Pray for the Polis

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on 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.”

Trigger warning: Today’s sermon is going to be all about prayer and politics.

Now, before you go diving for cover, or before you tune me out completely, or before you start thinking “Harumph! Politics has no place in the pulpit!” – let me assure you, I agree with you. I think church is absolutely the wrong place for campaigning, and I have no intention of campaigning today. Especially in this campaign, getting up here and telling you all what you ought to do is just about the last thing I have in mind. Preaching on politics is no desire of mine.

But today I have to do it. Because today our Scriptures are all about politics, and I am duty-bound to preach the Scriptures. So, today, politics it is.

And I mean here “politics” in the broadest sense of the word: not just elections and candidates and parties and platforms; but “politics” in the sense of that whole constellation of processes and procedures by which we manage to live together, “politics” in the sense of the way to build up the polis, the human community, the common good. And that, I think, has a lot to do with prayer.

That is what this Epistle reading is about. The First Epistle to Timothy is presented as Paul’s instructions to Timothy, a young bishop, about how to organize and lead his church. One of the things the Epistle instructs is that bishops, first and foremost, should see that the faithful offer supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for everyone, for all the people, for the whole community – not just for the body of the faithful themselves, but for anybody who has any kind of stake in community life and the common good. And second, bishops should make sure that the faithful pray especially for kings and rulers and those in positions of authority – presumably because they have greater responsibilities and therefore they need more spiritual help to get by. Organizing that kind of praying-for-the-people is, according to the Epistle, one of the most important functions of church leadership.

But if you stop to think about it, asking the young Church to pray for society and for social authorities was asking for an awful lot. In the very early days of the Church, Christians and their non-Christian neighbors didn’t always get along very well. In those days Christians were a small minority in a large, pluralistic society; and Christians didn’t always fit in very well with social expectations.

The Book of Acts records that Paul often faced opposition from pagan society when he came into a city and began to preach the gospel. Members of the Roman Hellenistic cultural scene were often uncomfortable with Paul’s message that in Christ there was no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female – to many people that teaching seemed to upset proper social categories and to break down necessary social boundaries.

In one passage in Acts, Paul is accused of trying to “turn the whole world upside down”; in another passage, a riot breaks out in Ephesus when Paul’s teaching on not worshiping idols is taken as being bad for business for silversmiths who make precious images of the moon-goddess Artemis.

And of course Christians could never forget that Jesus died by crucifixion – which was specifically a state form of torture and execution reserved for those who were deemed to be a threat to Roman political authority.

In many ways, on many fronts, it must have seemed that Christians and society had little good to do for each other in Timothy’s time. In many ways, on many fronts, it must have felt like praying for society and for the political authorities in society was a real stretch for the young Christian Church.

But that is precisely what the Epistle calls on the Church to do: whether the culture is friendly or hostile, whether the government is good or bad, Christians are called to pray for society. More than that, Christians are called to pray for society for a very specific reason. Christian prayer for society is not just to reinforce the status quo; Christian prayer for political authority is not just to validate the power of the powers-that-be. Christian prayer for society is specifically “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”

In other words, Christian prayer for society is meant to bring reverence and respect into the midst of our everyday relationships. Christian prayer for society is meant to hold our political systems up to God’s ideals of justice and peace, right relationships active for mutual well-being. Christian prayer for society is meant to open up our political arrangements to God’s aims for compassion and comprehensiveness and community. Christians pray for politics, because politics is how we create a common life – and creating a common life of justice and peace is a way of revealing God’s will that everyone should be saved and should come to a knowledge of the truth.

And if that was true for Timothy and his Church, then it is true for us and for our Church as well. I believe we, too, are called by God to pray for our politics. I believe we are called to pray for politics in the broadest sense, the sense of building up the common good, even if we don’t particularly like politics in the narrow sense, the sense of campaigns and candidates and slogans and sound bites. I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat or Independent; I don’t care if you think American needs to be great again or if you believe we’re better together; I don’t care if you’d rather turn off the TV and hide until this is all over in November – if you are a Christian, if you believe in the mission and message of Jesus, then I think you have a duty to pray for our politics, to pray for the conduct of our common life for the sake of our common good.

And if we take politics in the broadest sense of the word, then I believe we are called to pray in the broadest sense of the word, too: not just in the words we address to God, but in the actions we take with God. We Episcopalians are liturgical pray-ers, we are sacramental believers; and that means we offer our prayers not only in forms of words but in patterns of actions. This Communion service we are sharing right now is a pattern of actions, a pattern that shows us how we can come together, each bringing our own gifts and needs and possibilities, each of us offering everything to God, and together receiving back from God the gift of communion, together receiving back from God food for the journey and nourishment for the spirit and courage and blessing to go out into the world and make communion there. This prayerful pattern of action teaches us something about how we can live together in the peace of the Lord – and we can take that teaching and live it, out in the politics of our common life.

How would that work for you? In what part of your social life could you take the pattern of communion and live it out in a public way, in a way that would contribute to the commonwealth and the common good? Can you think of one specific thing you could do this week to pray in the broadest sense for politics in the broadest sense? And can you do that sort of thing on a regular basis as a continuing part of your spiritual life?

I think that is what it means for us to pray for our politics in this time and place.

May God give us grace today, that we may offer supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for everyone, for kings and candidates and all who are in high positions – and may God empower us, so that we may create a quiet and peaceable public life with all godliness and dignity for everyone. Amen.