homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
September 3, 2014
|Is it really like this? Or is this graphic too simplistic?|
Flesh and spirit. Are they polar opposites? Or can they work together for good?
When Paul differentiates the flesh from the spirit, he doesn’t mean that the body is bad and the spirit is good. For him, it’s a matter of focus. The body will always demand certain things, and it is right to do so. For instance, we cannot stay alive without eating and drinking. But when we limit our focus to these things—to mere survival, or to satisfying the present, immediate need—we are remaining “of the flesh.” This can be selfish, such as when we say, “Well, I’ve got mine, so that’s all that matters.” But it doesn’t have to be evil. When I’m at the center of attention and enjoying it, or when I take pride in a personal accomplishment, this is a perfectly appropriate matter “of the flesh.”
|Maslow's hierarchy of needs|
To become “of the spirit” means to set a higher standard for ourselves that is beyond our instant gratification. Some people aren’t able to do this, because they’ve never felt secure enough “in the flesh” to go beyond it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being “of the flesh,” just like there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a child. It is a phase of the journey, and it is leading somewhere, all in good time. This reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy, a psychological model that shows how we cannot aspire to higher things until our most basic needs have been provided for.
Furthermore, we are never fully “of the spirit,” but we are also always attending to the needs “of the flesh.” When we say, “If I don’t take care of myself, I won’t have any energy to give to others,” we are setting healthy boundaries, and this is a matter “of the flesh.” But this taking care of ourselves actually aims to serve the parts of our lives that are “of the spirit.”
One of the ways we can remain “of the flesh” is to place too much faith in authoritative human leadership, and it was to this urge that Paul addressed the Corinthian church in today’s reading. If we can find a person whose vision we can buy into wholesale, that frees us form the burden of thinking for ourselves.
Now, in the short term, there’s nothing wrong with this. Because none of us can possibly know everything, we should be able to trust our leaders to present us with a vision we can follow. But to be “of the spirit” means that we bear in mind that these leaders are simply servants who have been helpful to us. It’s not sinful to disagree or to part ways with them.
Those of us who serve as leaders in any capacity also do well to remember this distinction. We must always be prepared to set our own vision aside for the sake of a larger vision. I am an employee of the church, but my ultimate inclination is to serve God, and I will do so even when the church tries to limit God’s vision. But we also need to remain humble, so that we can never confuse our own vision with God’s vision. I have learned that it must never be a perfectly comfortable fit. If I’m not stretching and growing, I’m probably not listening very closely for God’s voice.
And that’s where silence comes in, as in our psalm: “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” Or as somebody said once, "Silence is God's first language; all else is a poor translation." When I’m feeling flustered, as if everything I’m doing in life is a random flailing about, that’s when I know I’m overdue for some silent time with God. Lately I’ve been training myself to notice these times and to react accordingly: to go someplace all alone where I cannot be interrupted, and to sit before God and just BE. Even if I don’t notice at the time how helpful this is, I have found that if I take enough time to do this at least several times a week, everything flows much better. God’s grace is given room to act.
And so God gives the growth. God is active in your life at this very moment, holding your soul in life, speaking to you, calming your fears, feeding you with strength. God is healing you with love, patience and forgiveness, just like Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and the best response to being healed is to serve. But notice that Jesus, after serving as a healer all day, went into a deserted place. Even the Son of God needed time alone with God to recharge and replenish. Jesus set healthy boundaries, and then the time came for him to move on and serve elsewhere.
Along with Jesus, we in this room are God’s servants, serving together in the field of human experience. Let’s take just a couple moments of silence to spend with God before we continue our worship.