Sunday, July 9, 2017

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30

What creature could be more miserable
than a dog on the Fourth of July?
If you’re a dog-owner,
or have been around a dog
on Independence Day,
you know that,
rather than celebrating freedom,
many of them spend the day
terrified by the fireworks:
they cower and hide, trying to squeeze
into the smallest place they can find—
which they then immediately leave
in order to search
for an even smaller place.
The animal behavior expert Temple Grandin
argues that for non-human animals
fear is more distressing than pain;
she writes,
“Even an animal who’s completely alone
and giving full expression to severe pain
acts less incapacitated than an animal
who’s scared half out of his wits”
(Animals in Translation, ch. 5).
She suggests that this is because
they lack the higher brain functions
to control fear.
We might say that
when we humans experience fear
we have the intellectual capacity
to put it in a context,
to identify and assess
the source of our fear,
to look to the future,
when fear might cease,
to recognize,
when startled by a sound,
that it’s only fireworks
and poses no real threat to us.
Our capacity for abstract thought
means that we are not slaves
to our instincts and reflexes.

Or so we would like to think.
But how many of us, this past July 4th,
upon hearing that North Korea
had successfully tested a missile
that could reach the United States
did not, if only for a moment,
feel a desire
to crawl into someplace very small,
knowing at the same time
that no place is small enough
to shelter us from such a threat?
We would like to think
that we are not slaves
to our instincts and reflexes,
that our behavior is not ruled by our fears,
but often we are not all that different
from our canine brothers and sisters:
when threatened, we cower or lash out;
when hit, we hit back ten-times harder;
when frightened,
we run restlessly from shelter to shelter,
never finding a place
that is safe enough to quell our fears.
Such behavior is understandable
and even appropriate for dogs.
We humans, however,
created in the image of God,
are endowed with a capacity
to move beyond fear through knowledge,
to raise ourselves above simple instinct.
But something has gone wrong;
somehow, we have fallen away
from that high calling.
As St. Augustine wrote:
“I am scattered in times
whose order I do not understand.
The storms of incoherent events
tear to pieces my thoughts,
the inmost entrails of my soul”
(Confessions 9.29.39).

We seek shelter from these storms
in countless ways.
We seek shelter
from threatening foreign powers
by building up arsenals that assure
that any destruction will be mutual;
we seek shelter from outsiders whom we fear
by building walls
and banning whole groups of people;
we seek shelter from having
our worldview challenged
by surrounding ourselves
with right-thinking,
like-minded people.
We would like to say
that we are different from other animals,
that we can master fear through thought,
but time after time we see that,
in our futile quest for shelter,
fear makes itself our master,
puts us under its yoke,
and makes us do its bidding.

This is what St. Paul is getting at
in our second reading
when he contrasts
“living according to the flesh”
and “living by the Spirit.”
He is not talking about
how the body is evil
and the soul is good;
rather, he is talking about
how we can either live our lives
on the level of animal instinct,
the level of fear
and of the futile quest for shelter,
or we can live our lives
according to the Spirit of God,
the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead,
putting to death our fear and futility.
If you live according to the flesh,
according to animal fear,
you will die—
in fact, you’ll die long before
your heart stops beating,
because a life of fear is a living death.
But if you live by God’s Spirit,
you put to death the deeds of fear,
the relentless futility of shelter-seeking,
and even now experience resurrection.

Jesus says in our Gospel,
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…
and you will find rest for yourselves.”
Jesus is inviting us
to lay down the yoke of fear,
the yoke that exhausts us
in our restless quest for shelter,
and to take up the yoke of the Spirit,
the yoke that Jesus himself bore.
It was the yoke of the Spirit
that filled the human heart of Jesus
with a love for God and for God’s people
that was more powerful than fear,
a love that left him
exposed to the forces of death,
a love that led him
to risk everything for the cause of God,
a love that lifted him
from death to God’s right hand.
This yoke that is easy,
this burden that is light,
is offered to us here, today,
through Jesus:
through faith in his person
and commitment to his cause.
If we open our hearts in faith,
the Spirit of life can lift
the yoke of fear from our necks;
we can cease our restless search for shelter;
we can find our rest in him.
Come to him,
all you who labor and are burdened,
you who restlessly seek shelter;
live by the Spirit, not by the flesh,
and let Jesus give you rest.