September 22, 2019
The First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
1 Timothy 2:1-7
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, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
In church, we make all kinds of assumptions. We assume that people will like us if they just get to know us – not always true. We assume that we have a better grasp on the Gospel than some others – also not always true. And we assume that people probably know the basics of what we do in this room and why – definitely not true. Increasingly Christians and Christian practice are an enigma to a great many people out there, and the only thing we can safely assume is that some folks out there think we folks in here are a little strange, and that we do strange things.
Even if you grew up in church, you still may not know why we do all the things we do or what they’re supposed to mean. And it’s too embarrassing to ask anyone, since we all pretend as if we know. Take, for example, something as common as prayer. What’s up with prayer, anyway? What is it we’re actually doing when we pray, and what is it supposed to do for the world and for us?
As a child, I learned that prayer was mostly about asking for things I needed. Every night, I would kneel beside my bed with my mom or dad and say, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” And then there was this addendum: “Bless mommy and daddy and David and Beth and Doodle (our dachshund) and please help me not to have any bad dreams. Amen.”
That basic idea of prayer as asking for things did not change so much when I grew up because that’s how all the other adults around me prayed. My grandmother, for example, used to pray for parking spaces. She would pull her big turquoise Cadillac Eldorado convertible into the mall parking lot and begin to circle, looking for a spot close to the door. And all the while she would pray, out loud: “Now Lord, I need a parking spot.” And she believed, with all her heart, that God would provide. I don’t know exactly what God’s track record was with my grandmother’s parking spots, but she prayed that way until the day she died.
So was my grandmother wrong to ask for such a thing? In this world of incredible needs, is it selfish to pray for our own needs?
The Epistle of First Timothy offers us some insight into prayer’s purpose and how it is we ought to pray. This letter, although written in Paul’s name, was probably not written by Paul. Scholars believe it was actually written after Paul’s death, some time near the end of the first century. And it was a letter to a group of discouraged people whose faith was being severely challenged.
You see, the early Christians all firmly believed that Christ would return in glory before all the original apostles died. But by the time of this letter, all of the apostles were dead and Christ had not returned. In addition to that crisis of faith, these early Christians were also being persecuted by the Roman government and by the synagogue authorities, which had begun to expel the Jewish followers of Jesus from the synagogues. So there they were, feeling abandoned by God, cut off from their community, and actively persecuted by the government.
Now I have to believe that those folks prayed for a change in their circumstances. I certainly would have. They no doubt pleaded for the return of Christ. They no doubt asked for protection from the authorities, both religious and secular. In other words, they prayed for their own needs.
And they were not wrong to pray those kinds of prayers. We are not wrong to pray those kinds of prayers – for ourselves and those whom we love. In fact, the Bible exhorts us to take all of our cares to the One who cares for us. The problem is that these kinds of requests tend to form the bulk of our prayers. And that focus on our own needs can turn us inward in a way that is actually prohibitive to spiritual growth.
So, the writer of I Timothy, completely aware of the overwhelming nature of that community’s needs, also encourages another kind of prayer practice. It’s an outward-focused prayer, broader than just the request for our daily bread. He writes: “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, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Didn’t this writer understand what was going on in their community? Didn’t he know the urgency of their own needs? Of course he did. But the writer also understood prayer as spiritual practice. And the practice of prayer is meant to move us beyond our narrowness and self-absorption and narcissism – those very things that make up our society’s prevailing narrative. The practice of prayer is about aligning yourself with something bigger than yourself. It’s about the will of God for the whole world. And that will, according to Scripture, is shalom, meaning not just peace but wholeness, completeness, and restoration.
So, even in the midst of their significant personal needs, the instruction to those early Christians was to pray, first of all, for everyone; pray for all who rule over us, because those who rule over us have control over a great many people’s lives. And yes, even pray for those who persecute us, because, according to this letter, it is the will of God for everyone to be saved.
To pray that way is rightly called a spiritual discipline because it’s work. It can feel counterintuitive in the beginning. But that practice builds spiritual character in us. Like physical exercise, it builds muscle. A life of prayer aligned with the will of God for the whole creation is meant to be transformative; to change us from the inside, out.
And even more than that, prayer provides an avenue for something I desperately need in this cynical and often frightening world. In prayer, we give words to the hope that lives in us and yet that we are so often afraid to express. Prayer gives us permission to be like children and to believe that something good is coming. Prayer makes a space in us for that holy foolishness of actually believing that God’s reign will come on earth just as it is in heaven. And actually saying that out loud is like a valve by which we release that hope back into the world where it is so desperately needed. And hope, let loose, can work wonders.
So, let’s try it. We’re going to take four minutes and be silent. If there is a siren or a baby’s cry or a cough, just let it roll over you. And it’s fine to pray for yourself and those you love. Sometimes those needs are so pressing that we have to give them attention before we can turn our attention elsewhere. But then I ask you to turn your attention elsewhere; to think about some place in the world or situation that seems hopeless and really needs God’s help. And I want you to focus your energy and thoughts and desires on that place or situation or sadness. You don’t have to know what to ask for. You just have to hold it in the light – and allow hope to rise in you. And at the end of those four minutes, we will gather up all of our prayers and hopes by saying the Lord’s Prayer together.
So let us pray…