Pray for Our Enemies . . so that We May Be Changed

Epiphany 7A (Matthew 5:38-48)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church

In just a few moments, you and I are going to join together in prayer for God’s church and the world. We will pray for the leaders of our churches, our nation and the world, we will pray for all who are in pain and suffering, we will pray for peace, we will pray for ourselves. And we will end these prayers by asking God to answer them as God will’s and by asking God to teach us to be God’s hearts and hands in the world. 
Considering this is a weekly practice of our corporate worship, it is good to have a gospel reading that speaks to us of prayer.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[1] Great, we’ve got this covered.  We are doing exactly what Jesus’ asks us to do.  But the practice can leave us frustrated, yes? For example, we read the same names on the prayer list week after week after week.  Is God’s healing available to them?  We pray for our leaders and yet they do not always do what it is we are praying for them to do.  Is God’s desire for justice and peace even realistic?  We pray for the church and its leaders.  But even then, decisions are made that we don’t all agree with.  Is God answering only some of our prayers?  Prayer can be a frustrating activity and it is an activity that many abandon – for a period of time or, in some cases, for a lifetime. 
But when I read this Sunday’s gospel passage again this week, I was struck by something that had not caught my attention before. It is the end of the sentence: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [COMMA] so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Jesus tells us to pray – and to pray especially for our enemies – but he tells us the reason is not, at least in this case, about the enemy.  It is about us.  Jesus tells us that we are to offer prayer so that God might continue to change US – to help us become who we are – “children of our Father in heaven.”  Well shoot.  Praying to change others is so much easier – even if it is frustrating. 
Addressing this very real challenge, C. S. Lewis, in a letter to a friend, wrote, “The practical problem about charity (in one’s prayer) is very hard work, isn’t it?  When you pray for Hitler and Stalin how do you actually teach yourself to make the prayer real?”[2]  I’ve shared the story in the past of a beloved 8 o’clock parishioner from St. Mark’s who used always to read this prayer from the Rite 1 service: 
 “We beseech thee also so to rule the hearts of those who bear the authority of government in this and every land especially Barack, our President, and Pat, our Governor, that they may be led to wise decisions and right actions for the welfare and peace of the world.”[3]
In January 2015, he no longer read the prayers of the people.  He simply could not bear to pray for Bruce, our Governor.  (Given his political convictions, I can only imagine how he might be responding were he still alive to hear us praying for Donald, our President).  He was fairly vocal with the congregation about his thoughts on this so I’m not breaking any confidences.  In conversation with him, I suggested that perhaps Bruce, our governor, especially needed our prayers that he might be led to wise decisions and right actions.  But alas, our friend replied, “there is no hope of that.”  Today, I wish instead I had Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount close at hand to remind myself and him that sometimes the purpose of our prayer is not to change the enemy – real or perceived - but instead to change ourselves. 
C. S. Lewis’, after acknowledging the difficulty of charity in prayer, goes on to say to his friend,
“The two things that help me are (a) A continual grasp of the idea that one is only joining one’s feeble little voice to the perpetual intercession of Christ who died for these very men. [and] (b) A recollection, as firm as I can make it, of all one’s own cruelty; which might have blossomed under different conditions into something terrible.  You and I are not at bottom so different from these ghastly creatures.”[4]
Before we react and say, “yes, but,” let’s remember where Lewis’ letter began – “When you pray for Hitler and Stalin how do you actually teach yourself to make the prayer real?”  Lewis was not talking about the person in the office, at school or next door with whom you have a grudge (though certainly his words would apply there as well). He is not talking about your siblings or your parents (though again, his words would still apply there).  He was talking about two extremely dangerous, cruel and hate-filled men and telling his friend that yes, your prayers for them must be real.  Lewis is truly getting right down to the heart of the matter.  And he says, Christ died for them too.  Take a moment to let that sink in.  Christ died for them too.  Isn’t that what Jesus is saying when he tells his followers, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[5]
And, as difficult as it may be to absorb those words, Lewis then goes on to say that you and I are not so different - born in another place or at another time, raised in a different set of circumstances, surrounded by a different set of friends, acquaintances, family members and political and social circumstances, who is to say that we would not have been and done the same. 
There was a post going around on Facebook a week or so ago that said, “Remember how we used to read history books and say, ‘if I were alive then, I would have done x, y, or z’?  Well, you are alive now.”  We are alive now and amidst the beauty in our world – and yes, let’s remember the beauty – amidst that beauty there is much work to be done for justice and for peace, for reconciliation and for love.  And all of that work begins with prayer.  The concluding collect for our prayers in this season ends with a reminder of this as we pray,
“Generous God, in your abundance, answer these prayers as you will. In our love, teach us to be your hearts and hands in this World. Help us to feel your presence, to know your love, and to be your stewards in this world.”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” so that God might continue to change US – to help us become who we already are – “children of our Father in heaven.” 

[1] Matthew 5:44-45a.
[2] C. S. Lewis, “Letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, 16 April 1940,” from The Collected Lettersof C. S. Lewis; Volume II : Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949, Walter Hooper, editor, (San Francisco: Harper, 2004).
[3] Book of Common Prayer, 329.
[4] Lewis.
[5] Matthew 5:45b