This is a version of a sermon I gave at a conference for ministry in the Church in Wales, where we were looking forward with hope and creative vision to the future.
There is so much wonderful Christian ministry taking place in communities across Wales. Yet the workers in the field are few and resources are limited, so continuing to bring God’s light, life, and love to people and places across Wales requires difficult decisions – we have to ensure our prioritising is intentional, considered, and wise. The pandemic lockdowns led so many of us to realign previously-skewed priorities, as we zoomed isolated loved ones and embraced a new-found appreciation of the beauty of the outdoors. In a similar way, the rapidly-changing Wales of today is challenging us to realign our concerns and priorities and to reconsider what ministry and service entails.
According to business leader Stephen Covey, it is not hard work, good luck, or shrewd human relations that primarily leads to success. Rather, the one denominator that successful people share is prioritising well. As German philosopher Goethe put it: “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least”. But most clergy will tell you how living that out is no easy task – after all, it’s so difficult to decipher what matters most and what matters least. From my own recent parish experience, I know all too well that the stresses of service and the strains of selecting what needs to be prioritised can wear clerics down. Recently, I watched a video of the sermon by someone who was stepping down as vicar in his church because of the huge strain ministry was exerting on his, and his family’s, wellbeing. At the beginning of the sermon, as he stood in the pulpit, he rolled up the sleeves of his cassock and starts to juggle more and more apples to illustrate the difficulty of juggling duties and expectations. Once the apples had fallen and were rolling around the aisles, he related his sermon to the difficult decision he’d made to stop juggling all the demands of service and to prioritise wellbeing.
Prioritising is certainly at the heart of contemporary ministry and mission. We are facing challenges that exceed those of previous generations – an increasingly secular society, fewer vocations, expensive upkeep of church buildings, a marked difference in generational viewpoints, social and economic injustice, political polarisation, and cultural divisions. And the reality is that we don’t have the time, resource, or energy to do everything we want to do. This urgent challenge of working out priorities, though, is not a new challenge. In the Old Testament, Jeremiah chastising his fellow Judeans for their skewed priorities (cf. Jeremiah 7:21-28). The people of Judah were confronted with war, destruction, and exile. Jeremiah holds up a mirror to his compatriots and tells them: “you’re getting your priorities all wrong”. He says that their sacrifices and worship mean nothing if their lives don’t reflect the fact that they are God’s people. He urges them to realign their priorities away from greed, idolatry, and false prophets and to turn towards obedience to God’s commandments.
In fact, the call to prioritise obedience comes up again and again in the Old Testament and invariably it’s related directly to God’s commandments. There’s certainly something there we can take into our own lives and ministries. Our call is to take all the duties and passions that we juggle in our daily lives – to take our hearts that are burning for justice and compassion, to take our enthusiasm for sharing the good news of Jesus’s life, to take our need to look after our own mental well-being, to take our need for cherishing the life-giving tonic of friends and family, to take our desires and hopes and needs – and to consider them in light of that call to obey his commands. And, as Christians, Jesus was unequivocal about what those commands were. All the commandments are summed up in loving God and loving neighbour – caru Duw a charu cymydog. And so all our priorities need to be assessed in light of those two directives. Never before have two commands been so simple and straightforward. Never before have two commands been so demanding and difficult.
When I was a curate, I remember confidently reading Jesus’s words at a service at a care home: ‘The greatest commandment is love God with all your heart, your mind, and your soul; and the second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself’. Without warning, an elderly woman at the back of the room suddenly shouted: ‘I don’t love my neighbour’. I was left speechless. I looked at the care assistants, they looked at me. But the moment of silence gave the woman the opportunity to add: ‘and, listen ’ere vicar, if you knew her, you wouldn’t love her either’.
Those words from the elderly resident have remained etched on my heart long after she has departed this earth – listen ’ere vicar, if you knew her, you wouldn’t love her either – they have forcefully brought home to me how onerous and ominous is the seemingly simple command to love. Easy to preach, difficult to live. After all, the commands to love God and love neighbour are not some fanciful, sweetly-saccharin idealistic objectives. They are the foundations of all we do. Jeremiah and his contemporaries had 613 commandments to ensure purity and justice. The Welsh Government has the 56-page Future Generations Act to ensure all public decisions are made in light of social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being. But we Christians simply have four words. Love God – Love Neighbour. These commands are the heartbeat of our ministry, our mission, and our faith.
So that’s the challenge that hovers over all our mission and ministry. How do these new priorities that we need to decide upon in the coming months and years align with the commands to love God and love neighbour? They are the touchstone, the yardstick, of all our service. They are what reassure us that we build on rock and not sand; they are what guarantee us that we are with him and not against him. So, whether we are considering our dioceses, our churches, our personal ministries, our families, our own well-being, there are only two priorities that must underpin and sustain us. All other priorities are simply building blocks to construct on those firm foundations – caru Duw, caru cymydog – love God, love neighbour.