This sermon was preached on January 13, 2012, at Wallace UMC.
1 Timothy 2:1-7
2 First of all, then, I ask that requests, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be made for all people.2 Pray for kings and everyone who is in authority so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and it pleases God our savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the human Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a payment to set all people free. This was a testimony that was given at the right time. 7 I was appointed to be a preacher and apostle of this testimony—I’m telling the truth and I’m not lying! I’m a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
We the church are at a crossroads unlike any other in the history of the church. I’m not exaggerating at all. We are a people who, in many ways, struggle to have an identity—especially United Methodists. We struggle with who we are. We struggle with how we are to live in this world. We struggle with what it is we are supposed to do in this world, and what does it matter. The church, for about 60 going on 70 years or so has tried many different things, many different ways of being the church, but at the same time we always seem to be behind the times, no matter what we do. In our efforts to seek relevance and prominence in society, we’ve found that it gets harder and harder every year to do so. This is the truth.
One of the most common mistakes we as the church universal have allowed ourselves to make is the idea that the church exists for the benefits of its members. I know, I’m pretty sure most of you might feel that way; I know I have! The truth is, it’s not. The church exists for the benefit not of the people inside the church, but the people outside the church. The church was never meant to be a kind of superstore for spiritual goods. The church is supposed to be the body of Christ—and that means there’s an outward focus to church that not a lot of other organizations in this world have. Discipleship is being willing to follow Christ anywhere Christ is calling you to go—and the fact is, more than likely Christ is calling you to go to the people outside of the church as missionaries and ministers of Christ to the whole world.
This church also has had several struggles. Our neighborhood has changed, and for the most part, we along with it. All told, that’s a good thing. We’ve had many losses, but also many gains. However, we are just as much at a crossroads as the rest of the church. I worry about this church, because I love this church. I love all of you here, I want you to know that. Because I love you, I want to see this church grow—not necessarily in numbers of people here. This church is a small church, and it has a place in this world. We can do things a big church can’t, and that’s amazing. Rather, I want to see this church grow in its faith, and grow in its journey to being a part of the Kingdom of God. Most of all, I want to see this church grow in discipleship.
I will say, this church is one of the best I’ve ever been in, especially in terms of discipleship. There is a strong desire here to learn more about faith, to practice fellowship with one another, to care for one another, and to care for this community. However, at the same time, we are Methodists, and part of that means that we are always trying to be better, to be holier. As John Wesley would say, we are going on to perfection. Perfection in love for God and for neighbor, that’s the key.
When you joined this church, there are a few things that you promised to do.
Yes, joining means more than just coming every week and participating in activities and programs here. That’s great of course—we love having you all here!—but it means more than that. In fact, when you joined, you promised primarily to give: you promised to give in prayer. You promised to give of your presence. You promised to give of your gifts. You promised to give of your service. You promised to give of your witness. All of these things add up to one great truth: when you became a Christian, you promised to give yourself to God. That means specific, difficult things, but also fulfilling, loving, and life-giving things.
Over the next 6 weeks, we will be starting a Stewardship campaign here at Wallace UMC—but perhaps not for the reason you think. We aren’t doing this to guilt you. We’re doing this to grow you. For six weeks, we will be exploring the five promises you made when you joined the church, culminating on the sixth week in a dedication Sunday, in which you will have an opportunity to make a pledge to this church. We’ll be talking a lot about giving, but not because the church needs money. It’s because this church needs disciples. That’s the key. This church needs disciples, people willing to follow Jesus in every way we can. Giving of your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness means giving yourself.
Giving of your resources is not just the price you pay for being at church. It’s a spiritual practice. It’s a way to learn the hard lesson of letting go. Letting go of your first fruits for the glory of God. Letting go and letting God work in your life. Giving is an opportunity to examine what you really need, and also an opportunity to grow in faith reliance on God. Reliance on God is hard, it really is—we want to do things our way, and we want to do it on our terms without any help. We need God’s help, and we need to be able to let God grow us for God’s purposes. We also need to give so that we can easier follow Christ in the world.
However, it takes some work to get up to that point. It really does. And that’s why we’re having this Stewardship campaign. Really, it’s not so much of a stewardship campaign as it is a discipleship campaign, in my opinion. It’s all interrelated. It’s all connected. But the first thing I want to talk about to prepare us is perhaps the most distinctive thing Christians can do in this world to be better disciples. We are called to give many things, the first of which is prayer.
Prayer may be the most under-utilized and untapped resource we as Christians have in our lives, and in our mission—and it’s also the one thing that gets people started on a deeper and fuller faith. I know this from personal experience. It’s the thing that got me going on my path to being a Christian—let alone a pastor!—and it’s the thing that continues to give me the strength and endurance, the insight and the peace to keep me growing in Christ.
