Sunday, September 18
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 Matthews
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, 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, then, for the author of the letter to remind young Timothy, who has been working hard to strengthen the new church in Ephesus, that it's really God who is at work in all things, which means that neither Timothy nor the emperor himself is actually in charge or in control of what happens. 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 need for breathing space
At first reading, this passage (like so many others) may seem to mean something different from what 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 explains, "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."
Indeed, 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."
Being leaven in any age
Perhaps leading a prayerful life is a way of being leaven in any age, no matter how small and seemingly powerless you may be in the midst of a large and intimidating culture. We imagine, then, the tiny little Christian churches long ago as leaven in the oppressive culture of imperialism and brute power that surrounded them. Many of our best traditions and examples from that time tell the story of the power of leaven to change everything. How does that speak to us today, especially when the church feels so much smaller, so much more powerless in the face of larger forces at work in our own time? How would you name those larger forces, and are we always aware of them as oppressive, or would we more accurately call them seductive, as in materialism, militarism, and privilege of any kind?
Not just the rulers deserve our prayers, the author says, but everyone does. And that's not all, just in case you weren't feeling challenged enough already: God desires that every single person will be saved. No one is worthless, no one is beyond God's thoughts or the reach of God's mercy. It isn't my God against your God, but our one God who loves everyone. The Extravagant Hospitality witness 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 been waged over the question of who is included in the plans and hopes and heart 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 felt they were simply being faithful.
What is 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," that is, the truth of the gospel. Perhaps this is where we get into trouble as religious people, and it may be at the root of the resistance of so many people 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." And yet that's often the sticking point, because we find it so difficult to discern what it is that holds us together, the "non-negotiables," if you will.
The challenge in the church today is to re-examine what we have been taught, wrestle with it, and prayerfully discern the heart of the gospel message that is true in every age and every setting. I've found Brian McLaren's excellent book, A New Kind of Christianity, as well as Marcus Borg's fine book, The Heart of Christianity, to be particularly helpful in a long, careful process of reflection on the core (the "heart") of Christian belief and practice. These two scholars come from very different starting points, which makes them all the more valuable, for they illustrate how we can find that common ground that will support a richly diverse Christian community.
How will we find the way?
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. Eugene Peterson's translation in The Message begins beautifully with the simple words, "The first thing I want you to do is pray."
Pray first, last, and at all times, and pray not just for yourself and your own, but for all of God's children. 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 of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in July from serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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For further reflection
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 20th century
"Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I'd look up into the sky--up--up--up--into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer."
Corrie ten Boom, 20th century
"Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?"
Thérèse de Lisieux, 19th century
"For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy."
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 20th century
"You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 19th century
"Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education."
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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