This is not going to be a typical sermon — more like a conversation-starter about the inauguration of the president-elect, the place of Washington’s National Cathedral in our nation’s life, and especially about prayer.
Emotions in our country are running high. Some people are elated by the prospect of the new president’s inauguration. Others area deeply concerned about his talk and actions. He has said and done things that have deeply offended women, people of color and immigrants. His manipulation of the media and his untrue assertions do not bode well for earning our trust.
Some may not be aware that the National Cathedral in Washington is in fact an Episcopal church. It has been the cathedral’s honor and delight to offer space for the traditional Inauguration Day prayer service. (Sometimes these services have been held on the day or days following the actual inauguration.)
This year many have questioned whether such a service at the National Cathedral is appropriate. Plans for the service have sparked outrage. Many have called upon the dean of the cathedral to cancel it.
Diana Butler Bass, who recently preached at a combined service of Northampton’s downtown churches, has pointed out that the president-elect has been harshly critical of things that the Episcopal church stands for, indeed that most Christian churches avow. Ms. Butler Bass urges that the service be held elsewhere, lest the world suspect that we approve of what this man stands for.
The dean of the cathedral, Randolph Marshall Hollerith, has taken a different approach. He points out that the cathedral is “a house of prayer for all people — and that really means all people.” We worship a God of love and hope. We are commanded to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to pray for those in authority.
The dean pointed out that the inaugural prayer service is a simple service of prayer, with “music and readings drawn from the broad religious mosaic of American life.” We honor the office of the presidency, he noted, and we ask for God’s guidance for our leaders, our nation and all nations, and pray for the grace we will need to meet the challenges ahead.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, focused his comments on the meaning of prayer. For the believer, he said, prayer is not innocuous. It is powerful.
Should we pray for someone who says things that are in contradiction to deeply held Christian convictions about love, compassion and human dignity? Bishop Curry gives a clean, powerful answer to this question. “We can, indeed I believe we must, pray for those who lead in our civic order, nationally and internationally.” We pray for the president because Jesus Christ is our Lord and the model and guide for our lives. His way must be our way, however difficult.
Even in the most extreme case, Jesus himself said, while dying on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He was praying for Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who had ordered his execution, and for all who were complicit in it.
Bishop Curry added a deeply personal note. He recalled growing up in a historically black congregation in Buffalo. “We prayed for leaders whom we knew were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got down on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we marched in Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We even prayed for those who hated us.”
Should we pray for the president? Yes, we should. Who needs it more? If prayer doesn’t change the person or event we pray for, it will at the very least change us, motivate us, empower us to be the change we seek in the world.
Let us pray for our leaders, both the ones we love and for all the others. Pray that their hearts be open, their minds clear, and their actions in accord with God’s will.
And should these intentions fail to transpire, let us pray that we the people will have the courage and energy to take action ourselves for a just and peaceful future.
The Rev. Catherine Munz, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, preached a sermon on Sunday about the 58th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Washington National Cathedral. This column was excerpted from her sermon.