A Mind Set on the Flesh – Lectionary 07/12/2020

Romans 7:21-8:8

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Sermon Text

Do you ever feel like you just cannot get things right? There are those weeks where everything just piles up on itself so that, before we know it, we find ourselves with our head in our hands and our heart in the pit of our stomachs. “How can this happen? What have I done? Why can’t I do anything right?” Usually, these are not because of anything of great importance – we keep being inconvenienced in our work or somehow manage to spill the coffee and we’re late because we have to clean it up – a cavalcade of minor problems that nonetheless is enough to press us down and turn us into pulp.

The minor slip-ups, those inconveniences, they do not usually have an impact on our moral standing as people. Our reaction to them may, if the problems we encounter rub away the veneer of smiling politeness that defines business as usual and causes us to lash out, but those moments are rare. We often develop our feelings of worth, of usefulness, or moral standing from whether we produce something or whether we have executed certain tasks perfectly. Thus we decide we are a failure because we did not do all that we could have in a week or because we burnt the sauce for dinner, or for any other number of minor failings that materialize as a consequence of simply being limited human beings, incapable of acting perfectly at all times.

What is interesting about this paradigm is that we often conflate the above failings of productivity and finesse with moral excellence. We say to ourselves, “The good people,” whoever they may be to us, “They never struggle like this. They do everything perfectly and they get their work done. They never struggle like this.” Thus we conflate our goodness, our moral excellence with our ability to produce, to put out a concrete product that others can see and engage with and ultimately consume. We see ourselves as people who must create so that others can use what we make, a cog in a machine that is constantly turning beyond our control.

The problem with equating productivity with morality is that there are plenty of people who, though morally bankrupt, they are capable of doing and making and succeeding and selling and of participating in the great machine we have fashioned for ourselves. Excellence in productivity is a wonderful thing, but it is not the sum of human life. Excellence in presentation is a wonderful thing, but it is not the sum of our appearance. In fact, even as we chase after the abundant life that God has allotted us, we must admit that that abundance is not found in our flourishing in terms of wealth or status or productivity, but in goodness.

Our scripture today captures the predicament of every person of faith. We know what is Good, we read the laws of God contained in the mitzvot of the Torah and in the teachings of Jesus and the goodness of these injunctions resonates within us. We have something deep inside that connects us to them and the bold moral life that they call us to – one that is not selfish or cruel, but that is generative and compassionate. Yet, when we encounter our day to day life we see that it is not always easy to do what is right, and as such we find ourselves falling short of God’s vision of our life.

There are two responses to this reality, one which is honest and the other which is more palatable and therefore more common. The first response, the honest one, would be for us to start to evaluate what choices we make in life that limit our growth in the goodness of God. What are we putting ahead of doing good? What are we holding onto that feeds into our selfishness and cruelty rather than our creativity and compassion? This work has us dig deep into ourselves and root out the mindsets we have created that ultimately harm us. This is a difficult work that takes most people their entire life to perfect. It is the struggle of every honest Christian, rooted in self-examination and a willingness to change.

The second option, that common option, builds off of the dilemma we discussed a moment ago. Rather than digging deep to find what we need to change about our disposition toward or our presuppositions about we instead look to things that are immediately tangible. We look to things like our productivity, our appearance, our ability to look at all times like we have everything together. This allows for us to make the Christian life one of finding out how we can become more efficient at doing, better at presenting a holy façade, more invested in systems that ultimately only feed our need for more and more production and more and more consumption.

We have often been sold an idea that, with enough work and enough striving after a good successful professional life, we will stumble upon the goodness of our character. We imagine that all those who work up to great heights must be those who have already done this hard work, and so the building of earthly wealth and acclaim is equated with a holiness of spirit. The tireless work of our hands is our own striving after something more than what we need to survive, something more than even an excess of wealth, we seek to make ourselves perfect through blood sweat and tears.

In order to truly move beyond our conflation of plenty and morality we have to name our obsession with productivity for what it is. When we are consumed in the rush to do more, to make more, to somehow make ourselves perfect through work, we are engaging with what Paul calls in our scriptures, “the law of Sin.” This law, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with the laws given by Moses – these are already established in Romans to be laws given by God. No, these are the laws we create for ourselves by twisting our priorities away from our God-given ones.

Imagine what our world could look like if we took even some of the time that we invest in improving our outward presentation of put-togetherness or goodness, or in honing our highly effective habits to become a highly effective person, and instead invested it into honing ourselves as moral persons called by God to live into the life Christ exemplified for us. The amount that would change in a week, in a month, we can scarcely imagine a year! If we took the time to think deeply about the consequences and intent behind our actions rather than the look of them, the world would be shaken overnight.

This, of course, does not mean we cannot strive toward self-improvement. Reading about better organizational skills, learning how to manage our money better, and learning what “sparks joy,” so that we can clear out our overstuffed closets all benefit us holistically. However, at the end of it all we have to ask ourselves what our self-improvement serves, is it fueling a legitimate change within ourselves, or is it feeding into the same cycles that allow us to avoid the glaring problems in ourselves and the world around us.

When we begin doing proper self-evaluation, digging into our own motivations and focusing on how what we do impacts people and changes our perspectives, then we will inevitably find two things happening. Firstly, our intentionality will see us being better people. When we actively strive toward, not being the best cog in a machine, but the most compassionate person in a community, we will see ourselves transform into a more compassionate person. Secondly, we will find that the self-talk we gave ourselves previously about our simple inability to be perfect workers will creep into our approaches toward moral acts as well. We will find ourselves saying, “I should have given that panhandler that five dollars I had for lunch,” or “I should have spoken up when Bert made that awful joke.” We will begin to see our failings plain as day, not just in concrete actions but in our intentions and our failure to act.

Yet, there is hope for us in the contrition of our moral growth. Paul tells us that, though we see every day the instances of our own shortcomings, that we are not condemned at all! “There is, therefore, NO condemnation in Christ.” Why? Because Christ lived a life just as full of temptation and potentiality for evil as we do now. Christ lived that life, died the death that comes at the expense of it, and rose to overcome not only death but the twisted perspective of life we’ve built around ourselves. Christ, in taking on sinful flesh, never sinned once, thus proving that the law of Sin that is somehow knit within us is not capable of controlling us because the Spirit of the one that overcame it now inhabits us.

More than this, Jesus’ existence on the margins of society frees us from needing to look perfect. We picture now, with our paintings of Jesus enrobed in a halo of light or standing above the crowds, that Jesus was obviously in the right to all people who saw him. Yet, we know Jesus was labeled a sinner, someone who was always in the wrong place at the wrong time, someone who went to the wrong kinds of places and talked with the wrong kinds of people.[1] Jesus broke down the pretensions that we have tried so hard to build up around ourselves, and Jesus broke them down so we could never have to live in them again!

Thus, we have a choice in setting our mind on spiritual things or in creating within ourselves a mindset on the flesh. The choice is toward performative action or authentic and generative moral action. It is a choice that presents itself every day, and it is one that we must make in each moment. The choice between working late to get a few more pieces of paperwork done or some extra data entered, or stepping away to be in prayer, or with our family. The choice between leaving the panhandler on the street with a handful of change, or taking them into a café and sharing some coffee and a bit of time. The choice between the law of God which transforms us, or the Law of Sin, which condemns us in our own concerns and fixations. The choice is and always shall be, yours and mine. We should pray we always choose the harder path and the greater reward. – Amen.

[1] Vincent P. Branick. “The Sinful Flesh of the Son of God.” In The Catholic Bible Quarterly. No. 47. 1985 246-262

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