Our passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans begins: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
As I contemplated that line, what struck me is what an unruly mind I have. How hard it is for me to set my mind on the Spirit. As I go about my day, my conscious mind is working on plans. I am thinking through the next three things I need to do, I have lists and systems. Here at Church, I can get wound up in the details of our next projects—the schedules, the bulletins, the building and grounds, the dinner plans, the communications. I can get overwhelmed by all the things we need to do before Easter. I can get worried about the details. I can let my mind go to the things that I haven’t done well. I can get into an internal dialogue with someone who said the wrong thing to me, or I can be worrying about someone who is not doing well because they are sick or having family troubles.
My unruly mind takes me to dark places. I lose hours to anxiety—worrying. In that worrying, I lose sight of what is good and right about my life. I can carry around anger and disappointment about how people have mistreated me, or disappointed me and I might miss the love that I know in the world. In complaining about the selfishness, or the meanness that I have witnessed in an individual or in society, I missed the Spirit is also there in that person. I miss an opportunity to see the Spirit working in the world. When I am fixated on what is wrong with me, wrong with the people around me, wrong with society, I am setting my mind on the flesh. These worldly problems, or my efforts to fix them, leave little room for God to work to work in me.
Sometimes I look at what is good in the world and I attribute it to human achievement. We have wealth and beauty here in Marin. We have good schools. Some in our community can afford beautiful homes. Together we have beautiful open spaces. Some of us can eat well, we get health care. Is this because we’ve done something right? Is it our accomplishments? Is this what we deserve? When we get to thinking that things are great because of what we’ve done, we are fixated on the flesh. Our unruly minds have forgotten that God loves the ones who don’t have these things every bit as much as God loves us. Our accomplishments are nothing because not everyone has these things. God’s way is to provide for every person, every animal, every aspect of Creation throughout the cosmos. If we think it’s about our successes, then we’ve missed the possibility of seeing God’s work in every person, in every place and time. Our unruly minds have missed the possibility of living fully in a pervasive peace and freedom that would include everyone.
Setting the mind on the Spirit is somehow a difficult thing to do. In our Bible Study, we have been reading the Gospel of Mary Magdala. The author we are reading interprets the Gospel of Mary Magdalene as articulating a truth about discipleship and new life in Jesus. She talks about the mind, the body and the soul. Mary suggests that our work as disciples is to come to know the Truth by aligning our souls with the Holy Spirit. Our minds tend to go towards the body (the flesh)—our physical passions and earthly needs, but we can, through Jesus Christ, know our true nature—our souls which are created by God and reflect the Holy Spirit working in the world.
But with our unruly minds, how can we set them on the Spirit? How can we know Jesus’ way when we are so distracted by the worries, the temptations, the real and pressing concerns of the flesh? Today’s passages from the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel of John if read metaphorically, can give us some hints.
I have always loved this passage from the Prophet Ezekial: The Valley of Dry Bones. God sets Ezekial down in the valley of dry bones. Ezekial looks all around him and all he sees is the bones. Ezekial’s mind is fixed on the flesh and he can’t see any possibility of life. When God asks him how can these bones live, Ezekial responds: Only you know, Lord. But God shows Ezekial the way to turn his mind towards the Spirit. God tells Ezekial to prophesy to the bones and tell them that the Spirit will bring them life. And then as they begin to come together with sinews and flesh, God tells Ezekial to prophesy to the breath, the ruach, the Spirit. When God tells Ezekial to prophesy, he is telling Ezekial to turn his prayers, his speech, his mind to what is possible in God. I imagine Ezekial saying out loud, what seems dead is not really dead—it is alive in God. And when his vision changes and he begins to see a stirring of life, he speaks to the spirit and encourages this spirit calling on the breath of life, the Spirit of God to come more fully into being.
Prophesy! is God’s command to Ezekial. Name it! Preach it! Pray it! Call it out! Speak to the flesh (the dry bones), call on the Spirit! What does this mean for us? When our unruly minds are like Ezekial and we say, I don’t know how new life can possibly come in this valley of death, we hear God’s promise and we prophesy into this situation. In Paul’s terms, we live into righteousness, trusting in God’s promises. Even though we don’t know how new life is going to come, we pray out loud trusting that God will bring something new. And then we turn our attention to the breath. As possibilities begin to emerge, as the dry bones begin to rattle and move a little, we pray to the Spirit that it may move and enliven the dry bones, the situation so that new life will be made real.
