Setting our Priorities

  • September 14, 2014

paul corinthI Corinthians 1:18-24

There’s something about Concord in autumn. The wind ruffling the leaves of beautiful old trees. Bicyclists and tourists pouring through town, enjoying the views and the history here. And there is something else, too, the excitement of a new school year. So many people are returning to learning, to the life of the mind. So many others are returning to a faster pace of work or in volunteer and social engagement. Have anyone been busy, in the last week or two? A few things going on?

There’s an energy in the air with the cooler temperatures, whether you live in Concord or not. July and August gave us an excuse to read bad novels on the beach, nap on the couch, eat ice cream and s’mores, if we can: but no more.

Autumn is the time to get our lives in gear. This is the time to impress our colleagues and improve our waistlines. This is the time to catch up on all of the books and news that we feel we should know something about, to become informed. This is the time to make our homes clean enough for strangers to see them, and the yard ready for the winter, and pack our children’s lunch boxes with nutritious, delicious, and artfully arranged food. This is the time to get organized, so that we’ll never forget an appointment or leave off an item on our to-do list.

Somehow, in all the beauty and bounty of this place; in all the glory and promise of September, I hear too many of us getting lost in a flurry of labor and aspiration.

Paul is here to help. Really! The Apostle Paul is on our side. He is talking, of course, not to us, but to the Church in Corinth; but I think there’s something for us in his letter.

The church of Corinth was rich in faith and in what Paul calls spiritual gifts. And in that richness, sadly, division had flourished. The Christian community there had begun to divide against itself. Christians weren’t just Christians; they distinguished themselves from each other by the precise theologies they adhered to, and by the preachers and teachers that they favored.

Paul calls them to unity, of course; he was always calling for members of the church to recognize they were part of one body. But perhaps more importantly, Paul calls the people of Corinth to change their priorities. Stop trying to be so smart, he tells them. Stop trying so hard to get it right, and to get it righter than your neighbor. Don’t you get what this is all about? Don’t you get who this is all about?

Paul tells them that God has made foolish the wisdom of the world. It’s no use trying to be wise in any ordinary way; it’s a waste of energy. We are called instead to what looks like foolishness.

Now my guess is that most of us here this morning haven’t been wasting too much time competing over our theologies, with each other or even with those from the other churches in town. That’s not our particular hang-up. But we may have gotten caught up in all kinds of other things, many of which are not really important: concerns about our reputation, our appearance, our success. We may be spending energy trying to be wise and accomplished in the ways of the world.

As one commentator writes, Christians are meant to specialize not in wisdom, but in foolishness. We don’t need to have it all together, by the world’s standards. In fact, some of the best Christians I have ever met are kind of a mess. Do you know what I mean? But they’re a beautiful mess. They’re persistently hungry for the kind of  justice that seems impossible. They’re full of absurdly extravagant generosity and unjustifiable compassion. They’re not really worried about seeming put-together; and why should they be?

I’m not saying we need to stop taking care of our personal hygiene or walk away from our responsibilities in order to prove our hearts are in the right place. No, cleanliness and responsibility and even order, as much as we can muster, are fine. But it might be worth checking if our priorities are really in order.

Paul says: give up the game. Give it up! Ambition, accomplishment, and worldly wisdom are ultimately a distraction. They distract us from our true identity as followers of Jesus and children of God.

Now I realize that much of what has us stretched and strained and busy in mind and body is not superfluous. It is real work, critical work, work to help and serve others and to support our own basic needs. But even this kind of strain can be relieved somewhat by a reminder of who and whose we are.

We are not called to be super-people: perpetually beautiful and impressive and on-time. We are called to service, yes; to love of God and neighbor. But we’re not the ones who are supposed to be great. God is great. We just get up in the morning and try again to be a part of her presence in the world. We just lay down at night with a new set of confessions to make, and with more grief to share, and more gratitude to give.

What if we gave up the game: the game of being right or perfect; better than our colleagues or our siblings or our neighbors. What if, instead, we became fools for God: unremarkable, even a little unkempt, simply a part of something so much larger and more wonderful than ourselves?

It is a beautiful time, here in Concord, here in New England, a beautiful season with plenty of work for most of us. As we travel through it, may we allow the weight of our own expectations fall off our shoulders and experience, instead, the good news that it is God who is great. May we decrease, so that God may increase within us. Amen.