Tuesday, September 27, 2016

School of Prayer

I got behind on posting - so I'm catching up with several sermons today!

1 Timothy 2:1-7
September 11, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our reading for today comes from the first letter to Timothy, a part of one of the letters called “The Pastoral Epistles.” We in the modern church have a kind of love/hate relationship with these letters, once attributed to the Apostle Paul but now believed to have come much later and by another author. We love them because they establish order and organization to the church – something Presbyterians everywhere adore! We do not like some of the blunting of Paul’s radical gospel, nor some of the injunctions which attempt to impose a hierarchical order on Christian families. Taken in context, the effort to impose hierarchy is natural. It was a reflection of the first century world in which these documents were written. So it is almost paradoxical that our text today begins with an urging of prayer; every kind of prayer, for those who are in high positions. But then we hear the rest of the scripture, and the purpose for this prayer. Let’s listen for God’s word to us today in 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.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

In the early Christian world, countries were governed by emperors, Empires ruled by brute force and power– violent power. The crucifixion of Jesus was but one example of the violence of empire. Those in power had the highest status, and were worthy of highest honor. As you worked your way up the ladder, your power and status increased.

Conversely, farther down the ladder, your power and status decreased – common everyday men, then women, then slaves, then children. You’ll enjoy knowing that on Thursday at the men’s prayer breakfast, I shared a few of the verses that come after this passage with the guys:

“I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

You’ve never seen a bunch of guys so excited about some Bible verses!

But that was the domestic order of the day. In the household, order was to be observed like military ranking, or seniority. The husband ruled the household; the mother was second in command, then the sons, then the daughters.

Christians may have done this to demonstrate to the Romans that they were believers in order and obedience. But they were not willing to swear allegiance to the Roman Empire. Their first and only loyalty was to Jesus Christ. The message of the gospel then, opposing empire, opposing violence, challenging hierarchy and standing firm against persecution, was a defiant shout – a pledge of allegiance to God alone.

For the Romans from about the year 64 on, the Christians’ loyalty to Christ was an expression of disloyalty to the empire. To follow Christ was to deny the power of the Emperor. The Christians of that time were not afraid to die for their faith, and because they were not afraid, the Roman Empire was sometimes baffled by how to threaten them! First century Christians would have been flummoxed by this recent outrage over a football player who would not stand for the national anthem – in their world view, he’d have been doing the right thing!

So, imagine that you are a Christian in the year 65 AD, and Nero has just perpetrated a full scale persecution of Christians, and is literally feeding your fellow Christians to the lions. Tell me how inclined you would be to pray for him! Tell me how anyone could offer up prayers for a murderer who had terrorized your people and killed them by the hundreds.

Fifteen years ago today, we held our breath in horror as we watched, over and over again, news video of the twin towers falling, the Pentagon on fire, the wreckage of aircraft, the dust-covered crowds of people walking like zombies away from lower Manhattan. As the news reports of terrorist attacks showed us footage every hour, we felt a whole spectrum of emotions – fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and anger. 

Our first thoughts were for our families and friends, especially if any of them were in New York City, or at the Pentagon. Next, our concerns turned to others we didn’t know – the victims and their families, the first responders, the military, all the communities affected by this. Many of us prayed for our nation’s leaders. But I would bet that few of us prayed for the leaders of other countries. And I’d bet that fewer of us prayed for the families of the terrorists. And it was pretty darn hard to pray for peace. It’s hard for me to guess how non-religious people reacted. But somehow people knew that houses of prayer were a place to go. That Saturday and Sunday, September 15 and 16, 2001, the nation’s synagogues and churches saw a huge spike in attendance. Some churches reported a 25% increase in the number of worshipers.

The Barna research group reported the spike was short-lived, however. Robert Barna said, of the numbers, that "churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate or intense manner." In a brief burst of faith, people turned to churches and synagogues for meaning and comfort, for help with fear and grief.

By 2002, the statistics on religious belief and worship attendance were back down to previous levels. Now, fifteen years on, the numbers are lower still. As often happens, the intense, spontaneous religious reaction to tragedy does not last – in fact is not sustainable for most people. Reflecting on this, a rabbi in New Jersey wrote:

“Transformative religion is rarely born in spontaneous reactions to events such as Sept. 11, because those kind of cataclysmic happenings are too infrequent and isolated to build permanent and long-lasting faith. The spiritual fires that they ignite are intense, but not durable, even among the already religious.”

He also wrote, “Lives are only transformed spiritually and permanently when religious experiences accumulate in regular life passages, such as birth, adolescence, marriage and old age, and when religion is given the chance to repeat itself in fixed rituals and prescribed prayers.”[1]

Spiritual transformation, this coming to the knowledge of God’s truth, takes time and attention. God desires everyone to know this truth, through Jesus Christ. But this can’t be done in intermittent doses, can’t be accomplished in a few Christmas Eve candlelight services and an Easter Sunday or two – not for children or for adults. That’s why we believe in spiritual formation and Christian education. That’s why we have Rally Day every year, and Sunday school, and confirmation and Bible study and prayer breakfast. That’s why we have Lenten Wednesday soup and study. These are not just to convey information – they are meant to be opportunities for transformation, for spiritual formation. Because it isn’t easy to learn how to pray. Oh, sure, it’s easy to pray for stuff you want, whether it is rain or a new puppy. It’s easy to memorize some prayers, and repeat them by rote. But prayer as a lifelong commitment, as a way of breathing, particularly praying for peace, praying for those we may not like – that is another matter altogether. That takes a long slow transforming experience, the education not just of instruction or Bible reading, but of the community as it gathers and prays together.

Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Building communities that practice understanding, loving-kindness and compassion may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of our world.”

One of the central practices for building that kind of community is the practice of the whole range of prayer for every person in the world.

What if we begged God every day for someone to know peace – someone we don’t like, someone we might find objectionable?

What if we actually stepped up in prayer for peace for our enemies?

What if we gave thanks to God for every living creature on this earth – even terrorists, or racists, or whichever political candidate we can’t stand?

On this day, as we remember the grim events of fifteen years ago, let us set aside all thought of revenge and turn our thoughts toward reconciliation.

On this day, as we begin anew our programs of spiritual formation and Christian Education, let us commit ourselves to be a school of prayer, where we build a community whose prayers are more than words – whose prayers are acts of understanding, lovingkindness and compassion.

On this day, as we come once again to the table of the Prince of Peace, let our joyful prayers of thanksgiving arise to the one who has called us, who mediates for us, who loves us beyond all telling, who desires for all to come to him, who shapes us as a people of prayer.

“Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves. Let us be aware of the source of being, common to us all and to all living things. Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion, let us fill our hearts with our own compassion — towards ourselves and towards all living beings. Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be the cause of suffering to each other. With humility, with awareness of the existence of life, and of the suffering that is going on around us, let us practice the establishment of peace in our hearts and on the earth.” (Thich Nhat Hanh.)


[1] Gerald L. Zelizer, Quick dose of 9-11 religion soothes, doesn't change, USA Today, January 7, 2002. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/comment/2002/01/08/ncguest2.htm

No comments:

Post a Comment