Have No Anxiety at All (Homily)
October 3, 2005
This passage from Philippians is so beautiful. It’s so beautiful and lovely and gracious itself that I’ve been trying to memorize it. I think we should all memorize it this next week. We should get it in our heads and in our hearts and recite it to ourselves whenever we need it, which is always.
Paul is writing from prison in this letter, about to be executed probably. He’s not talking pie in the sky. He’s got a lot of things to be anxious about, and earlier in the letter he admits to worrying and fretting about what will happen next. But only on one level. What’s so beautiful about this passage is Paul’s faith that there’s something deeper, something so wonderful that even imprisonment and failure and death can’t change it or take it away, not ever. Paul is so firmly rooted in his love of Christ that his heart is always protected, and we’re supposed to feel that way, too, though that’s really difficult, of course. I’m certainly not there yet.
Even when our children are suffering, even when our marriage is breaking up, even when we lose our job, even when the hurricane hits or poverty deepens or things just fall apart--even on the edge of the grave, even in grief--at all times, we must have no anxiety, not really, not way down where it matters. Because these moments of failure and suffering are instructive finally. They tell us what is only true, that we’re not in control of our lives and that we don’t really understand what’s going on. And nothing could be better for us or for the world or for the Church than for everybody just to accept that and believe that and act accordingly instead of running around judging everybody else and getting angry and telling other people what to do.
Christ matters most. To be in love with Christ, to feel the love of Christ in us and around us and flowing from us, that’s the most important thing, and these moments of trouble and grief are occasions to learn that again. They test us, they call us, and Paul knew that and got that, and we’re supposed to be like him, to keep on doing what we have learned and received and heard and seen in him, and what we should learn most of all is his radical trust.
It’s a trust so radical that Paul doesn’t even think our prayers have to be answered, at least in some easy, obvious way. He doesn’t promise that we’ll get what we ask for. He says something very different. He says we just have to pray, he says we just have to offer everything up, and when we do--whatever happens, whether our problems are solved or not, whether our suffering is ended or not--simply in the act of our praying, honestly and openly, the peace of God will come into us, it will well up inside. Life is always hard. Our problems remain. It’s just that somehow this wonderful and inexplicable peace occurs, it’s just there, in spite of what’s happening. We can’t explain it, we can’t put it into words, it’s just there, this loveliness and graciousness and purity--it doesn’t make sense--we have to feel it to know it--but it’s there and it’s real and it’s more gracious and lovely than anything we could ever hope for, so gracious and lovely we can put up with everything else.
Again, I’m a long way from this faith myself. But I know it’s possible and I know that it’s what we are all called to.
This summer I spent about a month with a friend who is dying, a wonderful man. I saw him everyday, and some days were terrible. Some days he was in the hospital and I thought he would die. Yet this is a man of such profound faith, such deep love for the world, that he accepts what comes and celebrates what’s good--the sun coming up, the birds, the sound of the waves. And he means it. He really does. Because he’s like Paul, who was like Christ in that way, who surrendered even in death, even death on a cross, and maybe because my friend can be that way, in his dying, I can be that way, in my living, not anxious, not afraid, but open to the moment, completely and radically open, to the sun coming up, to the sun going down. To whatever happens. Maybe. Someday.
But this much I know already. What’s so profoundly orthodox in this passage from Philippians is Paul’s insistence that none of this can be grasped by our little human minds. That’s what orthodox theology always does. It proclaims its own intrinsic inadequacy. It says no one really knows and anyone who claims to is by definition wrong.
And yet the passage isn’t vague either. It’s very clear that we can’t be clear about God and it’s also very clear about what we should therefore do. We should avoid anxiety, we should pray, and finally, the third step, we should think about whatever is true and honorable and pure. Another friend of mine told me recently about his experience with night terrors, how this fear suddenly seized him in the middle of night. So he got up and did exactly the right thing. He didn’t turn on the TV. He didn’t drink. He made a cup of tea and read a good book and waited for the coming of the light.
Our culture is so full of shoddiness, so full of lies, from every commercial to every reality show to every frat party. We think we’re too savvy to be affected but we aren’t. We have to stop swimming in garbage: turn everything off, take a walk, look at the way the sky is changing and the season is changing, seek the people who are good for us and avoid the ones who aren’t. It’s a practical, concrete program.
You know, life is overwhelming, at least for me. There’s so much information, so many competing demands. The situation in the Church is overwhelming--so many theological questions, so much controversy--and so is the Bible itself. It’s full of important texts, thousands of them. Where should we start? What should we focus on?
Which is why I’m so grateful for the lectionary, for the cycle of readings that the Church sets up for us, these selections from the Old and New Testament each Sunday. The Church is saying: here: just think about this for the next week. Don’t worry about anything else. Just think about this one particular passage and leave the rest. No one of us can be responsible for the whole Church and the whole world and no one of us has to be. For now just think about whatever is true and honorable and just and pure.
Why should we think about anything else? Ever?
Why are we worrying about all these other things?
It’s true that the Church isn’t a K-Mart, as someone said to me the other day. We can’t just pick the teachings we like. So why do we choose to fight about the things we choose to fight about? Why are we debating the headlines when the Church is asking us to look at the scriptures, and at these scriptures in particular?
Where is our loveliness? Our graciousness? Our joy?
Let me urge you for this week at least, if you really want to follow the teachings of the Church, to accept its invitation and use this passage as your tool and your lens. Memorize it. Get it inside you. And when something goes wrong and you feel frightened and alone, or when someone asks you what the truth really is, what it means to believe, don’t be distracted. Keep your focus. Recite this passage, out loud, very slowly.
Because this is the truth, it’s the whole truth, for this week and every week, until the end of the time.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make you requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. And finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the peace of God will be with you.