Sermon for July 10, 2011 || Pentecost 4, Proper 10-Year A|| Romans 8: 1-11; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
If you found the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning confusing, do not—as we used to say—adjust your set. It is indeed a very circuitous and convoluted piece of prose, even for Paul.
On the first read–or even after several reads–it sounds like Paul is saying that everything having to do with our physical bodies is bad. He talks about “sinful flesh” and how “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” Then, just to confuse matters, Paul seems to say that it doesn’t really matter after all how sinful we are, because it turns out “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Wow– sounds like we Christians have some special dispensation so we can sin all we want without ever paying the price or suffering the consequences. Who knew?
But not so fast. Just when we’re wondering if Paul really just said what we think he said, he does a complete 180 and says in no uncertain terms that it most assuredly does matter…. that if we live life “in the flesh” as he calls it, we face nothing less than certain death!
So, where does all this talk of sin and flesh and death leave us, if not confused? Well, believe it or not, the answer is: free. It leaves us free from the things that bind or enslave us, so we are free to discern, and follow, God’s will in our daily lives. But I get ahead of myself….
Let’s start by clearing up a few things that tend to get lost in the translation from Biblical Greek to modern English…
Paul is not saying that our bodies are bad and that only spiritual things are good. That sort of dualism isn’t present in Paul’s thinking or in the Greek words he uses here. Paul doesn’t equate the word that’s translated as “flesh” with the body, any more than he equates the word translated here as “spirit” with some ethereal soul.
When Paul talks about “things of the flesh” what he’s really talking about is an attitude, an orientation— a way of thinking and of being, and of living—that is independent of God, rather than dependent on God. Paul is talking about a way of going about our lives as if God has no part in our reality; as if God has no claim on us—like the person in this morning’s gospel reading who hears the word, but lets the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word so that it yields nothing.
When we have our minds “set on the flesh,” as Paul calls it, we either ignore, or forget, to seek and listen for God’s direction. We make our own choices and our own decisions; We are so focused on things of this world that we rely on our own intellect and power of reason to set a course and go—with no thought of prayer and no discernment of God’s will. We are the captains of our fate and the masters of our souls.
The problem is that when we’re acting without any sense of God’s will for us, we’re acting on self-will instead. And the problem there is that it’s inherently, even if unintentionally, idolatrous. Yes, idolatrous—as in giving something other than God more power to shape our lives and our decisions than God’s own self. We’re relying on what we think and feel, as if God has nothing to add to the equation. We are, in effect, playing God.
Imagine for a minute that you’re put in the enviable position of having to choose between multiple job opportunities, college acceptances, or even relationships. “What should I do?” you ask yourself, “Which one do I want?”
Maybe you’re a financial advisor and a wealthy individual wants you to handle his portfolio, but you’ve heard some sketchy things about how he became so wealthy. “Do I really want to represent this person?” you might wonder.
There’s a non-profit you know of that needs volunteers, but you’re not sure if you have the time, or the energy, to commit to it. “I don’t know if I really want to do that,” you might ask yourself.
Or maybe you come into some unexpected money or bonus of some sort: “What should I do with it?” becomes the prevailing question.
But listen to the “I” in all these questions. The sad truth is that most of us totally forget to ask for GOD’S input, whether we’re making decisions large or small.
It’s not that our flesh is sinful or bad. As the saying goes, “God doesn’t create garbage.” But when we live with our minds set on the so-called “things of the flesh,” we have a real tendency to forget the things of God, or to place other things ahead of them. And that’s not only idolatrous, it invariably results in less-than-favorable outcomes.
Over and against the “things of the flesh,” Paul talks about setting one’s mind on “things of the Spirit.” What we need to know about this is that Paul is not talking about setting our minds on mystical musings or esoteric exercises. “Setting one’s mind on the things of the Spirit” means thinking and being and living in a way that gratefully recognizes and rejoices in God’s claim on our lives. It’s a way of living that’s intentional about seeking and responding to God’s will. It’s a way of living that depends on God more than self, and in which we re-frame our questions to reflect that God-centered focus.
We may poke fun at those who where bracelets asking “WWJD” (What would Jesus do?) but it’s the most essential question any Christian can ask him or herself. “Which of these jobs, or schools, or relationships will draw me closer to God and God’s desire for me? Which might God be calling me to choose?” “Is this non-profit opportunity really something God is inviting me to consider, or is it my own ego or some other need that’s being addressed?” “What could I do with this unexpected bonus that might please not just me, but God too?” What would Jesus do in this situation, in response to this set of alternatives, at this particular time?
Now I’m not saying this is easy, but it’s not rocket-science, either. It’s a habit that can be formed like any other habit, with skills that can be taught, practiced, and learned. We can, in fact, be free from the tyranny of self-will. Because through Christ, God did what we could never do: Christ became human just like us, yet freely and perfectly surrendered his will to God’s will. And now, since his Spirit lives in us, we too can surrender to God’s will. We are empowered to do so by Christ’s Spirit!”
So now, if we are empowered to live into God’s will like Paul says, then why don’t we? Why do we so easily either forget about or ignore God will?
M. Scott Peck, who wrote the 80’s-era best-seller, “A Road Less Traveled,” blames everything on laziness. In fact, laziness, according to Peck, is the original sin! He says it’s laziness that caused Adam and Eve’s downfall, and laziness that prevented Peck’s patients from doing what they needed to do to heal their broken spirits.
Peck supports this rather unpalatable theory by pointing out that in the Garden of Eden myth, after the serpent tempted Adam and Eve, they could’ve talked to God again to get God’s side of the story before they acted. But they didn’t go the trouble. I always figured that either it never occurred to them, or they just knew they wouldn’t like God’s answer. But Peck says they were lazy—they didn’t want to be bothered, so instead, Adam and Eve took what appeared to be the easier, softer way. (And we all know where that got them…)
Peck says this is typical behavior for human beings: We fail to consult or listen to what he calls “the God within us”—what you and I might call the Holy Spirit—simply because we’re lazy. He says we routinely fail to get God’s side of an issue before deciding on a given course of action, because it’s just too much work to carry on these internal debates.
You may remember from last week that Paul refers to these internal debates as an inner-war, a struggle within himself that makes him feel like a “wretched man.” It’s a struggle that takes time and that takes energy. And it’s complicated by the fact that when we do listen to “the God within us,” we risk finding ourselves called to the more difficult path; the path we don’t really want to take. So who can blame us for preferring the easier, softer way?
The good news, hidden in the Gordian knot of Paul’s convoluted language, is that while we may be lazy, we’re not beyond hope! Like Paul in his desperation, we can admit our own powerlessness and surrender our wills to God’s will–one day at a time, one step at a time, one decision at a time. We can’t do it alone, and we can’t will ourselves into it. But we can draw on the strength and the power of Christ’s Spirit—the Spirit that lives in us and in our church community—to set our minds on the “things of the Spirit” and habitually remember God in our daily lives and decisions.
This, Paul says, is the way of life. This, Paul says, is the way of peace. This, Paul says, is the way of freedom. And surely it is the way of Christ—who wants far more for us than we could ever ask– or in our wildest dreams imagine —and who happens to be a lot more qualified than we are to direct our lives. Amen.