Sunday 15 March 2020, The Third Sunday of Lent
Choral Evensong 16:30
Preacher: The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Joshua 1: 1-9
Ephesians 6: 10-20
I’m sure you’ll forgive the formality of a letter. Forgiveness, after all, is in your nature. But I’m less sure you’ll forgive the letter’s content. You see, in my darker moments, I have found your response to the current public health emergency, well, somewhat lacking.
It’s not that you don’t have options. When the River Jordan needed to be crossed and when the Promised Land needed to be settled you raised up Joshua. There was a leader. Joshua was strong and courageous; Joshua was never frightened or dismayed; Joshua almost certainly drank Carling Black Label (I’m showing my age now). And you were with him! Joshua was a hero. Now - when the enemy is not the Hittites but Covid-19 - where is the leader of Joshua’s stature? Who are you raising up to go before us and to fight our battles? We have elected politicians and we have healthcare professionals. I’m sure they’re doing their best. But, in all honesty, they’re just men and women. They’re just like…well, they’re just like the rest of us. What in Heaven’s name are you doing, entrusting a planet in crisis to them?
I don’t think we’re equipped for the task! St Paul writes to the Ephesians. He writes at great length about spiritual warfare. It’s all good stuff, but a few insights into germ warfare wouldn’t go amiss. The helmet of salvation and the shield of faith are all very well, but what about an inexhaustible supply of hand sanitizer? You managed something similar with a pot of oil when Elisha visited that poor widow.
But there is no hazmat suit of the righteous. I understand that, I think. Instead, Paul writes, we are to pray. Please don’t get me wrong, God. I’m all for prayer. I do it regularly. But is it really what we need right now?
Allow me to address the three points that Paul makes about prayer.
First, he says, we are to pray in the Spirit. That’s fine in the normal course of events. But this is not the normal course of events. This is a crisis – and, forgive me – I’m right here in the middle of it. I think you might trust me to know what I need to pray for. I have a list. We need to pray for a vaccine to be found. This will take a while, so there’s a range of temporary measures that we need in the meantime. We need to pray for people to exercise a little common sense and stop panic-buying toilet paper. We need to pray for adequate resources to be put into funding sick-pay. I could go on. But you get my point? I know what’s needed. If I were to pray in the Spirit, then the Spirit would no doubt have her own ideas. And they might not be mine. They might, therefore, not be what’s needed.
Second, Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for him. By analogy, he says we are to pray for other people. But prayer should always be the handmaid of action. It certainly was for Paul, and for Joshua. I like action. At times like this people need to see that I care; they need to know that they are in safe hands. Together, the Cathedral’s staff, congregation and volunteers number about 900. Call it 1,000. There are 1440 minutes in a day; 10,080 minutes in a week. If I leave out inessential activities like sleeping and eating, then I could spend considerably more than eleven minutes with each of those 900 before next Sunday arrives. Yes, I know I could kneel before you. I know I could hold them all in my heart. I know that you see what is in my heart. But I wouldn’t be seen out there, would I? And that matters.
And thirdly, Paul says we should pray at all times. A laudable notion, of course, but hardly realistic in our present circumstances. There are risk assessments to write and the diary to scrutinize. There are emergency arrangements to make and business continuity schemes to devise. Praying at all times? That’s best left to the professionals, or to those who have the time. It’s certainly something I’ll recommend to those who are self-isolating. It should keep their spirits up. But, personally, I am run off my feet. Isn’t twice a day enough?
Follow Paul’s advice and I’d submit my wisdom to your wisdom; love those in my care; and attend to you, the source of all life and health. Don’t these extraordinary times demand a more radical, hands-on approach?
Now, please excuse me, God. It’s time to pray…