“Do I Have To?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
September 22, 2019
1 Timothy 2:1-7
I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly excited when I sat down earlier this week to plan worship and saw that one of the New Testament texts appointed for today was what we just heard from 1 Timothy. I wasn’t excited because, quite frankly, we’re not living in a time when there is great agreement with or respect for those who are in leadership and that’s what this text places right in front of us. And that’s true regardless of political party or even where those leaders are placed. Even within the church, especially at the national and international level, there is not always a lot of love for our leadership. So what I want to do with you in this time of reflection is I want to think not about what makes a leader deserving of our prayers or not, but instead why prayer for our leaders—politicians, commissioners, pastors, presbyters—is an important part of our faith.
Several years ago I received an email on a Monday morning from a person who had visited and worshipped with us the morning before while they were in Enid for business. They emailed me out of concern because even though they regularly attend church closer to home, they had never heard a pastor pray for leaders in government. The morning before I had prayed for our city commission, Enid’s mayor, the legislature of Oklahoma and our Governor, and the US Congress and President. “Isn’t that mixing church and state?” they asked. Honestly, I had never really thought too much about it. During the Prayers of the People on any given Sunday, I use the Book of Common Worship which is the liturgy guidebook of our tradition. It contains 12 different forms of The Prayers of The People and all of them include prayer for our leaders. It was also common in the church of my growing-up years, so again, I had not really ever thought about it as mixing church and state.
So, through email, I invited this person to do a little Bible study with me. We emailed back and forth for about two weeks looking to see what the Bible says about this type of prayer, and over and over we landed on this text from 1 Timothy. Paul’s first letter to Timothy was written while Paul was in jail and while Timothy still had his training wheels on as a leader in the church. In this specific instance, Paul was urging Timothy to pray for his leaders because in that time, the local mayor or governor had the ability to shut the church down and imprison the congregation. Paul is specific in saying that Timothy and his congregation areg to pray for their leaders so that, ‘we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.’ These prayers, Paul is saying, are meant to keep the government from breaking down the door of the church in order to use the worshippers as bait for the lions in the local arena.
While our times are vastly different, thanks be to God, my email friend and I came to the conclusion through studying this passage that Paul had no real concept of what we call in modern times the separation of church and state. For Paul, and for the earliest Christians, the vision of God’s kingdom is broad and wide, covering all of creation and running all the way up the steps of the state house and into the chambers where big decisions are made. Just because they are called politicians or lawmakers does not exclude them from the reach of God. These leaders may be concerned with things outside the church and religion and faith, but Paul earnestly believed that they were still an integral part of making God’s kingdom a full reality. Therefore, Paul says, our leaders—wherever they lead—are just as needy of prayer as everyone and everything else.
As our email conversation began to wind down, my friend simply emailed one day and asked, “Do I have to?” Of course, this made me ask a few more questions. And as it turns out, my friend was fine with what the Bible has to say and they were also fine with the idea that politicians and the government and leaders everywhere should be included in our prayers. What they were not OK with, I learned, was praying for specific leaders because—and this is a direct quote— “I just don’t like them.” My email friend wasn’t particularly fond of the people running their city and they were not a big fan of some of the folks in power in the state and national legislatures. Can any us here identify? I think that’s a feeling we’ve all had before. So, through all the study and conversation, it came down to this: do I have to pray for my leaders, even if I don’t like them?
My email friend didn’t like the answer we finally arrived at together, and you might not either. But yes, whether we like those who are in power over us or not, the Scriptures of our faith demand that we pray for them in the same way that we pray for the sick, the suffering, the poor, and ourselves. This is a demand of our faith because even though we are really good at making everything about us all the time, God’s vision for the Kingdom includes us and expands outward to include everything and everyone. If we only prayed for the people and things that we like or enjoy, our prayers would only be half of what God expects them to be and it would show that all the big and powerful words we speak about God are really small and exclusive and only sort-of powerful. When we include the people and circumstances and events in our prayers that we don’t like or enjoy we are claiming, once again, that the God of our worship is big enough to go beyond our thoughts and feelings and do something powerful and transformative.
