Priorities

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

I make this resolution every summer.

When many members of Incarnation are away on vacation, and parish groups are taking a break, I have more unscheduled time. So I promise myself that I will use some of my extra time to clean out my office!

I will sort old files, and I’ll give away surplus books, and I’ll throw out papers that are no longer needed. In general, I’ll try to make my study more fit for human habitation.

Alas, this promise to myself has yet to be kept. I think of other things to do instead and every summer, more books and more files come in than go out.

So I remain in awe of my colleagues who have perfectly neat offices – sleek desks and ordered bookshelves – and nary a paper in sight.

In fact, such simple, streamlined organization seems to have been a requirement of ministry in the early church. Christ told his disciples that they should take nothing for their journeys “except a staff: no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.”

The idea seems to have been for them to get the supplies they needed either from local Christians who lived in the villages they visited or from new converts who responded quickly and positively to the message of God’s Kingdom.

The simple nature of the early church missions may have been dictated by sheer necessity. The first disciples were poor, and they were traveling around rural Galilee before the days of luxury tours! A free bed was welcome.

But there was also a spiritual lesson to be learned from Christ’s instructions. Those who work for the Kingdom are to rely as little as possible on their possessions. The disciples weren’t even supposed to earn their own livings when they were in the mission field; they were to rely on donations from those they served.

Of course, these instructions are ideals which are hard to carry out in reality. St. Paul had to work making tents to pay his way.

In the Middle Ages, the “mendicant” or “begging” orders, like the order of St. Francis, had no lands or endowments. Instead, the monks and nuns in these orders went out every day to beg enough money for their needs.

Yet these religious orders found they couldn’t survive without more structure – with vast areas of Europe to cover, they needed a complicated organization if they were going to do their missionary work. Eventually, the monks and nuns modified their rules so that they could own property.

We may see some of the “reality testing” emerging even at the time Jesus was preaching, at the early date of the Gospel. The first century missionaries were allowed to bring some things. They could carry a walking staff and wear a tunic and a pair of sandals – presumably because these items were standard hiking equipment in Palestine at that time.

The disciples’ “tunic” was a kind of cloak – which gave them protection against the elements. The sandals may have been necessary for rough ground that would cut their bare feet.

And the staff might have been useful, too. Once during a visit to Oxford I went on a long country walk with a friend who was a professor of theology.

When my companion offered me one of his hiking sticks, I thought of Jesus’ command to the missionaries. I asked the professor why he always carried such a stick. He said it was useful for clearing the path of brush and nettles, and when he walked across fields he could keep away aggressive animals!

And these curious details in Christ’s command to his disciples highlight the practical side of faith.

While the disciples had a spiritual calling, they remained creatures of flesh and blood. While they were to trust God to provide their needs, they also had to make some provisions for real life in the real world.

In other words, you can go only so far in simplifying your life. Some complexities are irreducible.

Of course, thorny questions arise when people debate what exactly is “irreducible” – what we really need. We don’t live in rural first-century Galilee.

There are some modern people who can’t imagine life without a car, or an annual vacation on the beach. The essential minimum of clothes – which is raised by Jesus’ command to take only one tunic on missionary journeys – can be debated. Some people can’t imagine getting through life without at least a dozen pairs of shoes!

But beyond possessions, the toughest issues of all involve time. Jesus tells the disciples, when they go to visit a town on their preaching journeys, to stay in houses where the people welcome them. If the missionaries aren’t welcomed, they should skip the town entirely.

This maxim is followed by telemarketers. When they make “cold calls” on people they don’t know, skillful marketers will discern right away whether the person called represents a potential sale.

If the person gets mad, the marketer will know to end the conversation quickly in order to move on to a better prospect.

Now we could all use such an awareness of where in our lives we’re wasting our time. Where we should devote our energy. Most of us could profit from careful evaluation of what we do in the course of the day.

We can expect that this evaluation will be harder for us than it was for Galilean peasants! The time management problems of contemporary life are reflected for instance in the publication of a magazine entirely devoted (as its title says) to “Simple Life”.

So we can find it helpful to ask ourselves: what do we really need to carry on our journeys through life? I may need more than the Bible missionaries. I may need two coats. But I may not require a lot of other baggage that I think I need.

And again, simple life for Christians is about more than possessions. What talents do I have to offer to serve God? Who are my real friends – who are the people with whom I should share my time?

Whether or not I ever get my office in order, I can do better in using my time. On this Trinity Sunday as we remember three principal ways we Christians experience the Divine, as our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Spiritual Guide, so we can remember the diverse ways God gives us to serve him. We can choose how we pass the days of our journey on earth. We are given priorities at our baptisms. As we heard in last week’s Baptismal Service, we have been baptized into “the life of grace”, with the gifts of “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and persevere, a spirit to know and love God, and the fits of joy and wonder in all God’s works”.

Amen


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