Sermon for July 9, 2023 | Pentecost VI
Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145:8-15; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
In August 2020, the Brookings Institution, one of the top research centers in North America, issued a report on resistance to wearing masks at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Social scientists at Brookings interviewed and polled thousands of Americans in an attempt to discover why such resistance persisted when scientific evidence demonstrated that the simple act of covering one’s nose and mouth can reduce exposure to any air-borne disease. After all, the vast majority of those who live in Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Viet Nam have been wearing masks for decades to protect from pollution, sickness, the cold air of winter, and disease: to protect themselves and protect others. Why, then, was there such fierce opposition to this inexpensive health aid in the United States?
The Brookings report claimed that an exaggerated and distorted view of personal freedom was one of the primary motives for resistance. That is, those who protested the practice believed that a government mandate to wear masks would rob them of what many claimed was their “God-given individual freedom” to do whatever they wanted to do. “It’s a government plot to control my life,” said one respondent to the Brookings researchers. Another person interviewed by Brookings said this, “I have a God-given right to do anything I damn well please and no one – no one – is going to deprive me of that freedom.” In this resistance to wearing masks, the scientific evidence that indicated a decrease in disease transmission meant very little.
In 1972, Rene Girard, a philosopher and anthropologist at Johns Hopkins and Stanford, and a devout Roman Catholic, published a monumental work entitled Violence and the Sacred. In this landmark study and in subsequent publications, Girard and his colleagues suggested that we human beings are susceptible to cultural conditioning even when that conditioning is in direct opposition to who we truly are. As Girard noted, “We are deceived into thinking that individual desire or individual choice is our right and our freedom when, in fact, our brains are hard-wired for relationship and cooperation with others.” Not me but us.
Only in the last seventy years have brain studies confirmed what many other cultures have known for millennia: that we are created to be in relationship with others; we are not created, we are not hard-wired to do whatever each of us wants to do. According to Girard, “the self-sufficient, I’ll do anything I damn well please” notion is a lie that many have willingly accepted. To quote Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl, “We was duped by a dope,” duped into believing that it is not us, but me and me alone that matters.
What was Girard’s point? Our cultural conditioning into toxic individualism –
“It’s my way or the highway” – is one of the primary sources of violence: the individual’s will, desire, or choice must prevail at all costs. And when the supposed “freedom to do what I want to do” meets opposition, what is triggered is the impulse to force one’s will on others. And from that impulse, there flows an ungodly stream of discrimination, conflict, and abuse. “I do the very thing I hate,” writes St. Paul. And why is that so, we might ask Paul. Because we have not been created to live a solitary existence in which my desires or your desires must prevail at all times and so produce misery for ourselves and others. But rather, we have been created, hard-wired so to speak, for relationship with each other and with our God. Our freedom is not defined by our so-called ability to do whatever we please for ourselves. Rather, we are free to be other-oriented, to care for others even when that care, that commitment to the wellbeing of others, entails a measure of sacrifice.
In the gospel, Jesus states that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. To be yoked, then, clearly suggests that we are yoked to others. Think about it: a yoke is for two, not for one. This is not rocket science. Freedom is not a function of an individual fully in control of their own desires, insisting that their will must prevail. For us, freedom comes in being yoked to Jesus Christ who will lead us away from our cultural conditioning in envy, rivalry, and violence, and lead us into love for others and care for others; lead us into a community committed to forgiveness, non-violence, and peace; lead us into a community of all those others who are loved by God. No wonder the yoke of which Jesus speaks is the yoke of mercy.
Not long ago, a member of our parish told me that he thought one of the greatest gifts Christ Church can offer the victims of radical individualism and its terrible, debilitating loneliness, is the gift of a loving, caring, and merciful communion of friends. In a series of articles on religious affiliation in the U.S., the New York Times journalist, Jessica Grose, must have been in telepathic communication with this parish member when she wrote that “everyone needs community to flourish” and those who have no community suffer with social isolation, with no network of support. “I can play soccer on a Sunday morning and hang out with people from different races and class backgrounds,” she wrote, “but a soccer team can’t provide spiritual solace or insight in the face of loss or death; it doesn’t have a weekly call to be charitable toward others or work for a just society; and there’s no sense of being part of a heritage that goes back generations.”
When I walk into this house of worship, I know that I am yoked – yes yoked – to a supportive community, to something greater than the little me, to a living tradition that for all its imperfections continues to draw people from different walks of life, people who are free to be merciful and help one another. For that I can only say: thanks be to God. Amen.