A sermon preached on January 27th, 2008 based upon 1Corinthians 1:10 – 18 and Matthew 4:12 – 23, entitled “The Most Important Thing.”
Life requires a certain balance that can be really hard to maintain.
On the one side of the balance, you’ve got to be practical, sensible, productive, realistic. You’ve got to face the daily drudgery that life in this world inevitably involves, which in our story this morning is represented by the fishermen rising early each day to go out in their fishing boats, tend to their nets, and do all the other stuff that is required to feed themselves and their families.
In our more sophisticated and complicated society, we are unlikely to go hungry this week if we don’t face the daily grind. Nonetheless, there is this constant looming chaos that demands our attention lest it overwhelm us; things like washing the dishes, taking out the garbage, going to work, paying the bills, getting the car inspected, on and on and on. If we don’t deal with this stuff, the chaos threatens to engulf us as our problems multiply. People who don’t deal with their practical stuff often become burdens to others. And people who are good at these kinds of practical things are admired and valued by the rest of us for their competency that helps keep the chaos at bay.
And yet, as important as this stuff is, and as important as the ability to effectively deal with it is, it isn’t “the most important thing.” And there’s the rub. You can be very good at dealing with the practical stuff of life, and yet not be very good at living itself, because you don’t ever come in touch with the most important thing.
And so the other side of the balance involves being able to make contact somehow, regularly with “the most important thing.”
Well, what is the most important thing? And in asking this question we realize immediately that we can’t really name it, at least not directly, precisely. The Jews have always appreciated this fact. They have this great story (as do we, since it is in our scriptures as well) of how Moses first encountered directly “the most important thing.” He was going about his own version of attending to the fishing boats and fishing nets; as a shepherd, he was herding his sheep in the wilderness. One day he sees in the distance a strange sight: a bush that is burning, and yet is not consumed. He turns aside, leaving for the moment his work responsibilities in order to approach the great mystery, at which point the mystery addresses him directly. “Moses, Moses, take off your shoes, for the ground you’re standing on is holy ground.” At one point Moses asks what the name is of the One who stands before him, and the mystery answers with more of a riddle than an actual name: “I am who I am,” or, “I will be what I will be.” The name is unspeakable. It has no vowels, only consonants, generally translated, “YAHWEH.”
And from that day on the Jews have had this great reluctance to speak the name of God. To do so would be to presume some control over the great mystery, and the Jews realized athat this was idolatrous. And so at the top of the ten commandments comes this one: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
We’re accustomed to say that “God is the most important thing,” but to say this in no way guarantees that we are in fact addressing the great, holy mystery that is at the very depths of life, out of which all life comes. It could mean instead that we’re trying to run away from this great mystery by having a word by which to address it.
Interestingly, Matthew’s Gospel is the most Jewish of the four Gospels. Where Mark and Luke use the expression, “Kingdom of God,” Matthew demurs, speaking rather of “the kingdom of heaven”, showing the traditional Jewish respect for the holy of holies.
And so Jesus comes, Matthew tells us, declaring “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
“The kingdom of heaven” is an expression that is intended to point in the direction of “the most important thing”, but obviously, it doesn’t explain much. In truth, the kingdom of heaven is more of an experience than it is a concrete concept.
So Jesus arrives on the scene announcing that “the most important thing” is at hand, and by calling us all to repent implying that to some degree we’ve all been missing “the most important thing,” and that an absolute change of direction of our attention is necessary.
Our reading from Matthew this morning describes Jesus walking by the Sea of Galilee, seeing these four fishermen, calling them to follow him, and them immediately up and leaving their nets, their boats, their father, and following him.
We wonder, how could they do such a thing? How could they just walk away from their responsibilities and up and follow this total stranger, who has the audacity to say to them, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of people”?
