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Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 2, 2011 (27A)
By Fr. Phil Bloom
Bottom line: In the midst of troubles, St. Paul tells us to have no anxiety at all.
I have to admit that I love today's readings. They speak about trouble, but also about hope. In the first reading, Isaiah prophecies the imminent destruction of the vineyard, that is, "the house of Israel." Jesus also tells about a vineyard under terrible mismanagement. Rather than caring for the vineyard, the tenants get involved in greed, betrayal - and finally, murder. The Old Testament reading and the Gospel describe a world filled with trouble. Between those two readings, however, we hear a different note from St. Paul: In the midst of troubles, he say, "Have no anxiety at all."
To some people this might seem like Pollyanna. But St. Paul is no naive optimist. He had plenty of troubles. A partial list includes public whippings, shipwrecks, snake bites, imprisonment and bodily ailments ï¿½ particularly, afflictions of the eye. His life was always threatened; once he had to escape by being lowered over the side of building in a basket! Yet in today's letter, written from prison he says, "Have no anxiety at all."
How did St. Paul overcome anxiety? He tells us: "in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God." His prescription against anxiety has two parts: First, prayer - putting our troubles in God's hand - making our requests known to him. Doesn't God already know what we need? He does, but he wants us to entrust our lives and our problems to him. I knew person who has a prayer corner. It has a cross, a candle and small basket. The man writes his concerns on small slips of paper and places them in the basket, handing them over to God. When he practices this prayer, he experiences a wonderful peace. The first part of overcoming anxiety is prayer, trust in God.
The second part of the prescription is thanksgiving. Fr. Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, said, "God does not make mistakes. When a human being is alive, it is because God wants him or her to be alive."* We are here because of God's will and, even the bad things, God only allows them because of some greater purpose. So in every circumstance, we need to give thanks. A grateful heart is a peaceful heart.
Trusting God and giving thanks to him is not escapism. On the contrary, trust and gratitude enable a person to tackle problems. Let me illustrate with the example of a famous American. He managed a few retails stores and was doing well - but then the market crashed. Deep in debt, he experienced terrible anguish because he would have to start laying off workers. He knew the men personally and that their families depended on him. The stress caused him to develop a case of shingles. As you may know, the condition is so painful a person can hardly think of anything else. One night he felt that he would die and he began writing farewells to his wife, his son and his friends. He didn't sleep a wink. As the sun rose, he heard singing from a hospital chapel. The words of the hymn were, "No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you..." The man sat up in bed and said to himself: "It is real! God loves and cares for me." He felt like he had been let out of dungeon into the sunlight. He went to work and eventually turned his business into one of the most successful retail chains in our country. You have probably heard of him. He had a somewhat funny name: James Cash Penney - but he was better known as J.C. Penney.
Now, J.C. Penney was no great saint. He was an American businessman who lived at a time when faith formed a major part of our culture. From that faith he drew strength to face what seemed like overwhelming troubles. He found an internal peace that enabled him to focus on one thing at a time. Instead of being overwhelmed, instead of seeing himself as a victim, he realized he could take ownership for his life. It was not a matter of being hyperactive or driven. It was a matter of trusting God.
St. Paul says, "Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God." Yes, we have many troubles. Our world is not so different from the world described by Isaiah and Jesus: full of greed, selfishness, betrayal, even violence.** In our families we have troubles. On a personal level, we experience many disappointments. Yet we know that St. Paul's command is not only possible, it is the only way forward.
To sum up this Sunday's message: In the midst of troubles, St. Paul tells us - by trust and gratitude - to have no anxiety