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FLESH AND SPIRIT
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 09, 2017
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Zechariah 9:9-10 Psalm 145:1-2;8-10;14-15
Romans 8:9-11;13 Matthew 11:25-35
This past week, we celebrated the Fourth of July. For many, that was a joyous occasion to celebrate the founding of the United State of America, a time to “Rejoice greatly”. Many of you may already be familiar with at least some of the words in today’s First Reading, as you might recall them from the soprano aria in Handel’s Messiah called, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” Now you know from where Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, found the words for that particular segment.
The clergy of the churches of our conservative sisters and brothers no doubt preached this week that the United States is a “Christian” nation. However, that’s not true. Its founding mothers and fathers were mostly Deists. Most prominent were James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Deism is the belief that God has created the universe but remains apart from it and permits his creation to administer itself through natural laws. Deism thus rejects the supernatural aspects of religion, such as holding that Jesus was God’s Son. Rather, Deism stresses the importance of ethical conduct.
The founding, and expansion, of the United States, was anything but peaceful and anything but ethical. It was birthed in violence, by way of a violent revolution, and violent conquest of the land of Native Americans beyond the thirteen original states. If you study history, you will find that the patriots of old that people admire engaged in atrocities against British loyalists and native American quite similar to those practiced by ISIS in the Middle East, like torture and beheadings.
Simply put, the United States was not formed in a peaceful manner. And it continues to be anything but peaceful, both at home with social unrest, and abroad, with an interventionist foreign policy.
Achieving one’s ends by peaceful, rather than violent means, brings into sharp contrast the works of Spirit and the works of the flesh set out in today’s Second Reading. Many people read St. Paul’s discussion of “flesh” as meaning sexual stuff. No, it is not. Rather, “the flesh” is all those parts of human nature that draw us away from God, such as greed, desire for retribution, fear, power over other people, desire to control our own lives free of God, and desire for social approval. Some or all of that was the motivating force behind the founding and expansion of the United States, and continues today in the White House.
Violence is a work of the flesh. Peace is a work of the spirit. Nonviolence is an aspect of Jesus’ teaching and action that we have too easily neglected over the centuries. Celebrations of Independence Day often commemorate the military activity that implemented that independence, rather than the principles behind it, and those celebrations usually neglect how those principles impact life as we know it today, and almost never consider the idea that maybe some of those principles should be changed to reflect today’s conditions of life.
I see July Fourth as a time to acknowledge that God calls us now to use our freedom to serve the world in ways that honor a consistent ethic of life by finding alternatives to the death penalty, the use of military force to resolve political problems, and use of the so-called “free market” to provide healthcare. Put another way, those things are all “of the flesh”. We need more influence “of the Spirit” as part of the solution.
The foundation of the Spirit pervading our lives is the relationship between Jesus and God. That relationship functions as a paradigm for our relationship with Jesus. Because of the relationship between the Father and Jesus as His Son, Jesus, as mediator between God and humanity, is in a unique position to impart the wisdom of God the Father. Jesus is part of His Father, and His Father is part of Him. Through the Eucharist, He dwells in us, and we in Him. The relationship between Jesus and the Father is a spiritual one. The Spirit makes that relationship possible, not material stuff. The spirituality of that relationship is what facilitates the mediation between us and God through Jesus. By medication, I mean that the nature of God was revealed to humanity through Jesus, who never ceases to advocate on our behalf, having once been one of us.
Today’s Psalm sets that out in no uncertain terms: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness, good to all, and compassionate in all His works. Unfortunately, conservative Christianity sets out a very different picture of God, one that is punitive and vengeful. Very often, people use this image of God for purposes of controlling other people by literally, “putting the fear of God into them.” Unfortunately, parents often tell little children that “God will punish you”, or even worse, “God will strike you dead” if you do something mommy doesn’t want you to do. Children, however, are too naïve to figure out what’s really happening.
