October 29, 2017

Matthew 22:34-40

“First things first: Seeking God’s Priorities”

When you are learning how to preach, one of the things you learn about is the most common error in preaching – and that is to try to preach more than one sermon at a time. Both the blessing of the Scriptures and the problem for preachers is that any given biblical text can lead us in dozens of different directions.

We read and study the text, we consider what other commentators and preachers have said about it, we take it to Bible study and listen to the ideas of others in our own churches, and then… at some point before Sunday arrives we must choose which sermon we are going to preach.

You don’t want to hear 2 or 3 sermons with multiple ideas mixed up together. If a sermon is going to do its job, it needs to have focus and clarity that will be accessible and helpful for its listeners. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes a difficult choice to make to leave a precious thought or idea unsaid, to leave it for another sermon sometime in the future.

One commentator I read this week pointed out that the preacher must choose which of the lectionary readings to focus on today, and that most will choose the Gospel with Jesus’ teaching about the greatest commandment. For me, the choice today also included the push to somehow preach about the 16th century Reformation which began 500 years ago, as well as the desire to include a stewardship-related theme, given that this is the last Sunday of our stewardship focus for the year.

As I considered all the possible directions for this morning’s sermon, I began to think about how we set priorities. That’s actually a very important part of our call to be good stewards of the gifts that God has given to us. We have a certain amount of time, a measure of skill and talent to use, and some financial and physical resources at our disposal, and we have to decide what to do with these gifts.

It’s the same thing whether you’re thinking about your personal resources, your family’s wealth, or your congregation’s gifts. In every case, decisions must be made (and sometimes difficult decisions) about what you are going to choose, and how you are going to spend your time, your talent, and your tithe.

In the Gospel text this morning we are told that the Pharisees gathered together and they arranged for one of them who was a lawyer to ask Jesus a question in order to test him.

As you may know, the Pharisees were a group of teachers within Judaism at the time of Jesus, and they were experts in the laws of Moses. They studied the commandments, added details and clarifying instructions for following the commandments, and they adhered to them strictly.

By asking Jesus about which commandment in the law is the greatest, I guess they were testing his knowledge, and perhaps trying to see if he might say something unorthodox and get himself into trouble.

But, just for today, I would like to imagine that the Pharisees’ question was an honest and sincere question. I expect that it would have been a question that other people in the crowds that day were wondering about, and I think it’s a good question for our consideration as well.

After all, the Pharisees were promoting a type of Judaism that focused on an awful lot of rules and regulations. You know, the Hebrew Scriptures don’t only contain the ten commandments that we’re most familiar with. The tradition is that there are 613 commandments. That’s a lot of commandments to learn, and remember, and follow day-by-day.

So, I expect that many of the people in Jesus’ faith community were somewhat overwhelmed by the demands of their religion, and maybe some of the Pharisees were feeling that too. And so, they asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” We want to follow God’s will for us, but we don’t know how to get started. We don’t know where to focus our energy. Help us out by letting us know… “what is most important?”

I’m one of those people who likes to make to-do lists. I almost always make one on Tuesday morning when I begin my week. I go through my calendar, and think through the various ministries that I’m involved in, and I make a list of things that should get accomplished that week so that I can check them off or scratch them out when they’re done.

Very often I start with the easy stuff on the list… things that can be accomplished quickly and without too much trouble. It feels good to check things off the list, so I power through a bunch of things right away.

But it’s rare that I finish a week with my list totally completed. There are always a few things that end up getting transferred onto next week’s list, and maybe the list for the following week as well. And so, I have to be aware of what is really most important, or I risk doing a terrible job as a minister.

So what if I’m prepared for committee meetings, if I’ve written my report for Session, and found time to research some resources that might be useful for the Sunday School? If my sermon isn’t written and Sunday morning is here, or if I haven’t called or visited someone in the congregation that I know is struggling and needs support… Some things are just more important than others, and I need to remember the limits of my time and energy, and do what is most important.

I expect that many of you struggle with answering that question as well… in your work, in your family life, in your community and church commitments. You also have limited time, energy, and money. So you have to consider what is most important. What will be your priorities?

The lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And Jesus begins by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” The verse he quotes would have been extremely familiar to his listeners, just as it has become for most of us. It is the second part of the Shema, the standard prayer that all pious Jews were to recite daily. It’s not a new idea, but something very central to the faith of Jesus’ People, something they all would have known already.

And then Jesus adds to that greatest and first commandment a second citation, this time from Leviticus 19:18. And he says, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

Jesus isn’t saying anything particularly radical to the Pharisees, and they wouldn’t be able to accuse him of being unorthodox or blasphemous for his response. But what he does do is affirm that some things are more important than others. All of the commandments may be good and helpful, but these two take priority, and all the others hang on them.

There are lots of other commandments… things like what you should or shouldn’t eat, or when and how you should wash your hands, or what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath day, or particular practices around giving alms for the poor. Following them can be helpful, but always keeping in mind the greatest two – to love God and love our neighbours.

That’s why Jesus did things like break the rules occasionally… because healing a person who was sick was more important than being strict about having a Sabbath day of rest, for example. People like the Pharisees didn’t like it, but Jesus’ priorities were clear.

As followers of Jesus and congregations of God’s people today, we also need to make decisions and set our priorities. The fact is that we can’t do everything, and so we have to make choices based on what we think is most important.

I’m thinking of Kennon Callahan who runs the “Stewards by Design” conferences that many Presbyterians attend. He encourages congregations to focus on one major ministry or mission that they can be known for. He argues that most congregations don’t have the time, energy, or resources to do everything, so rather than doing a lot of different things rather poorly, he suggests choosing one major ministry and doing it really, really well.

Obviously, there are certain aspects of ministry that we need to keep on our list… like worship, pastoral care, Christian education, and some kind of mission or outreach. But we do need to make careful choices together, so that we’re not all just running and running all the time, trying to keep all our balls in the air!

One of the gifts of our Reformed heritage is the cooperation between clergy and lay people in the decision-making structures of the Presbyterian church. We believe that when we come together in Christian community, when we pray together and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us, and when we listen carefully to each other and to the Spirit in our midst, that we will be able to make decisions that are in keeping with God’s desire for us.

At the same time, decision-making is the area of church life that we are most likely to bicker and squabble about. Our most contentious discussions within any of our church courts usually surround decisions about money and setting priorities. And although it would be nice if Jesus had laid out the answers to all those tricky decisions and budget questions, instead he gives us two over-arching principles, on which all our specific decisions should be based.

We must love God with all that we are. And we must love our neighbours as ourselves. Can those two commandments serve as a lens through which to view any potential decisions or plans that we are making? Whether a church decision, or a family plan, or a personal priority?

Can the greatest commandments to love God and neighbour help us to put “first things first” and to line up our priorities with Jesus’ priorities for us? It seems to me that we can sometimes get discouraged when we get focused on what may feel like a scarcity of resources. We worry that we don’t have enough time, or enough money, or enough people to accomplish our vision.

But good stewardship is simply about acknowledging what we do have, what we have received from our loving and gracious God, giving thanks, and putting those gifts to the best use that we can.

Are we using what we have to love God and love our neighbours? If we can say YES to that question, then we can be confident that God will be pleased with our efforts and proud of our accomplishments. May God grant us the wisdom to put “first things first,” and may we trust God to take care of the rest. Amen.