Getting Back on Track: Having the Right Priorities
[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/09-20-09.MP3]Psalm 1 Mark 9:30-37
Last week, we talked about this town Caesarea Philippi to the Northeast of the Galilee. It was a retreat area where the disciples were getting away. And it was there that Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am and who do you say that I am?” It’s Peter who is the one who knows and says, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We talked about how important it is for us to get perspective, to step away from things for a little bit, to listen, most importantly, to the voice of God and to the voice of others as we see what is that is facing us in our lives.
There's a caution about perspective which comes from a story by Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Rabbi Friedman was not only a congregational rabbi, but also a very fine family therapist. The story is of a fly and a moth. The fly is buzzing up against a window that is cracked open, but the fly is up too far and is buzzing randomly. The moth sees all this and says to the fly, “May I interrupt you?”
And the fly says, “I don’t have time. My lifespan is only a day, so I’ve got to get out of here!”
“Well, I just want to suggest that if you back up, you can see where the window is open.”
“I don’t have time for your nonsense – I’m in a hurry!”
“Well, from my perspective, it’s easy to see the way out.”
“I told you, I’m too busy to stop and back away.”
“May I suggest that you take a systematic approach, starting in the upper left hand corner, and then moving down, and across?”
“There’s no time for planning! Time is running out!”
This goes on for some time. Finally, after a few hours, it starts to get dark outside. The fly remains frantic and keeps complaining to the moth. But the moth has stopped listening because of a glow in the distance. Suddenly, the moth heads out of the window and straight into a flame. Poof!
It might be easy for us to get perspective about someone else's life and loose perspective about our own. So there is that caution of needing to listen to the voices of others and the wisdom of God that comes through others. Perspective can’t be gained alone. We can't get perspective by ourselves.
And neither can perspective stand alone. Once we've got some sense of the bigger picture, it can’t stand by itself. And that is our conversation today: having the right priorities - what it is we do once we have that perspective.
There’s an irony in the word “priorities.” “Priority” comes from a Latin word “prior”, which means first. So in a sense, to say “first priority” is redundant, and to say, “second priority” is ridiculous. Priorities really boil down to one thing. It’s like the story Victor Borge tells of the couple that is standing in line at the airline desk, heading off on vacation. The husband says to the wife, “Honey, I really wish we brought the piano on this trip.”
The wife says, “Are you crazy? We’ve sixteen bags! You want to bring the piano?”
“But the tickets are on the piano.”
If you forget the first thing, the other priorities might not make much of a difference.
We can learn something about our priority by looking at the text today. Jesus is teaching the disciples and yet again, they are not getting what he's about. This is what’s wonderful about the disciples: they make it so much easier to be a Christian, because they don't get it, and they’re right there with Jesus. He’s telling them what is before them, what it means to be Messiah. There will be betrayal, and death, and resurrection. They are so afraid and baffled by what he's saying that they don't even ask any questions.
And as they move along, from Caesarea Phillipi to Capernaum, they approach that northern tip of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was the hometown of Peter. The home in the story is Peter’s home. If you go to Capernaum today, there’s no village there; just ruins. But these ruins are of a church from the fifth century. And inside that church is an even smaller church that was what they would call a “home church.” And inside that is in even smaller church that may have been Peter’s home. This is all literally yards from the Sea. This was the home base for the disciples. They continued to return to Capernaum as they moved along the coast of the Sea of Galilee.
It’s there that Jesus asks them, “What were you talking about on the road?” It turns out that they were acting like kids on a road trip: “I’m better than you.” “But I’m older.” “Yeah, but I’m stronger.” “But I caught more fish.” They had forgotten what this is all about. At the time, the understanding was that the Messiah was going to unite the Jewish people and lead a military coup to kick out the Roman occupiers and reestablish the throne of King David right there in Jerusalem. So when Peter says, “You’re the Messiah,” and Jesus says, “You’ve got it,” they seem to stop listening. So the question they start asking is, “Who’s going to get to sit next to the throne of power?”
Jesus has been teaching them for the past few days along their journey from Caesarea Phillipi through the Galilee and down to Capernaum that what it means to be Messiah is not what they think.
