Below is a sermon that Dr. Sarah Melcher shared at a common ground gathering
The passage from 1 Timothy chapter 2 recommends numerous kinds of prayers: supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. All of these certainly have something to recommend them, without a doubt. However, I think it’s in the next line where things get interesting! In the second line the author of 2 Timothy recommends prayer for kings and people in high positions, “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” According to Christian A. Eberhart, a New Testament scholar, the peace and quiet of the Christian community during the Roman era was greatly affected by the religious tolerance and political stability fostered by the ruler in charge. You probably know that the quiet and peace of the Christian community was subject to great fluctuations, depending on the inclination of the Roman emperor in charge at the time. Some of these Roman emperors were particularly oppressive. Another difficulty that arose in connection to the Roman emperors was the Emperor Cult, a practice of divinizing Caesars; that is, the Roman people had a custom to offer prayers to the divinized Caesars.
Of course, 1 Timothy 2, verses 5 and 6 have something to say in opposition to the Emperor Cult: “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all — this was attested at the right time.” So, our passage states that it is proper to pray for the rulers, not to them. The background of the passage helps to explain the connection with proclaiming that there is one God and one mediator for humankind and with praying for rulers and people in high positions. The community’s welfare depended greatly on the kindness and tolerance of the people who were in charge politically.
The passage does indeed recommend several forms of prayer and I intend this evening to recommend a different kind of approach to prayer, though I think it fits the passage’s general encouragement to pray in many different ways to the one God beloved by the Christian community. All of us have experienced hurt in our lives, whether a friend has betrayed our trust or a parent has been particularly harsh, or a teacher has failed to appreciate our work. Whatever the reason, all of us have felt the pain associated with a person hurting us somehow. Well, sometimes after we have been hurt, especially if the problem has remained unresolved, we can develop a resentment against the person who has hurt us. That has happened to me numerous times, when I have grown to resent someone who has hurt me.
For me, harboring a resentment is one of the most dangerous things I can do. If I am chewing on a resentment, it affects almost everything that I do. My thinking becomes focused on the hurt – and I’m inclined to say something like, “Oh, how could Hank treat me this way?” or “Who does Cheryl think she is?” Instead of focusing on what’s in front of me to accomplish that day, I’ll be ruminating on the person who hurt me. Sometimes I even dream about how I might retaliate. So, resentments can distract me from the work I need to accomplish that day and resentments tend to color my whole attitude and demeanor.
Resentment can affect the way I relate to other people. If I’m focused on how someone hurt me or made me angry, I am not being open and generous toward other people. I know I’m not as outgoing as usual if I’m steamed about what “that person” has done to me. It doesn’t matter if my resentment is justifiable. Even if I was totally innocent (which I rarely am, by the way), but even if I’m totally innocent, my resentment is affecting me, not the other person. It is distracting or depressing me, while the other person is blissfully unaware of my hurt.
Of course, it’s a good practice to talk directly to the person who has hurt me and to try to tell her why I feel hurt. Yet, it is not always a good idea to talk it over and at times it’s just not possible to do so. Always, at some point, the resentment becomes my problem, not someone else’s. When I reach that point where the resentment is affecting my life adversely, I turn to a particular kind of prayer.
One of the prayers that can fit under the types that 1 Timothy 2 recommends is to pray for the person I resent. A friend told me many years ago about how she would pray for those whom she resented. She would pray that the person get everything that my friend wanted. She encouraged me to try the same thing. So, I have used the prayer many times through the years. I pray that the person I resent get everything in life that I want, that the person would have health, prosperity, happiness, peace of mind, someone who loves them, and success. I pray for that person every day until I am finally free of that resentment. This prayer, this gift from a friend long ago, is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. If I pray day after day that the person I resent gets everything that I want, eventually I can forgive the person completely and feel the wonderful freedom that comes from living a life free of resentment.
