Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 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, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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. 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.
When was the last time you felt really joyful in church? When, in this space, were you so overcome with a feeling of delight and celebration that you could barely contain it? When was the last time you left church feeling like you were walking on a cloud rather than struggling under the weight of the world?
Years ago I went to a church service on a Sunday morning and claimed my normal pew about midway up on the right hand side. There were a handful of us in our mid-twenties that attended the services every week, and because everyone loves seeing young adults in church, most people ignored us for fear of driving us away.
Anyway, I arrived at church and prepared for worship. About halfway through the first hymn a young man, maybe slightly younger than myself, jogged down the aisle and sat down right next to me. Because the service had already started we couldn’t say anything to one another, and we continued to face forward throughout worship. During the sermon I, a seminarian at the time, was hanging on every word coming from the pulpit, but the young man next to me was doing everything in his power to stay awake.
I could feel his head bobbing up and down with every sharp word from the sermon, he kept readjusting himself as if that would keep him awake, and at one point he even slapped himself in the face.
I tried my best to be a good Christian and ignore the young man next to me, but at some point his leaning back and forth became so exaggerated that I was worried he would pass out mid movement and smash his face on the pew in front of us. So, at a particularly pensive and quiet moment in the sermon, I leaned over and said, “Hey buddy, if you put your hands like this (in the form of prayer), rest them on the pews in front of you, and then lean your head down, no one will know that you’re sleeping.”
The young man didn’t even glorify my option with a word of gratitude, but he quickly leaned into his hands and promptly began snoring just loud enough for the rest of the people in the pew to hear.
When did the church lose its sense of joy?
I have some wonderful memories from the churches of my past and the kinds of experiences that filled me with the Spirit. But, if I’m honest, when I think back over the totality of my church experience, those Sundays were the exception to the rule of people falling asleep in worship.
When did Easter Sunday become the only day that the resurrection made a difference in our lives? When did the weight of the world grow heavier and more determinative than the joy of knowing the Lord? When did dozing off in church become normative?
Maybe we lost our joy when we also lost touch with what it means to pray.
Throughout the month we have been spending time each Sunday addressing one thing we do as Christians. We started by talking about why we worship the way we do, and last week we talked about why we study the bible. And today is one of the hardest to talk about: why do we pray?
One answer, of course, is that we want God to do something for us. We cry out to God in the midst of suffering for healing, when we are lost we call out for direction, and when we are afraid we desire peace. When we need something, we ask God to provide through prayer.
Another reason we pray is to commune with God. These prayers are not based on receiving something in particular, but setting time apart to listen for the ways that God is speaking in the world. Instead of listing all of our needs and wants, we wait and tune into God’s frequency.
Yet, the majority of prayers come in the form of an acute need. More often than not our prayers are sadly alast resort when we can no longer bring order out of the chaos of life and we rely on a higher power to straighten out our mess.
And where’s the joy in that?
Paul wrote his letter to the church in Philippi from a jail cell. And the church in Philippi was going through its own problems. And yet Paul had the gall to speak of joy.
Joy, for the apostle, comes not when we master a particular discipline, or when God drops that little bit of manna from heaven that we need. Instead joy comes when we experience God’s action and presence even when life is difficult and full of pain.
Prayer, for Paul, is intimately connected with joy. Prayer is about being with God, and not a technique. When we let go of the desire to be the savior of our own lives, when we realize that God alone is the author of our salvation, we find the joy that comes with prayer, or better yet, we find the prayer that comes with joy.
Paul commanded the church of Philippi to rejoice always, and he does this in the plural. Prayer and joyfulness in the Christian life is not something we seek out on our own for our own good. Joy, in the fullest sense, is incomplete unless it is shared.
But the church had its problems. Co-leaders Euodia and Syntyche were apparently at odds with one another, and Paul commands them to “be of the same mind in the Lord.”
What a word for the church today…
While we are denominationally fighting over the church’s stance over everything under the sun, while churches are putting together budgets and arguing about priorities, while we sit in pews next to people who sometimes drive us crazy, Paul speaks through the centuries a difficult and important word: “be of the same mind in the Lord.”
How in the world can we be of the same mind in the Lord? It’s hard enough to get people to agree on what restaurant to go to after church let alone being of the same mind.
Perhaps the only way to be of the same mind in the Lord is through prayer.
Paul wrote to the church, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayers and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In this world and in this life, all of the anythings and everythings can become sources of endless worry, or they can become the stuff of prayer.
That’s not to say that we need to deny the reality of suffering, or ignore it as much as possible, but maybe in recognizing that we cannot handle this life on our own, that we need one another and the Lord, we can be a people of prayer and of joy.
It should come as no surprise that people tend to flock to the church not when things are perfect, but when things are falling apart. My office phone rings not with news of success and of joy, but with sadness and fear.
That’s why the missing demographic from church is the so-called millennial generation, my generation. People my age are largely absent from church because we have yet to experience the kind of sorrow and fear that leaves us feeling anchorless. It doesn’t have much to do with judgments about the relevancy of the church, but more to do with the fact that when someone feels like life is perfect, they don’t see how the church can make a difference.
But that’s the thing: The church doesn’t exist to make a difference. The church exists to praise the living God who fills our lives with the kind of joy that sustains us through both the mountains and valleys we experience. Church isn’t about us. It’s about God.
And, to bring it full circle, all of us are in need of the prayer that leads to joy and the joy that leads to prayer, because all of us have something weighing us down. Even some of the most suffering people in the world can put on a mask for an hour a week in worship. But from where I stand, I see a people who are troubled by the weight of the world, a people who are afraid about what might happen next considering what we saw on the news any night of the week, a people who need the joy that comes from God more than just about anything else this life has to offer.
And, rest assured beloveds, God answers our prayers. God knows what we need before we can even bring the words to our mouths, and God answers our prayers in ways we can scarcely imagine. And, perhaps most mysterious of all, God’s time is not our time.
I love asking people if God’s has answered their prayers; but the real kind of prayers. Not the “please help me with my algebra test” prayer; but the deep and almost unmentionable hope for an experience better than what we currently have.
I love asking people if God has answered their prayers because the answer is almost always, “Yes.” But, most of the time, we can only see how God has answered our prayers while looking backward. We can only see how God has responded to our prayers through the profound reflection on the time we’ve had with a community that has sustained us in joy until we have eyes to see what God has done.
In each of your bulletins you will find an envelope with a blank piece of paper inside. In a few moments I will invite each of you to take out that paper and write down a true prayer to God. Where in your life do you need to experience more joy? What major decision do you need help discerning? What is the “everything” you need to make known to God?
So, we will take time to pray to God in written form, and then we will place the prayer inside of the envelope and seal it. Then I would like each of you to write down your names and addresses on the front of the envelope and place it in the offering plate later in the service. No one will see this prayer but you and God.
We will hold on to the envelopes for a number of months, and we will pray over them as a church while hoping that you will continue to make your prayers known to God. And, after time, we will mail them back to you.
Prayer changes things and sometimes the thing prayer changes, is us.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord. I urge all of you who are currently quarreling with one another to be of the same mind in the Lord. And to the rest of you, help those who are in need, because this is important work that we are doing as God’s church. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice. Let your joy be known among one another so that we might feel how the Lord is near. Do not worry about sufferings of your life, but bring everything to God in prayer, and the peace of the Lord, which is perfect joy, will be with you in Christ Jesus. Amen.