There is a song, released in 1988 and again in 2000, by Bobby McFerrin, with the very simple message “Don’t worry, be happy”. It is one of those earworms which advocates just forgetting all your troubles and being happy. It is a whistling in face of adversity. The crucial part it misses out is ‘how’ and ‘why’ we should be happy. Just telling people to smile and cheer up is probably the worst thing you can say when anyone is in the pit of despair or feeling the dark clouds are gathering around them. We need more than a party animal pouring out the drinks. Paul, in that passage from Philippians (4:1-9), avoided the shallow by basing it in the gospel of hope. Because of Jesus Christ risen from the dead there is a reason to rejoice, to be thankful, to pray.
He begins by commending fellow workers in the gospel; thanking those who have laboured with him. They have earned a place in the Book of Life. He then gives a wonderful hymn of praise which advocates rejoicing and gentleness; he tells his readers “Don’t worry…, but in everything by prayer… with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God” (v6). There is a point to everything and God holds all our lives. So pray and be thankful, for it is in that that rejoicing flows.
He then talks about the peace of God, which is beyond our understanding, guarding our hearts and minds (v7). ‘Guarding the mind’ is an interesting phrase. It implies a protection from assault and a gatekeeping from thoughts that attack our mental state. The Archbishop of Canterbury in that GQ interview with former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, which seems to be being drip fed to us, has this week spoken about depression, what Churchill called ‘Black Dog’. Even when things might look like they are going well, the overwhelming feeling of being hopeless and useless assaults the soul, the depth of his being. Pressures can weigh on us and we need to guard our hearts and minds from their assault. Rejoicing doesn’t remove them, but it can help change the mental map because it introduces the reminder that God is God and we are held in his purposes and love, whatever.
On Friday we hosted a meeting here with our MP, Fiona Onasanya, and Superintendent Andy Gipp – the local police chief, on crime and policing. At the end of it Fiona thanked us for our prayers – she knew that we regularly pray for her and felt the ‘guarding’ of those prayers. And we do pray regularly for our MPs, both north and south of the river, and for the City Council. They have difficult tasks and we pray for them as they bear those responsibilities; for their support, to be sustained, to be strengthened and guided in the struggles they face. They need resilience in leadership, especially when in difficult circumstances. The City Council has faced an 80% cut in its budgets over recent years and there are hard choices ahead of them.
Paul ends with a wonderful passage commending a noble and gracious path. Whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure and commendable – think about these things. Focus on these things, be renewed and refreshed so that you may be strengthened and guarded by these things. There is so much to weigh us down, and that is not a new feeling, that the mental map needs restoring. That restoration stems from rejoicing with thanksgiving and in prayer.
The gospel reading (Matthew 22:1-14) gave us the image of a king who is throwing a party. He expects everyone to attend. It is one of those invitations that is not really a question. When I was in Holyrood Palace shop in Edinburgh last year I picked up a book called ‘How to greet the Queen’. I opened it at random and found a passage about accepting and refusing invitations. “Invitations from Her Majesty and from other senior members of the Royal Family are generally considered commands: it isn’t done to plead a prior commitment.” (p72) To refuse, for anything other than a very serious reason, is an insult and in the gospel reading this is not taken well. An army is dispatched to dispatch those who treat the king with contempt! Well, they did murder the various posties delivering the envelopes. It is an extreme image. Today is you receive an invitation to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, there is a bit of checking which date you can make first, so that no one is embarrassed by turning it down.
We then get the unfortunate, sartorially challenged guest. Having turned up, he is not prepared. He hasn’t made any effort to be ready. This is not shallow ‘fashion police’, but rather a reflection of how serious this invitation is. The Kingdom of God is a command because it comes from God. We are to be ready for it, prepared, live lives focused on it. To do otherwise is to treat it with contempt and that is why conversion is regarded as being a dramatic reorientation, a turning around, from being focused elsewhere to being focused on God.
We do this by focusing on whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is peaceful, with prayer and thanksgiving and rejoicing in the Lord always. By this we guard our hearts and minds, but also prepare ourselves and those we affect around us for the Kingdom of God.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th October 2017