July 31, 2022 Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "New and Improved"

Jul 31st  |  Jerusha Van Camp |  Colossians 3:1-11

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   One of the very first discussions that my cohort and I shared when we began seminary together was a conversation about the weight of words. For example, the title of today’s sermon is “New and Improved”. I invite you to speak aloud in response to the following question: what do you think of when you hear the phrase “New and Improved”? 

   If you listened to the radio in the 1980s, you probably remember the deep smooth tones of Rick Astley’s voice from the 1987 hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up”. The invention of memes in the 2000s created a different association for Rick Astley’s hit song and it became a prank called “Rick Rolling”. Rick Rolling is when a person gets a friend to listen to or watch a video in which they have embedded the song “Never Gonna Give you Up”, and after a few seconds of listening to the song or video, the friend unknowingly gets “rick rolled” when “Never Gonna Give You Up” suddenly begins playing instead. I’ve been rick-rolled several times thanks to First Light Youth Group.

   Words trigger an association to a memory or an experience and thereby are weighted by those memories and experiences. These associations take shape through our unique, individual human experiences, and through collective community experiences like Rick Rolling in pop culture. We are molded and shaped by the data we input into our daily lives.

   The words in Hosea’s story, for me, are weighted by my memories and experiences as a parent. I want to challenge us all to empathize with Hosea as this story describes the anguish of a parent’s love for their child who despite all the ways in which the parent has loved them and given of themselves for this child, the child rejects their love and the tender kindness.

   Hear Hosea’s words: “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down and I fed them.” My memories of holding my infant children and caring for them when they were tiny humans helps my heart to feel the agony of this parent’s heart.

   When studying Scripture, it is important to ask ourselves questions. Who is God in this passage? Who are we in this passage? What is it that the author wants us to know? I do not think that it is hard to see that the author of Hosea is likening God to the parent and Israel to the child. God is our loving parent, and we are the child who is “bent to turn away” from God.

   This anguish that we read about is God’s anguish. Despite God’s anguish, listen to the commitment that God has to loving us in verses 8-9 of our text. “How can I give you up? How can I give you over? My compassion grows warm and tender” Oh, how God loves us. Oh, how God cherishes us. Oh, how God cares for us.

   This week, a friend posted a status update on Facebook that made me laugh and made me think. They wrote, “God will not let go of me. It’s kind of annoying at times, but it’s undeniable.” I laughed because I have had this same experience with God, but my heart was also warmed because I am so grateful that God will never let me go. Oh, how God loves us!

   Those Facebook status words sum up the reality of what it is like to be a disciple of Jesus.  God is trying to make us new and yet we consistently reach for the things that take us away from God, but God’s love will not let us go.

   It has been a real struggle these past few months for me to stay in tune with God and friends, I know that you have struggled too. I find myself tired and distracted, pulled in too many directions. I am still deeply grieving. My anxiety ebbs and peaks, and my hopes feel small. It is often only when I have exhausted all of my reserves, that I can hear our loving Parent calling me home.

   So what should we do when we realize that we have gotten ourselves caught up in this callous, selfish, and chaotic human kingdom? What can we do when we find ourselves bent away from God? How can we live into God’s love for us when we are so easily pulled away?

   It is the grace of God who gathers us, delivers us, and brings us home. It is by God’s Spirit that we are renewed and restored. Even though it is the work of God that brings us home, we are not completely off the hook. Our text from Colossians today tells us to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”  

   Setting our minds on the things of God demands that I put away the means by which I have been pulled away from being present with myself and with God. For that it means putting away my phone, turning off Netflix, missing out on the event, and sometimes leaving the dirty dishes. When I begin to set aside these things and set my mind on things above is when I realize how these seemingly harmless distractions are actually the things that are forming me and molding me away from God. I have to work to disentangle myself from their power. It requires a committed decision to put it away.

   Setting our minds on God means spending time in prayer. How is the word “prayer” weighted for you? Maybe prayer seems like a job, maybe you love to pray. Prayer should not be difficult and it has many forms. What is uplifting and helpful to you, may not be for me. In my life, sometimes prayer is leaning against big old tree, or standing barefoot in the grass; sometimes it is standing in a cold creek until I can’t feel my feet anymore; sometimes it is words; sometimes it is listening to a song until the tears roll and the dam breaks, sometimes, it is silence in a sunny window of my house, and sometimes it is head bowed and eyes closed. There is no wrong way to pray. There is no wrong way to come back to being present with God.

   Setting my mind on the things of God means spending time with the Scriptures. For me, this has been the hardest piece to reintegrate into my spiritual practices. I have to dig much deeper these days into the passages I read and wrestle with them and ask questions. It is critical for me to be able to see the words in a new light, unweighted and separate from the kinds of interpretations that do spiritual violence to the people that God loves. Reading different versions of Scripture in conversation with one another and using commentaries help me discern faithful and life-giving understanding.

   Setting my mind on the things of God means being here with you in community. Each encounter is a reunion and I am overjoyed to be home, here in God’s presence with you. Together in worship we are being gathered, healed, reformed, and renewed. Together here in this space we are knit together in the bonds of love and our inner life is formed and aligned and bent back towards God.

   Setting my mind on the things of God means refusing to give in to my apathy, my worries, and today’s grim news. Following Jesus means recommitting ourselves daily to live into God’s life, and see things through God’s eyes.

   Setting our minds on the things of God helps us make new associations to words and memories, helping us to become new and improved as we put away those things that lead us away from God and focus on the things that bring us near to God.

   I’ve given you one way to make a new association to the phrase “new and improved” through Rick Astley’s song, “Never Gonna Give You Up”. I hope that it will help you remember that God is going to love you no matter what, always.    

   The second thing I hope you will remember is that you are a work in progress, and God is always working to make you new. The great motto of the Reformation expresses this thought by saying, we are “always reformed and always reforming”.           

   The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning. Because of God’s great love for us, because of the grace and mercy of God, we are made new each and every day.  We may not always feel like it. God may have to call us out when we go astray, but children of God we are made new and improved, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Mother of us all. Amen.