Put Christ first.

This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to visit Polk Avenue Elementary for their leadership day.  I had no idea what to expect. I thought some kids would sing. They did. I thought they would honor student leaders.  They didn’t.  It was much more than that.

Some years ago the Principal, Gail Quam, decided that to reach the kids they serve more effectively, she had to change the culture of the school. She introduced leadership curriculum developed by Franklin-Covey, based on Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People called “The Leader in Me.”  The program’s goals are:

Leader in Me helps students learn how to become self-reliant, take initiative, plan ahead, set and track goals, do their homework, prioritize their time, manage their emotions, be considerate of others, express their viewpoint persuasively, resolve conflicts, find creative solutions, value differences, and live a balanced life. The process helps students develop the skills and self-confidence they need to lead their lives and succeed in school and beyond.”

At Polk Avenue, 81% of the children come from “economically disadvantaged” households. That same curriculum has also been in use for many years at All Saints Academy between Winter Haven and Lakeland. It doesn’t matter what a child’s background is – these are life lessons that we all need. Well applied and followed, they will help anyone establish a good life at work and at home.

Part of the curriculum is that the kids get to establish their own clubs within the school where they can exercise their leadership habits. The clubs include gardening – which beautifies the school grounds – to art, music, cooking, dance and board games. Each club must figure out a way for their club to bless their school and the wider community.

Covey’s third habit is “Keep First Things First.” (I don’t know why that is the third habit. Seems to me it ought to be first. I’m sure they have very good reasons for that!) He doesn’t say what that first thing should be, which I understand since it’s for a wide range of people. But he does lead people to make a choice.

We have to proclaim what must be first. God has put the longing in our hearts for him, for meaning, for hope, for a future. And he has blessed us with the will to choose differently. He calls us to make a choice.

It is the same choice God laid before Abraham. God promised him innumerable descendants and the Promised Land. What did Abraham have to offer for his side of the covenant? Livestock? No. The livestock is symbolic of what Abraham offered: Faith. That is what God wants.  When Abraham went into that deep sleep, it hearkens to baptism, as though Abraham is dying to self and awakening to accepting God’s lordship over his life.  Abraham’s faith was reckoned unto him as righteousness. That’s always the choice.

When Joshua settled the nation of Israel in the Promised Land, he gathered all the peoples together – the Israelites and the remainder of other peoples who were living there. Everyone. Anyone. And he told them, “Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house we will serve the Lord.”

Herod has made his choice.  He is a vassal of the Roman Empire. The Empire wants stability and if Herod doesn’t maintain it, Rome will find someone who can. That is Herod’s first thing. Stability is important. Wealth or financial security is important. Power is important. Watching out for your self is important.

Any of these are important to all of us.  But if anything other than faith in God becomes the first thing, it can lead to bad decisions like wanting to kill Jesus.  Jesus is causing a real stir and that is making Herod nervous. So, like John the Baptist, his easy solution is to just get him out of the way.

Note Jesus’ response. He doesn’t try to run, doesn’t try to hide.  His first thing is his Father’s will and he is entirely focused on it. He has work to do where he is demonstrating the Kingdom of God to his people.

And he knows his destiny. He has set his face towards Jerusalem and he knows the conflict and the cost that will come there. Everything about this passage points to the cross: the threat of death, Herod’s role in Jesus’ death, and finishing his work in three days. He will do all of that in accordance with his Father’s will.

Our collect today prays for God to be “gracious to all who have gone astray.” The real question isn’t whether we’ve gone astray, but how. When Abraham made his covenant with God it’s not as though he got everything right from that point forward. He doubted God. He disobeyed God and tried to work around his commands at several points. It’s incumbent upon us to be conscious of the ways we’re not in alignment with God’s Word written and more importantly, his Word made incarnate into our world, Jesus Christ.

What have we put ahead of God? In what ways have our appetites and desires distracted or diverted us from Jesus as our way, our truth and our life? We’ve oriented our hearts on the right path with the confession, and our faith is reckoned unto us as righteousness. But the grace of what Jesus did for us on the cross demands that we take a good, long look at ourselves. So let’s take a moment and pray on that.

(A moment of silence and closing prayer.)