by Elaine Maust
Matthew 14: 13-23
July 31, 2005
I have preached sermons about humility before. But this is not a sermon about humility; it is an exercise in humility. Preaching is always sobering. But today it is down right humbling, because I want to talk to you about setting priorities. Deciding what is most important is something I struggle with always, and these days particularly. Of all the choices that all of us have for tomorrow, what will we do? Play with the children, stay late at work, meet with the boss about a raise, watch TV, make dinner, check email, mow the grass, visit an elderly relative, take a walk, balance the check book, shop for school supplies, read the Bible, look for a job, change the oil, what will we choose to do? It is overwhelming, isn’t it? So many things scream for our attention. So many opportunities. So many possibilities. What is important? How do we decide?
(Martha and Elaine pour small rocks into jar. Then Martha tries to fit big rocks in, but they won’t all fit)
We can’t seem to make everything fit. That’s why we set priorities. Our Lectionary text for this morning seems to address the struggle of priorities. Did you know that Jesus had to make tough choices about what to do and when to do it? About what was most important?
Turn to Matthew 14. You’ll remember this passage from a recent sermon about Peter walking on the water. Chapter 14 begins with the gruesome details of John the Baptist’s death. John the Baptist was Jesus relative and forerunner. Or you might say that John the Baptist was Jesus’ warm up act. He got people ready to discover and listen to Jesus. In verse 13, Jesus gets the terrible news of John’s murder. Remember Jesus’ reaction? (v13a)
Time alone to pray and listen to God was a regular part of Jesus life. Remember the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water? Look at verse 23. It began with Jesus going off by himself to pray. Can you think of other times? How about the 40-day retreat in the wilderness when he was tempted following his baptism? (Matt. 4:1-2) And then there was the night he was arrested when Jesus prayed in the garden. (Mat. 26:36-46). And there are lots of other snapshots in the Gospels of Jesus the contemplative. Our Lord who regularly took time for silence and prayer.
But wait. Look at the rest of verse 13. (13b). Jesus is going off alone to pray and all the people want to be with him. It’s is as if they shouted, “After Him!” and took off running in the direction he headed in that boat. (14). And when he got there, there they were already. Sick and hurt. Runny noses and open sores. And Jesus had compassion on them and healed them. Think of all the stories in the Gospels of Jesus healing. The blind man. The woman that was bent over. The man with the shriveled hand. Jarius’ daughter. It goes on and on. On one hand, Jesus was a contemplative. On the other he seemed to run a portable emergency medical clinic?
Jesus knows how you feel as you try to balance your days. Interruptions. Conflicting interests. Expectations. Personal needs. The needs of others. Prioritizing. But despite the demands Jesus faced, He was clear about his priorities.
Here’s what I mean. Matthew 14:15-21 tells the amazing story of the great dinner on the grounds. The feeding of the 5,000. A fete of hospitality that I can hardly imagine. And remember the reaction of the people in John 6:14. They were excited. Jesus was it! He was going to deliver them from the Romans and feed them to boot. He was the king they had been waiting for! They were ready to make him king by force. Oops. They didn’t get it, wrong kind of king. He was king of heaven.
Now Jesus is faced with a decision. Should he let the people make him king by popular demand?
I imagine Jesus reaching into his backpack and pulling out an index card. (Okay, ya’ll, this is not in the Bible, this is purely my imagination). But like I said, I imagine him pulling out an index card upon which he had written his priorities. Maybe his list looked something like this.
1) To preach the good news of his kingdom (Mark 1:38)
2) To do God’s will (John 8:30, John 4:34)
3) To heal and save (Luke 4:18-19)
4) To die (Mark 8:31)
5) To call and train disciples (John 17:6-12)
6) To Pray and Discern God’s Will (Luke 22:39-44, Mat. 4:1-2)
Well, like I say, I imagine him looking over this list and thinking to himself, “Hmm. Become supreme monarch in a popular uprising. Hmmm. Didn’t seem to make the list.”
And so, Jesus whisked the disciples away before they got into the act. (Matt. 14:22) and then he sent the crowds away. And then he went back to spend time alone with God.
Well, I don’t think that Jesus had his life goals written on an index card. But I know he was clear about his priorities and did not let competing loyalties drag him off course. He was careful to stay focused on his priorities. A focus the kept him from the distraction of other‘s urgent expectations.
Here’s what I mean.