We sometimes think of Jesus as a king. Scripture refers to Him as “King of the Jews” in connection with His crucifixion. Today’s First Reading described very accurately the type of King that Jesus really was. The Jews of his day were expecting a Messiah-King, coming in power and glory, but what they got was a king who came in great humility, one who emptied himself into a human body just like ours. Jesus was a very human king, one who empathizes, one who cares, one who is there to comfort us. And most important, Jesus does not come to us as a king who makes war. Jesus comes to us as a king of peace. In doing that, Jesus shows us the feminine aspect of God, a God of gentleness and nurturance. In this way, Jesus came to show us the way of the Spirit, not the way of the flesh.
The prayer of thanksgiving in today’s Gospel, that begins, “Father, Lord of heaven and earth” captures the same blend of intimacy and reverence expressed in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus recognizes a wariness about the “wise” and “intelligent” that constituted the religious elite of His day. Jesus saw that their learning feeds their arrogance and becomes an obstacle to piety, quite the opposite of the picture of God reflected in today’s Psalm, a merciful, compassionate and kind God. Jesus correctly determined that a high degree of intellectual sophistication and ability gets in the way of understanding simple truths that He taught.
In today’s world, much of the available intellectual resources are directed towards amassing wealth and asserting power over other people. The values of the United States and other industrialized countries emphasize money and power. Many people look for strength in the ability to own and accumulate possessions. They also look for strength in developing advantages over others, such as superior education and prestigious positions. But our discontented people, down on their luck, who lack these characteristics, look for someone to blame.
Humanity, in moments of weakness or dissatisfaction, seeks solutions to fix problems. Hence, it is no surprise that the economically-distressed individuals in the red states were attracted to a strong man to assert power over immigrants, minorities, liberals and Muslims, all of whom they perceive as responsible for their bad situation. However, scapegoating others is not the way of Jesus.
The “Jesus solution” to the situation is VERY different. Jesus would have us look to the meek and humble, the sick and dying, and the poor and hungry, as a way to understand God’s wisdom. For it is in ministering to and among them that we will find the God whose “right hand is filled with justice.” Today’s Gospel talks about one aspect of God’s justice, that is lightening the burdens and loosening restrictions on people. Today’s Gospel invites those “weary” from carrying “heavy burdens” to instead take the yoke of Jesus rather than the yoke of the Pharisees.
“Yoke” was used in Jewish tradition as a metaphor for teaching or instruction is extended to the image of wisdom, which is practical application of teaching. These words were directed most immediately to those both inside and outside the community under the influence of the scribes and Pharisees who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others” Pharisees laid the yoke of their six hundred thirteen commandments upon their followers and others who sought their advice about how to please God. Jesus, however, teaches and demonstrates a way of life, that is, a yoke, that differs markedly from the one the Pharisees taught. Jesus promised a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. But Jesus also had a more encompassing intent, inviting the disciples to submit to the “yoke” of His teaching.
Yokes often become a way of life dictated by economic circumstances. The peasants in the time of Jesus always had a yoke. For the most part, their lives as tenant farmers were governed by the whims of the landowners. They lived their lives day to day on subsistence controlled by religious leaders who grew fat on tithes that they hoarded in the Temple instead of redistributing to the needy.
In today’s world, unless you work for a church, your religious life and your economic life are in two different power centers. But the yokes are still there. Some churches still burden their followers with codes of onerous and detailed canon law, and in the secular world, many workers possess no independent wealth, making them vulnerable to those with more wealth and power than they have. They live paycheck-to-paycheck and reside in month-to-month rental housing. Like their forebears who lived when Jesus did, they live at the whims of their employers and their landlords. The law is that, absent a contract or law to the contrary, employment in California is at will, meaning an employee can be fired for any reason or no reason. The same applies to month-to-month tenants in rental property. There, the law is a landlord can terminate the relationship for any reason or no reason on thirty or sometimes sixty days’ notice. So, many people wear the yoke of these two major uncertainties where they are in disadvantageous power relationships, where someone else makes rules they are expected to follow. However, rules, even church rules, are human, as are the laws of the secular world. Both are “things of the flesh.”
