The Most Important Thing

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 9:51-62.

Well, it’s good to be back! Lee and I had a great vacation, visiting national parks in Utah, and I’m still aglow with certain sense of accomplishment from completing my bicycle tour.

On Day 4 of the tour we had the longest ride of all: 86 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park to Zion National Park. Most of that trip was southbound on Highway 89; and that day there was a south wind, steady at about 27 mph and gusting even harder. About 30 miles into the ride, going uphill, into the wind, pedaling as hard as I could to manage about 7 or 8 mph, with more than 50 miles yet to go, I thought to myself, “This isn’t fun anymore. At this rate I won’t be at Zion until after supper. I wonder if I can even do this. Maybe I should get to the next rest stop, the one at the top of this hill, and tell the ride leaders I’m done. Maybe I should just have them put this bike on the roof rack and let myself be chauffeured to the end of the route. Maybe I should just do that.”

And while I was contemplating how nice it would be to stop, another thought came into my head: “You came on this trip to ride. You wanted the opportunity to ride a long route, all day, without worrying about getting back, with support from a crew. The most important thing on this trip for you is to ride. So ride.”

And that thought kind of put things in perspective. If riding was the most important thing, then I needed to let the most important thing be the most important thing. I needed to ride. So I put my head down, pumped my legs up, and kept climbing the hill. And when I reached the top of the hill, where the rest stop was, the support crew waiting there cheered. They cheered. And I felt so encouraged (and, in a little while, rested) that I went ahead and finished the rest of the ride.

It was all about letting the most important thing be the most important thing.

Our Gospel reading this morning is also all about letting the most important thing be the most important thing. Jesus speaks to one follower after another, and tells them that if they want to become real disciples, they must learn to get their priorities straight.

Jesus himself has put his priorities straight: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up,” Luke tells us, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” For Jesus, the most important thing is to lift up his entire life to God. His teaching, his ministry, his healing, his relationships, are all directed to lifting up life to God. And as the time draws near to offer himself up in crucifixion and resurrection, the first priority is to go to Jerusalem. Everything else takes its place in relation to that.

And it’s that same sort of first priority, that same sort of letting the most important thing be the most important thing, that Jesus commands in his disciples. Just as Jesus’ own first priority is being taken up into God, so that everything else in his life finds its proper place in relation to that, so Jesus expects of his followers that their first priority will be to offer themselves for new life in God, so that everything in their lives may find its proper place in relation to that. Following Jesus on the way to new life the Kingdom is the most important thing of all, and the work of the disciple is to let that most important thing be the most important thing.

And in today’s Gospel Jesus repeatedly reminds his disciples of that.

James and John want to call down fire from heaven on a town of Samaritans who would not accept Jesus – and Jesus has to remind them that their job is to proclaim Good News, not to fry unbelievers. Jesus reminds them to get their priorities straight.

One man offers to follow Jesus anywhere – and Jesus warns him that following the Way of Life will take him into unfamiliar territory, and that staying on the Way is more important than material comfort or domestic security. Jesus reminds him to get his priorities straight.

Someone else says he’ll follow Jesus, but first he has to go and bury his father. And that was no small thing: giving a parent a proper, respectful burial was widely understood as being part of fulfilling the Fifth Commandment – Honor your father and your mother – and so it wasn’t just a social nicety, it was a religious duty, a fulfilling of the Holy Law. But Jesus tells him that responding to the living Word of God is more important than acting out a ceremonial duty – “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he says – Jesus reminds him to get his priorities straight.

A third person wants to follow Jesus, but first to say goodbye to his family at home – and Jesus reminds him that the love God has for him, and the love that he must have for God, is more important than the bonds of family or household or clan. Jesus reminds him to get his priorities straight.

Now, none of these things that these people wanted are bad things in themselves. Family love, religious duty, material security, even a certain amount of righteous indignation, in the right time and the right place, all can have their place in the life of discipleship. But they can find their place, their proper place, only in relation to the first priority; they can find their importance, their proper importance, only in relation to the most important thing of all. Family and spirituality and security must be taken up into the wider reaches of God’s grace, the deeper purposes of God’s love, they must be signs and symbols and instruments of God’s presence, if they are to be what God truly intends them to be. They only become whole when they are part of a life that is aimed at doing God’s will, a life that has its face set to follow in God’s Way, a life that has its priorities straight.

And that is the challenge of the Gospel to us today: to get our priorities straight, to set our faces to following God’s Way – in our lives, too, to let the most important thing be the most important thing.

And that is not always easy for us. We are surrounded by so many things that clamor for our attention, we are in the midst of so many things that claim to be important. Our media are saturated with advertisements, each new product claiming to be absolutely essential for our well-being and happiness. Our news feeds and papers and broadcasts push each story as if it were a crisis, as if it were the most urgent, most important thing that ever happened. We live in a society that tells us nothing is more important than going faster, working smarter, playing harder, earning more, acquiring more, accomplishing more, consuming more. In all the craziness that is everyday life in the early 21st century, it is hard to stay focused on what is really important, it is hard to offer ourselves to be taken up into new life in God, it is hard to keep our priorities straight.

But that is precisely what the Gospel challenges us to do. Because it is only when following Jesus is our first priority that the other things – working, playing, earning, acquiring, accomplishing, serving, ministering, giving, receiving – it is only as they serve to follow Jesus that these other things find their place and their perspective and their purpose in our lives.

What for you is the first priority? What for you is the most important thing? What for you is the practice of faith that helps you feel closest to God, that helps you know you’re following Jesus, that builds up for you right-relationships of mutual well-being, that helps you experience the fruits of the Spirit? How do you live out your faith in the most dynamic way?

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, so that everything in his life could be taken up into God. Let us set our faces to follow Jesus, so that everything in our lives can be taken up into God’s mission, too. Amen.