Sunday, July 31, 2022

Sermon: “A Colossian Copernicus”, Ecclesiastes 1:12-14, 2:18-23/Colossians 3:1-11 (July 31, 2022)


“The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.” We all recognize the literal and figurative truth of this statement in theory, but our human nature struggles to accept it at times. Although we know that we’re no more important than anyone else and that there are factors beyond our own wants and needs that drive society, our personal experience is the most complete data set we have access to, so of course our own concerns are usually at the forefront of our minds.

This bias, when left unexamined, can have some far-reaching consequences – as far, even, as the cosmos. For a long time, human beings believed that the entire universe revolved around our planet, the earth. Simple observation told humanity both that the earth is solid and unmoving, and that the sun, moon, and stars all visibly revolve around the earth at regular intervals. This seemed to prove what our collective egos already suspected: the universe literally revolves around US. For more than a thousand years, this geocentric view of the universe was assumed to be the correct cosmological model.

Now, this may seem like a harmless, if uninformed, perspective, but for centuries, it shaped humanity’s thinking in a way that was based in the reality of their observations, but not in the truth. Ancient astronomers would bend over backwards to explain phenomena that didn’t quite fit the geocentric model, such as the apparent reversal of several planets’ motion and a difference in the seasons’ length in different parts of the world. Over the course of many years and with the help of many creative thinkers, they were able to preserve the model in spite of these discrepancies, but it became a complicated and confusing system. In humanity’s determination to believe that we’re at the center of the universe, we came up with some pretty strange theories.

Often, when we try to draw conclusions with incomplete understanding (especially an understanding that relies disproportionately on our own perspective), our conclusions also wind up being a little…off. Ecclesiastes is an excellent, if bleak, example of this. At first glance, the protagonist’s repetitive conclusion that “everything is pointless” seems logically drawn from his observations of the world around him, but upon further investigation, we come to realize that his reasoning is actually a magnificent display of egotism.

The “teacher”, for whom the book is named, endeavors to investigate “all that happens under heaven” using, by his own admission, nothing more than his own mind and wisdom. Although he draws many conclusions over the course of twelve chapters, we see the way he privileges his own perspective early on: by chapter two, he’s already professing to hate everything that he’d worked hard for, not because he thinks he’d misspent his time, not because he finds no joy in his accomplishments, not because he did shoddy work, but because he has no control over who benefits from “his” hard work after he dies. Take a moment to let that sink in. This person is having an existential crisis because his life’s work might eventually wind up in the hands of someone who doesn’t “deserve” it. This, he proclaims, is a terrible wrong – it’s not FAIR.

Although the ancient kingdom of Israel couldn’t be called a “first world nation” by any standard, this is the epitome of a “first world problem”.

Just as the model of geocentrism relies on observable facts to reach an erroneous conclusion, the fact of the Teacher’s having no control over the ultimate fate of his earnings is very real, but his resulting verdict that “everything is pointless” misses the mark pretty dramatically. Both of these terribly misguided conclusions are the direct result of placing ourselves at the center of the story. When astronomers started with the assumption that earth is at the center of the universe, they wound up with some pretty wild theories. When WE begin with the assumption that our experience is at the center of existence, of life and death, then we arrive at the equally strange conclusion that nothing is fair, and everything is pointless.

But the good news is that our egocentrism doesn’t need to have the final word. We know now, of course, that the celestial bodies DON’T revolve around the earth, but that our planet is simply one in a solar system of many that revolve around a sun, and our solar system is simply one in a galaxy of many, and our galaxy is simply one in a universe of many. This cosmological breakthrough is largely thanks to an astronomer named Copernicus. His work popularized the idea of a heliocentric (or sun-centric) model, which in turn allowed those who came after him to build on this idea. Suddenly, the strange explanations required to haphazardly hold the geocentric model together were replaced by ones that made a lot more sense in the context of the whole. When we stopped assuming our centrality, humanity was finally able to grasp the truth of an infinite universe beyond our imaginations.

In some ways, Paul (or whoever wrote our New Testament reading) is like Copernicus to the Colossians. Whereas the teacher in Ecclesiastes represents the human inclination to examine things from our limited perspective UNDER heaven, Paul encourages the Colossians to look for things that are ABOVE. He urges them to go beyond what they’ve personally seen or experienced and to consider that something ELSE might be at the center of existence – not the earth (ourselves), but instead, the sun: Jesus Christ.

When we understand Christ as the center of all existence, suddenly the eventual ownership of our belongings doesn’t seem as important. Suddenly, death isn’t the ultimate injustice, undoing all that we’ve accomplished during our lifetime; with Christ at the center of everything, death becomes an opportunity for liberation. It’s not something to dread at the end of our lives, but something to embrace here and now – death to our old ways of thinking, death to egocentrism, death to inequity and injustice.

When we live and die in Christ instead of ourselves, it doesn’t change the facts that we observe around us, but it completely transforms the way we understand them. When we only think about the world in terms of what’s happening to ME, how events impact ME, we can never perceive the enormity of God’s great plan for us and for all of creation. But when we recenter our thinking and being around Christ instead of ourselves, the big picture all starts to make a lot more sense. It no longer all seems pointless because it’s no longer only about you. It’s about God’s desire to bring all of creation to themself, and to unite everything and everyone in love.

Think of your existence as a planetary system. Who or what is at the center of it? Actually, that’s not quite the right question. I just told you the answer to that one. Instead, what are you TREATING as the center of your existence? What do you allow your life to revolve around? Notice how it impacts your attitude. Are you, like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, filled with nothing but dread for what’s to come? Are you driven by fear of things being unfair for you? Or are you able to step back to see the larger truth – and that you’re not at its center after all? Are you able to trust and find hope in God’s plan…even when it’s NOT about you?

I don’t mean to suggest that this is an easy paradigm shift by any means. Although Copernicus first published his heliocentric theory in 1543 and it was widely circulated from the beginning, it took over a century and a half for his model to gain traction in greater society. Even today, different polls show that anywhere from 20-25% of Americans still believe that the sun revolves around the earth. It’s difficult to refute what your own perspective and observations conspire to convince you is common sense. But no amount of human confidence can change the divine truth. Astronomically speaking, that truth is that the Sun IS at the center of our solar system. Theologically speaking, it’s that Christ IS at the center of existence. And thank God for that. With Christ as our center, our inevitable end becomes a new beginning. The pointlessness of our life transforms into just one part of a much greater purpose. Our existential dread is replaced by existential hope.

Just as we still don’t know all there is to know about the mysteries of the universe, we don’t yet fully comprehend the full extent and all the complexities of a truly Christocentric life. But that doesn’t make it any less important to embrace. Our minds and even our spirits may resist this displacement of the self from the center of our existence, but believe me, we’re so much better off this way. Make the shift from a pointless life of egocentrism to a life with a purposeful existence centered around Jesus. There’s still a great deal for us to learn about such a life – and with Christ in the middle of it all, the news can only keep getting better and better. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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