Aisle #9, Priority #1 – Finding God in the Grocery Store!

Old Safeway grocery clerks never die. They just grow up to be preachers or other stuff before they themselves check out. Take it from one who knows. Me. I share that fact, that I used to be a grocery clerk, just so you'll know how this morning's sermon title came to me. See, today's Bible lesson is about Jesus' 10 wise & foolish maidens waiting for the bride groom. Now I don't know about you, but I rarely come upon a scene quite like this. True, lamp oil may be in our futures if economic trends around us keep declining. But at the moment, most of us aren't into lamp oil. And as for maidens, much less 10 at a time, that's not very common experience or language either. But the grocery store? Ahh, now we're talkin'. We can all relate to that. And the grocery store gives us a regular, touchable lesson in a deep spiritual truth. Life in the Spirit, like a walk through the store, is all about priorities and choices. In that order. Priorities and choices.
Now, conversations, notes and email come my way every day. Among them, two recently. One from a young wife and mother of two (preschool to elementary). She writes this. “Can you help us to think about our priorities in the face of so many choices about what to do (and not), have (and not), be (and not)? It will help us help our kids.” I also got a message from Mike Allen, our RSI capital campaign/stewardship consultant.. He shared a word he'd brought another congregation. “My message is: prayer and priority. Oh, you wake up to the smoke alarm's piercing wail. Your eyes and nose burn. You smell smoke. The house is on fire! Get the kids and pets outside. You can go back to grab three things – what are they? What's important? What would you save? 'Leave behind? What are our real priorities? Here's another Bible image. Moses plagues Pharaoh to let his people go. Finally Pharaoh says, “I've had enough! Take your people and go.” Moses walks slowly from the palace; then full-speed to the Israelites shouting, “Get your stuff together! We're leaving in thirty minutes!” Even those poor Jewish slaves left things they'd've liked to take! It's about priorities – what IS important. Can we separate needs from wants? By what priorities are choices, spiritual to everyday, made?
From Moses to maidens in Scripture, Safeway to sensible living in our every day, there are key lessons to be learned. First: Know that product placement always competes with priority placement. Second, know that choices need to follow priorities, not the other way around! (And our culture will do all it can to defeat us at this very point.) Third, know that prayer prepares, and readiness redeems. (Get in the habit of looking at what you're looking for!)
I checked. The Bible texts. The commentaries. Online Scripture resources. Cokesbury. Even my seminary texts and notes. I can't find anything in any of these headed, “Product placement.” But there sure seems to be plenty on temptation. Falsehood. Sin. Even evil. Take Jesus' parable of the maidens, for example. Five were so smitten with the possibility of the groom's attention and that of those who came with him, they missed the needed virtue/priority of oil for their own lamps. They let their imaginations get the best of them. And their vanity, likely. So intent are they to get gussied up, they fail to secure the light that allows them even to be seen. So eager are they to hurry out, to beat-others-to-the-punch to get attention, they miss the need to light their own way. So tempted to be first, they will end up not just last, but lost. (That sounds familiar.) Temptation. Falsehood. Sin. Evil. Hmmpf! Our world doesn't use these words so much as Scripture, but we see them every day and week. And Safeway tips us, by the way. Go to the store. Check the endcaps. How come potato chips are always on the end? 'Ever the see the beets on display there? (Which is better for ya?) Why are the candy and the National Enquirers at the check stand, not the fresh spinach or the freshly arrived liver? Ever notice the bread aisle and the milk coolers are not that far apart? [I reckon you will, first time the weather guy speaks that 4 letter word (snow)]. Millions are annually spent on product placement research. The goal is to get you through the store picking from what you want (or can be made to want) even more than from what you need. This is not just a retail reality. It is a fact of our moral and faith life, too. Life is inherently tempting. Diverting. Distracting. Promise over priority. Feels good over does good. Looks cool over lasts and lifts. This is not random. (More about this in a second.) Believers, Jesus-folks are on to this. 'Not fooled by it or blind to it. How about you? [Illst. TV, What …Values, CUMC]
