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Not much mystery on why we choose this passage today. On Tuesday, we inaugurate the 44th President of the United States, historic under any circumstances but particularly so this year in that Barack Obama is our first African-American president, an eventuality that some thought they would never see and one that has apparently fascinated a watching world. Prayers for those in authority are no difficulty for those who supported President-elect Obama's campaign. For those who ardently favored Sen. McCain, the prayers might be a bit more problematic, but we hope not too - let's see if we can get the partisanship behind us now. In the Hilton Head paper on Friday, an ardent Republican was urging prayers for Mr. Obama asking essentially that he see the many errors of his Democratic ways and be led to govern as a Republican. I am not certain that this was the thrust of our text, but truth be told, you can pray any way you want.
In the New York Times the other day was a collection of suggestions for Mr Obama from youngsters as he takes office. (1) For example, an eight-year-old from San Francisco gave him an outline:
Dear Sir Obama, These are the first 10 things you should do as president:OK. An eleven-year-old from Boston wrote:
Dear President Obama,Indeed. One more. This from a sensitive six-year-old in Chicago:
Dear President Obama,And I would add Amen, Amen, and Amen!
Back to the text - pray for those in authority. To be honest, this is probably easier for you and me to hear, regardless of our politics, than it was for those early Christians. After all, soon-to-be President Obama is a professing Christian and he and his family will soon begin the task of any Christian family moving into a new town - they will have to find a church - we only hope that the search for a new church will get as much attention as the search for the new puppy. But, contrary to Mr. Obama, the leaders referred to in scripture were pagans, and, for the most part, pretty nasty ones at that.
It really is extraordinary to trace how all through its early days, days of bitter persecution, the Church regarded it as an absolute duty to pray for the Emperor and his subordinate kings and governors. "Fear God," said Peter. "Honor the Emperor." (2) Which Emperor? How about Nero, that monster of cruelty who used Christians as human torches to light his garden parties? Tertullian, one of the leaders of the early church, insists that for the Emperor we pray for "long life, secure dominion, a safe home, a faithful senate, a righteous people, and a world at peace." "We pray for our rulers," he wrote, "for the state of the world, for the peace of all things and for the postponement of the end." He writes: "The Christian is the enemy of no man, least of all of the Emperor, for we know that, since he has been appointed by God, it is necessary that we should love him, and reverence him, and honor him, and desire his safety, together with that of the whole Roman Empire. Therefore we sacrifice for the safety of the Emperor." In A.D. 311 the Emperor Galerius actually asked for the prayers of the Christians, and promised them mercy and indulgence if they prayed for the state.
Listen to this prayer for the Emperor in Clement of Rome's First Letter to the Church at Corinth which was written about A.D. 90 when the savagery of Domitian was still fresh in everyone's mind:
You, Lord and Master, have given our rulers and governors the power of sovereignty through your excellent and unspeakable might, that we, knowing the glory and honor which you have given them, may submit ourselves unto them, in nothing resisting your will. Grant to them, therefore, O Lord, health, peace, concord, stability, that they may administer the government which you have given them without failure. For you, O heavenly Master, King of the Ages, give to the sons of men glory and honor and power over all things that are upon the earth. Lord, direct their counsel according to that which is good and well-pleasing in your sight, that, administering the power which you have given them in peace and gentleness with godliness, they may obtain your favor. You, O God, who alone are able to do these things, and things far better than these for us, we praise you through the High Priest and Guardian of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be the glory and the majesty unto you both now and for all generations, and forever and ever. Amen." (3)If Clement can make that prayer in those particular circumstances, it should be LOTS easier for us.
In our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, we find this prayer: O Lord, our governor, your glory shines throughout the world. We commend our nation to your merciful care, that we may live securely in peace and may be guided by your providence. Give all in authority the wisdom and strength to know your will and to do it. Help them remember that they are called to serve the people as lovers of truth and justice; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (4)
What SHOULD we be praying right now? After all, in 2009 there are some very divergent agendas among us. Christians in this nation are certainly not a monolith (and that is certainly true of Presbyterians) - we are conservatives, we are liberals, we are anti-war, pro-war, we are pro-choice, pro-life, etc., etc. A coalition of Christian leaders has sent the president-elect a letter urging him to "make achievement of Israeli-Palestinian peace an immediate priority" during his first year in office. Others are urging him to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and end the war. Still others are asking him to enact healthcare reform, a green revolution, fewer abortions, fewer abortion restrictions -- the list is endless. (5) So saying, I think it is clear that there indeed ARE some things about which all can agree.
For example, in our lesson from Isaiah, we hear God saying, "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats." Then God turns thumbs down on fancy religious processions - "Trample my courts no more." Forget the extra commitment offerings and the fragrant incense, the special services of worship and celebration. "I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity," God says. Perhaps the most radical announcement of all comes when God even rejects prayer: "When you stretch out your hands [in prayer], I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen." Why? "Your hands are full of blood." Your walk should match your talk. God continues, "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."
Bingo. These are more than general instructions - the admonitions about seeking justice mean to care for the powerless members of the society: the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. How about we pray that our leaders have the wisdom and gumption to deal with these justice issues for the weakest among us, and that this be a national priority? Anybody have a problem with that? I hope not - after all, God says I do not want to hear your worship, I am not listening to your prayers, unless you do this.
