September 22, 2013
Sunday, September 22
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
O God, you call us to embrace both you and the children of this world with unconditional love. Give us grace to discern what your love demands of us that, being faithful in things both great and fall, we may serve you with an undivided heart.
1 Timothy 2:1-7
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, 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 allóthis 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.
All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 with Psalm 79:1-9 or
Amos 8:4-7 with Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
1. What are the core truths of your faith, the "non-negotiables"?
2. How do you reconcile separation of church and state with our sense of being "a Christian nation"?
3. Who do you believe is "really" in charge of things?
4. Why, and how, should we pray for our leaders?
5. When have you seen someone persecuted for their beliefs?
Reflection by Kate Huey
If this letter to Timothy was written in Paul's name late in the first century, a generation or two of early Christians had passed from the scene. Jesus had not returned as expected before the apostles themselves died, and persecutions and trials and resistance, including expulsion from the synagogues, had been part of the Christian experience for many years. Even when the emperors weren't actively persecuting and executing Christians as Nero and others did, they were nevertheless pagans, and the Roman Empire itself was thoroughly pagan. It was clear, too, just who was in charge of earthly affairs, with troops, money, and power of every kind in the hands of those pagans.
This is an opportune moment for the author of the letter to remind young Timothy, who was working hard to strengthen the church in Ephesus, about just who was really in charge of everything. In such an age, not unlike our own, earthly rulers might have been awed by their own power and might, and their subjects might have cowered, too, and wondered where to place their trust. "Paul" writes to his beloved colleague, Timothy, clarifying things: there is only one God, not a bunch of competing ones, and there is such a thing as truth, and you can count on it because we have received it from the One true mediator, Jesus Christ.
A blessing on our leaders
At first reading, this passage (like so many others) may seem to mean something different than was intended by its author. Many see in its beginning a kind of blessing on our governmental leaders. While we might pray for our leaders because they carry great responsibilities and stand in need always of God's wisdom and guidance, this passage seems to be referring more to the need of those early, besieged Christians for some breathing space, some peace and quiet in which to go about their business. As Gary E. Peluso-Verdend puts it, "The author does call Christians to pray for rulers for a specific reason that has nothing to do with divine support of the empire. The author commends the practice of praying for rulers in order that Christians can go about God's work in peace." The author doesn't say that the believers should blindly obey the rulers: "Being prayerful for political leaders is one thing," Carl R. Holladay writes; "being blindly submissive is quite another." This is hardly a sellout to the powers that be, in fact, such a peace facilitates the conversion of the surrounding culture, for the author, writes Robert W. Wall, intends that "the congregation should pray for the conversion of their pagan leaders as the means of social reformÖ.The public prayers of the Christian community hardly reflect a program of social domesticationÖbut a Christian mission that boldly evangelizes the surrounding pagan culture from top to bottom." It's perhaps another way of being leaven, no matter how small and seemingly powerless you may be.
Not just the rulers deserve our prayers, the author says, but everyone does. And that's not all: God desires that everyone will be saved. No one is worthless or beyond God's thoughts. It isn't my God against yours, but our one God who loves everyone. The Stillspeaking ministry of the United Church of Christ could use this passage as one of its foundational texts, because religious wars throughout the centuries and in our own time and even within our churches have struggled over the question of who is included in the plans and hopes of God. Paul himself had to make the case over and over that his mission to the Gentiles was legitimate and ordained by God, in spite of opposition and condemnation by those who sincerely felt they were simply being faithful.
Not everything is the truth
The hope of God that all will be saved is paired with the hope that all will "come to the knowledge of the truth." Perhaps there is where we get into trouble as religious people, and it may be at the root of the resistance of so many folks today who say they are "spiritual, but not religious." If "religion" refers to what binds us together, isn't it "the truth" that does that binding? Indeed, Beverly R. Gaventa has written insightfully about the tension between the "narrowness that has sometimes plagued theological debates" and the need for "an important warning," provided by this text: "Not every assertion that claims to be the gospel does so rightly."
How, then, are we to make our way and to live faithfully in a country where we are, for the most part, free from the persecution suffered by these early Christians, in fact, where the "powers that be" actually call themselves Christian? The letter provides important and helpful instructions: remember that there is one God ("God is God, and you're not") and that God loves every single person and doesn't want to lose a single one (last week's reading about lost coins and sheep is helpful here), and, in every case, pray always. Always, always pray. Eugene Peterson's translation begins with the words, "The first thing I want you to do is pray" (The Message). If we pray in all things and in all times, perhaps it won't be so hard to get along with one another, and with our rulers and kings, as we make our way toward the truth.
A preaching version (with book titles) of this commentary can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/september-22-2013.html.
For further reflection
Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
"Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays."
Satchel Paige, 20th century
"Don't pray when it rains if you don't pray when the sun shines."
Frederick Douglass, 19th century
"I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs."
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
"It is not well for a man to pray cream and live skim milk."
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening."
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