I Timothy 2:1-7
The title of my sermon this morning comes from a prayer of the twentieth century theologian and social ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr, that “the leaders of our nation … may know the limits of human wisdom in the perplexities of this day.”
This may be a prayer for all of us in these days of impeachment proceedings and political turmoil and international upheaval—for these are perplexing times for all of us.
How do we get to the truth—and get the truth out?
How do we hold our leaders accountable—through impeachment or through elections? Or both?
And how do we overcome the great divisions in our country that are becoming even more apparent as impeachment and elections both draw nearer?
In the perplexities of these days, the calls to prayer come from many directions.
Last week Franklin Graham complained that the impeachment inquiry was an “attempt to tarnish” the president. In response, he recommended prayer—and T-shirt sales. For 16 bucks, he’ll sell you a T-shirt adorned with the phrase “Pray for 45,” the number, of course, referring to the 45th president of the United States.[i] I’m not sure, but shipping and handling might be extra.
Last month, mainline Protestants joined with progressive evangelicals (and I’ll leave for another time my misgivings about that term) in issuing a call for a National Day of Prayer on October 13.
I completely missed that one. Maybe you did, too. Or maybe you came here on that Sunday about a month ago and wondered, “Where were the prayers for, as the call put it, ‘our nation, our government, and for the truth to be revealed through the impeachment inquiry.’” Actually, even without that call, we do, on a regular basis here, pray for our nation and its leaders.
Peter Heltzel of New York Theological Seminary, who helped organize the statement, said he was moved to action after reading of Franklin Graham calling the impeachment inquiry “nothing about nothing.” (Note: this was several weeks before Graham went into the T-shirt business.)
“That was really like fighting words for me in terms of making me realize as a Christian that we have to speak out,” Heltzel said.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas and one of the president’s most strident evangelical Christian advisers, is also up for a fight, it would seem. Jeffress recently suggested that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and others responding to this call to prayer may be praying to what he called “the pagan god of the Old Testament, Moloch, who allowed for child sacrifice” or “the god of their own imagination.” He also insisted Christians remain supportive of the president.
When the National Catholic Reporter wrote about this, it said: “Pelosi, who is Catholic, could not immediately be reached for comment,” and added, just to be clear, I guess, “Catholics do not worship Moloch.”[ii]
In First Timothy we hear the advice given to early Christians living in difficult and perplexing times: “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.”
Let us remember as we hear this call to prayer that the situation being addressed is nothing like what we find in modern democracies in the West. At the time, Jewish people continued to struggle, as they had for most of their history, “to secure and maintain a foothold within a hostile environment.” And political authorities were especially suspicious of the newly developing small bands of followers Jesus and their claim that he had been both crucified and resurrected. Their claim that “Jesus is Lord” did not sit well in an empire that affirmed “Caesar is Lord.”
But those first Christians chose to live openly in the world and their concern was for all people—because they believed that the well-being of all people was God’s concern as well. So they were encouraged to pray for everyone. And then, because good government benefits all people and not just their small congregations, they were to pray as well for those in authority, who by their positions had the potential both to do great good and to inflict great harm.
In many times and places Christians have wielded great power—and abused great power. In many times and places Christians have also been oppressed by great power. But from our beginnings, through all the changes in governments, through the rise and fall of great empires, people in the church have continued to pray for those in authority and power.
We might pray, as I Timothy suggests, out of our own longing for peace and quiet. We might want to live in godliness and dignity. We might pray for kings and queens and the president and members of Congress and judges.
But the Congregational understanding of Christianity does not allow us simply to sit quietly and pray while the world hurts and rages around us.
As heirs of that early Christian conviction that the well-being of all people is God’s concern and should be our own, we live out our faith in the world of politics and economics rather than taking on a passive, other-worldly spirituality. In this way we seek to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.
Both politics and faith are public acts.
For people of faith, concern with politics is never simply about the triumph of one party or another. Far more is at stake. The political process is the way that our communities and our state and our nation organize our common life, allocate our resources, and deal with shared problems. Politics is about the values we honor, the money we allocate, the processes we follow so that we can live together with some measure of justice, order, and peace.
So I turn again to the prophet Jeremiah in these days.
