“Pray for Everyone. Yes, Everyone.”
A Sermon on 1 Timothy 2:1-7
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
September 22, 2019 – 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
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 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.
If we follow the advice given in 1 Timothy, then the mark of a Christian life is to pray – to pray a lot, and to pray for everyone. We know that prayer is a big part of the walk of faith. It’s a comfort and a discipline. And I’ve noticed that the most spiritually grounded people I encounter, the ones whose faith you can see shine out of them, are often people who pray as much as possible. But prayer is also hard, y’all. It’s easy to forget. It’s difficult to know if we’re doing it “right,” or if there is a right way to do it at all. Most people I talk to are convinced they don’t do it often enough or well enough. Truth be told, I’m one of those people, most days. And so I read our passage today with some relief, because it gives me a challenge that I can work on. This letter to Timothy isn’t just a sweet reminder to pray often; these words of Scripture are an instruction to upend the way we live and transform the way we treat each other…starting with our own prayer lives.
But to get there, we need to do a little history.
1 Timothy is not a book that you’ll hear many sermons on. It’s a tiny little book in the New Testament, written somewhere between 50-150ish A.D. We call 1 Timothy one of the “pastoral epistles,” because it is seemingly instructions from the apostle Paul to his disciple Timothy about how to be a faithful and effective pastor. In all fairness, that authorship is probably just honorary – this letter was written after Paul’s death, so it’s likely attributed to him by a friend or student who wanted to continue his good work, or someone like Timothy who had Paul as a mentor and wanted to record the good advice they got from him. Either way, this letter comes late in the early church. It’s written probably several generations after the crucifixion, to a church that’s already well established.
And so the pastoral advice starts like this: in all things, pray. Pray in many ways, including supplications, intercessions, and thanksgivings. Pray for everyone, including for kings and all who are in high positions. And we pray so that we might “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” and proclaim with our lives that God is the only God and Savior. Simple enough, right?
You already know faith is never quite that simple.
First, let’s talk about how this text frames prayer around the proclamation that there is one God. That’s pretty basic to us, but 1 Timothy was not written to an American audience; it was written to first or second century Middle Eastern people living in the Roman Empire. Far different from our context, the Roman Empire had the power as a government to declare what was and was not divine. And often, after an emperor’s death, the Rome could proclaim that deceased emperor to be a god. Praying to the past Caesars was immensely popular at the time. There were even holidays when Roman citizens were expected to spend the day in prayer to a past leader or a member of the Roman pantheon. And while it’s alien to us, this theology was comforting to people at the time – with all these gods to take care of them, surely one would come to your aide in time of need.
To place one’s trust in the Christian God alone was pretty radical. To believe that One God cared about everyone’s needs, that One God was powerful enough to save everyone, and that One God only deserved our faith was a pretty bonkers idea in the Roman Empire. We don’t have Roman gods, but I wonder, when we think about it, what people and things we place our trust in rather than just God. How might prayer remind us who our only Savior really is?
It’s also interesting, then, that this letter to Timothy doesn’t say to pray to kings and leaders, it says to pray for them. The kings and leaders aren’t divine, but people who need prayer just like us. You know that is good and right to pray for our leaders – we do so in church most weeks. About once a month or so, I take my turn praying at the Independence City Council meetings, praying for our mayor and council and city staff, as well as our citizens. Praying for those with the burden of leadership is good. But let’s remember the history of our text. The church to whom this letter was written was a minority, fringe religious movement being persecuted by their leaders because they didn’t conform to the religious laws of their day. This wasn’t like the Anglican church who prays weekly for Queen Elizabeth, who everyone can’t help but love as their old fashioned but still very dignified national grandma. Kings and people in high positions in Timothy’s time were out to kill the early church, and here’s an instruction to pray for them anyway. “This is no saccharine patriotism, blindly calling polite Christians to support the status quo. This is the most radical kind of subversion, the kind that transforms human hearts, beginning with our own.”[i] To pray for the people who hurt us, changes us.
My friends, these are not shallow instructions about prayer. This is a way to change us from the inside out. And these words of 1 Timothy that ask us to pray not just for everyone but for everyone beg the question: for whom are we unwilling to pray?
Who do you think doesn’t deserve your prayers? Who stands in the way of your faith flourishing, or who acts in ways that you find completely immoral, or who do you think even prayer can’t help? Let me put it this way: who do you not love enough to pray for? Who is undeserving? It’s helpful to remember when we ask ourselves these questions that Christian writer Ann Lamott once wrote “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
The instruction is clear: no matter what, we pray for everyone. And something happens to us when we pray for all people. Rather than our prayers changing the things about them that we don’t like, prayer realigns our hearts to love them like God does. We can still disagree, we can still stand up for justice, and we can still keep a healthy distance from people who abuse us. But in all things, we pray.
There’s a little story that goes like this: “Once a man was asked, 'What did you gain by praying?' The man replied, 'Nothing. But let me tell you what I lost: anger, ego, greed, sadness, insecurity, and fear.' Sometimes, the answer to our prayers is not in gaining but losing; which ultimately is the gain.” Beloved, we are to pray for all people; and, in praying, we’re given the opportunity to let go of any harmful power they may have over us. In praying for everyone, we remind ourselves that we place our faith in God alone, not in our own attitudes or powers.
It is not easy to pray for people who we feel are against us. But it’s necessary. It’s part of being a follower of God.
And so I’ve included in your bulletin this morning an extra prayer list for you. On it is a list of people you might not want to pray for, and so I invite you to pray with me for them. The list includes:
A national politician with whom you disagree.
A local politician with whom you disagree.
A political party with whom you disagree.
A celebrity you don’t like.
A country you wouldn’t visit even if someone paid you.
A group of people you don’t like.
A family member who has hurt you.
An ex. (ex-spouse, ex-friend, ex-in-law, ex-whatever).
A Trinity church member who drives you nuts.
The person you’ve never been able to forgive.
There is room on this list to jot down notes, although I’d caution you against writing down names unless you live alone. But I do want you to think about who these people are for you, and pray for them genuinely. Don’t try to give yourself an out by praying that they’ll see the error of their ways or apologize to you or get struck by lightening. Pray for them like you’d pray for yourself, or a friend. And, if you read this list and say “well I get along with everybody, this list doesn’t apply to me,” I’d encourage you to spend some reflecting and praying for yourself, and then try again. I’d invite us all to pray through this list every day this week, difficult as it may be.
Fourth century church father John Chrysostom said “no one can feel hatred for whom one prays.” We are supposed to pray for everyone – yes, everyone – because it changes who we are and it proclaims who God is. And if we make a practice of truly selfless, authentic prayer, then we will begin to see each person for who they are: a child of the one God, loved by one Savior – no matter how sinful we may think they are. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
[i] Brian Erickson, “RE:frame Prayer,” A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, Volume 2, p. 229.