First Things First: Inclusive Prayers for God’s Mission
1 Timothy 2.1-7
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s get first things first. That’s the introduction to the letter-full of instructions coming to Timothy, as we heard in today’s Epistle reading. Because we’ve since heard a Gospel passage that confuses the snot of out me and the Epistle lection was only a few verses, I think it’s worth re-reading at this point.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings 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. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 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. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
What we didn’t hear in today’s lesson was the preface that told Timothy the following instructions would help get his church in order so it can be about God’s mission in the world. As such, it starts by reminding Timothy of putting first things first.
To get the church in order and start with the matter of utmost importance, which is prayer. Paul gets directly to the point: the Christian life together has to be grounded in prayer. Because this letter cuts to the chase, so will I: in order for the church to live out its vocation in the world – its calling to proclaim God’s salvation to all peoples – the church must pray for everyone, as Jesus mediates salvation to all of humanity.
Perhaps you’re all more sanctified than I am, or maybe you’ve never had this experience, but imagine with me, if you will, that reaction some of us who drive have when we’re in traffic. You know the one – when you just want to honk your horn with the rudest honk imaginable or maybe wave a particularly angry hand gesture in another driver’s general direction. Maybe it’s 5:47pm on a Thursday, you’re rushing home, and someone is holding up traffic on 31st trying to turn left onto Broadway and you see, as clearly as they surely do, the long sign that says no left turn from 7am-9am and from 4pm-6pm Monday to Friday except holidays, though busses are exempt – yet it’s 5:47pm, it’s not a holiday, and their Prius in no way could be mistaken for a bus, but nevertheless they’re holding you up and trying to turn left anyway. At least twice this week I just had to say out loud “that beloved child of God has probably had a hard day” in order to keep my threads of sanctification held together.
Oh, if it were only that simple to live a life of Christian holiness. If all we had to do would be to recognize a common humanity – the leveling of the playing field. While that’s not all the Christian life encompasses, it’s certainly a necessary first step. We, every human to ever exist, are all in need of God’s salvation. We are all recipients of the grace Christ mediates to us.
In Timothy’s day and place, Christians were persecuted. They didn’t fit into the Gentile society of the day because they had a different Lord than the Emperor. They didn’t fit in with the tolerated Jews because they claimed that Messiah had already come. They were a minority voice, and they were killed for it. They couldn’t live out their Christian life because they would be plowed down by the ruling powers. With Timothy’s church needing a firmer structure to withstand these physical attacks over spiritual matters, he’s instructed in this letter that the first step to ordering a church is to pray, and to pray for everyone, even the ones who are attacking – even the governing officials who are literally ordering for them to be killed.
While I don’t know of contemporary American governmental leaders explicitly ordering the killing of any class or group of people, I think it’s possible to read current events and find that politicians of every rank are continuing to enact injustices in society that keep the playing field out of balance, in favor for some groups over others. I’m not talking about an attack on Christians here, but on a number of the races and classes and groups of persons who are not part of the powerful majority yet are just as much children of God as the rest. Each and every week – as we will in just a few moments – when we pray for some leaders by name and then generally for all who are in places of authority, I have to intentionally remind myself that these fellow humans are just as needy for God’s grace as I am myself. Thankfully, now that I’ve been named a Postulant, I’m listed in the prayers by name for our community to pray for my continual growth in both knowledge and holiness of life.
As this letter to Timothy attests, God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (v4 NRSV). And there, in putting his thumb on the very heartbeat of God, Paul shows the foundation of the Church as being a place that offers every person ample opportunity to have their life transformed in the knowledge and love of God. That, my friends, is the mission of the church. As Christ “gave himself [as] a ransom for all” (v6 NRSV) and therefore mediates grace between the fullness of God and all of humanity, so should the Church, the Body of Christ, be the people who embrace all of humanity as an offering back to God. In doing so, the Church mirrors back God’s desire for all to know salvation.
