I Timothy is a book of problems.
The first verse says it’s written by Paul, but many are skeptical. It doesn’t fit into the timeline of his life we piece together from the rest of the New Testament. It doesn’t appear in early manuscripts with the things we know he wrote. The context feels different from his early letters, the kingdom isn’t on the verge of breaking in, and the church is wondering now about issues of family, of church leadership and organization, things you don’t care about if you think Jesus is going to fly down from the clouds at any moment. Paul, or whoever our author is, speaks to Timothy, an experienced missionary, as if he is a newbie, wet behind the ears.1
But there are plenty of books in the canon that are a little strange. But not many do the damage some of First Timothy has done – grabbing your pew bibles might be helpful here. I Timothy 1:9-11, especially the references to fornicators and sodomites, is one of the passages thrown at our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Chapter 2, right after today’s text, says women should dress modestly, not with braided hair. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission, 2:11 says, with, and the next verse is worse, "I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man, she is to keep silent." In the next chapter we learn that bishops – again a sign the church is maturing and thinking about how it is ordered – should keep their children submissive. All of our elders who came to our home for dinner last Sunday night know that I am a monumental failure in that regard. Chapter 6, especially here in the heels of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, begins with deep oppression: "Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching might be blasphemed." I imagine this passage read in fields not too far from here, to slaves bent from work and the whip.
But I Timothy is part of our story. One of the best reasons to spend time with this letter, or with any of these smaller obscure books, is that we so often don’t. They are our family story, and we should, I believe, air all the laundry, even the dirty laundry, so we might think faithfully about what it means for us, today. In I Timothy we get a fascinating picture of a church in transition. Paul is dead, most of the folks who actually spent time with Jesus are, too. The initial enthusiasm is shifting to concerns about who these Christians are to be, how to fit themselves together in the world, how to relate to the governing authorities. It seems as though this letter was written in Paul’s name by some of his partners who wanted to the work to go on. They seem as concerned as the Presbyterian Church is today about who is qualified to be a leader, about how they are to act, about who gets to be in charge.
And while I am proud to serve a church that wants women to speak, a lot, that calls them to ministry and leadership over and over again, and I would argue with Paul’s coworkers vociferously over some of their criteria for leadership, I also think there is deep wisdom here that we can mine for the church. At the heart of this book, and today’s text, is an utterly radical idea, that we pray for everyone.
"First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone." In the church our understanding of prayer tends to be fairly narrow. Prayer is something we do for someone else in need. For ourselves on a rough day. Mom have cancer? I’ll pray for you. Busy week, big test, feeling pretty worn down? I’ll pray for you. While I don’t doubt anyone’s sincerity, this becomes a throw-away line in the church. I think it tends to mean something more like, "I am thinking about you and hope you are okay." We want people to know we care about them, and we want them to know that God is with them. Sometimes we believe prayer will actually change a situation, heal a wound, make the tumor go away. Sometimes we believe prayer changes our hearts, transforms us, so that we might live with courage and hope on really hard days. Sometimes it is filled with words, sometimes deep silence, trying to listen.
Then, and this is the worst part, these prayers should be offered for everyone. Whether it is prayers for help, deep hopes for others, fears for ourselves or those we love, or praise for the day, they should be offered for the bully from school, the person who wounded you some years ago, the guy at the office who always seems to be trying to manipulate or belittle someone else. I imagine we all have a list of folks we would prefer not to pray for, and Paul’s coworkers tell the church that prayers are not limited to our kin, our people, our friends. This is extended quite explicitly to kings and all who are in high office. No rulers at this time were Christian so this wasn’t a "bless my tribe" kind of prayer.2 And it wasn’t a "pray to the rulers" kind of prayer (even though the government made divine claims for itself). It was recognition that the government administers God’s world and thus we want them to rule justly.3 Calvin wrote, "Even when the ruler is unjust, the church prays to God to ‘make bad men good."4
I wonder if that isn’t about the most powerful witness the church can offer in these days, filled with complex geopolitical problems and endless bickering and rancor. In a world in which the approval rate of congress is around 18 percent this week,5 where diplomats try and make a plan to secure chemical weapons, which, while progress, likely won’t address the roots of a brutal civil war spreading across a region. Where regular folks headed to work in the Navy Yard on what they thought was a regular Monday morning. Where the fear reaches our own beloved downtown on Tuesday evening. As the Medical Director at a hospital in DC said at a powerful press conference, "There is something evil in our society…I may be the chief medical officer of a very large trauma center, but there’s something wrong here when we have these multiple shootings, these multiple injuries, there’s something wrong," Dr. Janis Orlowski said. "The only thing I can say is we have to work together to get rid of it." "I’d like you to put my trauma center out of business," she said.6
We work, we advocate, we get to know our neighbors, we serve meals, we act as peacemakers in all situations. But what could we do if the church prayed, truly prayed, as if everything depended on it? This goes much deeper that any legislative maneuvers, but strikes at the heart of who we are, how we teach our kids to relate to one another, what they watch and how they play, how we adults model ways to agree and disagree. What we watch on the screens we stare at all day, how we honor all people – the people we desperately love and the people that drive us crazy, the people that have no excuse for their behavior or the people who pleading for our help. I wonder what would happen, what God might do among us, if we prayed as if we believed that praying for everyone, with all of our hearts, would actually change things? What if we believed that were true? For, we are told, we do all of this because, in a section that is part of an early Christian creed, there is one God, and one mediator, Jesus the Christ, who offered himself to us and for us out of love, for all. It is God’s love and saving act for all that compels us to pray for all, as often as we can.
I want to suggest an exercise this week. I would like you to take home the bulletin, with its list of concerns and celebrations. [Even you folks from the campus ministries, we’d love to have all the praying we can get!]. I hope you pray for these folks every week. I bet many of you also have your own list of family and friends, special situations that you lift to God, deep needs in the world. And I want you to add to it. You don’t have to post it anywhere. Stick it in a drawer by your bedside table, and I want you to add a couple of names to it. Add our leaders, our president and the congress, the governor and the legislature. All parties. Our mayor, city council, county commissioners. Take some time praying for them, and those their decisions effect. And then add a couple of extra to that list, add at least one person you genuinely dislike. Add another one that made you mad. Add another one that hurt your feelings. And pray for them. And see what happens. Maybe it will be nothing. Maybe. But also, perhaps, God will do something in and through and despite you, through all of us, as we seek, in our author’s words, ‘a peaceable life,’ one that is right and acceptable in the sight of Our God, for all.
Let us pray….
For us, holy God, for our leaders – ALL of our leaders.
For people like us and those who aren’t, for people who are more like us than we realize.
For those in poverty and in pain.
For those who grieve, in our world filled with violence.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days. For the living of these days.
1. Much of this list comes from Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring, "The People’s New Testament Commentary," (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), pages 655 and 656. One additional interesting note: "…the first reference to I and II Timothy and Titus, often called the pastoral epistles, comes in the writings of Ireneus in the year 180."
2. From Interpretation: First and Second Timothy and Titus, Thomas Oden, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), p 45. This cite comes from the Rev. Jessica Tate’s paper on this text at the 2013 meeting of The Well, Baltimore.
3. Boring and Craddock, 659.
4. Oden, 90, also from Tate’s paper.
5. Congressional Job Approval, Real Clear Politics.
6. "‘Put my trauma center out of business,’ doctor pleads for end to gun violence," MSNBC.