A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 2, 2012
Philippians 2:2-4 GNT
As children, we go through a phase when we think the world revolves around us. We see ourselves as the center of the universe. Everything and everyone exists for our benefit and good pleasure. In other words, we are at the center of the circle of life. This phase probably begins as a survival technique. We depend on everyone else to take care of us. We only have the experience of “I.” And when, or if, we come to the realization that we are not the center of the universe and everything does not revolve around us, it can be a sad, even frightening, day indeed.
Now, you may have noted that I said IF we come to the realization that we are not the center of the universe. Because the truth is, some people never leave behind the idea that the universe revolves around them. I have known a few such persons, and you probably have too. But when you are at the center of the circle of life, you are always looking to other people and other sources around you for gratification or pleasure or security. It can be hard to move beyond this place of dependency upon others. It takes a certain amount of faith and trust to risk moving away from the center of the circle.
But then, as we mature (or if we mature), we eventually move ourselves away from the center of the circle, as it were, as we realize that the world does not revolve around us. And as we move ourselves away from the center of the circle, then we also move someone or some thing to the center of the circle. Or, we at least move another into the center to join us. And that someone or some thing becomes our focus in life, that which we live (and might ultimately die) for.
For some people, that person or thing at the center of the circle might be God. And so, whereas they once saw themselves to be the center of the circle of life or universe, they now see God to be at the center of their circle or universe. And instead of seeking to serve self, they seek to serve God, connect with God, please God in all they do and say.
Others may prefer to just put other people—humanity, if you will—at the center of their circle. And so, their aim becomes to serve others with their lives. Perhaps they are consciously more specific in their concept of humanity that they put at the center of their circle. For example, it might be suffering humanity, or homeless humanity, or abused humanity, and so on. Reaching out to and serving a certain segment of humanity becomes their passion and driving purpose in life. And so, they find their joy in helping to alleviate suffering through becoming a doctor or nurse or some other role that alleviates physical suffering. Or they become a counselor to help alleviate mental suffering. Or they work or volunteer at a homeless shelter, or shelter for abused women and children, or as a hospital volunteer. These are just a few examples.
Then others might put some ideology or book or philosophy at the center of their circle. In the Bible Belt, for many that becomes the Bible. The Bible is the center of their world, and knowing and following and protecting the Bible becomes their number one passion in life. But it need not be the Bible. It can be any book or idea. For instance, Nature or Creation can become the center of one’s life. Any worthy humanitarian cause can also become the center of one’s focus. In years past, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, equal rights for minorities, equal rights in the workplace for women, and so on has served as such a focus for many.
I have a theory that as we mature spiritually, we move ourselves away from the center of the circle and more towards the outside of the circle as we focus our attention on the Other, whether that Other be God, the needs of humanity, some worthy cause, the Sacred found in Creation, or something else greater than self. Such is, perhaps, what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote from a prison cell, “Don’t do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble . . . always considering others better than yourselves. And look out for one another’s interests, not just for your own.”
And when we consider this from a communal, church perspective, what we are to be about as a church is providing opportunities for spiritual formation that encourage and enable all of us to refocus our thoughts, passions, energies, and gifts to that which is greater than ourselves. It could be focusing on the Sacred, what it is to be Christian, serving humanity, some great humanitarian or social cause, or all of the above.
And this idea about seeing ourselves at the center of the circle can apply to churches as well. It is possible for congregations, you know, to see themselves as being at the center of the circle. They believe that they exist for the world to serve them. All their programs are aimed at serving their own needs, and they rarely look beyond the center of the circle to the community or world around them. Such churches may be few, but they do exist. But healthy, growing congregations, on the other hand, have moved themselves from the center of the circle, as they have realized that their focus should not just be on self and self preservation. Instead of operating on the assumption that they exist for the community to serve them, they understand that they exist to serve the community and the wider world. So in the center of the circle of the healthy, growing congregation we find service to God and service to others. And the more avenues of service to others that are placed in the center of the congregation’s circle, the greater the circle grows, and the stronger the congregation grows.
Now, that is not to say that we only look to the needs of the world and don’t take care of the needs of our members. I am not suggesting that. I am only suggesting that the church does not exist solely to look inward, but must look outward at the needs of the world as well. I am proud to say that this congregation already knows what it is to be of service to the community and wider world, while taking care of the needs of our members as well. One excellent way this is accomplished is through the good work done by our In-Reach Committee. But the more that we can look out for the interests of others, to put it in the Apostle Paul’s terminology, the more we will grow spiritually as individuals and a congregation.
So, who or what is at the center of your circle of life? Whom or what greater than yourself serves as a focal point or cause with which you can share your time, talents, and energy so as to make a positive difference in the world? I am inclined to think that the self-centered life that believes the world revolves around it is not the joy-filled and fulfilled life it could be, and that true joy may not be found by seeing ourselves to be the center of life’s circle. In other words, true joy and fulfillment can be found when we move to the edge of the circle and bring Some One or Some Thing else into the center of our circle of life and give our lives to Some Thing greater than ourselves. And that, in part, is what religion is all about. Amen.