27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – October 4, 2020
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:9, 12-16, 19-20; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43
(1) Have No Anxiety At All
St. Paul can really come across as pompous and insensitive at times. We’ve been reading his letter to the Philippians for the past several weeks, and it is one of Paul’s most popular letters—he keeps talking about how much reason there is to rejoice, he is very encouraging, and it’s short and to the point and easy to understand. But the letter takes on a whole different dimension when we remember what the situation was there in Philippi.
The Philippians live in a world not too different from our own. I shared that a couple weeks ago. Philippi was a little Roman colony in northern Greece, and so the dominant culture was Roman. That means, a government that shared almost none of the values they as Christians held; a city full of people that didn’t think that what they had to say was important. Slavery, racism, intolerance, bigotry, neglect for the poor, disease, persecution—you name it, they faced it.
And so Paul is trying to help them live life in this kind of situation, live the Christian life in this situation. He tells them to behave as citizens, but as citizens of the Gospel (and not like everyone else). He tells them to think with the mind of Jesus Christ: not to go after power in order to change things, but to empty themselves in self-giving love and obedience to what God had in mind for them, to trust that in living a life of self-giving love God would work through them in ways they can’t understand or plan.
But then we get to the reading today, and Paul seems to be living in La La Land. I mean, sometimes Paul says stuff and you think, “Paul, are you a human being? Do you know any human beings?” Paul says: “Have no anxiety at all. Don’t worry about anything” (Phil 4:6).
Have you ever wanted to punch people like that in the face? I have. You’re stressed, you’re anxious, you have a lot on your plate, things are going bad all around you, then some ding-a-ling has the audacity to say, “Ah, don’t worry!” Gah…
But why does Paul have the audacity to say that? What is it? How, in the midst of all that’s going on in Philippi, all that’s going on in the world—Paul’s in prison when he writes this, remember that too, so it’s not peachy for him—how can Paul just tell us not to worry and not to be anxious? It’s because Paul is living as a citizen of the Gospel, Paul has put on the mind of the Messiah, and, because of that, Paul can see clearly, see reality in a completely new and positive way. Reality, life, life after Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension—reality is positive.
(2) Because of Jesus Christ, Reality is Positive
Paul had this incredible ability to see all of reality as positive. But he could do this because he could see everything within his heavenly and gospel citizenship; he was living with the mind of Jesus Christ. He could compare everything that was happening at that moment to what had happened through his encounter with Christ. He could see everything that was happening within the context not only of his little world, but within God’s plan for human history. Paul saw everything as being contained within the mystery of God. He saw clearly that “God works all things together for good for those who love him” (Rom 8:28), that Jesus Christ has a “power which makes him able to bring everything into line under his authority” (Phil 3:21b).
Anxiety or worry: this word that Paul uses shares its root with the word “memory.” Anxiety and worry flow from our memory, or rather, from what our memory does or doesn’t focus on. If you are worried about a test in school, it can easily be from the fact that you’re not a good test taker, you don’t do well on tests, and so you’re anxious about it. If you are anxious about a certain encounter with someone, it can be because of what has happened between you and you don’t know how this encounter is going to go. If you’re worried about the fate of the world, it can easily be because you know history and how certain things lead to other things, and so you’re concerned about how things are progressing. In all of these, and whatever other examples you can come up with, the issue is our memory, and what our memory focuses on.
Again, think of the Philippians. They were living in the middle of the Roman Empire. They had watched people get killed for the faith. One of Rome’s tactics for instilling fear was to turn people into human lamp-posts—put a person on a pole and set them on fire. These Christians could, I’m sure, conjure up a few recent and vivid memories of why things may not be so peachy and anxiety free. All of you, all of us, I’m sure we can think of one or two memories that give us reason to be anxious and worried. I’m sure many of us could list off a few of our anxieties.
(3) Jesus Already Won
What was Paul thinking? What was he remembering? What gave him such great confidence and peace? Why could he so easily and casually say, “Have no anxiety at all. Don’t worry about anything?”
Paul remembered one simple fact: Jesus already won.
I can’t remember if I shared this with you before—how winning decisive battles worked back in the day. But after his father Julius Caesar was killed, there was a civil war between Augustus (Octavian) and Mark Antony. And Augustus won! At the battle of Actium Augustus won the final victory, the decisive battle! He was now Caesar and emperor of the whole Roman world! But news didn’t travel fast, soldiers didn’t travel fast, and it took time to squelch the rest of the revolts. And so even though the decisive battle was won at Actium, there was still a lot of work to be done to establish Augustus’ rule throughout the Roman Empire. There was a time of tension between the decisive victory and the completion of his rule.
This is how Paul sees things. Paul knows with certainty that Jesus won the decisive battle: by his cross and resurrection he has won the battle for the world, he won the victory over the powers of sin and death. By his ascension he has been enthroned as King. But—and this is the point—but that doesn’t mean that there are not still people revolting against his status as King, that doesn’t mean that people are willing to give up their old way of living and be part of this new Kingdom.
But Jesus has already won. Paul remembers all of salvation history, and how that history reaches its culmination in Jesus.
(4) What do you spend your time and memory on?
That’s what stands behind the parable of the vineyard we hear in the Gospel today. The history of salvation and all the ways we decide not to go along with God’s plan—that’s what this parable is all about. Here are these tenants who are supposed to take care of the vineyard, who are supposed to serve and be obedient to the one who owns the land. That’s us, the one’s working in the vineyard. But instead of listening to the landowner and the servants he sends to communicate his will, they decide to do things their own way, make their own plans, seize power. And we do this all the time: God isn’t working fast enough for us, God isn’t doing what we think he should be doing, we doubt and don’t trust that he is in charge—and so we worry, we get impatient, and we decide to do things our own way.
Instead of remembering all the ways that God has taken care of us in the past, instead of remembering that there were periods of forty years in a desert, four hundred years in slavery—instead of remembering that even when God seemed to be absent for decades or centuries he was still leading and guiding his people—instead of remembering the history of salvation, we remember and focus our attention on all the wrong things.
Paul says in that reading: “Don’t worry about anything. Rather, in every area of life let God know what you want, as you pray and make requests, and give thanks as well. And God’s peace, which is greater than we can ever understand, will keep guard over your hearts and minds” (Phil 4:6-7). In prayer, let God know what you want. And give thanks. But then Paul adds one more thing: “Think on these things: whatever is true, whatever is holy, whatever is upright, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever has a good reputation, anything virtuous, anything praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8).
I have heard people tell me how they are consumed and upset and lack peace because of what they see going on in the country, or in their families, in their own life. And that’s understandable. But then I usually then hear the same people rattling off talking points from cable news, or their favorite pundits, or from the opinion line from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.
But what does St. Paul say? Why did St. Paul have such confidence, such peace, such a lack of anxiety?
In the Eucharist (in this thanksgiving), we remember (anamnesis) the history of salvation. We proclaim the death of Jesus and profess his resurrection, his decisive victory. And we confidently await his second coming. It is within this great Mystery, within God’s own Mystery, that we can see the ultimate positivity with regards to reality. We can see our reason for giving thanks. In the reality of what is happening on this altar, we can remember, truly focus on and remember, the reason for our hope. Jesus already won.