Scripture: Philippians 4:4–8
What a difference a couple of years makes! Two years ago, when we celebrated our church birthday, we were still pretty deep in sheltering in place from the pandemic. So, we gathered on Zoom, watched the kids in an amazing virtual pageant reenacting our founding, each blew out candles on our own cake or brownies or cupcakes, and suffered though trying to sing the birthday song together on Zoom. We were living through some incredibly isolating and isolated times. But today, we will be able to be together and in person, sing the birthday song together and celebrate our birthday. What a difference two years makes!
And yet, as I look back on that time of isolation, there is part of me that wonders if we aren’t still just as isolated from one another, even yet today. Some of us still feel pretty physically isolated, choosing to protect our unvaccinated children or our own fragile health in the midst of COVID variants. Some of us feel pretty socially isolated, thinking of friends or family members that they have seen very little, grown apart from, or even lost to death or moving away. Some of us feel emotionally isolated, suffering from the effects of the mental health pandemic that existed before COVID and was only worsened by it.
And there is a real sense that we are more ideologically isolated than we were even two years ago. Instead of responding to this challenge with unity and hope, we have actually found ourselves more and more ideologically siloed, finding less common ground and more reason to distrust our neighbor. Biblical scholar Katherine Schifferdecker points to this phenomenon in the ways that our news sources isolate us. She talks about the experience of “doomscrolling,” flipping from story to story in media or social media in ways that send us down a rabbit hole of cynicism, skepticism, and fear. The more we scroll, the more doom we consume. I would add that the rise of popularity of conspiracy theories in the last couple of years stems from this isolation. If we were spending more time with friends or family, we might bring up one of these ideas and the experience of saying it out loud or letting someone else give us some perspective would reveal how crazy some of this stuff is. But if we keep doomscrolling through these theories that get wackier and wackier, eventually it kind of makes sense in a warped way.
Schifferdecker suggests that Paul had the potential to follow a similar path. When he writes this letter to the Philippians, he is in prison. We don’t know for sure about his prison experience—where it is and who else was with him—but it clearly limited his freedom in some significant ways. It could have been very easy for him to fall into despair, and for him to drag others down with him.
Would anyone have been surprised if Paul’s words to the Philippians were something like this: “Woe is me! This whole Jesus thing is a scam and a joke. Run away from this life as fast as you can, before you end up like me. Living this life killed Jesus. It’s about to kill me. Get away before it kills you!”
But look what they were instead!
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything….”
Wait, what? Can you imagine the guard standing outside the door eavesdropping as Paul dictates this to a messenger? He writes these words that make him seem completely mad, given the circumstances that he is in. Eavesdropping guard might have responded just like the prison guard did in Philippi. So taken by the fact that Paul and Silas were singing through the night, and that they didn’t even try to escape, he and his whole family joined the Jesus movement that day. I could imagine either guard saying the same thing: “What does this guy know that I don’t know, and how can I get some?”
The answer for Paul, and I think the answer for us today, isn’t all that surprising or ground-breaking. Paul invites us to a life of prayer.
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Sounds simple enough, right? But I hesitate sometimes to talk about prayer, because a lot of us have had a bunch of shame-inducing messages about prayer. “You have to pray like this. You have to pray at this time of day. You have to pray for this long. If not, you aren’t a good Christian.” So let’s try and bypass the shame stuff, and see how Paul’s invitation to a life of prayer might be exactly what we need, in a world where we feel more and more isolated…
Prayer comforts our hearts. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Prayer gives us peace. Even if it doesn’t make any sense. Even if it surpasses our understanding. Even if our context suggests the opposite, prayer gives us peace. How many of us have had that experience of being anxious or concerned or worried, and by simply naming our concern to God in prayer, find that anxiety lifting? Again, we have to be careful with those shame messages, because my guess is that some of us have prayed before, seeking that peace, but then don’t get it. So we feel like we are doing something wrong. That our prayer is broken. Or maybe that God isn’t there, hearing our cry for peace. Scholar on prayer, Henri Nouwen, helps us clarify: “In prayer, you encounter God not only in the small voice and the soft breeze, but also in the midst of the turmoil of the world, in the distress and joy of your neighbor and in the loneliness of your own heart.” Which I think fits with Paul, right? I mean, he was still in prison, even after his prayer. And he admitted a troubled heart more than once in his letters. But I think Paul’s point is that prayer gives us more peace than we would have otherwise. Again, Nouwen: “In the end, a life of prayer is (one in which) we realize that it is more perfect for us to be led by the Other than to try to hold everything in our own hands.” We open our hearts to the peace that Christ alone can give.
