Monday, August 5, 2019

Sermon: "Finding Our Center", Hosea 11:1-11/Colossians 3:1-11 (August 4, 2019)

I’m tired. Is anyone else here tired? I don’t mean “tired” like “I stayed up way too late last night finishing this sermon and am looking forward to my Sunday nap” tired. I mean “tired” as in “Everything feels hopeless” tired. As in “How long, O Lord?” tired. As in “I don’t even know where to start” tired. It may sound like I’m being overly dramatic, but how many of YOU have felt this way, at least once, over the last year or so? Most of us, I bet, at one time or another. It feels like it’s gotten to the point where you could spend all day every day fighting for what you believe is right and never feel like you’ve made any difference at all. There’s just too much that’s wrong in our world. It’s overwhelming and disorienting.

When I start to feel this kind of tired, I know that I need to find something to center myself. I need something to remind me what’s important, and how to focus my energy. So when Laddene offered me some tickets to a Broadway show last week, I thought it’d be the perfect antidote to my confusion. Musical theater speaks to me in a way that other media doesn’t. It grounds me in the human condition through music and storytelling. It reminds me who *I* am. It makes sense to me and centers me. It’s home.

But when I told my husband about the tickets, he gave me the look—the one that says, “What you say next will determine whether or not I panic.” He’d bought tickets months ago to a metal concert that was on the same night. I’d forgotten, because…well…metal bands aren’t my thing. I go to concerts with him because they make him happy (and it gives me leverage for when I need a date for the theater) but I’d just as soon stay home. Always the problem solver, I said I’d try to find someone to buy one of the tickets from him, so I could go to my show without his other ticket going to waste. He paused, then said hesitantly, “I’d really rather go with you.”

So, out of my comfort zone I went. I gave the theater tickets to a friend (with Laddene’s blessing) and prepared myself mentally for an entirely different sort of evening than I’d been anticipating. One where I felt distinctly scattered and out of my element. So much for feeling grounded. Oh well; sometimes, we just have to feel adrift and disconnected, right?

Where we find our center shapes our identity and our lives. Our center is our starting point, the thing that sets our priorities and gives us direction. A lot of times, we look for centering in the places that are the most familiar and comfortable to us: home, church, family, work—the places where we spend most of our time. But strangely enough, life happens outside of those places, too. So while we often look to our comfort zones for centering, we shouldn’t assume that “comfort” and “center” are synonymous. In fact, our center is most needed in the places that disquiet us…and sometimes, it’s those places that do the best job of helping us recognize what’s really our center.

In Hosea, we read a lot about things that disquiet God. Deeply troubled by Israel’s behavior, God tells the prophet to marry a “woman of whoredom” to represent Israel’s faithlessness. Morality policing aside, this opening directive sets the tone for how disappointed, hurt, and betrayed God feels. In Hosea, it’s easy to see why people facetiously refer to an “Old Testament God” distinct from the God of the New Testament. This depiction of God seems impossibly different from the compassionate, merciful one we read about in the Gospels. Hosea is a raw book that describes, in vivid detail, a bitter deity rejecting Israel’s infidelity.

But while God’s emotions are laid bare for all to see, we know that they aren’t the things that ground God. Of course, betrayal makes God feel angry and hurt and frustrated. But God isn’t anger, God isn’t pain, and God isn’t frustration. God is love. Love is at the center of who God is, and love is what motivates every part of God—even in times of turmoil and distress. When we finally get to the eleventh chapter, the prophet reveals that this is what grounds God’s identity and motivates God’s emotions and actions. God loves Israel—unquestioningly, desperately, endlessly. The prospect of deserting humanity is just as upsetting to God as humanity’s betrayal; more so, even! Just thinking about it makes God’s heart recoil, churn, roil within God’s chest.

This is where God is grounded—in love for creation, for us—and this is the only thing that matters. This is where everything holy flows from: God’s center is God’s love. God knows this. In fact, God knows it so well that there’s no way for God to be separated from this center. It’s present whether we’re faithful or disobedient, in the wilderness or in the city, in times of fury and in times of joy. God is grounded in this center even in the most upsetting, least comfortable moments. No matter what’s happening, God’s center is what drives God at all times.

…But certainly, even God couldn’t find grounding at a Disturbed concert. I’d been to metal concerts before, and although I’ve never felt excluded, it’s never quite felt like home. This time was no exception: the clothing, the sounds, the energy, the culture…everything about this place was foreign to me. How could I find my center if I couldn’t identify with anything that was going on around me?

But then…I started listening. I started paying attention. I heard music that, while different in style from what I usually listen to, said the same sorts of things that I had been thinking and feeling. Things that I knew to be true. In fact, at one point I realized that not only were these words more relatable than I thought; some of them actually WERE familiar, just sung in a different style. “This is the world we live in/and these are the hands we’re given,” they sang, as they covered a song by Genesis. “Use them and let’s start trying/to make it a place worth living in." Their message, in both their original music and in their covers, offered exactly the grounding and direction that I needed: silence and inaction are unacceptable. We need to do whatever we can with whatever we have. We are not alone.

I had been looking for my center in familiar packaging, but I found it in a place that challenged me and forced me to think about what was really important. When everything comfortable was stripped away, I realized that it was non-essential to the core of what centers me. It’s not about my preferences; it’s about what’s real and true in every context.

This is the message at the heart of Colossians. We shouldn’t be seeking our center in the things that feel familiar and comfortable to us. We shouldn’t be satisfied letting our lives be guided by earthly thoughts and desires. Such things are fleeting and unreliable. They’re idols disguised as solid ground. We should be motivated by heavenly things, by holy things, by Christ. If we center our lives on Christ, we’ll never be without our grounding. We’ll be able to find our center in times of success or in times of failure; in moments of anger or in moments of tranquility; in certainty or in confusion; at home or in unfamiliar places…at a Broadway show or at a Disturbed concert. New Testament scholar Scot McKnight calls this “Christoformity”—being shaped in our entirety by Christ in his entirety. If we orient our lives this way, then our sense of center won’t be subject to the whims of our changing preferences or shifting identity; it’ll rest in the certainty of our immutable God.

You know, the Colossians reading says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…corruption, evil desire, greed…” etc. When I was writing this sermon earlier in the week, I thought, “Nah, most of the things that draw your average American away from their center aren’t all that extreme.” But you know what? After waking up to the news of a second mass shooting in less than 24 hours, I’m not so sure anymore. I think that it’s time for us all to confront what’s really, truly pulling our focus away from Christ by persuading us that it should be the priority. We can’t fool ourselves any longer into thinking it’s just a difference in perspective or opinion. We must name our selfishness and sin, both individual and corporate.

Our center should NEVER be defined by our comfort. Our center should NEVER be defined by our fear. Our center should NEVER be defined by what we want for ourselves. If we want to be righteous and holy, our center should always be Christ and what Christ stands for. Full stop. Would Christ be concerned about what he’s entitled to, about his “rights”, over and above the health and safety of others? Of course not; that’s absurd. God’s center is love, and we’d do well to orient ourselves similarly. We need to shed the comfortable garments of the status quo, our own preferences, our certainty that we’re right, and clothe ourselves with Christ.

Set your mind on the things that are above, where Christ is. Calibrate your compass towards God so that you can always find your center in the midst of the turmoil and chaos around you. Then, nothing will have the power to disorient you. You’ll be able to find your center anywhere, in any crowd, in any news cycle, in any political party, because Christ is all and in all. Once we’re centered in Christ, all that we do will flow from him as our source. Only then can we take the advice of Disturbed (and Genesis): “Let’s start trying to make [this world] a place worth living in.” Amen.

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