Take for example how Jesus prayed from the cross just moments before his death. As he was hanging there, gasping for breath, he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” The gospels disagree a bit on this part of Jesus’ life, but all testify to the fact that a huge crowd was gathered at the foot of the cross as Jesus was dying. I have to imagine that some of Jesus’ greatest enemies were also there that day, watching their dreams come true. Because for many in power in Jerusalem, Jesus’ death was a dream come true. Here was this itinerant preacher from a backwater town, whose family lineage was suspect. He was the son a laborer and he had spent his short life being a pain in the neck for the powerful. He had also picked up quite a following, and that, more than anything, scared the leadership. It’s one thing when a person keeps their crazy ideas just within their circle of friends. This Jesus had gone and spread his message far and wide and a movement had started. Watching him die was what the leaders in Jerusalem had been working on for some time.
But Jesus prayed for them. And he prayed for all the people who had spit on him and slapped him and made the final hours of his life so utterly agonizing and painful. Jesus prayed for them because he knew that even though their sins and errors and judgments were so wrong and deadly, they were still in need of God’s grace. Jesus prayed for them because he knew that the movement he had started was not going to be another one of these private religious clubs where a god was worshipped just to make the members of the club feel better about themselves. Jesus prayed for his persecutors, those who murdered him, because he knew that God’s power was not contained or limited by how he felt about those people and what they were doing. Jesus prayed because he knew that God transforms. Full stop. And that includes even those who would gladly offered him up as a sacrifice.
That’s a tough one. This is one of those parts about being a follower of Jesus that does not necessity come naturally. Maybe that’s where you are right now—maybe you are finding it hard to pray for our leaders as a part of your faith. Maybe you’re not—maybe you’re entirely happy with those who are in power and you gladly offer them to God in prayer. What I know to be true is that this can flip and switch yearly, weekly, even daily. But we must never lose our grip on the truth that God loved us first, as those blue t-shirts we wore last week remind us. God loved us first, and that ‘us’ is not just the ‘us’ in this room or the ‘us’ in this city or the ‘us’ in this nation—it is the ‘us’ in this room, and the ‘us’ in this city, and the ‘us’ in this nation, and every ‘us’ in every part of the globe. That’s just how powerful and big and loving our God truly is. And if we believe that God’s love extends to every ‘us’ under the sun, we must grapple with how we are going to include all those ‘us’s,’ including the ‘us’s’ we might not like, in our prayers.
We must also never lose our firm grip on the truth that God transforms. God transformed a childless Abraham and Sarah into the patriarch and matriarch of the entire human race. God transformed a cheating and conniving King David into the finest and most respected king in Israel’s history. God transformed this disciple named Peter, which literally in Greek means ‘rock,’ even though most of his life he was as soft and pliable as sand. God transformed a venture capitalist named Lydia who was a textile merchant, and through her financial support, the original eleven disciples where able to form Jesus’ first church. God transformed Saul into Paul, a persecutor of the church into the church’s first and most important theologian. God has transformed you and me—we were sinners, but now we are redeemed…lost, but found…blind, but now we see.
This is the God to whom we offer our prayers and it is this God who has the power to transform the world and the people around us according to God’s good and perfect will. So if you’re not fond of the people in leadership right now, pray about it. Pray that God will help these leaders gain wisdom and love and understanding, and that they will work for peace and justice and unity. If you’re not fond of what your leaders and legislators are doing, pray about it. Pray that God will give them eyes to see needs and ears to hear the voices of the vulnerable and oppressed and hearts to act with compassion. If you think someone else should be in the seat that someone is occupying, pray that until the time comes for an election that the seat-holder will act according to God’s will. None of this is outside of our faith. God’s kingdom extends beyond the walls of the church and into the halls and branches of power. Our prayers can be, and are, a catalyst for change and transformation that really adds up to the building of God’s kingdom in our midst.
So let’s all be about the work of prayer, because that is really what prayer is: it is work. It is you and me working together with God to bring the full vision of God’s kingdom to life. It is you and me working together with one another to pray and then act like we pray. It is you and me and all of creation working together for a more peaceful, a more generous, a more loving and more compassionate world. Let’s be about the work of prayer and let’s leave the rest to God. Amen.