What happens when we recognize the common need for salvation for each person? What would the church look like every week we sat down the aisle from the person who ticks us off in traffic or who votes to enact an unfair law? What if, when we prayed for everyone, we truly meant every single person? Our narrow-mindedness in such a polarized society might, just maybe, be broadened if we prayed every single day for that person that we just can’t stand. Think about it: what if we looked at someone who we thought was the vilest human being and remembered that Christ the mediator is offering them the same grace he is offering to each of us? It’s hard to wish damnation on someone who is seen as a fellow child of God. Put in a much better way, Saint John Chrysostom wrote this: “No one can feel hatred towards those for whom they pray.”
Have you ever met an angry nun? From time to time, I go visit the Benedictine Sisters up in Atchison, Kansas. These holy ladies, like most monastic communities, are always praying. They intentionally start each day by recognizing the presence of Christ in each other and in visitors who come to them. They are also some of the most peaceful bunch, even as a group who speaks truth to power in matters of societal injustice. Yet, if any group lives “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” it’s them. Does that mean they don’t have disagreements? Not at all! But they ways in which they handle their problems starts with the recognition that each person in the dispute has the light of Christ in her. From that grounding, built on their shared prayer life, they can find charitable ways of moving forward.
While God’s salvation is offered to every person, and the church is called to pray for and with everyone, the grace Christ mediates does not force uniformity; rather, it calls for unity. Unity assumes that persons with vastly different perspectives can each have space to respond to the unique ways in which Christ’s grace is poured upon them. While God’s grace is universal, we each come to know it in particular ways.
In bringing many voices together of every perspective in prayer for each and every person, the church is transformed. We are bonded together in the unity for which Christ prayed. In our mutual humility under the grace-dealing work of Christ, we grow in holiness of life and, from that holy habitation, can structure our church and respond to the injustices of the world in well-rounded, wholistic, prayer-borne ways.
First things first: prayer unites us. We in The Episcopal Church pray from a prayerbook that is common to all and yet uniquely understood by each one. We pray for justice and inclusion, salvation and sanctification, redemption and restoration. Together, in our shared life, may we continue to recognize that our prayers together for the sake of the whole world not only change us as individuals, but they lay the foundation for our life together to enact the very will of God in our own day. By praying for everyone, we are starting our work of participating in God’s mission of salvation. Our prayers unite us in God’s universal mission for “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 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.’” May we continue to pray for all people, all of humanity, who benefits from Christ’s work of salvation; and may we do so recognizing that God equally wants each person to know and accept the grace that is being offered. May our church, in so doing, be found in the middle of the will of God. Amen.
 Probably a pseudepigraphal character claiming to be Paul.
Proper 19, Year C – Luke 15:1-10
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 15, 2019
When I was a kid, my music and television habits were heavily influenced by my parents. I grew up listening the Doors, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and the like. And I grew up watching movies like Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and Arthur, and TV series like Married with Children, and my favorite, Cheers. For those who are young enough not to have experienced this classic TV show, it’s about a bar in Boston called Cheers where folks gather to unwind and interact with friends. Its theme song is famous not only because of the catchy tune, but because it names a longing that every person has:
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.
That’s the kind of place Cheers was in this show. A place where people could be real and share food and drink with others, no matter their station in life. In today’s gospel reading, it’s not difficult to imagine Jesus in such a place, eating and drinking with anyone, much to the chagrin of the proper and pure. St. Luke tells us that that Jesus is eating and drinking with “tax collectors and sinners” while the “Pharisees and scribes” are grumbling about the fact that he welcomes – that he even seeks out these sinners. In response to their grumbling, he tells the Pharisees and scribes three parables, two of which we heard today.
