, our Old Testament Lesson says. Set your priorities: not on size, or wealth, or prestige, but on spiritual wholeness and healing.
When Jesus sent out 70 disciples to go through Judea, he gave them some ridiculous-sounding instructions: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road” (Lk. 10:4). This passage can seem rather odd unless we realize that Jesus was speaking in ancient cultural specifics, and saying that his disciples needed to be clear about their priorities. Make sure that first things are really first. Don’t zero in on the comfort of the journey and on the externals of the ministry. Travel fast and light to get to where you’re going. On the other hand, when you’re there, take time with people, or in specific terms: “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide…do not move about from house to house” (Lk. 10:7). It’s not about the ancient specifics (at least for us), it’s about concentrating most on those who respond, and not worrying too much about those who don’t. The message is the same to both: “In Jesus Christ you’re as close to God as you’ll get in this world. How will you respond to it?” Find out what Jesus’ priorities and values are and follow these. Be like him.
When those 70 disciples returned from their journeys, we do not hear whether they had followed Jesus’ instructions to them. Rather, we find that they were really most excited about the fact that they had authority over the demonic forces in the world. To translate that into terms we can think about today, they were excited that they’d had some success in being able to make progress against what was evil in the world. It’s interesting that Jesus responded to their excitement by counselling them to get their priorities right, put the best things first. Although it’s exciting, and a good thing, to be able to resist and defeat harmful things in the culture, their authority to do these things were not the top priority, the best thing. The best thing was that God has written their names in the book of life. I know that sounds (at least to me) remarkably pious and godly, but frankly and honestly, not very useful. (Sorry if that sounds a little blunt.) Let me tell you what I think the words mean in a way that is, I hope, not drippy sweet. This is a figure of speech to mean that, in Christ, we have become the recipients of God’s grace and love, and it is our job, our mission, to become channels of that grace and love to the world. The most important priority is that mission is about God, not us. I think it’s important to keep this before us as a priority because it’s easy to conclude that the mission is about us and what we do and how we do it. Jesus says, “No, what’s most important is finding creative ways to make the love and grace of God a reality in this hurting world.” Now, of course, we can’t do that without packaging that love and grace in our own flesh and blood, but the priority is God.
We can carry this a little further by looking, finally, at the Epistle to the Galatians. Last week I mentioned that following God’s way leads to making other-centred choices. Paul called the outcome of the other-centered life the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.
This morning’s text is very clear: Don’t kid yourself, your life will grow what you plant in it. If you plant corn in your garden, you won’t reap hay. If you plant self-centredness and violence in your life, that’s what will grow, and that’s what you’ll reap. Since that’s true, make it a first priority to keep on caring for one another. It’s hard; don’t give up. Caring for one another (and that circle is or can be as wide as the world) is not always that which our culture values, or even that which Christians consistently value. Again, as I mentioned last week, in Paul’s day many church people had become embroiled in the debate whether Gentile Christians needed to become Jews before they could become disciples of Jesus. All through Galatians Paul has said “No,” and it’s no different here. The priority is that Christ is the way to God. Today, no one I know is hung up on this issue, so, either we can just ignore this part of the Epistle or think more deeply. Is not Paul saying that it is silly to let doctrinal issues (such as the Jew/Gentile thing) divide disciples of Jesus? I think so. Today’s divisive issues are different, but the principle is the same. We could name lots of them. If I point us back to two of our core values as a congregation, they are inclusiveness and soul liberty. The first one means our first inclination is to open doors not close them. The second one means that we won’t all agree on things. And we’ve said that’s OK. It’s not that theology is unimportant, but what I hear the great theologian Paul trying to get our attention about in our Epistle is that we not let whatever hot-button theological issues are out there be what we’re about. Get your priorities straight. Follow Jesus the best way you can. Love him and love others and understand that we’ll probably have different ideas on how that works. The ancient words Paul actually wrote were: “For neither circumcision nor un-circumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything.”
In a world that already warms to conflict, and that thrives on division – the church is called on to exemplify a different way of being: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Our values ought to be centered in God, not in ourselves, our own glorification, and how we happen to understand things. If we centre ourselves in God, then our diversity is neither to be shunned nor feared. We can be centered in Christ, and united in Mission.
As we come together to the Lord’s Table this morning, let us think about keeping the top priorities first. Let us think, not about the things that divide us, because they could continue to divide us if we insist that others have to look the way we do. Let us think of the One that unites us: Jesus Christ. Let us not think of power, wealth, and prestige, but of service and care and concern for our communities. Let us not become so centred on ourselves that we do not remember that it’s really not about us at all, but about God in Christ.
A grand old hymn of the 19th century by Arthur Dewitt Hyde has these words:
Creation’s Lord, we give thee thanks,
That this, thy world, is incomplete;
That battle calls our marshalled ranks;
That work awaits our hands and feet;
Since what we choose is what we are,
And what we love we yet shall be,
The goal may ever shine afar,
The will to win it makes us free.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.