The thing about prayer is that it’s the native language of discipleship. It’s also perhaps the most intimidating part of discipleship. Praying is intimidating, and I think it’s the church’s fault for making it so intimidating. Have you ever thought or felt you couldn’t pray, either because you don’t think you have the right words to say, or because maybe you think you can’t pray well enough, or that your prayer’s aren’t good enough? Or maybe, you don’t feel like you even know how to pray, either out loud, or silently in your heart? Or privately? You aren’t alone. I know I’ve felt that way. I’ve been raised in the church, and I still have some problems praying.
At the same time, it’s incredibly important, because in prayer, you are communicating with God directly. Prayer is how you deepen your relationship with God. There about as many ways to pray as you can imagine too. For one, I can think of some instructions that Jesus gives in Matthew that is absolutely great instructions for anyone wanting to learn how to pray. He lines sketches sort of an outline of what to do and what not to do. You want to Jesus’s do’s and don’t’s for prayer? Here’s the high points: Don’t pray like the hypocrites in the streets and the churches who make long showy prayers of no real substance—they just like to hear themselves talk. Don’t feel the need to say a whole lot of words—lots of words don’t equal a good prayer. Do: remember to pray privately. Pray like you and God are the only ones in the room.
If you don’t know what to pray for, pray for these things: Pray for God’s holiness. Pray with praises to God. Pray for God’s kingdom to come to the earth. Pray for God’s will to be done here on earth as it is in Heaven. Pray for God to provide for you. Pray for God to forgive you for the things you have done wrong. Pray for God to help you to forgive others. Pray for God to show you how to live well and to avoid doing the wrong thing. And above all, pray knowing that God is God, and God is the one who will be there for you.
Those are starting places. That’s Jesus telling us the way to pray. If you recognized it, I just paraphrased “the Lord’s prayer.” That’s all it was. And I know, I’m guilty of just reciting the words without thinking about them and what they mean. But thinking of it in this way, it’s a great guide for thinking about how to pray. Of course there are countless other ways to do it too. One way is just imagining God is sitting in a chair right across from you, and having a simple conversation with God. Another is just simply be quiet, and listen for God. If nothing comes, just remember that God is there anyway, and to take peace from that fact. On top of that, there are hundreds of thousands of written prayers out there that you can find, and learn from. The thing to remember though is don’t pray for showiness, and don’t pray with empty words. Pray with your heart.
Okay, so prayer is how we talk to God. That’s awesome. To think that you can just have a conversation with the creator of the universe, the savior of all people, the sustainer of all life—it’s mind boggling. That said, we need to realize that we as the church are called to be a community that prays, with each other, for each other, and especially for other people. In fact, I think this is the most important thing we can do is to pray for other people.
Paul seems to think so as well in this passage in 1 Timothy. It’s a wonderful passage often overshadowed by other things Paul said, mainly because Paul said a lot of things. Paul, in these scant 7 verses, singlehandedly dismantles the common Christian problem of practicing an “us vs. them” theology. Christianity is not about “us vs. them.” It’s about us loving them. Paul tells Timothy to make prayers, petitions, intercessions and thanksgiving for all people, even for people who hate Christians. What? Yes! He asks him to pray for all people, including kings, including leaders, including politicians, including anyone and everyone. For those who haven’t been paying attention, those people he mentioned were the ones persecuting Christians. Real persecution. Like imprisonment. Like murder and execution.
He’s saying we need to pray for these people because it’s the right thing to do. We need to do this so that we can live in peace, in godliness, and in dignity. We need to do this because that’s how God works. God is the one we pray to, and God the Father sent God the Son and God the Spirit to save all people. He hammers that point in over and over again—God came for all people, so we should pray for all people. Not just people who we think are like us. Not just people who are on our side, because in truth, there are no “sides.” It’s just us. It’s just people. There is no arbitrary dividing line. We are all people. We are all sinful people in need of a Savior. That’s why we pray, and that’s why we are called to pray for all people.
Growing in prayer means you’re growing in discipleship. Sometimes, it takes us going out on a limb to pray for other people, and to be a visible and prayerful community. I was blown away by this one thing I saw a friend of mine named Cody do one time when we were at a restaurant. After we had ordered our food, and the waiter had come by to check on us, Cody did something I hadn’t seen before. He asked the waiter if there was anything he could pray for him for. The waiter was of course taken aback; he’d probably never been asked anything like that at his job. We did wind up praying for him, and it really struck me as something I wished I was able to do. I tried to do it once, and the waitress just kind of laughed me off. I’m not going to let that stop me from trying to pray for other people again. It can be other people too—strangers you meet at the grocery store checkout line, cashiers, WHAT EVER. It doesn’t matter. You are called to pray. Praying for other people will deepen your relationship with God because you are deepening your relationship with people, God’s people, no matter who they are, what they look like, what they do, and where they come from. You are called to pray.
Praying opens yourself to God working in you. It makes you ready for the Spirit to lead you wherever God wants you to go. It also inspires you to be a follower of Christ, and being a follower of Christ means you have to give of yourself. Give yourself to God. Give yourself to others. Prayer prepares you to give of your presence, gifts, service, and witness. It’s the first step in discipleship. It’s the first step to being a true follower of Christ.