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Even Those in Authority

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 19, 2010.                                  

Psalm 79:5-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7

In addition to my sermons, you’ve been listening for almost 15 years to me offering Sunday morning pastoral prayers. If you’ve been involved in this church all that time, or even for just some of it, you’ve probably gotten rather used to them. I admit it: they pretty much have the same cadence and rhythm week in and week out.

And even though I try to voice prayers that are on topic – that is, speak to the subject matter on which I will be preaching – there is still a sameness about them. I know that, and hope they are not so much alike that when it comes time for us to have what we call “The Morning Prayer,” you don’t zone out or fall to sleep.

Having said that, my guess is that this morning’s prayer got your attention. It was a bit different, wasn’t it? We definitely did something today we’ve never done before, not because I’m trying to be controversial – or certainly because this is a political season – but because I’m attempting to be biblical. And besides, when are we not in a political season anymore?

The Apostle Paul, in writing to his young colleague Timothy, encourages him to pray for everybody, including those in authority. “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions…” says the apostle. That is what we did earlier in the pastoral prayer. We asked God to bless those who, in our democratic way of doing things, lead our country, as well as those who govern the other nations of our world, whether we consider those leaders and nations to be friendly to us or not.

Paul is in good company telling Timothy to do this. Jesus said we are to pray for our enemies. And while we should not consider those with whom we simply disagree politically as our enemies, we must admit that when we ask God’s guidance and blessings on certain people, we often do so grudgingly at best. It is human nature. Perhaps we need to consider that prayer itself, not to mention life in Christ, often runs counter to our nature.

Two schoolboys are on the playground and they get into… well, they get into whatever it is that boys get into. Before you know it, fisticuffs break out, and in the blink of an eye one’s got a bit of a bloody nose and the other comes up with a fat lip. One of the bystanders, probably a girl, runs in to the schoolhouse to tell the teacher what is going on. The teacher hustles outside to break it up, telling herself it’s just part of the duties of being a teacher of children.

She tries to get to the bottom of it, and finds that this whole thing erupted over nothing, as most skirmishes like this do. When she realizes that no real harm has been done, she tells the boys to shake hands and be friends. Let bygones be bygones. The two pugilists do what the teacher tells them to do, but are they happy about it? Oh no. There’s still a certain amount of vengeance in their hearts, and silently they tell themselves they’ll figure out a way to get even.

Is that the way you felt this morning during the pastoral prayer? When I prayed for our national leaders, if you are a Republican did you cringe when I mentioned the names of Democrats, especially Barak Obama and Nancy Pelosi? If you are a Democrat, did it bother you that I included John Boehner and Mitch McConnell in our litany of leaders? And if you consider yourself a true American patriot, did it bother you that Kim Jong-il of North Korea and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran were part of our intercession?

If so, is a begrudging prayer really a prayer at all, or is it merely fulfilling what we consider the biblical mandate to be? Are the words we offer in our prayers more important than the spirit in which we say them? Is simply going through the motions of doing what we think the Bible tells us to do enough for us to fulfill our obligations as followers of Jesus?

I will remind you that after Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he turned to the lawyer who had been questioning him and asked which of the three men had truly been a help to the one who had been accosted by thieves and left on the side of the road. Do you remember how the lawyer responded? He could not bring himself to utter the name Samaritan, so he answered by saying, “The one who showed mercy.”

The lawyer was technically correct in his answer. It was the Samaritan, and only the Samaritan, who had been kind to the poor traveler. But was the lawyer’s heart changed by Jesus’ story? Apparently not. He still couldn’t overcome the bitter, in-born hatred he felt for this one he considered his enemy. He couldn’t even say the word Samaritan.

Is your heart changed by your prayers, and do you offer prayers on behalf of those in authority with whom you do not agree? I’m not asking if your political views are changed by your prayers. I know better than that. And besides, that’s definitely beyond the scope of my pastoral authority and influence. I’m asking, is your heart changed by what you pray for and who you pray for?

Boy, I done quite preaching and have gone to meddling, haven’t I? But, since it’s too late for me to turn back, I might as well go on and see if I can get myself in real trouble.

So far, I’ve been able to say and do these things because I believe I have the scriptures solidly behind me. If you take issue with me on what I’ve said to this point, I can just point my bony finger at the Bible and end all debate. There it is, right there. Argue with me and you’re arguing with God’s word. Not that I would ever take that position, mind you.

But do you recall those times, especially when Paul was writing to the church at Corinth, he admitted that what he was about to tell them did not come directly from the Lord but was his own opinion? That’s what I’m about to do. I’m going to offer you what I think, not so much what I believe the Bible to say… at least directly. In other words, I can’t lean fully on the Bible on this one. I’m going to have to express my views and admit they are mine. What I’ve said so far, you can’t very well argue with. What I’m about to say… well, let’s just say there could be room for debate.

Here goes… are you ready? I believe we not only should pray for these leaders, even those with whom we may strongly disagree, we should pray for them cheerfully and gratefully. I didn’t say we have to vote for them or invite them to dinner. But we should pray for them with grateful hearts.

