Pray for Everyone?
by Rev. Joe ConnollyClick here to listen to this sermon on Vimeo.
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone— for rulers and all who are in high positions, all who are in offices which wield authority— so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. ” — 1 Timothy 2:1-2
Those of you who were here last week or read my sermon online or heard my sermon online may remember I started by saying that politics do not fascinate me. Rather, the ‘horse race’ aspects of politics fascinates me. It’s the statistical analysis of the underlying, ongoing trends— the ‘who voted for whom’— that’s what intrigues me.
Well, lo and behold, a friend sent me an article this week with some analysis on which I could chew. The gist of the article was summed up in its provocative headline: “Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math.”  Really?
Well, it seems a social scientist has done research to support that claim. In a controlled experiment, some people were asked to interpret a table of numbers about whether a skin cream reduces rashes. Then they were presented with a second table— a table that contained exactly the same numbers. This one, however, was an analysis about whether a law banning the possession of concealed handguns reduced crime.
The experiment found when the numbers in the table conflicted with the position people held on gun control— meaning some people tested held positions for hand gun control and others held positions against— when the numbers in the table conflicted with the position people held they could not do the math with any accuracy. However, when the topic had been skin cream they had absolutely no trouble with the math.
In short, when it came to skin cream two plus two equaled four. When it comes to gun control two plus two equals five. So, politics wrecks your ability to do math, right? Politics makes you stupid, right?
Well, not so fast— that might be one conclusion you could draw. But there is also a phenomena known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their preconceived beliefs. It means people confront, gather and remember information selectively.
And, indeed, research in this area says the effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. Confirmation bias also means people think ambiguous evidence supports their position and leads to biased searches, limited interpretation, selective memory. Of course, all that leads to polarization. Positions become entrenched. 
Well, that may be just fine if you have a family disagreement about something simple— like no one can remember what year it was you took in a stray cat or dog. That probably will play out this way: the more attached you are to the pet the more likely you are to say that animal has been a part of the household longer.
But when you’re talking about issues of public policy— issues which have the potential to effect many, many people— the trait called conformation bias should fall into the category of totally unacceptable behavior. Twisting statistics to suit prejudice, even when you do not know you are twisting statistics to suit prejudice, is never acceptable, especially when it has the potential to do harm to others. Sadly and strangely, the media, both mainstream and not so mainstream, can be seen as encouraging people to buy into bias.
Here’s an example. There are often stories in the media that one or the other chamber of Congress has passed a piece of legislation. And the story is reported as if one house and only one house of Congress passing piece of legislation is important. It’s not.
To report that as important news is a little like reporting the results of a staged wrestling match. It may be fascinating but it means nothing— zero, nada, zilch. Not once have I seen that kind of story start this way: “The House today passed a bill that has absolutely no chance of becoming law.”
To be fair, that sentence might be buried toward the end of the story but not up front. Why have I not seen a story start that way? Because the media knows telling stories about conflict engages people. Therefore, the headline, “man bites dog” or even “dog bites man” is engaging. “Man feeds and walks dog,”— not so engaging.
By not telling the real story up front the media sets up a false sense of conflict. Why? They do want to engage us and portraying conflict is a sure way of doing that.
In fact, conflict is a continuing issue for we humans. But I also want to suggest there is a way to approach life which minimizes conflict. I call it a mature approach. I haven’t been able to come up with a better label than that— but that’s why I call it that— a mature approach.
This is a way of living which attempts to overcome our biases with reality checks. This a way of living which attempts to remain calm in the face of adversity. This is a way of life which acknowledges God is present, God is real, God is with us.
What is this way of life? It is a way of life that says pray first and pray always. Prayer, you see, is not only the first and necessary step toward action— positive action. Prayer can be a mature response to conflict— prayer— a mature response to conflict. (Slight pause.)
And these words are from First Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone— for rulers and all who are in high positions, all who are in offices which wield authority— so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. ” (Slight pause.)
We miss the irony of that, you see. Pray for those in power? Those are not the ones presenting us with a peaceable life. Hence, pray for everyone.
Indeed, it’s said the Roman Empire fell because of panem et circenses— bread and the circuses. What is bread and the circuses about? Bread and the circuses means people pursued juvenile distractions, the mere satisfaction of the immediate, rather than engaging a mature way of living. To be clear, I think that is something to which we are all susceptible— being distracted in juvenile ways.  (Slight pause.)
Catholic theologian and priest Richard Rohr says this: an attitude of ‘I can do it, I must do it and I will do it’ presents us with a problem. It feels good. But all the emphasis on my effort, on me, my spiritual accomplishments.
There is little active trust with this approach, says Rohr, in a reliance upon the grace and the mercy of God. When we underplay the importance and universal availability of grace and mercy, we succumb to an unhealthy self-centeredness. Please note: a key part here is that grace and mercy are available to all, not just to one group, not just to us, not just to me. 
Prayer, you see, is not about self-centeredness. Or, as I’ve said here before, our culture tends to get God and Santa Claus mixed up. Often our prayer gets relegated to just asking for help, as in ‘Dear God— I’ve got a 2:00 o’clock ‘Tee’ time. Please keep it from raining!’
That kind of prayer is not a dialogue with God. That kind of prayer is a plea to Santa Claus. (Slight pause.)
All that brings us to the reading from Jeremiah. You see, if there is a balm in Gilead— and the claim we make about prayer says there is— God provides that healing.
But the healing of God, the grace of God, is not something we control and not something we can understand. You see when Paul addresses the ‘peace of God which surpasses understanding’ what the Apostle says is true. The peace of God does surpass understanding. And Paul cannot explain it. And we cannot explain it.
But I need to add this: the inexplicable nature of prayer as it intertwines with the action of God does not mean prayer is simply passive. Prayer can lead to action.
How so? Prayer, prayer offered humbly, is not passive. Prayer is a way to engage with God and the will of God. And nothing is more clear in all of Scripture than this: God calls us to action.
God calls us to action on behalf of the poor. God calls us to action on behalf of the outcast. God calls us to action on behalf of the marginalized.
A mature faith, in fact, always leads to action. And it is in action, not in passivity that God provides a balm. So, a balm for our soul can be and is found in mature prayer.
It is found because in prayer we can be in dialogue with God and we do dialogue with God. Dialogue with God— if that’s not enough to frighten you out of being juvenile, nothing is. Amen.
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The pop star and composer Cyndi Lauper grew up in Ozone Park Queens. I grew up in the next neighborhood to the south of that, Woodhaven. And we are not that far apart in age, either. Now she is a Tony Awarding winning composer but early in her pop career she taught me a lesson. One video for a hit song, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. And the video had in it the professional wrestling manager “Captain” Lou Albano. And what we he doing in the video? Well, the lesson this taught me is about conflict (conflict as in professional wrestling). Conflict does attract attention. That does not make conflict a mature response. It makes it a response which attracts attention. Prayer— that’s a mature response.”
BENEDICTION: We are commissioned by God to carry God’s peace into the world. Our words and our deeds will be used by God, for we become messengers of God’s Word in our action. Let us recognize that God’s transforming power is forever among us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.