A friend once told me that she thought I was the most forgiving person she knew. My friend saw the ability to forgive as a virtue, but I don’t really see it that way. My reasons for trying to forgive and for trying to be free of resentment are selfish, really. Forgiving someone keeps me sane. It keeps my mind from being cluttered with negative thoughts and feelings. I have used the prayer many, many times and I can testify to the fact that it works. Praying that someone would get everything that I want has helped me to live a happier life with a great sense of freedom.
Of course, prayer can accomplish many different things. Though 1 Timothy 2 does not provide an exhaustive list, it does suggest several different ways to communicate with God about what’s going on in my life. I can offer supplications on my own behalf, meaning that I can pray for God to help me through a difficult department meeting, or help me to get some articles written, or to help me in a conflict with a friend. The passage recommends offering intercessory prayers which means that I can pray for my friend Dan, that he recover from acute leukemia. I can pray for others who are ill or for those who are going through a difficult time. I can pray for the people in Colorado who have been through terrible floods and I can pray for the people of Syria who are enmeshed in a horrific civil war.
Finally, the passage recommends that I offer prayers of thanksgiving: thanksgiving for my health, for my happiness, thanksgiving for the many good things that are a part of my life. All of the prayers suggested by the passage can enhance my life and help nurture my relationship with God.
A life filled with prayer can have many benefits. It can help to keep me focused, calm, and centered on the things that are my priorities. Even a full life of prayer can take very little time. My habit is to set aside about a half hour every morning to pray. I offer my life to God every morning, for God to build with me and to do with me as God wishes. I pray that God show me what God’s will is for me and I ask God to give me the ability to carry out the divine will. I recite one of the Psalms several times and I pray that God remove any personal defects that get in the way of my following God’s will. Then I pray for those who need God’s help, for those who are ill or recovering from surgery, or for those who are struggling mentally or emotionally. After I pray for those in need of God’s assistance, I pray for anyone against whom I have resentment.
When I pray as a regular practice, I can greet the day with a heart that is unburdened with concerns for me or for others because I have put those things in God’s hands. If I skip a day of prayer, then I feel like something is missing. I might start my day feeling preoccupied or worried, or I might start my day chewing over something that put me off the day before. However, when I say my prayers in the morning, I feel that I am starting my day “in the right groove,” with an openness toward others and a willingness to follow God’s will in my daily activities. If I start with prayer in the morning, I am less likely to feel like I need to “take on the world,” and I realize instead that most things lie in God’s hands.
I first began the habit of engaging in daily prayer over 33 years ago. I wish I could convey to you how much prayer has done for me over the years. It has helped heal relationships that were damaged to the breaking point. It has had a strong calming effect on me over the years. The longer that I have engaged in prayer, the more I have felt at home in the world and the more confidence I have gained. One of the great gifts of prayer that can develop over time is spiritual and emotional growth. If one cultivates the habit of prayer, one becomes better at discernment, better at knowing God’s will, better at knowing one’s role in the community, better at knowing one’s place in the world.
Philippians 4:6 states “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” The Bible invites us in a generous way to communicate with God and it promises that prayer will bring us closer to God. For example, it says in Psalm 145:18 that God is near to all who call on God in prayer. This is the goal and benefit of prayer, to bring us closer to God. The positive effects of this habit are too numerous to relate here, but in my own life the benefits have been very clear.
Oh, by the way, like the author of the First letter to Timothy, I, too, think that praying for those in high positions is a great idea. If we pray for our president, for our leaders in congress, for our governor, for our mayor, imagine what kind of effect that might have! “So that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” let’s try praying for those who are in high positions. We can only benefit from the effort!
Common ground is every Sunday night at 8:00pm in the GSC Clock Tower Lounge.
Dr. Sarah J. Melcher is the current chair of the Theology department. She received her doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Emory University and M. Div. from the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She teaches Scripture in Emancipatory Perspectives, which stresses African American and Feminist/Womanist approaches, and African American Biblical Interpretation. Sarah Melcher is passionate about theology and reflects that passion to her students.