September 19, 2010; I Timothy 2:1-7
A sermon preached by Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC
I’m not usually one for cryptic sermon titles. But there’s a story behind this particular title. First church member David Anger tells the following anecdote us about English grandmother: After mass, she would complain about the priest. She would say, “he didn’t pray for the queen.” And then she would add this interpretation: “well, he is Irish!”
The question, “do we pray for the queen?” surfaced in a recent visioning team discussion. As a church, we value deeply the chance to share personal concerns with God and one another. We know the power of helping one another carry burdens and celebrate joys. The question we wrestled with was: how do we balance this gift of intimacy in prayer with our need for prayer that widens our scope of concern, prayer that pushes us beyond the places where we get a bit parochial, prayer that intentionally connects us with the broader world?
This morning’s text from I Timothy encourages us to “pray for the queen” As liberal, progressive Christians, we are may find language here that raises our sensitivities and theological concepts that we find harmful or irrelevant. The text names God as savior—do we? If we do, what do we mean when we say that? Do we believe in “the truth”, absolute and unchanging, of which the passage urges us to gain knowledge? My guess is that truth, for us, is more pluralistic, that we see truth as at least partly a matter of perspective or context. The author also quotes what seems to be some kind of ancient hymn: ” there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
Eek! One God, one mediator… does that leave any room to affirm the truthfulness or goodness of faiths beyond Christianity? Jesus as a “ransom”? – that’s not my theology of the cross.
But even as we react to this text from our point of view, it might help to understand the actual historical context from which it emerges, the differences and distance as well as the points of connection. While Christianity may carry some “baggage” these days, it’s still true that the church is part of the accepted fabric of society, and has been for centuries. Not so in the early days of the church. Christians were a tiny minority. They endured horrible persecution at the hands of the Roman rulers— many of the early apostles and prophets met their end on crosses or in the Colosseum. The Roman emporer viewed himself as a “son of God” and “Savior”, and demanded to be worshipped. I Timothy is addressed to the Christian community in Ephesus, a place in which this cult of the emperor was particularly strong.
The instruction to pray for everyone, including kings in high positions, given to the church as it struggled to survive in such a brutal time, is about both radical love and radical resistance. Radical love, because, as the church father John Chrysostom said: “No one can feel hate towards those for whom he (or she) prays.” And radical resistance because praying “for” the emperor is NOT the same as praying “to” him. Praying “for” the emperor implies that he is accountable to a higher authority. Similarly, the emphasis on God as Savior means a refusal to apply this term to the Roman ruler. And finally, Jesus “giving himself as a ransom for all” draws a sharp contrast with the tyrant who is takes all and destroys all in his quest for wealth and power.
I believe that at its heart, this scripture is not so much about worshiping Jesus instead of Mohammed; but Jesus rather than greed, Jesus rather than violence, Jesus rather than hatred. The call to believe in a God who cares for all, encompasses all, and saves all is not necessarily a call into narrow, exclusive doctrines. It can be a call into mystery—the mystery of a God who transcends our boundaries and limits. A God whose “bigness” we cannot, and need not, understand fully.
Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of the great peacemaker, Dag Hammerskjold, who served as the second United Nations Secretary-General. Roger Lipsey writes:
“O w i n g t o h i s p r a c t i c a l w i s d o m , r e s o u r c e f u l n e s s , a n d d i s c r e t i o n , a d v e r s a r i e s t r u s t e d h i m t o h e a r t h e i r u n e d i t e d v i e w s a n d u n c o v e r w h a t e v e r c o m m o n g r o u n d c o u l d b e f o u n d b e t w e e n t h e m …. H i s d i p l o m a t i c i m p r o v i s a t i o n s, f o r e x a m p l e , s h u t t l e d i p l o m a c y i n t h e N e a r E a s t , a n d U N – f l a g g e d p e a c e k e e p i n g f o r c e s b e c a m e n o r m s t h a t c o n t i n u e i n u s e t o d a y.”
Lipsey continues: “He lived two lives. … Only after his death, with the publication in 1964 of his journal, under the title Markings, did it become clear … that Hammarskjöld had been a religious seeker for whom certain source texts—the Gospels, Psalms, Meister Eckhart, Thomas à Kempis, the early Chinese classics—provided steady inspiration and guidance…. Had religion been merely words for him, there would be little need to take notice; but it was more. It was a Way, fully developed, just what we mean today when we speak of spiritual paths. It imposed a personal discipline, exacted a price, opened inner landscapes of mind, heart, and body, commanded a certain quality of relationship with others— and provided resources to go on.” (Parabola Magazine online: Desiring Peace: A Meditation on Dag Hammerskjold)
From Markings: “The more faithfully you listen to the voices within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside”
It seems to me that Hammerskjold shows us what it looks like when our lives and our prayers are one. He embodied the wisdom of our passage from 1 Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions…”
“First of all” – in other words, prayer comes first; it is the basis for everything else. And all those nouns, heaped up together: “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” This collage of language suggests we can be diverse in our forms and purposes for prayer – We don’t need to worry whether our prayers are selfish, or silly, or eloquent or angry. “for everyone” We are simply supposed to let go of all our hang-ups about prayer, and pray without boundaries, even without knowing what our prayers do or how God answers them.
This week, the Census Bureau reported that poverty rates have climbed. One in five American children are living in poverty. We’re talking about the federal guidelines: a yearly income of $21,954 for a family of four. Of course, it costs much, much more than that to live and thrive in most places in this country! In a world full of so much pain and need and inequality, what can prayer do?
The author of I Timothy calls us to pray for everyone, but then there’s the specific plug in there “for kings and all who are in high positions.” for Kahn and Pogemiller, Ellison, Klobuchar and Franken, Rybak, Pawlenty, and Obama. Karzai, Ahmadinejad, Abbas, Netanyahu, and Mugabe.
What is our prayer for these leaders? It’s not a prayer of support or of condemnation. It is a prayer that may be spoken in many different tongues, in the language of various religious traditions, but in essence, we pray that their authority might be governed by God’s, that in some way, the one who brings saving peace and wholeness– that is, Shalom— might work in their hearts and decisions and actions. We pray that they might live out of the kind of humble love that took flesh in Jesus.
And finally, as a congregation, let us acknowledge and embrace our own power, the ways in which we occupy high positions, places of influence that allow us to address the suffering in this world. I don’t know if we should start a food shelf or a community garden and outdoor bread oven, if we should join “Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness” or tutor children or recommit to Muslim-Christian dialogue, but my prayer is that we will “wade in the water” of praying for the queen, getting in touch with God’s power at work in us amid the world’s pain and inequality. Let us pray and listen our way into acting and speaking. May we be full of faithfulness that is deep and swift and gentle, that reflects and focuses the love and light of God for those who need it the most. Amen.