That’s where Jesus comes into the picture. The yoke he offers us is a life in the Spirit rather than a life in the flesh. Life in the Spirit with Jesus is a place of comfort, a place of peace, a place with a light burden and an easy yoke. Life in the Spirit with Jesus is a respite from the yoke of the flesh. This is the essence of Jesus, who in and of Himself, is “life in the Spirit.” What Jesus offers us is peace, by way of a different orientation towards life, not one built on the ambitions of the wealthy and the powerful, but on the needs of what today’s Gospel calls, “the little ones”, those without power, without wealth. Jesus is here to relieve the burdens of life from their shoulders.
Yes, the American Revolution is all about freedom. But burdening and yoking people is the exact opposite of freedom. Our conservative sisters and brothers prattle on and on about imposing personal responsibility on people. In the conservatives’ world, each person is responsible for their own survival, as to food, housing, healthcare and everything else. For them, life is competition between people for scarce resources. To use the language of today’s Gospel, they think it’s actually good to burden people and put yokes around their necks. In doing so, they glorify the things of the flesh over things of the Spirit. But as Saint Paul tells us, the way of the flesh is ultimately the way of death.
People can and do die from the burdens placed on them by the “personal responsibility society.” Consider the cost of healthcare, with which the conservatives want to burden individuals rather than society as a whole. Consider two people with cancer curable by expensive treatment, one rich, who can afford to pay for it, and one poor, who cannot. The rich person lives. The poor person dies. Not right! Survival of the financially fittest is not the way of the Kingdom of God!
In today’s Gospel, the insight, or Wisdom, Jesus gives us, is that life in the Kingdom of God is better than life in a kingdom of humanity that excludes God. Why? Because of the intimate relationship between Jesus and His father, we can trust what Jesus says to us, and here, Jesus envisions a life where people are relieved of burdens and yokes.
But how do we get there? The answer for us is advances in technology. Consider hunger. Technology has dramatically increased crop yields and lowered distribution costs. The world has the ability to feed everyone, yet that isn’t happening because of ideology and politics, not lack of food. Jesus is here to overcome the yokes of ideology and politics to relieve the burden of hunger. Jesus demonstrated that at the feeding of the five thousand, where food was handed out without charge. Yet we still, in 2017, the yoke of free market ideology, each person looking out only for their own interests in business transactions, continues to burden people with hunger. Jesus came to us to say, “enough of that.” Jesus tells us today that His yoke is easy, that His burden is light. We should do the same in the way we relate to each other and individuals and the way society relates to individuals.
The time for us as a society, has come to lighten individual economic burdens and stop yoking people with principles designed to perpetuate oppressive power structures. Instead, we must share the costs of the survival of every person as a community obligation rather than impose responsibility on the back of each individual for individual survival. I recognize that moving beyond economic individualism is a huge leap for many people. But until we get there, true personal freedom is at best, an illusory ideal.
In dealing with this situation, the Church should do what it has always done: be prophetic. Call out evil. Call out those in government who want to lay the burden of survival on each individual rather than make it a collective obligation. Call out those who want to yoke people with ideologies that perpetuate the present economic and political system at the expense of the poor. Tell them that’s not the way of Jesus. Tell them to prefer the “little ones,” the least among us, in setting public policy, just like the “preferential option for the poor” we find in Catholic Social Teaching. The church is here for them, first and foremost. And don’t forget the micro level as well as the societal macro picture. Do it in your own life. When you see a chance to lighten someone else’s burden, do it. If you in a position to do so, offer other people an easier yoke that what they’ve got. Jesus did not say, no burdens, no yokes. We will never be totally free from burdens or yokes. But we can make some effort to make those burdens as light as possible and those yokes as easy as possible. Burdens and yokes are things of the flesh. When we lighten loads and loosen yokes, we truly live in the Spirit. AMEN.