(Martha and Elaine take out all the big rocks and pour the little rocks back out. Then Martha carefully puts the big rocks back in. Then they pour the little rocks over the big ones. Room to spare)
This illustration comes from Steven Covey who says, “Put First Things First” in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
So what are the big things in your life? Do you have an index card in your pocket or wallet listing your life’s priorities? Why not do that right now? Write them down. There are index cards in the benches for you to use. What are your current top five priorities?
And you’ll notice that I’ve given you a pencil, not a pen to write these with. Here’s why. Priorities change because life has seasons.
In farming there are different tasks for different season. On the strawberry farm, the work we did and the tools we used during planting season were different from the harvest season. During planting season we hoed. During harvest we advertised. Our priorities were different.
This is not what I’m talking about. Let’s say that one of your priorities this year is to get good grades in school. But along comes a new season, football season and everything changes. That’s not the kind of season I mean.
This is the kind of season of life I’m talking about. About two years ago, my sister-in-law, Gladys, entered a new season of her life. She learned that she had breast cancer. That day, her priorities changed. For the next year or so her number one priority became “beating this thing”. Now that she is no longer spending her days in treatment and recovery, her priorities are changing again.
Life has seasons. Some situations we choose, others life hands to us. Priorities need to adjust. Even wonderful and longed for changes like getting married, being accepted into a new educational program or having children means priorities will need to shift. It’s about timing and seasons of life.
Jesus came to die. That was one of his priorities. But there was a certain time for that. In Luke 4:14-30 Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. He read the passage from Isaiah (18-19) and then he preached. The people weren’t trying to make him king that day. They were so furious at what he said that they drove him out of town and tired to throw him off a cliff (28-29). Miraculously, Jesus walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Yes, Jesus came to die, but it wasn’t the right time. Later, in Luke 22, Jesus allowed himself to be arrested knowing that his captures intended to kill him. Then the time was right.
Changing your priorities doesn’t mean your old ones were wrong or unhelpful. It doesn’t mean that you will never go back to things you once enjoyed or discover a new focus. It just means that for this season, you have made the choices about what is most important in your life.
This is a good time to evaluate. A new school year is starting for some of us. Some of us have just begun or begun again to come to Jubilee. And for folks like me, for whom little has changed, we can just take this opportunity to reflect. In this season of my life, what should my priorities be? And set a time to revisit these priorities. A year from now, when a significant change happens, at New Years. Then review your priorities to make sure they are relevant and God directed.
As we consider our priorities for this season of our lives, we remember. God is always working in us. It’s not just us choosing what is best for us and doing it. We live and make choices aware that as we work in the world, God is working in our lives and in every other life. God is not just another one of our priorities. God is the air around us. God is the climate in which we exist. The Holy Spirit is the energy that moves through us as we work and create and rest.
Let’s take another look at Jesus’ life. This is Mark 1:29-39. The night before Jesus had conducted a standing room only healing service at Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. (29-34) Then very early the next morning Jesus left the house and went off alone to pray. Was it because there was no one left to heal? Was it because the people had finally gotten their fill of him? No. It was because one of his priorities was time alone with God.
Pretty soon, here came Peter and his friends looking for Jesus, with the news that everyone else was looking for him too. But Jesus didn’t come to be a pop idol. Here’s what he said, (Mark 1:38-39). Again, notice the balance, the timing.
Have you noticed that the choices Jesus made sometimes led him away from something else? Setting priorities means that there will be some things, at least for a season that we will chose not to do. Let’s say one of your priorities for this season of life is to pay off your credit card bills. Well, that will mean you may chose to no long charge anything on those credit cards. Maybe even put them through the shredder. Maybe wait to get a new car.
One of my priorities (after I finished growing children) has been to grow something. I’ve loved tending a garden. But then I began a Spiritual Director Program and it became one of my current big things. Gardening is no longer a main thing. It is one of the little things that must fit around assignments for the class I’m taking. It is helpful to think about what is most important for your life right now and think about what is not as important.
At Jubilee we have set priorities. We call this “God’s call for Jubilee.” It helps us remember what is most important for us as a church family. It helps us focus together on the main things and gives us permission to let some things go. Periodically revisit this call to see if the Holy Spirit is reaffirming it or leading us to change our priorities.
Near the end of his life on earth, Jesus looked up into heaven and prayed like this (John 17:4). What a blessing. To be able to say, I did what I was sent to do! What is it that you are to do for the next year? What are your priorities going to be?
Here is a prayer from A Guide to Prayer for all God’s People that has been helpful for me this week.
“My Lord, today I will make a thousand choices, big and small, consequential and trivial. In the midst of all these decisions, help me to choose the things needed for a richer, more vital life in you. Amen.”