The first is the parable of the lost sheep. He asks these religious leaders, “Which of you would leave the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” I’m a city boy and have no experience with sheep, but this shepherd doesn’t sound very responsible to me. What about the 99 sheep left in the wilderness? Who will take care of them? These are questions I’m sure the Pharisees asked themselves upon hearing this parable, but perhaps like the Pharisees, I was initially as dense as they were. The utter ridiculousness of what the shepherd does is an important part of the story. He is so focused on the lost sheep that he not only throws caution to the wind, he risks his livelihood by leaving his flock unattended. And when he finds the lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders and comes home rejoicing and calling in all the neighbors and friends to throw a huge party to celebrate the one who was lost and is now found. He ends by telling them, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
The second parable is similar. Instead of a shepherd, Jesus talks of a woman with 10 silver coins. What woman, were she to lose one of them, doesn’t light a lamp, or sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And then once she finds it, what woman wouldn’t call her friends and neighbors together and have a party in celebration for find it? He ends this story like the first by saying, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
I’ve often heard this passage preached like this: you and I are sinners, and Jesus cares so much for sinners that he relentlessly seeks us and rejoices when we are finally found. We should therefore repent and return to the Lord. While that’s not a bad sermon, today’s message wasn’t addressed to the sinners and tax collectors. These parables were addressed to the religious insiders of the day – the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus isn’t trying to get them to identify themselves as one who is lost and needs to be found. Jesus is trying to get them to learn to rejoice! Both of these parables end by calling friends and neighbors together to rejoice and celebrate. Jesus’s focus isn’t on the lost that are found by God, it’s on the rejoicing that happens when the lost one is found!
When the religious people of the day grumble about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners – when they grumble about Jesus’s radical hospitality – he responds by telling them that they should celebrate when God goes after the sinner who is lost and rescues them. Yes, salvation is about being rescued, but it’s even more about being drawn into the eternal party. When you see Jesus seeking the lost, when you see him dining with the worst of the worst, the appropriate response isn’t grumbling or jealousy or judging – it’s rejoicing! That’s what repentance looks like for the Pharisees and scribes as well as for you and me: when faced with God seeking out those who don’t wear the right clothes or drive the right car or smell funny or drive us bonkers – when God seeks them out and finds them, we are called to turn from judgement and grumbling to radical hospitality at a fabulous party!
Throughout his life, Jesus was repeatedly criticized for spending time with notorious sinners and outcasts. He’s inviting us today to join him by spending time doing the same. He’s inviting us to eat and drink with those around us in our lives, perhaps in a context like Cheers. For like you and me, everyone has a deep longing to spend time with others who know that their troubles are the same as ours…a place where everybody knows our name. A place where we feel welcome. Nowhere in this text or elsewhere in Luke’s gospel do we see Jesus commenting on the sinners’ behavior. He eats and celebrates with them. He identifies with them and genuinely cares for them. Yes, he wants to rejoice even more when the sinner repents, but he doesn’t get them to repent by judging their sinful behavior, he gets them to repent by spending time with them. By sharing life with them over time.
For the Pharisees and for all of us, the question is, “Who are you ready to party with?” If the answer is “I don’t party,” or “I don’t party with those people,” then we’ve missed the point entirely. Friends, God is inviting us today to join in the eternal party! He’s inviting us to practice generous hospitality with people from every walk of life. And he’s inviting us to rejoice with Him every time he finds someone who is lost.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 68.
 Ibid 72.
Proper 18, Year C – Luke 14:25-33
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 8, 2016
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
We are used to hearing Jesus tell us in the gospels to love. I’m not sure about you, it is always tough for me to hear Jesus say these words: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” This is a really difficult thing for us to hear, for Jesus is telling us that in order to follow him, we must distance ourselves in some way from those to whom we are naturally closest and most loyal.
Jesus’s command to hate our family members is analogous to his next statement: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciples.”
The cross wasn’t a cute piece of jewelry made of gold or silver that people wore around their necks. To those who heard Jesus say this, the cross was a tree on which people were executed by crucifixion. A piece of jewelry didn’t come into their minds. Rather, an instrument of death.
And then, as if the command to carry around an instrument of death were not enough, Jesus tells them that none of them can be his disciples unless they give up all their possessions.
Is he actually telling us to hate those with whom we are the closest? Is he telling us to physically carry a cross? To literally sell everything we own?
