a sermon on Nehemiah 1:1-11; 1 Timothy 2:1-7
A few weeks ago, when we were talking about the passing of the peace, I mentioned that it was one of the parts of worship that I was told by the pastor nominating committee that was non-negotiable in worship here. The other part of worship I was told that I could not get rid of was the prayers of the people!
The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has quite a reputation when it comes to the prayers of the people. One of my colleagues who preached here regularly before my arrival as pastor still tells the story of how someone many years ago once told her that she was a little sad that she had not managed to let Whitestone know about a particular prayer request. Still, she assured my colleague, “I’m not worried about it. The Whitestone church prays for everyone, so even if I don’t tell them, I’m sure they have prayed for my friend anyway!”
Our reputation regarding the prayers of the people is a very good thing. While the Word may stand at the center of our worship, the prayers of the people stand at its heart, embodying in this hour we spend together the deep reality that we are people who must look beyond this gathering, reminding us that there is much joy and sorrow in our lives and our world that we have to keep before us even as we gather for worship, and helping us to remember those who our world—and even us sometimes—might rather forget.
Even in a place where we understand the importance of praying for one another and our world, it is often useful to step back as we do today to think about how and why we do these things that are so important for us. Our readings this morning from Nehemiah and 1 Timothy give us a good sense of why the prayers of the people stand at the heart of our worship.
First, Nehemiah shows us what it is like to bear the prayers of the people before God. He was quite experienced at carrying things of great value and immense importance—his day job was serving as cupbearer to the king of Persia, the nation where he and other Jews were in exile. As cupbearer to the king, he was responsible for making sure that the king’s wine and food were safe for his consumption. But his role and position changed quite dramatically as his brother brought him the concerns of the people who remained at their former home in Judah, for he took these concerns before God in his prayer that forms the core of this reading today.
While I don’t want us to emulate Nehemiah’s prayer every week, we can still learn a few things from looking at how he prayed to God in this moment. He opened with extended praise and adoration of God and continued with an admission of his own sinfulness and the sinfulness of his people. Then Nehemiah called upon God to remember God’s previous promises, to recall the hope of the exodus and bring the people back together. Finally, Nehemiah asked that God be attentive to this prayer and grant the people the mercy that they need.
While we may not be praying for these exact things in our life together, we should certainly take note of how Nehemiah’s prayer focused not on his own situation but on that of others very much removed from his situation. The cupbearer to the king of the empire that ruled over his homeland was praying for the people who were suffering back home. This man who had accomplished much and made his way to a position of such power and importance took time out to remember others. If Nehemiah’s prayer teaches us nothing else, we can learn the importance of making space in our prayer for others, of remembering before God those whom we too easily forget, of praying for peace and reconciliation in ways that go beyond our expectations and open us to new possibilities in our world, of taking the opportunity in prayer to look beyond those immediately before us to consider those who might not have the words and space to pray for themselves.
The instructions for prayer in First Timothy give us a little further guidance about what we might include in our prayers. In giving his instructions to his pupil regarding proper worship, the writer here opens with directions for prayer, most notably that “everyone” should be included in those prayers, with special attention to “kings and all who are in high positions.” For this writer, prayer helps to move the world toward “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”
The church has taken his word seriously over the centuries, for John Calvin’s model prayers of the people include two paragraphs of prayers for government and civic leaders, one paragraph of prayers for church leaders, one paragraph asking God to turn all hearts to God, and one paragraph calling for mercy on the sick, ill, and those in prison. While our emphases in prayer have shifted a bit to include a little more for those in need and a little less for the civic powers of the world, we certainly keep this writer’s emphasis on prayer for civic leaders before us, too—and we here in Whitestone have certainly done our best to pray for everyone along the way, as my colleague so fondly remembers!
Our prayers of the people each week in worship build on these scriptural prayers to help connect us to one another and to God. As the Directory for Worship in our Presbyterian Book of Order describes so well,
Prayer is at the heart of worship. In prayer, through the Holy Spirit, people seek after and are found by the one true God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ. They listen and wait upon God, call God by name, remember God’s gracious acts, and offer themselves to God. (W-2.1001)
While I may be the one saying these prayers out loud as we gather for worship each week, the prayers of the people are exactly that, the prayers of all of us, the joys and concerns that we carry with us into our time together, the sorrow and the rejoicing that define our humanity and our world, the prayers that we bear forth from our lives to God. This time of prayer is a time for remembering: remembering the people and places where we have seen God’s love at work, remembering those times and places and people we are tempted to forget as we journey through the everyday, remembering how God’s wisdom comes in unexpected times and ways to show us a new way forward in our lives and our world. And the prayers of the people helps us to remember to pray for the world in our knowing yet beyond our control, when we remember those places in our lives and our world where we need God’s reconciling presence, when we pray for wisdom for leaders in government and society to live in the peace that God invites us to share, when we express our longings and seek God’s guidance for the fullness of the new creation to become real.
So this time of prayer that stands at the heart of our worship is truly the prayer of all people, a prayer for something more than what there is now, a prayer for a new and different way to take hold, a prayer for comfort and healing and hope amid anything and everything that comes our way. This prayer does not replace the prayers that we offer on our own, but it gathers up all that we bear to God in a prayer of this whole community, recognizing that so many of the joys and burdens that I carry with me are so much like the joys and burdens that you carry with you.
The opening and closing lines of the sung prayers of the people that we will offer in a few moments express so very well all that we do in this time:
There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord, for you to reveal yourself to us.
There is a longing in our hearts for love we only find in you, our God.
So may our prayers in worship this day gather up the prayers of all God’s people, that in this time of sacred sharing and this offering from the depths of our hearts we might know the comfort that comes from God amid all that comes our way, share the wondrous love of God that shines into every moment of our lives, and walk in the peace that God is making in our world as we join in God’s work of reconciliation and new life. Thanks be to God! Amen.