Sunday, August 02, 2009

Setting Priorities

Church of the Good Shepherd, Ringwood NJ
August 2, 2009

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 13
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Psalm 51:1-13
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-25

Setting Priorities

Before I got into the priest business I was a high school history teacher. It was a job that I enjoyed very much. I liked working with kids. I liked the subject that I taught. I liked having the summer off. In fact, I’m still adjusting to getting up and going to work in the summer!

It wasn’t until I left teaching, however, that I realized one of the best parts of teaching. As a teacher it is very easy, very straightforward, to set priorities. Each school day, of course, is broken up into different class periods. So for 40 minutes I would teach United States history. Then a bell would ring and I’d stop doing that and switch to teaching World Civilizations. Later another bell would ring and it would be time for lunch. And then finally at the end of the school day a bell would ring and I knew it was time to go home.

I spent a good bit of time after school grading papers and planning lessons. And even then it was easy to set priorities. The tests and quizzes that were the oldest got graded first. The classes that were coming up next needed to be planned first.

Yes, as a teacher it was very easy to set priorities.

After I was ordained and got my job at Grace Church in Madison, I had a little trouble setting priorities. Oh, sure, I knew that if I was preaching I needed to prepare my sermon before church on Sunday morning. And if there was a meeting at a certain time, then I needed to be at the right place at the right time.

But aside from that my job doesn’t have a lot of structure and there certainly isn’t a bell that rings telling me to stop what I’m doing and move on to the next thing. So, especially in my first months, I often found myself sitting at my desk wondering what I should do first. What’s most important? Should I do some planning for the youth group? Should I go visit some parishioners in the hospital or a nursing home? Should I work at my article for the parish newsletter? Should I do some reading or thinking? Should I set aside some time for prayer? Should I try to carve out some time to spend with my wife?

All good things – but what’s most important? How do I set priorities? After a while I got the hang of it, but it took some time for me to figure out how to set priorities as a priest.

I guess that many of us struggle with setting priorities. We have trouble deciding what’s most important in our lives.

Sometimes we set exactly the wrong priorities – we try to use people for our own benefit or pleasure. And this leads to much pain and sorrow.

And other times we set wrong priorities by choosing something that’s good – but not really the best or most important thing.

Today’s lessons have something important to say about setting priorities – deciding what’s most important in our lives.

These past few weeks we’ve been hearing the story of King David. We heard how he was selected by God to replace Saul as the king of Israel. We heard the famous story of how he defeated Goliath the giant. We heard how he led a triumphant parade, including the Ark of the Covenant – for the people of Israel the holiest object in the universe. He led this parade into his city, into Jerusalem, to show that he was God’s choice to lead the people.

But then things start to go terribly wrong. The truth is that David is going to abuse God’s trust and David is going to abuse his royal power. David sets the wrong priorities. Instead of serving God and serving God’s people, David seeks his own pleasure.

Last Sunday we heard the story of how David desired the beautiful Bathsheba. The only problem was that Bathsheba was married to Uriah the Hittite. But if you’re the king and your priority is your own pleasure and desire – if that’s what’s most important – then the fact that she’s married is no problem at all.
And so David arranges things so Uriah is killed in battle. And then David can take Bathsheba as his wife.

Which brings us to today’s lesson from the Old Testament.

Through the prophet Nathan God reminds David of all that God had given to him and says God would have given much more, too. But, David chose to reject God and God’s Word. David set exactly the wrong priority. David didn’t realize what was most important.

Instead of serving God and God’s people, David decided his own pleasure was most important.

And David faces the sickening reality of what he’s done – David faces the consequences of setting wrong priorities. All these centuries later we can hear the regret and imagine the sick feeling in his stomach when David says, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

David set as his priority something that was clearly wrong. Sometimes we do that, but I bet more often we set as our priority something that is good, but is not really the best or most important thing.

Which brings us to today’s gospel lesson.

The gospel picks up right after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, or the feeding of the five thousand. This is one of Jesus’ most important miracles and in fact the only one that is recorded in all four of the gospels.

On the surface this is a miracle about literally feeding people who are hungry. It’s not only a symbolic action – there’s real bread and real fish involved. While before people stomachs were rumbling with hunger now they are stuffed and I imagine them a little sleepy the way we get after a big meal.

The miracle is about real bread and fish but it’s about more than that. It’s about God’s overflowing abundance. Just when it seems like there’s just not enough, God is able to provide more than we can imagine and more than we need.
And the miracle of the loaves and fishes is about Jesus as the bread of life – Jesus who feeds us in the deepest and most profound way - Jesus who feeds our souls.

But for the people who’ve been fed the most important thing, their top priority, is keeping their bellies full. That’s definitely a good and very important thing, but it’s not the most important. Satisfying our physical needs is not the most important thing.

Anyway, even a big meal satisfies for only a while and so today’s lesson picks up the next day when the people are searching for Jesus and the disciples.
Jesus, of course, gets why they’re looking for him so eagerly. He says to the crowd, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

And at the end of today’s lesson Jesus tells the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

As Christians, Jesus needs to be our top priority. Jesus is what’s most important.
But the truth is in our daily lives many, if not all of us, forget this essential truth. We forget that Jesus needs to be our top priority and we put other things – both good and maybe not so good – in that top slot.

And that’s one of the most important reasons why we gather in church on Sunday. We gather to be reminded of the power of Jesus, to be reminded of God’s overflowing love and abundance, to be reminded of the grace that is being poured out upon us right here and now.

We gather to hear God’s word – to be reminded of God’s law and God’s history of reaching out to God’s people.

We gather to receive the bread and wine – Christ’s body and blood – to strengthen us as we face the challenges of life and to help us to set priorities – to help us remember what’s most important.

So today let us give thanks for all the good gifts God has given us. Let us give thanks for the loaves and the fishes. Let us give thanks for Jesus, the Bread of Life.

And let us ask God’s help as we make our way in the world, setting our priorities and deciding what’s most important.