While his may be speaking in hyperbole, his ultimate message isn’t much easier to hear. In order to be his disciple of Jesus Christ, you must die. And that, friends, is what Christianity is. An invitation to die. To die to our own desires, to die to the need to be praised for our good works, to die to the need for our outward piety to be seen by others. To be a disciple of Jesus, our loyalty to Him comes before our loyalty to anything else in life whether that’s our family, political party of preference, our country, our parish church, and even our spouse.
This sounds pretty straightforward, but the waters can get muddied. What should you do when my extended family plans an event at the same time an important church event is already planned? What happens when you’re on vacation with friends and you know you need to go to church but hesitate because you know your fellow travelers are atheists? What do you do when someone you know is in need asks you for money, but you know that you’re already going to have a hard time making your mortgage payment this month?
I’m going to be honest with you all about something I’ve struggled with my whole adult life. I struggle with daily prayer. Many mornings (maybe most morning), I’d rather read a few more articles in the New York Times than pray Morning Prayer. Or get a head start on my emails for the day. Or whatever. I mean, I’ve spent enough time in intentional prayer to know in my head that I’ll be happier if I pray instead, and that loyalty to Jesus demands that I do it, but the struggle is real.
In your life, where do your loyalties and priorities come into conflict with Jesus’s call to take up your cross?
No matter how literally we take Jesus when he says to hate our family, carry our cross, and sell our possessions, God is calling us today to die to ourselves and live for Him. He’s calling us to make the choice that we made (or that was made on our behalf) at our baptism today and every day.
This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Each and every day, each and every moment, we must learn to give up our things, our need to acquire more things, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our demeaning stereotypes of each other, our prejudices and hatreds. For these things distract us from devoting all that we have and all that we are to the One who went all the way to the cross for our sake.
Why should we do this? Is following Christ worth the cost? The choir sang this bit from the psalter:
Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me. Thou knowest my down-sitting, and mine up-rising; thou understandest my thoughts long before. Thou art about my path, and about my bed, and spiest out all my ways. For lo, there is not a word in my tongue, but thou, O Lord, knowest it altogether.
The Lord knows all that there is to know about me, even my desires, and to sum it up, I am a sinner through and through. I am not worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table. No matter how hard I try to clean myself up…no matter hard I try, I simply can’t make myself worthy in God’s sight.
But thanks be to God, his property – his character – is always to have mercy. God loves us to much that he gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. And despite my sinfulness, despite your sinfulness, he wants to know that he loves us and to experience that love.
And so, we are called to die. Daily. By choosing to die to self and follow Christ, we follow him to his death. But by following him to his death, we are raised with him to newness of life.
Jesus’s message may seem negative and even depressive, but I truly believe that taking up your cross and following Christ is worth the cost. It isn’t just my head that tells me that I’ll be happier when I choose to pray over just about anything else, it’s my heart. Moment by moment, with each choice to follow Christ, God transforms me little by little into Christ’s likeness…into the image of God seen in our forebears Adam and Eve, before we were marred by sin and death. Each daily choice to follow Christ gives me the strength and courage to look outside of myself and turn my attention to the needs of those around me even when I don’t want to.
I already see so many signs that you all are denying yourselves and taking up your cross daily. I see the fruits of discipleship in the hard work of the reception committee to make our coffee hour as hospitable as possible, and in the folks handing out food to the homeless at Downtown Outreach, and in your generous stewardship in giving the first fruits of your money back to God in the offering plate, and in the sharing of your musical gifts to lead us in worship. And I see this in the little things like the unnamed saint who handwashes and irons all of our communion linins week after week. These signs of self-denial give me hope and encouragement in my own spiritual journey.
Today, as we begin our program year, I invite you to look inward and ask yourself, “What is one area of my life where am I see a conflict of loyalties? What is God asking me to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel?”
Friends, I wouldn’t ask you to make this costly choice without making every attempt to make the same choice myself. Christianity isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s costly and difficult.
By giving up all for Jesus, we get to experience unconditional love and grace that is almost unimaginable. And by giving up all for Jesus, God gives us everything we need to share that love with a lost and broken world that so desperately needs it. Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!