Sunday, October 12, 2008

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Friday, the good news
was that the trading day on Wall Street closed
with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down only 128 points.
The bad news
was that this ended a week in which the Dow lost 1874 points,
over 20% of its value.
This week Russia, Indonesia and the Ukraine
suspended trading on their stock exchanges
to try and prevent the instability of US financial markets
from infecting their economies
and the country of Iceland teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.
And, in what is certainly the most ominous sounding bit of news,
the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index,
known as the "fear gauge,"
climbed to a fifth-consecutive record level.
I must admit that such news makes my own "Volatility Index,"
my own personal "fear gauge," begin to rise,
not least because I’m not exactly sure
that I completely understand the financial news
with which I’m being bombarded,
nor do I really feel that I am in a position
to even begin to evaluate the proffered solutions:
should the government intervene
and, if so,
is the right amount of money being spent on the right things?
I just know that when I made the mistake this past week
of opening the quarterly report
from my TIAA-CREF retirement fund
it seemed that I had somehow lost a lot of money
without ever having the pleasure of spending it
and I could feel my volatility index — my fear gauge —
rising to record heights.

Why regale you with news of the business world
and of my own personal anxiety?
Because I suspect that many of you
have also looked at your retirement plans
or stock portfolios this week,
or at least been subjected to the ever-rising tone
of anxiety about the economy in the news media.
Some might even have more immediate worries
of losing a job or a home.
And I suspect your fear gauge is also rising.

What consolation can the word of God offer us today?
Our Gospel reading for today seems to depict a situation
in which the volatility index is off the charts,
with invited banquet guests
killing those who bring them their invitations
(wouldn’t a simple "no thank you" have sufficed?),
and the king who is throwing the banquet retaliating,
not just by killing the invited guests,
but by destroying their entire city.
You just want to say, "OK, everybody take a deep breath."
But our other readings sound a quite different note,
a note of confidence,
a note of faith
that we will be able to weather the storms of life,
a note of hope
that our fear gauge does not have to grow inexorably higher.
In our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians,
Paul tells us that he has learned the secret
of living in abundance and of being in need,
of being well fed and of going hungry.

Of course, the ups and downs of Paul’s fortune
do not have to do
with the ups and downs of the stock market
but with the fact that he writes from a Roman prison
and does not know if he will ever see freedom again.
Still, as different as Paul’s problems may be from ours,
we might be interested in knowing
what the secret of his equanimity is,
what the secret is
that keeps his fear gauge in the lower numbers,
despite the rather dire situation in which he finds himself.

His secret is not, as we might first suspect,
that he has simply detached himself from life,
so that he does not care and has no opinion
about how he would like things to turn out.
Paul would have been quite familiar with such a strategy,
since it was the one taught by the Stoic philosophers of his day:
one preserves oneself from life’s fortunes
by not clinging and not caring.
But it is not this path of stoic indifference that he takes;
rather, his secret, which he quite openly shares, is this:
"I can do all things in him that strengthens me."
Paul’s secret for controlling his fear gauge
is not to keep himself from caring,
not to keep himself from clinging,
but to care passionately about and cling tightly to
the one who, as he puts it,
"will fully supply whatever you need."
Paul believes, with Isaiah in our first reading,
that "the Lord God will wipe away
the tears from every face."
Paul believes, with our psalmist,
that "the Lord is my shepherd" and "I shall not want."

But notice that this hope about which Paul cares passionately
and to which he clings tightly
does not promise that Paul will not be in need
or that he will not be hungry;
it does not promise that he will ever be released from prison.
Paul’s secret is his faith that in Christ he has a hope
that can never be defeated by life’s circumstances,
because in Christ God has come to share our circumstances,
so that in all our circumstances —
whether imprisonment or financial loss
or any other situation that sets our fear gauge rising —
we can find the presence of God that will sustain us.
If we can fix our eyes on what Paul calls
God's "glorious riches in Christ Jesus,"
if we see the circumstances of our lives
as pervaded by God’s sustaining presence,
then we can find hope and we can conquer fear,
no matter what storms batter us.

This, of course, is easier said than done;
it requires that we cultivate a capacity
to pay attention to God’s presence in our lives,
a capacity that is planted in us by God’s grace,
that grows through prayer,
that is nourished through the sacraments.
But perhaps we might start
by simply attending to our own personal volatility indexes,
and when we feel our fear gauge rising,
to make our own prayer be the words of Paul:
"I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me."

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