October 11, 2020 /19th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Isaiah 25:1-9 / 2nd Reading Philippians 4:1-9 / Gospel Matthew 22:1-14
How, Then, Shall We Live?
Each morning I listen to the news as I shave, brush my teeth and get ready for another day. Many have remarked about the extraordinary nature of this year 2020. The daily news cycle certainly supports that observation. We hear of devastating, unprecedented wildfires out west – destroying millions of acres of forest, leveling homes and entire communities, taking lives and sending plumes of smoke across the entire country. It has been and continues to be a very active hurricane season, with storms causing billions of dollars of damage.
Each day we are reminded of the threat posed by the corona virus pandemic. Millions of Americans have been infected. Over 210,000 have died. Cases are on the increase in half the states. The President and many at the White House have contracted the virus. We may be weary of the virus, but the virus is not fading away. And now it’s flu season.
The economy is shaky, and millions are out of work. The rhetoric of the election campaigns is harsh and vitriolic. The first presidential debate was an embarrassment.
+ + + +
I listen to the news because I feel it is important to stay informed, to be aware of what’s happening in the world. Some say ignorance is bliss, but the bliss of ignorance is temporary – an illusion. It’s not possible to quarantine yourself from reality. Sooner or later our lives are affected by what happens around us in the environment, in the economy, in government. The question facing each of us is this: How, then, shall we live? What will shape our outlook, our attitude and our behavior?
I say to you that our lives must not be determined by what’s happening all around us, but by what Christ has accomplished for us, in us and through us. We cannot afford to allow worldly circumstances to dictate how we think and feel and live. We can’t ignore the threats and challenges posed by these troubled and chaotic times. But we can choose how we will respond to them.
When the news of the day is your starting point, it’s like getting on an emotional roller coaster that can produce anxiety, confusion, anger, resentment and discouragement. As Christians we have a different starting point. We are not passive bystanders in this world. We are not victims of circumstances beyond our control. Our destiny is not in the hands of politicians or economists or opinion polls. We begin with God – always trusting that our destiny is in God’s hands. This is the calming assurance of Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. This is the perspective with which we begin.
Beginning with God, trusting God’s faithfulness, makes a tremendous difference. Right now there is a great deal of anxiety about the upcoming election. Will it be fair? Will all the votes be counted? Who will win? Will the loser accept the outcome? Will there be a peaceful transition? These are serious questions. Nevertheless, no matter what the outcome of this election, what matters more is Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. This will always be the most important news of the day: The Good News of the power of God’s love – love stronger than death.
God responded to all the sin and evil and brokenness in this world by raising Jesus from the dead, overcoming both sin and death. We respond to all the troubles in our time by placing our trust and our hope in the power of God’s love. How, the, shall we live as people of God – day by day? St. Paul points the way:
We live by rejoicing in the Lord. :Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice!” Worship is an act of faithful defiance. Instead of whining or despairing, we lift our voices in thanks and praise to the God who created and redeemed us.
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing
It finds an echo in my soul How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm While to that refuge clinging
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth How can I keep from singing? (With One Voice #781)
We Christians choose to rejoice, not only on happy occasions when all is well, but even in hard times, on difficult days – because we have a source of abiding joy. Remember, joy is not the absence of suffering, but the presence of Jesus Christ. We can rejoice in the Lord – always.
We can choose to show gentleness to everyone. In a time filled with so much bitter rancor and harsh antagonism, we can try a little tenderness. It doesn’t cost anything to be kind. Gentleness is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. “A soft answer turns away wrath.” (Prov. 15:1). We can tread lightly in this world because we have nothing to prove – Christ has already won the victory (even if others don’t know it).
We can choose to be a non-anxious presence in these overstressed times. It’s helpful to keep your head when others around you are losing theirs. Paul advises: “don’t worry about anything, pray about everything.” Worrying just wastes time and energy and accomplishes nothing. Prayer invites God into our lives and into challenging situations. God can give us the serenity to accept things we cannot change. When we are able to keep calm and carry on, we can provide a steadying influence on those who are struggling.
We can choose to bear in mind what truly matters. We can get our minds right. Don’t let the world determine what you think or how you think. Focus on what is good and enduring: Whatever is true. Lately the very idea of truth has been battered about, twisted, turned inside out, and flat out ignored. That doesn’t change what is actually true. Some things are true whether you believe them or not. Above all we need to keep in mind the truth we have come to know in Jesus Christ.
Whatever is honorable. The news is full of stories of dishonorable doings and dishonorable people. We are only able to recognize what is dishonorable because we are aware of what’s honorable. We know and appreciate genuine integrity. Keep in mind those honorable role models.
Whatever is just. In a world disturbed by injustice and inequality, remember God is a God of justice. In the words of the prophet Amos, God will let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). Keep in mind the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
You can see what Paul is encouraging: to a large extent we are formed by what we think. So focus on what’s truly worthy. Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul’s verse: “Fill your minds and meditate on things true, noble, respectable, authentic, compelling and gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; to praise, not to curse.”
To be clear: Christians are not called to withdraw from the world. We don’t ignore the world and its problems. We just don’t allow the world to set the agenda – to determine how we think and behave. We are in the world – but not of the world – because we are citizens of heaven. We are here on earth as instruments of God’s grace and peace.
God promises to be with us, to give us a peace that this world cannot give. May that peace of God, which surpasses understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus – both now, and in the challenging days ahead.