Here's a version of what I preached at St Thomas' at 10am on 11/10/20 based on Philippians 4:1-9.
In a crisis, everyone prays. Earlier on in the year, when the pandemic first reared its head, the number of online searches seeking information about prayer sky-rocketed. Using Google Trends data on internet searches for the word prayer, for 75 countries worldwide, it was discovered that searches for ‘prayer’ doubled every 80,000 new registered cases of COVID-19. In fact, the researcher who carried out this study concluded that humans have a tendency to use religion as a way to cope with a crisis.
I have no idea whether that’s because in our current crisis, we have been forced to live neo-monastic lived largely cloistered indoors, with the occasional trip into the outside world, living routines of homeschooling, calling of face-timing relatives and friends, and making more bread than the local bakers; or whether we look as finite beings to the infinite, the horizon our existence when confronted with a crisis, in the hope that God is making his way just over the hill.
It’s true though - we do all pray in extremis - whether it’s uttered namelessly behind that wheel stuck in a traffic jam - don’t let me be late; or at the bedside of a loved one - please God don’t let them suffer. I think this research hints at what we all know deep down.
Paul is writing this letter to the Christian community in a time of what might have been crisis for him. He has been imprisoned, possibly in Rome, possibly in Caeserea, but we don’t know for sure. The letter’s tone doesn't reveal in inner crisis though, rather Paul writes with a sense of hope and maybe even of joy, encouraging the community to keep on keeping on and to pray.
In this section Paul addresses his brothers and sisters - his source of joy, his beloved and then he particularly mentions Euodia and Syntyche and Clement and he alludes to Timothy and others. When talking about the women particularly, it sounds like he’s referring to a disagreement between them, but by urging them to ‘have the same mind’ he’s actually asking them to continue to do what they are already doing, alongside Clement, Timothy and others - they are seeking to still be the church where everyone has a part to play; no one is a passive observer; no one ‘just does this or that’; all are active in not going to church but being church. It was the church community that fed the poor and cared for the sick; it was the church who prayed believing that God would transform the present circumstances of the world in justice; it was the church that radically lived as a new community where the social prejudices of the day were swept aside and a new way being together was demonstrated. But they lived and gathered together like this because their faith compelled them to and not because of a diocesan initiative or a parish vision document. ‘...Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you..’ says Paul to them.
Paul doesn't encourage the church in Caesera Philippi to pray because they or the nation are in crisis. Paul’s call to prayer is not borne out of a fresh realisation of the Philippians mortality. ‘.. But in everything…’ he says, in every occasion, at all times, in all places, pray.
Prayer though isn’t some sort of transaction for the super holy. Paul isn’t encouraging prayer because the Philippians should believe that God will listen somehow more attentively to them. Prior to the encouragement to prayer, supplication and thanksgiving, Paul reminds the church of the nearness of God, and after the call to prayer, he speaks of the completeness of God’s work in them - the peace, the shalom of God - guarding their hearts and lives. Prayer for Paul here feels like a response to sensing God’s nearness; being attentive to or even noticing God present and an ongoing trust in God’s guiding of living and speaking and acting. Paul, even though he encourages the church to make prayerful requests, suggests that prayer aligns lives in God’s peace, will, and purposes.
We may not be at a time when we can find much joy when confronted by rising unemployment, a global pandemic and environmental crisis. Paul’s encouragement for the church to rejoice may seem alien and difficult but Desmond Tutu (whose life has been shaped by much difficulty and tragedy yet seems to be filled with infectious joy) says that to experience true joy we need to bring it to others.
In days that may seem to lack joy, we can each bring it in simple acts of love and kindness to others. In days when it feels like we are having to learn how to be church again - we can keep on keeping on together, with each of us playing an active part. And above all else, we can become a people who pray once more - intentionally attentive to God’s presence, bringing our requests and trusting His guiding of our everyday living.