July 15, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Have you ever heard the phrase, “organizing principle?” The phrase is quite popular with pundits, so much so that when I googled the phrase this week, my search turned up 3,480,000 web pages containing the phrase. Obviously, I didn’t read all of those references but even a quick look at the top hits revealed a wide diversity of uses for the phrase. A scientific paper, for example, opened with the statement, “Evolution is the organizing principle of modern biology.” An SAT site urged students to develop an organizing principle before writing the essay portion of the exam, and ZDNet offered companies possible organizing principles for their digital workplace.
What does the phrase “organizing principle” mean? It means exactly what it sounds like: it is “the principle upon which things are organized” and we employ this strategy all of the time even in the most mundane choices of our lives. If, for example, you decide to arrange the tools in your work-room, the first thing you have to do is choose an organizing principle: will you arrange your tools by size or function? Will you hang all of the screwdrivers on one wall and all of the wrenches on another, or put all of the tiny tools, both screwdrivers and wrenches, in a drawer and hang all of your larger tools on the wall? Or maybe you will choose to ignore the size or the function of your tools and make “color” your organizing principle. You will hang your red-handled hammer next to your red drill-bit case, and put your black electric drill with the black set of chisels and the black toilet plunger. Organizing by color wouldn’t be very efficient but it would be pretty! And maybe creating a beautiful rainbow with your work tools is more important to you than being able to find them quickly; knowing a person’s organizing principle reveals not only how a person makes choices, but ultimately what is important to that person.
So I want you this morning to think about the choices you have made throughout your life. What do they reveal about the organizing principle of your life? What do those choices say about what you value, what you believe? What has motivated you and drawn you onto particular paths? How did you decide where to invest your energy, your money, and your time? What has your life revealed about the organizing principle that lies at the core of who you are?
Our organizing principle reflects not only who we are and also informs who we will become. The social media platform Twitter, for example, states that its mission — its organizing principle — is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” In choosing that organizing principle, they were telling potential users that every decision Twitter made about the use of that social platform would be based on their belief that people’s ideas should be shared without censorship, and that organizing principle not only described what Twitter was at the time of its birth but also what it would become. Twitter’s insistence on freedom without censorship has provided a democratic platform for a diversity of opinions but it has also allowed for the distribution of hatred, insults, and abuse. The owners of Twitter have constantly had to balance the dark side of social media with the importance of maintaining the identity that they formed by choosing their original organizing principle. No matter how bad things have become at times on their platform, Twitter knows at the same time that users count on their organizing principle of sharing ideas without barriers. If users couldn’t count on Twitter’s adherence to that identity, Twitter might today reject the ugly posts of a racist, and tomorrow decide that it is your opinion on the Yankees that should be suppressed and close your account. And so their own organizing principle not only formed Twitter’s identity, but has shaped what Twitter has become: a place where the good, bad, and the ugly are all allowed a voice, whether we like it or not.
Organizing principles create identity and promote a consistency of behavior that others can count on. What is the organizing principle of your life and how has that shaped who you have become? What kind of person are you today because of the organizing principle that informed the choices you have made throughout your life?
The scripture reading for today tells the church at Colossae that they are to give thanks to God because God has rescued them from darkness and brought them into the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Christ, the letter says, is the image of God, and in Christ, all things hold together.
“All things were created through Christ and for Christ…” the letter says. Christ rules over the rulers, sits above the thrones, is head of the church; Christ is the beginning … “so that he might come to have first place in everything.” For the author of Colossians, Christ permeates his universe, rules everything in his experience, and makes sense of his life. Every day, no matter what happens, and no matter what confronts him and threatens to unravel his heart and mind, he keeps coming back to Christ because in Christ, for him, all things hold together. In 21st century terms, Christ is the organizing principle of the author’s life.
