Sunday, September 19, 2010

Be Careful When You Pray

Be Careful When You Pray

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

I Timothy 2:1-8

First of all, then, I urge that supplications,

prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings

be made for everyone,

for kings and all who are in high positions...

In the first chapter of I Timothy, the apostle wrote concerning the love of God in Jesus Christ for the foremost of sinners, meaning Paul himself. And by implication, we would be made to understand that if God could count Paul to be faithful, as the chief among sinners, then certainly others can be made faithful, can be the subject of his love.

The reading from I Timothy today concerns not the chief of sinners, but the chiefs of nations. The apostle wrote, “First of all…I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all, for kings and all who are in authority.”

The cynical among us, those who know the truth behind Lord Acton’s famous phrase, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,”[1] may ask, “Even for these?” The answer is yes. And it is yes for a variety of reasons, some of which may surprise us.

So often in our day, the invoking of God’s presence is not much more than a social nicety. Apparently it strikes many people to be about as relevant in the 20th century as bearskin hats on the guards at Buckingham Palace – nice to have, as long as they don’t mean anything by it – a little formality to be dispensed with quickly, so that the real business of a gathering may be attended to.

There is consternation in some circles over the fact that on our government payroll at this very moment are chaplains to the House of Representatives and the Senate, not to mention untold numbers of chaplains, rabbis and imams in the military, all giving their opening prayers for this or that session of Congress, and this or that miscellaneous awards ceremony or banquet. Americans are strikingly impatient with anything that appears to be excessively ceremonial, and that is what these public prayers appear to be to many.

One time when I served First Presbyterian Church in Salem, when I was invited to wander across the street from the church and open a session of the state House of Representatives with a prayer, as we all bowed our heads to pray it struck me as being nothing quite so much as a fleeting interruption of the hubbub and flow of paperwork going on all over the floor of the chamber. In fact, it didn’t seem even to interrupt some of the representatives. I repeated the simple prayer from Psalm 19: “May the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer,” and sat down. To my surprise, at the conclusion of my prayer, I received applause!

I was a little nonplussed until I learned why my invocation was so popular. Apparently it was the shortest prayer that they had had during that session: Perhaps elected representatives believe the quality of a prayer is to be measured by its brevity! It makes about as much sense as saying the usefulness of an airplane is determined by its color!

Public prayer is so familiar, and often so pedestrian, we can become cynical about it.

The Bible does not share that cynicism.

Timothy was urged to pray for the leaders of the state, and to pray for them regularly. Remember, the leaders Timothy was to pray for were those who were putting Christian brothers and sisters through persecution. “Pray even for these,” we seem to hear.

If we admire President Obama, we may blanche when the thought occurs to us that this means we must pray also for Republican House Minority leader, John Boehner, while the opposite for supporters of Congressman Boehner is also true. Even more startling, considering the brutality of first century rulers, this can be taken to mean that not only must we pray for our own leaders, but even for the leaders of other nations whom we think we ought to despise. A large number of foreign leaders have more than a little in common with the likes of Emperor Caligula, who was certainly no Christian, probably barely had the Christians on his radar. Still, “Pray for all in high positions...” cautions the apostle. “Prayer,” writes Kathleen Norris, “is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you cannot imagine.”[2] It is also asking that the world and its leaders be changed in unimaginable ways.

One could be forgiven for wondering why it is important to pray for the likes of these. After all, government leaders around the world are not known to be universally fast friends of the church in general, or its believers and their aims in particular, in any generation, and this was especially so in the first century.

One of the answers is that civic leaders, whether good or bad, have the responsibility to establish peace and justice in the nations as best they can. Peace and justice, we may remember, are no matters of small concern in the Bible. In fact, if the Old Testament prophets could be said to have gone off on a tangent about anything, it would be those two issues: peace and justice.

Political leaders need God’s word to guide them. They need the prayers of the people, many world leaders fervently seek our prayers, yet it shouldn’t matter whether they seek them or not. Christians must care about political matters and the people involved in them precisely because the God of the Bible is a God who cares about the issues and events that affect his children, all of them, in every land.

And not just political leaders. In biblical times there was no parallel to the kind of corporate business world we have today. Today, multinational corporations and their officers have the power to affect dramatically the lives of literally millions of people for good or ill. Executives of corporations, board members, big decision makers all need our prayers, whether they know it or not, whether they desire them or not.

This is not an attitude peculiar to Christians. Daily prayers and offerings were made in the Temple in Jerusalem on behalf of the Roman emperor until A.D. 66. And when those prayers stopped, it served as a sort of formal declaration of independence from Rome. The sacking of the city and the destruction of the Temple by the Roman legions followed soon thereafter, and the lesson was not lost on the first Christians or those who came after them.

