In the reading today, St. Paul starts with this sentence: “Brothers and sisters, I would like for you to be free of anxieties.” Amen to that, right? Not only is St. Paul concerned with us being free of anxieties, he goes on to mention that word in different ways seven more times in just a few sentences. It must be very important to him. The literal Greek “anxiety” is from the Greek verb, merimnao, which literally means “to be divided.
We have to remember that in most ancient cultures – certainly ancient Israel –having a plot of land was very, very important to a family. That is why a father would never divide his land, but he would buy it and hand it on usually to the oldest son, and the other sons would either work on the land or go somewhere else to seek their fortune. A bigger farm meant more workers – more workers meant that when mauraders and criminals came, you had more fighters to defend your land. If a couple kept dividing their land in such a harsh culture, it usually meant death or famine for them. This is part of the background that we should keep in mind when we hear that Saint Paul does not want us to be ANXIOUS – he does not want us dividing our resources.
Did not Jesus himself say, “A house divided against itself cannot stand?”
And “A man cannot serve both God and Mammon – he will hate the one and love the other.”
This is exactly the attitude that St. Paul is referring to. He is not making it up. He is referring directly to the teaching of Jesus Christ.
What does that mean? That means that he does not want part of our hearts searching after the Lord, and then part of our hearts searching after the pleasures and fame of the world. My grandparents used to use expressions like, “Stop sitting on the fence, boy!” and “Try not to be of two minds about things all the time.” I’m sure you’ve heard these expressions before. That is what St. Paul is telling us this morning as well, except he wants us to make up our minds about Jesus Christ.
According to one pyschologist’s study, the following are the things that make us most anxious:
40% — things that will never happen
30% — things about the past that can’t be changed
12% — things about criticism by others, mostly untrue
10% — about health, which gets worse with stress
8% — about real problems that will be faced
There are usually three kinds of people:
- those that live in the past
- those that worry about the future
- those that worry about what other people think.
You know, I often think that anxiety should be classified as stealing, because it sure steals our joy. It makes us live everywhere but right here and right now, which is all we really have to work with.
And do you know what Jesus has to say about that? Cut it out. He actually says this: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow and what to eat and what to wear – tomorrow has evils of its own. Sufficient for the day is its own problems.”
Let me make a distinction here. There is a difference between stress, anxiety, and suffering. STRESS is the condition that results from having too many expectations placed upon you by another or by yourself, and we feel that stress in our bodies. SUFFERING is that pain that we go through because we are surrounded by a fallen world and sin has broken man’s heart and placed us at war with ourselves and each other. ANXIETY is that state that results from having a divided heart or mind about something important. It is more complicated than that, but there is only so much I can do in a homily. With those definitions, let me make this statement: it is possible that you can live in this world without anxiety, but we cannot escape suffering. And we probably can’t escape a little bit of stress either, especially in a world that no longer even stops to keep the Sabbath holy.
Let me give you an example. My novice master, Fr. Ambrose – God rest his soul – once told me something like this: “Basil, I’ve seen hundreds of men come and go in this monastery. I’ve gotten so sick that I’ve almost died more than once, most of my friends have died or left. I have seen the monastery reduce in numbers by 75%, and had my heart broken countless times by the decisions of my superiors and by brothers with whom I could not cooperate. I left home as a young man from the North and came here and have often felt all alone for countless days and nights. But every morning I have woken up for prayer, and NEVER ONCE HAVE I DOUBTED MY DECISION TO BE A MONK AT THIS MONASTERY.”
Fr. Ambrose went through a great amount of suffering. But anxiety he did NOT have. His heart was pure – it was not divided. He spent his life waiting on the Lord, and I’m sure that at his death Fr. Ambrose found the Lord waiting for him.
In other words, even Jesus tells us to live day by day. Even Jesus tells us not to be anxious. At the last supper, do you know what he says before he is about to be killed and his disciples scattered: “Take heart and fear not. In the world you will have suffering. But I have overcome the world.” Jesus tells us very clearly that there will be suffering in this world. But he also tells us NOT to be anxious. At every mass, you hear his words: “I give you peace. But not as the world gives peace do I give you peace.” Do you know what he’s talking about there? He’s talking about the peace that understands who you are and what you are about. He’s talking about the peace that comes from being a beloved son or daughter of God. He’s talking about the peace that promises eternal life. He’s talking about the peace that Fr. Ambrose had.
Do you know that far more than almost any other topic, we hear Jesus tell people to either have faith or to NOT be afraid. They are opposites of one another. The opposite of faith is not unbelief. The opposite of faith is FEAR and ANXIETY. This is something that I wrestle with myself. If I have truly given something in my life over to God and given him permission to take control, then why should I be afraid of anything? The answer is that I really haven’t given that thing over to him yet.
Everyone in this church, unless you have been given a special grace, probably has something that they are holding onto too tightly or some nagging inspiration to do something that you are refusing to do. You are riding the fence about SOMETHING. Most of us usually are. For those of you who are pure in heart, you are lucky and I ask you to pray for the rest of us. So my question is simple. What is that thing? What are you riding the fence on? What divides your mind and heart and keeps you awake at night? We should turn those things over to God. After all, we know at least that HE is going to be up all night. Why should I join have to join him?
This might sound a bit intense, but I will say it all the same because it was in our gospel: when Jesus was confronted with the demon in the gospel, by a word of command he simply said, “Quiet. Come out of him.” Maybe in the name of Jesus we need to say THAT to that anxious and restless spirit deep within us – that spirit that is keeping us from being of one heart and mind in the Lord.
In this world we will have some suffering. But it is good news that we might have God’s peace, and that our anxiety may be conquered. St. Paul wrote, “Brothers and sisters, I would like for you to be free of anxieties.” But first we need to get off the fence and come down on one side. Let’s hope that side is the pierced side of Jesus Christ.