Most of the world is still coping, well or badly, with the “Covid Crisis,” now in its seventh month and far from over. But many otherwise healthy people are suffering from “Covid Crisis Fatigue” it seems – rushing, often foolishly, into a premature return to a lifestyle we in the more affluent nations at any rate have grown so fond of. Perhaps unconsciously so. In the expanding and largely southern realm of the planet, what Northerners used to call “The Third World,” the lack of worldly goods, an adequate income, sufficient food, potable water, education, and affordable or even accessible housing is now compounded by a pandemic over which they have no control or means to combat.
Such glaring and growing inequity provides a link between today’s readings [Zech 9:9-10, Rom 8:9,11-13, Mat 11:25-30], which otherwise seem unusually disparate. For those who care to look, what is at stake is how the global gulf between rich and poor has created the conditions for spiritual as well as material calamity and how to address that.
The first reading brings Palm Sunday to mind. In this passage from the Book of Zechariah, we are given an image of the Messiah of Peace, so different from the warlike leader so many of the Hebrews had hoped and waited for. And as a result many did not recognize him when he appeared among them. Jesus entered Jerusalem, not on a war-horse, but on a young mule, an animal associated with peace rather than battle. So much for militarism, a perennial planetary scourge that acquires greater and more lethal proportions with every passing decade.
And this is what Paul is reminding us in this passage from his letter to the Romans — the Spirit of Christ is the Lord of life and peace, not of war and death, the works of the flesh. By “flesh” here, he means what he elsewhere calls “the body of sin and death” — ‘sarx’ not the ordinary term for the body, ‘soma.’ In his anthropology, ‘sarx’ means the whole of human life under the dominion of sin. But to belong to Christ is to choose life and to choose it in abundance, not just for some, for a wealthy or powerful elite, and not at the cost of depriving other people of their lives or liberty. Life belongs to all. And, in the lingering glow of America’s Independence Day, we may rest assured so do liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
For those who find life burdensome, Christ offers refreshment and rest. To those who are weary and toil endlessly, he offers gentleness and help. Early in the last century, twenty years after the French people endowed the people of the United States with the Statue of Liberty, the following words by Emma Lazarus were chosen for the plaque placed on a wall inside the pedestal. They also sound very much like Jesus’ concluding words in today’s gospel:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
[“The New Colossus: Inscription for the Statue of Liberty,” New York Harbour (1883)
So much for anti-immigrant fervor and enforced economic disparity.
American citizens should not pass over the celebration of Independence Day as if it had nothing to do with our faith, or as if our faith had nothing to do with our independence. Those rich white men who spent that hot summer of 1776 sweating over the wording of the Declaration of Independence saw themselves as doing the work of God and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to secure that belief in fact. Most of them lost their fortunes and some their lives in the pursuit of liberty, but their honor remains. Not untarnished, to be sure. Many owned slaves and despised Catholics, Quakers, and Jews. They tied political rights to property and wealth. They scoffed at the idea of women voting or holding pubic office. But they set in motion the democratic forces that, under God, would in time address these issues of inequality and injustice. We are still working at securing their belief that it was God who watched over and guided their efforts.
No one’s freedom can be made secure by the servitude of others, whether political, financial, or spiritual. We are either all free, or none of us is free. Thomas Jefferson understood that when in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he outlawed slavery. Had the other members of Congress been as wise and humane, and Jefferson more averse to compromise, the nation could have been spared a terrible civil war four score and seven years later. And we could do worse than to recall St. Paul’s advice on the matter: where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [2 Cor 3:17]
As for the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and the craving for constant amusement in a consumerist society, it is enough to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi and later the slogan of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement –“Live simply so that others may simply live.” In the end, turning to the words of Jesus, the burden he asks us to undertake of peace-making and securing justice is light, despite the sacrifices it may and usually does require. Becoming more gentle and humble of heart is no easy task. But perhaps we can learn something from the Covid Crisis after all.