Like it or not, governing authorities have the power of life and death over vast populations, and whether they are fellow believers or not, they need our prayers. How much more so in our day when fingers are itching on triggers in conflicts round the world. How imperative it is that world leaders have our prayers! “Prayer is the way both to the heart of God and the heart of the world” said Henri Nouwen, “precisely because they have been joined together through the suffering of Christ...[it is] letting one’s own heart become the place where the tears of God and the tears of God’s children can merge to become the tears of hope.”[3]

Such a concern for order as Paul expressed reminds us that Christianity is not world-denying, but world-affirming. Christian life is not totally otherworldly, riding on an express train for heaven. No, Christian life is rooted firmly in the world.

It may be fashionable to see governments as sources of evil. And clearly, there is great potential for evil anywhere large concentrations of power are found. The author of Revelation saw this possibility, and named hopelessly bankrupt contemporary authorities the “Beast.”

There is another side, one we must not forget in all our enthusiasm for keeping government off our backs. There is also great potential for good in human government, and this should not be overlooked. A complete breakdown of the world order would not serve the purposes of the kingdom of God unless the civil order had become hopelessly demonic. Still, even rather hopeless governments can help populations to be fed, to be safe from invasion, to be housed, clothed, educated. Even in the most corrupt countries, some provision is made in these regards, because no government is safe from its own people when it ignores for too long their most basic needs. So governments are capable of doing tremendous good – even if for the wrong reasons, or from dubious motivation, or for no reason at all – and that should be the subject of at least some of our prayers.

Presbyterians should feel right at home with Paul’s desire to see order maintained in the world. Especially American Presbyterians, who have combined the Puritan zeal for ardor and a lively awareness of the Spirit, with the equally strong zeal of the Scots-Irish Presbyterians for order.

The fading political ideal of a never-ending revolution, aside from being a fantasy that history does not support, is a human impossibility. It feels good to be passionately enthusiastic about something, but it can’t last. Eventually passionate enthusiasm must be given a structure in which to establish itself, if any of the good that enthusiasm can do is to be maintained for the future. There are many examples of this:

  • The passion of competition needs the structure of Wall Street or the sports arena. Probably nothing on earth is so completely structured as professional sports are today in the Western world. Yet there is ample room for passion and enthusiasm, as evidenced each Saturday and Sunday afternoon in stadiums around the country.
  • The passion behind political issues needs the structure of political parties and governmental institutions so that the passion and enthusiasm does not erupt into violence and revolution each time there is a change of leadership or policy.
  • The passionate hearts that wish to see ministries of compassion undertaken need the structure of organizations such as those supported by our many mission dollars spent in our own community and beyond.

When passion gives way, structure can carry us forward, in our families, sports, the church, in politics and the art of governance, in business. So Christians are to pray for those leaders who must daily soil their hands in the perennially morally ambiguous affairs of state. Even these. We are not free to disregard political concerns. Some strident voices will call to the church and say, “Stick to the gospel!” or, “Confine yourselves to religious matters!” But the letter to Timothy – a very conservative letter on almost every issue – belongs right there along with the rest of the biblical witness because it does not allow such unconcern with the grubby affairs of state. It does not make the false distinction between issues that are religious and matters that are political. There is no activity in which we can involve ourselves that is outside the realm of our religious witness.

Jesus came to us and died for us in this world, not to say that the world deserves to go to hell, but to show that the world through him might be saved. We are not free to say we won’t pray for these because that is not the business of Christians. And our praying for our leaders does not automatically baptize any political order, either. Paul makes that clear. There is only one mediator: Jesus Christ. He could well have gone on to the next logical conclusion…there is only one legitimate government: his lordship.

Counterclaims from the left and the right, that law and order and private ownership are the means of salvation, or that communitarian values and redistribution of material goods is the road to the kingdom, are always a temptation, but are ever false. All people are God’s children, and Paul declares that God desires the salvation of all. Which of his children does a father desire to do well and which to fail? If he is any kind of father, the question invites ridicule. Of course, a good father wants all his children to do well.

So we do not have the luxury of picking and choosing. We cannot pray for some leaders and not others. We are called upon to pray for “kings and all who are in authority.” Not some, but all. Even our candidate and the other guy’s candidate; socialists and capitalists, Libyans and Lithuanians, Colombians and Californians, Romanians and Rhode Islanders. Even these.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Any further publication or use of sermons must be with written permission of the author.

[1] From a letter from John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834-1902) to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887. Lord Acton then stated, "Great men are almost always bad men."

[2] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 60.

[3] Henri Nouwen, Love in a Fearful Land, Orbis Books, 2006, p. 100.