Maybe they’re living in denial; perhaps they’re just missing the point. So Jesus tries to make it as tangible for them as possible. As they’re sitting there, Jesus gives this wonderful speech that flips everything on its head, that’s not about being first, but being last; it’s not about being served, but about serving. You can imagine the disciples’ reaction to all of this – a collective “huh?” So Jesus takes this child, and says, “Let me put it this way: whoever welcomes this child has got it right.” A child would have been the most vulnerable member of society. They were not of high regard in that first century. So what he’s saying is: “If you welcome in those whom society has dismissed, then you've got it. It’s not about being the most powerful. It’s not about being the greatest. It’s about recognizing who’s left out; who’s the weakest; who’s the despised.” The disciples seem to have placed themselves first. They have missed the whole point. They have forgotten, and even though they’re following Jesus, it has become all about which one of them is going to be the greatest.
It’s like the story of a family traveling in a cross-country car trip to Yellowstone National Park. It’s this long car trip, so they’ve given the son in the back seat a lot of things to occupy his time. But he has gone through all the DVDs and has a read all the books. He is simply bored out of his wits. So they start playing the license plate game, collecting how many different states they can see. By the time they get to Yellowstone Park, they’ve got 24. And they think, “This is great! We have killed the time and have gotten about half the states.” So they arrive at the Park and are ready to check in and get something to eat. But the son says, “Can’t I stay in the parking lot?”
“No,” they tell him, it’s time to go inside.”
“But I’ve only got 24. I’ve got to get the rest.”
They’re driving around, looking at Old Faithful, while the son is back in the parking lot: “Pennsylvania. Got it!” He got all of the States, but he missed Yellowstone. It’s like missing the forest for the license plates.
There are times when we don't get, when we’re focused on the wrong thing. To have priority, to have our priorities in order, means to have the very thing that we need to put the center of our lives. Recognizing the tension in the word “priority”, I would like to suggest that we should each have three priorities: God, self, and others.
Put God first. If “priority” really means only the first thing, then perhaps it makes sense to stop with God. The question then becomes, can we segment God off? If we make God a priority rather than the priority, we have said that there are things in our lives that don't involve God. Do we really believe that God is sovereign? Do we really believe that Jesus is Lord? If so, there is no area of our life which we can separate from God. Do we make room for God, though?
Someone wise once said that you can tell a person's priorities by looking at their checkbook. What does your checkbook say about you? Do you make room for God there? I don't just mean church. And I don’t not mean church. But it’s about God’s desires. Do our financial priorities make room for what it is that god desires in the world? And it's not just about money. It’s about time. Does God get that first bit of our time, those first fruits of our harvest? Or does God get the leftovers that are shoved back in the freezer? Do you make time for prayer? Bible study? Reading theological books and devotional texts?
I'm convinced that if we put God first, if we really take that word “priority” literally, and put God as the priority, all other things, all other responsibilities, will simply fall into place. And I also want to hear a very clearly that this idea of putting God first, making space for God, making room for God, is not just about you. It’s about me, too. I’m preaching to myself as much to anyone else. The emails, the meetings, all of the responsibilities and the busy-ness of ministry can sweep aside the very reason that we're doing ministry in the first place. So I’d like to suggest a small step. What would it look like to spend the first five minutes of every day with God? It could be praying, reading Scripture, reflecting, sitting, whatever it is that focuses you to making space for God in your life. Start with that and see where it leads you.
I’m also convinced that putting God first then helps us understand those other priorities of self and others. It's not easy to say which of these, self or others, ought to have priority. Some of us have this sense in our very bones that we ought to neglect ourselves because we don’t matter all that much. Maybe that means we need to reengage love of self. For others of us, we were always taught to put ourselves first without any regard for others. So maybe we need to put others first in order to put ourselves in proper perspective.
In either case, we can take that lesson of the child in Jesus’ arms. If we put that child first, if we put the most vulnerable of society - whether it's ourselves or those around us - then we’ll begin to get it right. And part of each one of us is more vulnerable than we'd like to admit. Give yourself time. Take care of yourself. And for those who are outside the circle, those on society's margins, those who are like the children of the first century, ignored and forgotten, make time for them. Spend time on behalf of others so that we might serve God.
Can we put ourselves in the footsteps of the disciples as they wandered those ancient lands? Can we be sure that Jesus goes before us? Can we leave behind that mountain retreat and follow him wherever it is that he leads? Can we trust him to lead us where it is that we need to go? Can we welcome him as we welcome those we’d rather not - those who are vulnerable and remind us how vulnerable we are; those who are on the outside and remind us that we're not as great as we might think we are?
The life of faith is a journey. We step forward some times; other times we step back. My hope is that our priority can be in God alone, that we might follow Christ all the days of our lives.