Prayer re-trains our brains. So Paul tells us that prayer changes our hearts. Next, he writes, prayer changes our minds. Look at what he has to say about the “whatevers”: …whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…
Again, it is Schifferdecker who compares this to the experience of doomscrolling. How often do we live life by the rule “whatever is horrible and whatever is terrifying and whatever gives you anger, think about these things?” Paul is telling us to re-train our brains to things that are just and pure and excellent. She acknowledges that we cannot have rose-colored glasses and stick our heads in the sand about the sin and death and evil in the world, but she suggests that if we allow ourselves to be shaped by these things, to be immersed in these things, to be discipled by these things, we’ll never get to the joy that Paul talks about. So here’s my question: What if, instead of doomscrolling, we engaged in “joyscrolling?” If we allowed ourselves to be immersed in and shaped by things that are honorable and pure and pleasing? Things that give us joy? What if these became the things that we allow to arrest our imagination? To create our vision? Prayer retrains our brains to thinking in new ways. Seeing God act in new ways. Watching the world with new eyes.
So according to Paul, prayer comforts our hearts and re-trains our brains. Did you notice that he writes that both our hearts and our minds are guarded in prayer? But I want to follow Paul’s words with a third point: Prayer opens our arms.
Compare Paul’s experience to that of the disciples at Pentecost. Acts 1 tells us that all of the disciples—all 120 of them— gathered in an upper room, terrified at the world around them. They were doomscrolling hard. But then they prayed. When they were united in prayer and united in power, that’s when the Holy Spirit showed up. Prayer gives us peace, but it also allows us to proclaim peace to the world. To bring peace to those who are hurting. The prayerful power of Pentecost allows us to see God at work in new and amazing ways. Instead of seeing the Parthians and the Medes and the Cappadocians as their enemies, the disciples found themselves speaking to them, reaching out to them, opening their arms to them.
Justo Gonzalez writes that in Acts 2, it’s the advantaged who are at a disadvantage. Those who think that they have all of the answers fail to see the miracle. Did you notice how many of the advantaged responded to the disciples on Pentecost? They sneered. They jeered. They made fun. “They are filled with cheap wine!” Their cynicism and skepticism kept them from seeing the joy that Peter and the Jesus-followers were talking about. But those who are prepared and humbled in prayer are ready to be used! “many of the sophisticated today find it difficult to be surprised by the miracle of God’s grace. Because they cannot be surprised, they sneer at those who are.” He says “the activity of the Holy Spirit is always surprising and overpowering.” Prayer is where we get our surprising power and our invitation to engage with the world. It is how we open our arms to those who are different than us. It is how we get used by the spirit to live a life of welcome and hospitality.
It seems to be what Peter was talking about when he preached his Pentecost sermon from the book of Joel:
your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
Those who no one expected to know anything…too young, too old, slaves, women (!)…all have a prophetic word to share. Those who center their lives on the values of Jesus open their arms to the world and speak a word of peace. When we live a life of prayer, it helps us open our arms to those who are different.
That’s the story of St. Kevin. How many of you knew that the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Kevin last week? I didn’t, until one of my favorite authors, Christine Valters Paintner, shared the story. Apparently, St. Kevin was a Celtic saint who lived a radical life of prayer. According to legend, St. Kevin loved to pray, and would stretch out his arms every time he prayed, in a posture of receiving God’s grace. But Kevin lived in a very humble and very small hut, so when he stretched out his arms, one of them would stick out of the window of his hut. One day, while Kevin prayed to God, and opened his arms in prayer, and his arm stuck out of the window, a mother blackbird came and saw his outstretched hand, and thought it looked like a good place to build her nest. So, she built her nest in the welcoming and loving arms of St. Kevin, where she laid her eggs, and nursed her babies, and finally, the babies were ready to hop out and leave the nest. Because of the hospitality and open arms of Kevin.
Sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, may we be like St. Kevin. May we open our arms in prayer, to receive the grace and peace and love that passes all understanding. And when God places a need in those open arms, may we show the grace and peace and love in return.