Harrowing Of Hell
September 4, 2022

The Joy of Missing Out

The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick

Epiphany, it has been a real gift
to share these summer Sundays with you.
When I returned here in July,
I walked into the Christie House
and saw Diane Carlisle working.
She looked up from what she was doing and said simply,
“Welcome home.”
She wasn’t just being nice.
What I have experienced
of you and your life together this summer is
what I trust you have found —
that whether this is your first Sunday,
your fiftieth Sunday,
or your five hundredth Sunday,
you don’t just have a place at Epiphany;
you have a home here.
Thanks to your remarkable staff,
your incredible lay leaders,
and to each one of you
who make that true.
It’s a gift to be with you.
(For more on this, see Greg McKeown’s Essentialism (2014).)

So, here’s a bit of trivia for your Sunday morning.
Did you know that it wasn’t until the 1950s
that the word priority was made plural
in the English language?1
Before then,
it would have been
practically meaningless
to say something like
multiple priorities,
competing priorities,
conflicting priorities.
Before the 1950s,
there was just priority.
The English language
reflected an assumption
about human nature —
no matter how gifted or talented we are,
no matter how capable we think we are
at multitasking,
it is not just difficult
but perhaps impossible
to have more than one priority at a time.
Something always takes precedence;
something always will take precedence in our lives.

But, then, in the 1950s,
language shifted —
the word priorities entered our vocabulary —
reflecting not so much an assumption
but a deep hope on our part.
Here’s what we hoped for:
That in a full, beautiful life,
there was room for everything —
we could have it all, do it all, be it all.
As the plural became popular,
it subtly suggested that
we really didn’t have to choose.
That we could balance this and that and the other thing.
Our priorities could be anything
and actually everything all at the same time.
What earlier eras couldn’t do — well, we could.

It’s remarkable how a little thing —
like making a word plural —
can shape our assumptions
about ourselves, about the world,
and about our possibilities within it.
The philosopher is right,
“Words make worlds.”
And, of course, the plural
and the hopes behind it
still shape much of our culture today.

But in today’s Gospel reading,
it sounds like Jesus
is coming down on the side
of pre-1950s English:
That life is ultimately about choosing,
about knowing and naming your one priority —
about knowing what matters most.
Jesus says it more starkly, of course:
“Whoever comes to me,
and does not hate
parent and partner
and child and sibling —
even life itself —
cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not pick up the cross,
cannot be my disciple.”
I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it:
“Simply put,
if you’re not willing
to take what is dearest to you,
whether plans or people,
and kiss it goodbye,
you can’t be my disciple.” (The Message)

This is no one’s favorite passage of Scripture.
No one — to my knowledge — has ever embroidered it on a t-shirt;
No one has printed it on a pillow;
No priest has ever chosen this text as her text for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
It is sober. It is Jesus at his most honest.
This life is about choosing your priority,
about knowing what matters most to you.

And if the thing that matters most to you is the Gospel,
then this love reorders all of your other loves;
this relationship reshapes all of your other relationships;
this way of peace and love and joy and justice
remakes all of the other ways you’ve tried living.
If you choose this way of being in the world,
then everything else gets reevaluated.
You get one. Just one. Priority.

Jesus’ real point here, of course … is that
It’s one thing to say that the Gospel is our priority;
it’s another to live as if that’s so.
So, we may need to prepare ourselves
for some hard choices, some difficult decisions
if we are going to live with the Gospel as our priority in this life.

To underscore this, Jesus offers us two metaphors.
First, let’s say that you are going to build a great tower.
Wouldn’t you first do a bit of math
to make sure that you can afford it —
to make sure that ego doesn’t drive you to start a project
and then you have to abandon it
when you can’t complete it?
If you’re going to build a great thing,
you might want to talk to the financial planner
before you buy the lot or break ground.
Or maybe if you’re not in the building mood,
Imagine you’re the king, the queen, the emperor of a great country.
And you are preparing for war against your sworn enemy.
Wouldn’t you first sit down
with your generals and intelligence officers and ambassadors
to make sure that, if you start the thing, you can finish it?
And, if you learn that you are hopelessly outgunned,
wouldn’t you ask for peace while there is still peace
lest you start a war and loose not only your army but also your respect?

Building a great tower and starting a war
hardly seem like apt metaphors for living the Gospel in this life,
and yet, perhaps …
perhaps Jesus chose them because
they remind us that
the stakes are high,
the costs are great,
the outcome very public.
And that is okay. In fact, that is good.
That is the Good Life of the Gospel.
To claim the Gospel as your priority is not at all a private matter.
It is a very public priority that changes and challenges everything else —
like building a building, like going to war.
Like, Paul writing his friend Philemon
and challenging him
to see how his Christian faith
might be incompatible with owning other human beings.
If your priority is the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
then you have no choice
but to recognize and embrace
the dignity of every human being,
to strive for justice and peace among all people,
to seek and serve Christ in all people, to love your neighbor as yourself.
If this is your priority, the stakes may be high. The costs may be great.
The outcome very public.
But that’s the good life.

When, in the 1950s,
the English language gave us priorities (the word),
it may have set us up
for what is now
a widespread anxiety in our culture and our country,
known as FOMO, the fear of missing out.
If everything matters,
If you have a thousand priorities,
If you can do it all, see it all, be it all,
then you don’t want to miss anything at all.
And the mere thought that you might …
well, that’s enough to keep you up at night.
But if …
If life is about knowing the one thing matters most,
if life is about naming that single priority,
if life is — as Jesus says —
about finding the life that is really life,
then we may find something else —
That there is actually a joy of missing out.
In the end,
we don’t have to do it all, see it all, be it all,
because we simply can’t do it all, see it all, be it all.
But that’s not some sad realization.
That’s what makes our choices so deeply meaningful.
That’s what makes this life so beautiful and poignant.