The Rev’d Charles Everson
October 15, 2023 • Proper 23 Year A
What do you worry about? What keeps you up at night? Is it work, or your children, or health concerns? Or is the political dysfunction we see coming out of the legislative branch in Washington? How about the atrocities going on in Israel and Palestine?
No matter who we are, no matter what part of the world we live in, anxiety is part of the human condition. While a certain degree of worry is inevitable, St Paul commands the church at Phillippi, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
The problem, at least for me, is that when I pray and make supplications and let my requests be made known to God, I tend do so without thanksgiving. It doesn't feel natural to me to give God thanks when I’m feeling anxious.
Just before he tells them not to worry about anything, Paul commands them to “Rejoice!” This is the last thing you'd expect to hear from someone writing from the horrors of a Roman jail cell. He tells them to rejoice because “the Lord is near.” You see, Paul expected Jesus to return any minute, certainly during his lifetime, making all things new and righting all of the wrongs in the world. Paul’s expectation didn’t come to fruition, nevertheless, we, too, are called to live our lives as if Jesus will return in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. The Lord is near, in our hearts, and in the faces of our fellow human beings made in the image of God, especially those of the poor and needy, and he is near to us in this great feast of the Holy Eucharist. The Lord is near, even as he was to Paul in his captivity in that Roman jail cell. And so we are commanded to rejoice.
You and I get anxious and worry about things in our individual lives, and this can also be true for families and even parish churches as a system. After having been here at Atonement for a month and half, I've seen a bit of anxiety in the system. It's hard not to be anxious be with three old buildings with lots of deferred maintenance and a pipe organ that, despite how well Charlie plays it, is literally held together in places with duct tape and fishing line. It’s hard not to be anxious when an electrical circuit on the third floor of the parish house blows and the choir room isn't usable, or when the rectory roof leaks during a rainstorm, or the wood rot on the ramp to the only handicap accessible entrance almost causes someone to put their foot through the ramp, all of which have been fixed, by the way.
As we bring these anxieties to the Lord in prayer, we do so with thanksgiving. How can we ask the Lord to help us in the future without a thankful acknowledgement of past things? We are who we are today as a parish thanks to God's abundant blessings in the past, and it is only in giving thanks for all of those things that we can begin to move forward by God's help.
Early church father St John Chrysostom reminds us that this rejoicing that we are called to do is deeply connected with grief. The one who grieves for his or her own wrongdoing and confesses it is joyful in receiving God’s mercy. Grief is just as much a part of the human condition as anxiety. Grief for one’s sins, grief due to divorce, or the ending of a friendship, or the death of a child, or general loneliness.
This past Friday, along with other leaders in the Diocese of Chicago, I attended the annual awards breakfast of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. While there was quite the star-studded line up of speakers, including the mayor of Chicago, but frankly, a year from now, I don’t think I’ll remember much about this event beyond the acceptance speech given by Rabbi Michael Balinsky, and specifically, his deep grief over the recent horrific terrorist attacks that killed nearly 1,400 Israelis in one day. The Jewish people have known so much grief over the past 3,000 some years. Time and time again throughout the Hebrew Bible, we hear of Israel’s hope despite their grief as we did in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. The context of this reading is grim. The chapter before ends with a prediction of terror and trembling for the whole earth and even the hosts of heaven. It foretells a cosmic disaster, a curse that afflicts all of the earth’s inhabitants, and a dreadful punishment for having broken the covenant—a punishment that will leave nothing but Mt Zion in Jerusalem.
It is on Mt Zion where the sumptuous meal we heard about takes place. Isaiah paints a beautiful picture of what God will do for his people on this holy mountain where his presence dwells in the Temple. He says that God will make for all peoples a feast of rich food and well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. This is not just a meal, but a banquet, a lavish celebration, a huge celestial party. On this mountain, God will destroy the shroud—the veil—worn in times of mourning—and will destroy death once and for all, and wipe away the tears from all faces. The passage concludes, “And it shall be said on that day: Look, this is our God, in Whom we hoped, and He rescued us, This is our own God in Whom we hoped, let us exult and rejoice in His rescue.”
We rejoice, dear friends, in the midst of our anxiety and grief, offering our prayers and supplications to God with thanksgiving. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, this is an extraordinary promise. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but for those under Roman rule. Tacitus, a Roman senator who served in one of Rome’s far-flung provinces, wrote bitterly, “They make a desolation and call it peace.”
Yet, for Paul, the fledgling church at Phillippi has a Lord more powerful than the Emperor of the largest empire on earth. Jesus Christ, by his death, resurrection, and ascension, has conquered more than land and peoples, he has conquered death itself, giving us ample reason to rejoice. The Lord is near, so near that we don’t have to wait until the last day to experience the sumptuous meal on Mt Zion with rich food and well-aged wines. For in this great feast, we receive what our burial liturgy calls a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. May the precious body and blood of our Lord be to us a comfort in affliction, and a pledge of our inheritance in that kingdom where there is no death, neither sorrow nor crying, but the fullness of joy.
Dear friends, Rejoice!
 1 Corinthians 15:52, KJV.  Robert Alter. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019, 699.  Ibid.  Michael D. Coogan, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version : With the Apocrypha : An Ecumenical Study Bible. 4th ed. (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2010), 1001.  Alter 700.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28/commentary-on-philippians-41-9-2