It makes a bit more sense to me if I posit that there is in these four fishermen as there is, I think, in all of us a deep hunger of the soul to experience “the most important thing” beyond all the “stuff “of life — a desire that in the routine grind of life in this world can easily be pushed aside. And that there is something about this stranger who speaks to them — this Jesus before whom they stand with their dripping nets — that places them in an undeniable contact with the mystery of “the most important thing,” as Moses long before had experienced standing before the burning bush.
At that moment do they understand who he is or what they are experiencing? I expect they had no clue. But their souls so starved for such contact that they felt no choice but to up and follow him.
Now although we may find it hard to imagine ourselves doing what the fishermen did that day, I think that all of us have had a taste of this experience.
Think about what happens when we receive word that someone close to us has suddenly died. No matter what you had on the agenda for your day — much of which may have seemed extremely pressing and important at the time — suddenly it all takes a backseat to what has opened up before you. It is all revealed to be not nearly as important as it had seemed to be.
And here, too, words are inadequate to express what it is we are opened up to in such moments: You could say are compelled to contemplate the depths of life, the mystery of what it means to be alive and how at any given moment that mystery as we know it in this world can come to an end, and how it all suddenly seems so much more poignant and meaningful than we recognized when we were in our normal mode of being in this world.
I had a touch of this experience this past week. An old friend called to tell me that another old friend, someone I’ve known for 31 years since we worked together at Camp Aldersgate, had suddenly died of a massive heart attack. I hadn’t seen Mark in years, but nonetheless, I was caught short. I descended into my memories of times spent with him, of who he was, and what he had meant to me. The next day I set aside the afternoon to drive over to the town where his parents still live, to drop in and share an hour of shared remembrances of Mark.
In our epistle lesson this morning, Paul is dealing with the church politics in Corinth. People are dividing up into political factions. This sort of thing is inevitable when we lose touch with “the most important thing.” The Church, of course, is an institution founded on a mission of calling people to attend to “the most important thing,” but institutions, no matter what their purpose, require that plenty of practical, routine work get done to keep it operating, and much of it isn’t particularly gratifying. If you are dealing with such drudgery without regular opportunities to connect up again with the “most important thing,” well, the practical stuff invariably descends into pettiness, power politics, where the goal is merely to win, to defeat the opponent. Even in church.
So Paul’s job here is to try and redirect the folks attention back to “the most important thing.” Again, “the most important thing” can’t be confined to words, but words is often all we have, so he offers up a few in the hope that it will point the irritable folks in Corinth in the right direction. He refers to “the message about the cross.” For Paul, it all comes back to Jesus hanging there on the cross expressing an awe-inspiring love. Funny, one again it involves reminds us of the reality of death. Remember what you experienced, Paul seems to be saying, when you pondered Jesus giving his life on the cross. The world thought it represented defeat, failure, but remember how when you first contemplated his death, there was this stranger power present to call you back to “the most important thing.” Don’t forget it. Life is too precious — to short for all this pettiness.
Jesus continues to walk among us, calling us back to pay attention to the depths of life, so we don’t get lost in the shallows.
My twelve year old son has entered that phase of life wherein his relationship to his parents is often a challenge. As I’ve mentioned before, I find comfort in the story of the twelve year old Jesus — he was a challenge to his parents as well. This phase of life is a somewhat unavoidable stressor in life.
Paul referred elsewhere to an ongoing “thorn in the flesh” that he struggled with that kept him humble, and those of us with children of a certain age know that the expression “thorn in the flesh” can often aptly describe our relationships with our children at this phase of our lives.
God interrupted our lives with a dream this past week. I had gotten up before Bobby and was downstairs getting ready for the day, when I heard my son cry out from his bedroom upstairs. “Where are you, Dad?!”
I’m down here, I let him know.
He hurried downstairs in nothing but his boxers, and when he reached me, he hugged me tightly, telling me he had had a dream in which I had died.
“I love you, Bobby,” I said as I hugged him back. “I love you, too, Dad,” he said.
Reassured, he began to relax, and not too long afterwards, he was back to being my thorn in the flesh. And I was back to putting together my agenda of “important things to get done.”
But the dream remains to call us to remember.