I believe there should be no room for begrudgingly praying for our leaders even when we don’t feel like it. Instead, we should pray for them gladly. After all, what would our world be like if we all believed the same way? Better yet, are these people not also God’s children, created in God’s image, just like you and me? If that is so, are they not worthy of our grateful prayers?

In 1970, the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich wrote a letter to Pravda, the state-run newspaper of the Soviet Union. He expressed his support for providing artistic freedom and human rights to all citizens of the communist empire. For his efforts, Rostropovich and his wife were stripped of their Soviet citizenship.

Years later, John Buchanan, the editor of The Christian Century, saw Rostropovich play a Dvorak concerto in Chicago. He says that as the last note faded, the audience sat mesmerized, and then they watched as Rostropovich stood up and kissed his cello. The audience erupted in applause and laughter. Then he hugged and kissed the surprised conductor. Then he hugged and kissed the entire cello section before moving on to the violins. By the time he was through, he had hugged and kissed just about everybody in the orchestra.1

Why? He was grateful for the ability to ply his craft in an atmosphere of total political and artistic freedom.

What if we prayed like that, you and I? What if we offered, as Paul said, our “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” in heartfelt gratitude for the contributions each of our world’s leaders brings to the table? Think of how you pray and who you pray for. Think about who you pray to, the One who has created us all. Does your prayer life reflect the spirit of Christ?

What would it do for you if you prayed for others in a spirit of gratitude and love… again, and especially, for those with whom you disagree?

I missed a real good opportunity Monday to put into practice what I’m talking about right now. As usual, I was a day late and a dollar short. I was in my hometown of Paragould participating in a charity golf tournament. I do that a couple times a year, you know. We were having lunch before the afternoon round when a fellow from Paragould came over and sat beside me. I had just met him a few minutes before, and he wanted to talk to me so we could get to know each other. I was more than happy to oblige.

I don’t know how it happened, but I can tell you in all honesty that I didn’t start it. I try never to instigate political discussions, especially with people I don’t know. And while I do have political opinions, I’m not so astute in that area that I would even come close to being considered an authority on the subject. If I were to go around talking with a lot of people about such things, I’d eventually have my head handed to me on a platter by someone who is more politically knowledgeable than I am. So, generally, I keep my mouth shut.

This fellow started saying some negative things about how our country is doing, and why we’re having such a difficult time, and he named some of our political leaders in the process and expressed his opinion that he thought our nation was being led down the path of destruction. And then he said what I consider to be the unfair, and not to mention dreaded, words, “You do agree with me, don’t you?”

Okay, let’s freeze the frame right there. What should I have done or said in response? What would you have said? Well, after a couple of days to think it over – which of course means it’s too late – I have concluded this is what I should have done… First, I should have inquired as to where or whether he goes to church. His response would have told me a lot right there, in the sense that I would have discovered if he would be the sort who at least is inclined to be a person of prayer. Then, I should have asked if he had ever considered praying for those in authority who he considers to be doing such a poor job of things.

You know what that would have done, don’t you? Not only would it have disarmed him a bit, perhaps, but it would have put the discussion on a whole different level. And who knows, it might have even changed his heart, and mine as well.

Prayer has a way of doing that, you know. But in order to let prayer change us in this manner, we have to be willing to make the effort. A lot of times we believe certain ways and do certain things because it’s simply easier. That’s the way we’re wired, and we’re not planning on changing our point of view. Okay. But when were we ever promised that life in Christ was supposed to be easy? And where did we get the idea that life is always supposed to stay the same as it has always been?

Paul may have simply been giving what he considered to be fairly common advice to his young friend Timothy. “Oh, Timothy, by the way, when you pray, offer your supplications, your prayers, your intercessions, your thanksgivings on behalf of kings and other people in positions of authority.” But I don’t think so. I don’t believe it was a casual remark at all. No, there was far, far more to his statement than just that. Paul’s advice cuts against the very grain of his own life experience.

You see, the ones Paul wants Timothy to pray for are the very ones responsible for putting him in prison. They are the ones who are persecuting Jesus’ followers. They are the ones who would be considered Paul’s enemies. Paul wants Timothy to pray for the bad guys.

Let me tell you, Paul’s and Timothy’s situation makes our political climate look like child’s play. Yet, he encourages Timothy to pray for these leaders “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” But you don’t do that by hiding in the crevices of society and keeping a low profile. Nor do you do it by arguing politics with anybody who will listen. You do it by means of earnest, joyous, grateful prayer.

I don’t know how you intend to vote this fall, and it doesn’t matter, certainly in regard to our relationship. But I do believe that the ballot box is as worthy a place of prayer as is our church. So do this, if you will. Commit yourself to the politics of Jesus who called us to a ministry of reconciliation. And if you will do that, understand that it begins with prayer… even for those in authority.

Lord, give us the kind of inward spirit that we are willing to do that which cuts against our nature, especially if we consider it to be your will. Help us to pray with grateful hearts for those who are in authority. And in so doing, may we all be changed more in your image. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Notes

    1William P. “Matt” Matthews, Feasting On the Word: Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), p. 89, quoting John Buchanan, “Bravo!”, The Christian Century, July 10, 2007.