Sunday School at Bethel A.M.E., ca. 1930

Sunday School at Bethel A.M.E., ca. 1930

First of all, 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. - 1 Timothy 2:1-2

As I read the short passage assigned for this Sunday from Paul’s letter to Timothy, I am reminded of how American slaveowners were very eager to bring their slaves to church. They thought that gentle Jesus and the counsel of Paul would make them more passive and obedient. “Pray for those who are in the position of power,” Paul writes, “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”

What the slaveowners did not expect was that in listening to the liberating stories of the Exodus, the stories of Jesus standing up against oppression, the repeated assertion througout the Bible of God’s preference for the poor, and yes, through the deeply nuanced letters of Paul, the Black Church tradition was born. It is a tradition built on the rock of God’s love, liberation and justice. The faithful members of that church tradition uncovered a much deeper, saving message in Paul’s letters than their owners had ever imagined they could.

The very deep and abiding adoption of the Christian faith by the slaves was no magic wand, however. Their faith did not magically release anyone from the terrible horrors of slavery they were forced to go through for generations. However, their faith did allow them to place their hearts and their souls into a wider context than the atrocity of their day to day enslavement. Their faith helped them to endure and to claim a liberating hope for themselves despite their slavery - far more hope than their owners would have wanted them to own. Abusers of power know that hope is a threat to their power - it keeps others from being utterly controlled, and it keeps resistance alive. Hope inspires the endurance of hardships, and the courage to stand up tall - even in the face of injustice. Hope puts puny earthly powers into perspective, and it was this kind of hope that Christ offered to their slaves.

Paul states in his letter that there is but one mediator of all humankind. God is more powerful than slaveowners, mayors, governors, senators, presidents, kings or queens. God has eyes to see when those in power tip the scales unfairly in their own favor and stand on the backs of the poor and oppressed, just as God’s eyes also see those who humbly and faithfully pray for the wellbeing of the world. Paul’s call to pray for those in power is not a subservient act toward any human leader. It is, rather, a prayer of intercession to God for our leaders’ imperiled souls - a prayer to keep them from using their power selfishly - and a prayer for God to somehow use our leaders as vehicles of God’s power and love. Good leadership is of key importance in any society, and poor leadership can divide a society into factions and conflict. Through our prayers for our leaders we recognize that leaders are particularly susceptible to corruption. Power corrupts, and the love of money is at the root of all evil, as this Sunday’s gospel reminds us. They all need our prayers.

It is a longstanding tradition in the Anglican Church to pray for our leaders by name. In England, they pray for the monarch and the prime minister. When the Episcopal Church was formed, the first American prayer book crossed them out and inserted the president and other elected officials instead. Some of the leaders we have prayed for over the generations were leaders we respected and some were leaders that were not as respectable. Nonetheless, they were all in positions of power among us, just as our leaders are today. At St. James, we make a point of praying for our leaders by name in the fall season. These prayers are not an expression of approval or disapproval of the job our leaders are doing. We pray for all leaders, naming those with particular power over us, as Paul commended us to do. We pray for them for the hope of the whole world.

Our readings for this Sunday are HERE. Note that in Ordinary Time, we are using Track 2.