When my unruly mind is running full speed ahead on my worries, my plans, or my accomplishments, my successes. I am in the valley of dry bones. I am all alone thinking that what I’ve done, or what I’m going to do is going to make everything right. It’s at those moments that I need to hear God’s call to me. I need to ask, what is God telling me to do? What can God do that is so much bigger than my efforts. I think about the complaints that I hear, the meanness that I witness. I look at the poverty around me but instead of getting overwhelmed and anxious, what if I ask God the question, “how can there be new life here?” When it breaks into my consciousness that that the goodness that I know is not shared by everyone, God wants me to prophesy to the breath—God, I know that you are working in me and in every aspect of creation throughout time. How can I see and know your work more deeply. What can I do to align my soul with your Spirit? When I can no longer volunteer or run around doing things to bring new life, how can I pray to God so that God may act in these places of death? Prophesy to the Breath, I hear today as call on the Holy Spirit to move through me to bring new life into the world.
The raising of Lazarus can also give us suggestions about how to direct our unruly minds. Let’s take the characters in this story. We have Martha and Mary (let’s think of them the mind fixated on the flesh). We have Jesus, the new life that has come into the world. We have Lazarus the model human who knows new life in God. At the end of the story, when Lazarus is raised from the dead, we see that Martha and Mary have turned their minds towards the Spirit.
What happens in the interaction between Jesus and Martha? The sisters send for Jesus when Lazarus is sick. They want him to come. I imagine that they are just beside themselves because their brother is dying. Come, come they beg him. Even though the sisters believe that Jesus is the Son God, their minds are fixed on the flesh. Martha can’t really see how Jesus can bring new life unless it’s by coming and saving Lazarus. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” And so Jesus comes to be with them and he weeps with them. Because the life in the flesh is hard, he witnesses Lazarus’ death and is full of sorrow about this loss.
And this is how it begins with us. When we are full of anxiety, or sorrow. When we are desparate because someone we love is suffering, or when we can’t think of what could possibly get better—Jesus weeps with us. Our minds are fixed on the flesh, but Jesus Christ does come into our lives. His purpose is not to fix the life of the flesh, but to bring new life, new hope into what might seem to be an impossible situation. And when we know that Jesus is with us, that’s when the new life begins. When we begin to hope with God, we start to turn our minds towards the Spirit, then Jesus goes to the tomb and with the help of Mary and Martha, he rolls the stone away and commands Lazarus to come out. Jesus is encouraging the sisters to act—rolling away the stone, even though they don’t really believe that Lazarus will live again. And then when Lazarus does come out, Jesus commands the sisters, “Unbind him”.
In both of these stories—the Valley of the Dry Bones and the Raising of Lazarus, I hear what it means to set our minds on the Spirit and know new life. It’s an incremental process. We have to transition from the mindset of the flesh where we think that the world is too difficult or too sinful to get better. We have to transition from the mindset of thinking about our goodness, our accomplishments our successes, without seeing the possibility for God’s work that is so much more profound than anything we can do.
These stories show us that we have to take our mustard seed of faith and act on it. We have to call out into the world the hope for new life. We have to prophesy to the bones. We have to know that God is with us weeping at the tomb, and we have to name our faith like Martha did, “I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
And then as our minds begin to turn away from the flesh, as we begin to see and feel some new possibility--we have to build up the spirit that lives within us. We have to prophesy to the breath, naming the Spirit, praying for life and peace. We have to begin to act on that hope of new life. We have to roll away the stone, getting rid of the concerns of the flesh that block us from knowing new life. What is that stone that needs to be rolled away so that we can have a full experience of new life. What is the stone that blocks us, what is the stone that stands in the way of new life for our brothers and sisters and all of God’s creatures. When we act on those things that perpetuate death in the flesh, then it’s possible to have a new life experience.
As we work together to Prophesy to the Breath, and to roll away the stone and unbind Lazarus—then we have the potential to experience resurrection.
Over the course of this last week of Lent, we are invited by our Scriptural passages today to turn our minds from the flesh towards the Spirit. We can begin to prophesy, we can begin to roll the stone away, we can begin to unbind the new life that is beginning in us.
When our unruly minds tell us that there is no hope, we can speak and pray and act into spirit that is in us, the Spirit that moves throughout the world. By living this way, we participate in the resurrection of Jesus that is coming to us on Easter.