And most of us, I think would hope that we could make that claim as well, because, after all, we call ourselves Christians, we are members of this church or another, we pray for others, and we listen to sermons every week — or at least we sit in the pews while preaching is going on — and we can tell you the story of the Good Samaritan and know the words to Amazing Grace. But does all of that make Christ the organizing principle of our universe? An organizing principle not only declares our identity but if it is truly the principle by which we organize our lives, it will also influence every choice we make, the way we think about the world and react to the world, and determine who we become. Moreover, it will provide others with an assurance of consistency knowing that they can count on us to act in accordance with our stated operating principle.
I have asked you to think about how you would describe your organizing principle, but now ask yourself, “What would other people say my organizing principle is?” If you asked people you have worked with, or your family, or your friends, “What do you think motivates me?” what would they say?
There is a story of a police officer who pulled a driver aside and asked for his license and registration.
“What’s wrong, officer?” the driver asked. “I didn’t go through any red lights, and I certainly wasn’t speeding.”
“No, you weren’t,” said the officer, “but I saw you waving your fist as you swerved around the woman driving slowly in the left lane, and I heard you swearing at the driver of the car that was trying to merge into your lane, and I saw you pounding your steering wheel in frustration when traffic slowed because of an accident.”
The man protested, “Maybe I did, but none of that is a crime, is it Officer?”
“No, it isn’t,” the officer agreed, “but when I saw the ‘Jesus loves you and so do I’ bumper sticker on the car, I figured this car had to be stolen.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne warned, “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” Christianity is more than a Sunday morning practice that has little to do with the rest of the week; Christianity is more than a statement of doctrine; more than a religion: it is the principle by which all of our choices are made; by which our identity is formed; and in which others can put their trust. We can’t claim to be Christian but really make all of our choices based on money or financial security. We can’t claim to be Christian but really make all of our choices based on a desire for power and status. We can’t claim to be Christian but really make all of our choices based on party affiliation, national pride, ethnic identity, our alma mater, our favorite football team, or even a particular cause, no matter how worthy. Those things can be important to us and we can give them our time, energy, and love, but they cannot be the principle upon which we organize our lives because ultimately, Colossians says, “Only thing gives us the right to call ourselves Christian. Only one organizing principle leads to life. Choose Christ because in him all things hold together.”
In dark times, in difficult times, we know instinctively that this is true, for aren’t we proclaiming, “In Christ all things hold together” when we pray, “Thank you God for Christ because he has kept me from falling apart?” When the whole world leaps upon us with a ferocious roar taking our heart in its cruel mouth and shaking it as if to break it — on those days when we call out, “Save me from the pain,” and a comfort that was not there before appears, a strength gently lifts our weary hands, and a peace steals upon us — on those days, do we say, “Thank you, God, for my high resolution 86 inch LED Smart TV because it holds me together,” or “Thank you, God for my political party because it holds me together?” or “Thank you, God, for the start of the football season because it holds me together?” No, those things may distract us or give us temporary pleasure but when our hearts are breaking and we seek healing for our pain, we say, “Thank you, God for Christ who lifts my darkness with his light, who conquers the death before me so that I can rejoice in life again; thank you, God for Christ in whom all things hold together, because God, it was Christ who kept me from falling apart today.”
We know that it is Christ who saves us in extraordinarily difficult times, and so we choose to put him at the center of our lives in the ordinary times as well. We choose Christ to be the sole organizing principle of our lives. When we open our mouths to speak, we first think, “Are these words that Christ would have me speak?” When we are tempted to judge our neighbors harshly, because they disagree with us politically, we consider whether Christ would pass that judgement or if he would listen and love. When we are concerned about the state of the world and tempted to fall into cynical apathy, we remember the persistence of Christ and we find the strength to persevere. When we are wounded by others, we hear the words of forgiveness offered by Christ and work not only to protect ourselves from abusive relationships but because of our faith, also to free ourselves from simmering resentment and hatred of those who have harmed us. Christ holds all things together and in Christ we are made whole.
And so, I leave you with that final question once again, “What is the organizing principle of your life and how has that shaped who you have become? What kind of person are you today because of Christ and who will you be tomorrow because you have founded your life on him and in him, all things are held together?