You might figure this would be a no-brainer, but in the political atmosphere of 2009 and the worst economy of the last half century, it runs into difficulty. Why? Simply because the impoverished underclass has no political clout. It was Mark Hanna, the 19th-century Ohio political boss and US Senator who said, "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can't remember what the second one is." That is why recent years have seen an America with tax breaks for the wealthiest among us and no health insurance for millions of our poor children. And you cannot blame one political party or the other for that, because both are guilty.
So, can we agree to pray that our leaders prioritize and pursue these justice issues? Fine. Just remember, prayer is not a labor-saving device. If we pray that prayer, we are committing ourselves to support our leaders in that pursuit, to encourage them in that direction, and to call them to account when they drift away from the task.
What else? Staying with Isaiah, we remember, "Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD," or in the language of the venerable King James Version in which so many of us were nurtured, "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." God is pleading for a turnaround. In other words, please, please, please, clean up your collective act and get your priorities straight; please do not force me to ignore your prayers and worship. Let's talk.
Honestly, the only way these biblical priorities will become the priorities of our leaders is some good ol' down-home conversation. They are going to have to sit down and talk to one another. Can we pray that they might do that? As we all know, in recent years our nation has been bitterly divided along partisan lines and not a lot of conversation has occurred. About all we have seen is a mud bath and slime spray. Someone asked me not long ago what I thought it would take to bring us together again. My response was that things were at such a low ebb that I was terribly afraid no individual could do it - I was afraid it would take another catastrophic event like September 11th to accomplish it. But recently, I have become more hopeful; I have been encouraged by the Obama team's approach and I hope that the willingness of folks to work across the aisle that has been evident in these recent days will keep on. That our leaders continue to sit down and talk to one another, in my estimation, is an URGENT prayer.
What else? Isaiah does not talk about this one, but certainly we can be praying for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regardless of whether you thought the wars were necessary in the first place, the faster the situations are resolved, the better for everyone, and we all can agree on that. Pray that the leaders of the world find a way to restore peace.
One more prayer that we can agree on is that our leaders recognize the limits of political power. Several years ago, Tony Campolo addressed a breakfast at our Presbyterian General Assembly. He said, "You know, the only people that have ever gotten anything done in this world are people that didn't hold political office, it seems...Ghandi led a revolution, and he did it without using political power. He was never elected to office. When they asked him, "How are you going to get the British to leave India," he said, "As friends." Two weeks after the revolution was completed, he was welcomed in London, the capital of the enemy, as a hero. That's what love can do. That's what love lived out by powerless people can do.
"Martin Luther King, Jr. did not hold a political office. He changed history more than all the politicians put together in this country. That great march from Selma to Montgomery, and the followers of King got to the bridge, and the sheriff said to turn back. And the response was, 'We've come too far to turn back now.' And the people got down on their knees. And what is more vulnerable than people on their knees? At the count of ten, the deputies waded in with their clubs, released the vicious dogs, and on live television I saw it.
Tony continued, "I saw that mess on the bridge just outside of Selma. People being bitten and beaten and clobbered. And I was watching in the Student Union Building of the University of Pennsylvania. I remember standing up and saying, 'We've won! We've won! The civil rights movement had won!'
"You say, 'Wait a minute. They're getting beaten, they're getting battered, they're getting bitten, they're getting destroyed!'
"'You're right! They're getting killed! But we Christians, we have a nasty habit of rising again; for there is no power that can keep love down!' Love triumphs in the end.
"That's the great issue of history, isn't it? Whether we're going to trust in power, or we're going to trust in love." (6)
Prayers for the President. The reason for them is the same now as it was for those prayers for the Emperor two millenia ago: "that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity." The decisions that our leaders make have a direct bearing on the kind of lives we lead.
In the period immediately following the death of Franklin Roosevelt and the accession of Harry Truman to the Presidency, it was widely reported that Mr. Truman felt inadequate for the job. In one of his informal conversations with White House reporters, he said tearfully, "Boys - and it was all boys then - Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now." (7) Well, Harry is not the only leader who needed it, they all did...and do.
Finally, to keep all this in perspective... Lynne Hough, a hospital chaplain, wrote on the internet about an elderly patient whose mental acuity was being evaluated. A standard question, in such evaluations, is to ask the patient who is the President of the United States. When they asked this particular woman who the President is, she replied, "Honey, I'm a hundred and one years old and I don't care who is the President!"
"Needless to say," Lynne concludes, "she was labeled as 'oriented and appropriate.'" (8)
Prayers for the President. After all, no matter who he (or someday, she) is, they need all the help they can get. President Obama, you are in our prayers!
2. I Peter 2:17
3. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
4. Louisville : Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, p. 816-817
5. Jack Haberer, "Faith-based initiatives," The Presbyterian Outlook, 1/5/09, p. 5
6. Address to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 6/11/01
7. Evan Thomas, "Why We Did It," Newsweek, 7/24/95, pp. 22-23
8. Quoted by Carlos Wilton on "The Immediate Word," an online resource for preaching, http://www.csspub.com