OK. So what has Jesus to teach us when overwhelming numbers of choices confront us and challenge our priorities? How about this? Choices need to follow priorities, not the other way around! (But our culture will do all it can to defeat us at this very point. It has always been so.) Imagine the maids in Jesus merry-turned- troublesome tale. 5 to the oil merchant for light for the journey. 5 gals goin' to their closets for their best robes and sandals. Priority over pretty. Sense before selection. Light over light-hearted. These are the lessons in the lesson. Don't be fooled. Just as the stuff in the store is not randomly placed, neither is the stuff-of-life. The Tempter is always elbowing God in our everyday life. 'Always trying to tempt us with the unimportant, the ephemeral (temporary), the morally questionable-unto-bankrupt, the seemingly satisfactory that is silently seductive [don't miss the hiss], the everything-here-can-be-yours that ends up being evil in your life. You and I have lived most or all of our lives surrounded by plenty. We have been distracted from figuring out that enough is enough. We depend on the spontaneous selection over the prioritized, principled prize.
Over against this, Jesus puts forth a different way of being. Of doing. Be clear in priority he says. Know what is coming, coming from God. And watch for it. Eagerly. Attentively. Aggressively. The wise maidens like the coupon shoppers have already scanned the ads for coming blessings. They have selected what is of real value. They have a vision. A beatitude all their own. And they have determined to have light enough and to spare to greet it when it comes. When he comes. The Bridegroom. (The Savior, actually. That's the symbol here.) You and I might say, the Real McCoy, the Messiah, not the Mere Pretender. “That all sounds good, Rev. But how did they know what to look for back then? And more important for us, how can we know now?” Great questions. Do you remember when John the Baptist was in jail? And he heard about Jesus. He asked what we do. He sent word to Jesus. “Are you the One, or shall we look for another?” Jesus' answer: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor get good news. And those who get what I'm giving… get blessed! Mtt. 11: 2-6 Contemporary. Those are still the priorities of Heaven in Jesus Christ and the best standards for our own priorities. Decide for priorities that matter. Even eternally. For what lights, moves, cleans, lifts. You. Those you love. Those you don't. Those you know. Those you don't. Those you'd stand to honor. Those you just can't stand. Personally, collectively, globally. This is sort of Aisle 9 at the store. The place of the necessary stuff. The priority #1 stuff they never put on the end caps. What everyone needs, but nobody finds it necessarily fun to buy. And that's the truth.
So tell the truth. Do ever really want to get to this Aisle #9? Do you want to get the hang of hangin'-in-there for the stuff that matters, and changes things. 'Changes us: for Good and for God? Then know that prayer prepares, and readiness redeems. (Get in the habit of looking at what you're looking for!) Jesus teaches and I make bold to AMEN that priorities precede choices. They come first. And that the world obscures and distracts us on purpose. And that we require a waiting eye and a watchful spirit for the only Savior and the only values that really save. And we find both in the One whose name is Jesus. all true. But pretty “highfalutin'”! So let's get it right and really straight. Jesus appears to know of nothing quite like prayer to prepare us in priorities and guide us in our choices. It is the most frequent, consistent habit of Jesus presented across all four gospels. Christ pines for it to be our habit too. Be regular in prayer. Not just for what God will do, but for what you will value that God does too. Be regular in prayer.

  • To know Jesus.
  • To think Jesus.
  • To feel Jesus.
  • To do Jesus.

Thus prepared, deciding on daily things becomes a doable exercise. It allows us, as Scripture challenges, to let our yes be yes (with joy), and our no be no (with confidence). Few blessings will bless us or our children better. The old spiritual sings for us all when it says, “I want to be ready; I want to be ready, to walk the New Jerusalem just like John.” Prayer prepares us. It gets us ready for today and right for tomorrow. It redeems us to the Lord, Jesus Christ! You might want to think on these lessons, 'next time you're lost in Grocery Aisle #9, lookin' for your priority #1.

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