This is the prophet who warned the leaders and the people, the king and the residents of Jerusalem, of God’s coming judgment, of the tearing down and plucking up that was coming. This is the prophet who spoke hard words against false hope and told of impending disaster when others said all would be well. This is the prophet who told exiles to build homes, to plant gardens, to pray for the welfare of their captor nation. And this is the prophet who, as we heard this morning, announced the new thing that God would do, who spoke of real hope in the face of real suffering and who turned the sight of the people toward the future once more.
This morning we hear three suggestions for living in the perplexities of these days:
Live responsibly in the present time.
Live with hope toward the future.
Live into the forgiveness of sin that makes responsibility and hope possible.
Jeremiah calls the people to live responsibly in the present time.
There are days lately—if not week, months, and even years—when it seems as though our common life as a nation has degenerated into chaos.
After disaster, the people of ancient Israel sought to discover who was to blame.
It couldn’t be them. It must be someone else.
Probably it was the older generation. The parents have eaten sour grapes and their children’s teeth are set on edge. This was a popular proverb among the residents of Jerusalem who were taken off into exile in Babylon. God, it seemed, was punishing the people for the sins of their ancestors.
We recognize the truth of this proverb. One example: In our nation we have seen how the sour grapes of slavery have set teeth on edge for generations its abolition.
But Jeremiah announces the good news that, as one person put it, “they are not shackled by the failures of their forebears….Their fate hangs on their own righteousness or unrighteousness—as does ours.”
The words of the prophet sets us free from a past that we cannot change and brings us into a present in which we ourselves can be changed by God’s grace and so become those who shape the world for our time. Now, then, is the time to seek truth in the public square, to set aside fantastic conspiracy theories, to listen to those who will speak forthrightly and with honesty.
We are called to responsible living in the present time.
We are told as well to turn our eyes and our hearts toward the future.
Jeremiah was not one to create false hope. He lamented that other prophets cried “Peace. Peace.” when there was no peace.
But listen again—the day is coming, he tells us.
New opportunities will present themselves, so act accordingly. This is not the time for despair or resignation. We don’t need to act like scolds, shrilly calling people to wake up and see how terrible things are—to “know the Lord” is how Jeremiah put it.
Our nation constantly needs attention. Our common life requires participation.
Left to themselves, things decay. People get tired. People give up.
But we are not left to ourselves.
In the physical world, physicists tell us, atoms and molecules are never entirely left to themselves. They are almost always exposed to a certain amount of energy and material flowing in from the outside. And if that flow of energy and material is enough, then the steady decay and degradation can be partially reversed.
The same is true for our life together. When outside energy and material enters a life, an organization, a people, a new quality of being alive develops.
The symbol of a new covenant means that what was regarded as the certain end is not seen that way by God. We are not left to ourselves and our own devices.
In the midst of a despairing and hopeless situation, Jeremiah announces that there is a power at work doing something unexpected, something undeserved. There is a power at work in the world that brings new life where we might expect no life.
With a vision of the future we will not give up.
We hear the call to responsibility.
With new energy we look forward in hope.
And we hear of the forgiveness of sin—that is, the ability to begin anew after responsibility has been shirked, after covenants have been broken.
Sin is that separation that we know so well—the separation from our neighbors, the separation from God, the separation even from the best within ourselves. In saying that God will no longer remember the sin of the people, Jeremiah is pointing toward a new possibility and a new power coming into this world.
Forgiveness releases a tremendous amount of energy. Everything that was being used for resentment, for anger, hatred, or self-loathing is now available for something more positive.
The power and possibility of forgiveness creates new power and possibility in us.
Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop who knew firsthand the abuse and oppression of apartheid in South Africa, tells us: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.”
Human forgiveness is a discovery most often unearthed while we are living in the pain of being ourselves.
Responsibility. Hope. Forgiveness.
So, pray, of course.
But let us also continue to do the work that we are already doing, recognizing that is still unfinished: working for interfaith understanding, cooperation, and acceptance; expanding the inclusion of people of all sexual orientations in the life of our nation as we do in the life of our congregation; striving to overcome the racism that clings so closely; welcoming the stranger; speaking the truth about the reality of climate change before it's too late; pursuing paths of economic justice; living toward peace.
In general, then, even through the perplexing and challenging days ahead, let us keep our eyes on where we are going and in all things seek the good of our nation.