Occupied Territory: Inner Slavery and the Path of Spiritual Liberation
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
August 19, 2018 Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Exodus 16:1-3 and 17:1-4; Romans 7:14-25; Matthew 16:24-26
I am deeply grateful to the United Church of Christ and American Baptist traditions’ beautiful focus on civil rights, human rights, justice for the poor and oppressed, and call for liberation for all peoples from political and economic oppression. The Christian way includes a recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of all people, and calls on us to fight for freedom and justice for all.
Yet the Bible has even more to say about another, deeper type of slavery. In the passages we just heard from Exodus, the Israelites were in the midst of their journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Yet here we find them longing for the comfortable, known slavery of Egypt when faced with the uncertainty of depending on God in the wilderness. They have been set free, outwardly, yet their hearts cry out for the comforts of their former bondage. Like the Israelites, there is something in all of us that prefers comfortable slavery, our habitual sleepwalking through life, over the radical aliveness of freedom in God.
Fifteen hundred years after this story, Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans of his own inner war – how truth and falsehood vie for control within him. His higher wisdom and lower compulsions are both alive in him, creating a battlefield within his soul. Paul’s struggle is our own. Each of us shares in his condition, for it is part of the universal human condition. My own Catholic tradition refers to the is phenomena as ‘original sin’. This term has been greatly distorted and misunderstood as a belief that human beings are bad at their core. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that we are made very good, and that in addition to bearing the image and likeness of God we all come into full human consciousness with a heart that is already divided. This is through no personal failing of our own, it is just part of our share of the lot of humanity (thus the ‘original’ part of ‘original sin’). We have all lost the intimacy with the Source of all life, light and love that alone brings happiness. So, like Adam and Eve cast out of paradise, we wander from one desire to another, always seeking and failing to find the infinite fulfillment we long for, that seems to be just out of our reach. The powerful among us may wreck great havoc by dominating others in a desperate attempt to find contentment in fame, fortune and influence. The weaker among us may simply succumb to lives of quiet desperation, filling ourselves with distraction, whether digitally or drug-induced. Perhaps we may take up the habit of blaming others, or passing circumstances for our unhappiness. What is universal is that none of us are truly free, radically alive, or fully human in the sense of living our divine vocation as bearers of God’s image and likeness.
Like the Stone Cutter (from today’s children’s story), we are conditioned to thing that ‘I will be happy if.…’ Yet the ‘if’ never truly comes. It never comes because we are looking for happiness where it can never be found – in the world of things, events, and external conditions. One thousand years ago, Saint Thomas Aquinas named our condition as: 1. Ignorance – we do not know where happiness can be found, 2. Concupiscence – we seek happiness in the wrong places, and 3. Weakness of will – if we were to stumble upon happiness, we do not have the strength to follow the good (as Saint Paul so clearly lamented).
Our slavery lies not in our outer conditions, but instead in our inner state. Our hearts are ‘occupied territory’. We are enslaved by our drives, desires and illusory ideas. These keep our thoughts revolving around ourselves with no space to truly listen to the presence of God that alone brings lasting peace. Put another way, our hearts will never be free operating under the conditions of inner slavery that we currently mistake as ‘normal’ human consciousness or life. Our freedom will never come from changing our outer conditions, so long as our heart remain occupied territory.
Instead, our freedom comes when we become willing to die to the hopeless search for externally bound happiness and instead seek first the Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches in today’s Gospel that there is no gain at all in acquiring the entire world, if we lose access to divine life. He says that the only way to gain real life is to lose our ‘life’ – that is, to die to our life of inner slavery. Jesus’ term for this is metanoia – which means to expand the eyes of our hearts so we can see and seek Divine Realty clearly.
In doing this, we attain liberation not through finding any object, state, or condition ‘out there’, but instead by entering into a completely different awareness or consciousness. This ‘other consciousness’, which Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, cannot be grasped at. It can only be entered by dying to the grasping that characterized our life of inner slavery. Paradoxically, when we grasp at no thing, the Divine ‘all’ becomes instantly available to us. Our hearts, seeking no thing, begin to awaken to the All-in-All that is the Source of all things, that loves all things and sustains all things. Abiding in this Kingdom of God is our liberation, and the source of all human truth and enduring compassion.
So, how do we do this? How can we become free? I have four suggestions:
- Seek first the Kingdom of God. Set aside time to pray and be intimate with God every day. Know deep within that the Infinite is the only source of freedom and peace, and act accordingly. Set aside an hour or more each day for prayer. I do not say that this will be easy, only that it will be effective if you do this, and do it with your whole heart. This is what we were created for! It is far more important than food, sleep or work. If necessary, re-order your life to make this commitment possible.
- Actively question your desires and compulsions. Ask yourself – what is the one thing you think you cannot live without? Acknowledge within your heart that you do not truly need this thing, relationship or condition, and take steps to dis-identify from attachment to any external thing as the source of you happiness.
- Face the Demons. A major theme in Jesus’ ministry, and that of the first several centuries of the church, was driving out demons from occupied human hearts. Early baptismal rites (which were primarily done for adults) included exorcism of demons as a part of entry into the Christian faith. The concept of a demon may seem strange to modern ears. A ‘demon’ is simply a force or energy – the term comes from the ancient Greek word daemon. Whether or not we believe, as the ancients did, that these forces have personal consciousness is irrelevant for now. What we must realize is that, because our hearts are ‘occupied territory’, our efforts to open to the Kingdom of God and to spiritual truth will be met with opposition from other forces, much as Paul describes in his letter to Romans. These forces are accustomed to having considerable control over our hearts, and they do not relinquish this control without a struggle. Do not be discouraged by this! Also, do not attempt to fight these lower forces with will power, either. Remain humble, continually return your attention and intention to the presence and action of God, and refuse to feed the old patterns and forces that seek to oppress you. Let God fight the battle for you, within you. Remain humble, remain curious, and trust, trust, trust. Do not replace your earlier self-centered agendas with a ‘higher’ agenda. Instead drop all self-will and allow the Great Liberator to awaken within you and live through you. This work is so important – it is the greatest gift you can give to the rest of humanity.
- Question your limited view of human nature. Read the lives of the saints and the other spiritually awakened individuals. Never forget that they and you share the same human nature. You are like them in nature, and you can become like them in your lived reality. Jesus himself promised that when fully trained, a disciple will become like their master. Never forget that you were created for divine freedom. Seek that freedom, for yourself and for your brothers and sisters – for all humanity.
No sacrifice is too great to attain this liberation. Whoever wishes to save their life, their divine inheritance, must first lose their limited, enslaved way of being. But whoever loses this pseudo-life opens the gate to eternal, divine life in God. Let us pursue this way of freedom together!