Prayer in Advent
Today, I want to reflect on Paul’s letter to the Philipians. He is writing to the Philipians from prison. He begins his letter by telling them how every time he thinks of them, he prays with joy.
I know that you have that experience. Often in the prayers of the people, I hear you all pray in thanksgiving for this community. You pray for one another by name, you give thanks for the committees and the ministries that are working here. But let’s stay with Paul—why does he feel joy when he thinks of the Philipians? He says that it is, “Because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” So he feels joy, not because he likes them so much, but because they share in the gospel.
I remember when I first came into the Episcopal Church. I was raised Christian, but had not been part of a Church community for most of my adult life. I had been doing social justice work, and environmental work, I had been representing working people and developing policies that would support economic justice. I had left a job in government, and I felt very tired and discouraged. While I was committed to the issues that I worked on, I felt that I was not making enough difference in the world. I was personally worn out. When I came to an Episcopal Church and I was quickly introduced to the Outreach committee. We were a tiny committee, doing relatively small projects in our local community. But we spent most of each meeting talking about issues that mattered to us, and then we’d work on our projects and make decisions about whom to send money to.
For the first time, I had an experience of being in the midst of a group of people who were living the gospel. We were praying together as we thought about the issues and people who mattered to us. In that context, I was supported and nourished because we were sharing in the gospel. Today, when I think about that first experience with people who introduced me to the gospel, “I thank my God and I pray with joy;” my isolation, my feelings of inadequacy were overcome by this “sharing in the gospel”. It wasn’t that I was doing the wrong work before I had that experience of church. But I was trying to do it alone. I had no sense of community. And because I was working alone, I had missed the opportunity for real joy.
To feel the love and appreciation for our church community can be a new experience for each of us. It is a love based on a shared knowledge of Christ, a love based on a shared experience of trying to be a disciple. It is about loving Christ in one another and remembering that we are connected to the communion of saints who have gone before us and to all of those who will follow us as Christians living and working in the world.
I still feel that joy, and I give thanks to my God every day for all of you. Every night you are in my prayers—collectively and individually because we share in the gospel. I think about all of your ministries, those you do in the church, and those you do with charities outside, your work as teachers and nurses, serving in retail, real estate, technology, education, business. Everywhere you go you try and live the gospel. And yet, with all the good that we do through our ministries here in the Church, and all the ways that we live the gospel in the world, we are not yet perfect.
And this is how we come to Advent. In this season of ‘already’ and ‘not yet’—we know that Christ has come into the world to be the Word of the Lord. And we observe this preparatory time as we approach the celebration of Jesus’s birth. We are not yet perfected in the gospel. The Kingdom has not yet come. But the work has begun. I think it is important to think about this preparation that we are doing in Advent on two levels—Paul’s letter points to God’s ongoing work in the individual members of the community of Philipi and to God’s ongoing empancipatory work for all who suffer imprisonment (in their bodies and minds) in the world. We can think about God’s work in us and about God’s work in the world through our hands.
Paul says, “The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” First, Paul is pointing to God’s work that has begun in the Philipians. By their baptisms, they have been initiated into the Church. Those who have not been baptized have come together to join in the teachings and the prayers. They have been changed by God through the sacraments and the prayers. This is a cause for Paul’s joy. But he notes that they will be perfected by the day of Jesus Christ. This Advent time of preparation can be seen as a time when God is working in us. What God began with our baptisms, is now continuing as we prepare for the day of Jesus Christ.
Paul goes on to explain why he is sure that this is what is happening. “because you hold me in your heart—for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” First he points to the fact that his community is praying with him—they are holding him in their heart in his imprisonment. Second, he points to the community’s defense and confirmation of the gospel. Paul is telling the people that he is sure that God is continuing to work in them, and he knows this because they are all praying together and they are all defending and confirming the Word—even in the face of Paul’s imprisonment.
Maybe this is true for us as well. We know that God has begun to work in us because we are holding people who are imprisoned (physically imprisoned and those who are emotionally or mentally imprisoned) in our hearts. We are praying for them. In spite of great obstacles to our faith, we continue to hold out the hope of the Gospel message. Like Paul, we know that God is continuing to work in us when we hold the imprisoned, the outcast, the oppressed in our heart and when we continue to proclaim the gospel in spite of this difficult times. Who are these imprisoned that we might hold in our heart today? The families of the people killed in San Bernadino who are devastated in their losses and so angry with the shooters? The prisoners in San Quentin who have been incarcerated for serious crimes? The refugees who are seeking asylum here and all over Europe, fleeing from economic oppression, violence and political corruption? The un-housed people in San Rafael, the elderly members of our community who are housebound, the mentally ill or those who are physically disabled, those who mourn, and those who are crippled by their fears? If we hold these who are physically imprisoned or those who are imprisoned by their fears, their anger, their loss, there is an opportunity for God’s work to continue in us as we proclaim the gospel and pray for others emancipation. By these prayers, prayers that indicate we have not given upon the Gospel, by continuing to hope for freedom and wholeness, God continues God’s work in us.
And this prayer work that we do, is both evidence of God’s work in us, and it is preparation for the day of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s letter gets at the second type of preparation that I mentioned, the preparatory work of doing God’s work in the world, being God’s hands. Paul’s prayer for his community includes the prayer that the people will have “produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” Those are very active verbs, “producing”, “harvesting”. Paul seems to be speaking about a way of living. He encourages the people to an “insight” that will help them to determine what is best. And I think that he is referring not to things that are best, but to courses of action that are best. Paul is praying that this community of people who are filled with the love of God, will produce righteousness. And this seems right in this Advent season—it is time to prepare for the day of Christ by discerning what is right for us to do to produce the harvest of righteousness. Righteousness (Δικαιοσΰνη-dikaiosyne) is about the covenant relationship between God and God’s people. The harvest of righteousness can be understood as the human response to God’s acts of justice. What are we called to do to participate in God’s work of freeing the prisoners?
This is a cause for our joy, already we are doing much to “free the prisoners”—we are doing pastoral care work, we are participating in the work of the Street Chaplaincy, in the Kairos outside ministries, our Ritter House ministries, our breakfasts for students of the Alternative High School, our caregiver support group, and our senior fitness class. And every day I hear about other ministries that you are all engaged in outside of the church.
This work is part of what we are called to do. But the day of Jesus Christ is not yet here. The Kingdom of Heaven has not yet been fully realized in our communities. We are not perfect, not yet complete as a people of God. So as Paul is calling the Philipians to discern “what is best”, we can use this Advent season, this season of preparation for the day of Christ to discern what is best for us to do. Next Sunday, we will have an outreach committee meeting. We have a significant portion of our outreach budget available to spend, and the outreach committee will consider where we should make those donations. If you are not involved in the pageant, I invite you to come to the committee meeting after the 10 a.m. service with ideas—suggestions about where you think our outreach monies should be spent. I encourage us to spend on financial resources on things that we are also giving our time to, but if you have charities or projects that you are working on outside of church that are in need of financial resources, I invite you to present them to the committee and be part of the discussion about what we should do.
In this “season of giving”, I know many of you give to charities. I invite you to tell one another about the work that you are contributing to, so that we can share in your work. This is what Paul is referring to as sharing in God’s grace. Let us build up the community through joyful prayers in thanksgiving for this community. Let us prepare ourselves for the day of Jesus Christ by praying with those who are imprisoned, those who need our defense. And let our love overflow so that we may harvest the righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.