July 28-29, 2001, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C
Today’s readings focus on prayer. But I suspect they say something about prayer that is very different from what most people hear in these readings. It is very easy to hear that story of Abraham and God in the first reading, and think it is telling us that we can change even God’s mind by being persistent. Many hear the story from the Gospel about the neighbor trying to borrow the bread the same way. As I look at my own prayer life and hear others share something about theirs, the overwhelming type of prayer is one of petition, in most cases a very specific petition. Cure this cancer; help this marriage; let my child make it home safely. There is a definite posture of “If I can pray hard enough or long enough, with the right words or posture or state of grace, then I can get God to grant my petition”.
I would like to suggest a different way of hearing these stories of prayer.
There is a tribe of Indians in South America that has among its customs a rite of passage for boys turning into men. When a boy reaches a certain birthday, he is taken out into the jungle for a night with nothing. If he survives the lonely night in the jungle, he is judged ready to become a man in the tribe.
So there was this boy who reached the fateful birthday. As the afternoon turned into evening, he was prepared for his night in the jungle with chants, and dancing, and anointing with strange ointments, and incantations by the village medicine man. As evening turned into night, he was blindfolded, and led deep into the jungle. The blindfold came off; he was stripped and left standing by a tree. As the torches of the tribesmen faded quickly into the dense jungle the dark became complete. With no vision, his hearing and smell seemed to heighten in intensity. He could hear every leaf falling to the jungle floor. He could hear every rustle of the brush, and smell things he had never smelled before. His imagination would not let him relax. Every minute seemed to take an hour as he waited for the dawn. Second by laborious second the night dragged on, filled with sounds and smells of danger and menace. It seemed that morning would never come, but his eyes never blinked, and he couldn't even think of relaxing. Finally, after what seemed like several years, the dawn started to penetrate the umbrella of the canopy. And as the black of night turned to the barest hint of grey, he saw the silhouette of his father next to a tree not 20 yards away, his gun ready to ward off any danger to his son. The young man's first thought was, "If I had only known, I could have slept peacefully through this night."
What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asked for a fish? What father would let his son be killed in the jungle when all the son wants is to become a man? What Father in heaven would ever have a plan that would bring harm to his children?
The story of Abraham questioning God is not really about Abraham haggling with God and getting him to change his mind. In the first place, God does not spare Sodom, does he? The two angels who go ahead to destroy Sodom only find 4 innocents: Lot, his wife, and his two daughters. This exchange is really about Abraham learning that this God who has promised to make him into a great nation is just. This God knows the difference between innocence and sinfulness, and will not harm innocent people even if it means letting the sinful go unpunished for the moment.
If we look closely at the whole Gospel passage we just heard, I think you will see that the last paragraph that talks about “how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” underlies the whole section. We are not to be anxious about the perils we encounter or imagine. If we just can become aware of the Father’s presence all around us, then we would not be paralyzed by the evil we encounter. We would just ask, or seek, or knock. In other words, we would go about living our lives knowing that God is in charge, taking care of us. Our praying is not to change God, but to change us, to make us more aware of the breaking into our lives of God’s kingdom of love, and justice, and mercy. “The Lord is the stronghold of my life, whom should I fear?”
And if we look at these readings more closely we see that they are not simply about teaching us how to pray so that we know how to pray. There is a mission involved. God enters into dialogue with Abraham, revealing who he is, because Abraham is to be a great nation who reveals God’s mercy and justice to the whole world. Jesus is the incarnation of God. He reveals in his life the love and care and forgiveness of the Father. For the previous six chapters Luke has been narrating the nature of this kingdom, which breaks down the boundaries between rich and poor, healthy and sick, male and female, saint and sinner. Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray because when he goes back to the Father, these disciples will be the ones who reveal to the world this kingdom of God.
(ending for Sunday Masses)
By our Baptism, we are now given the mission to complete what Jesus came to start. Now that he is no longer in this world, we are the ones who must make God visible so that those around us can be at peace even though they stand defenseless in the middle of a jungle, so that the whole world can enter into God’s kingdom. And not just when we die and go to heaven. We sang as our response to these readings: “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Here and now, people. And we are the ones who are to make the goodness of the Lord visible in the land of the living.
So let us pray in a way that our imaginations are opened to the signs of the Kingdom here on earth. Let us add to our prayers of petition, prayers of praise and thanksgiving, and most importantly, as Fr. Butler reminded us last week in his homily, prayers of listening. Let us become attentive to the signs of the kingdom breaking in all around us, even in the midst of such evil and tragedy as the death of Jesus on the cross. Let us pray as Jesus does, with confidence that our Father hears us, and like that Indian father, is hovering over us, protecting us. Then we will be the light that dispels the darkness around us.
(Ending for baptism on Saturday evening)
By our Baptism we are given the mission to continue what Jesus came to start. I think we often have the same misconceptions about Baptism that we do about prayer. We focus solely on the benefits to the person being baptized. We see the water as primarily washing Nicholas clean of original sin. We see the anointings as giving strength and honor to him. But our second reading remind us that Baptism is about so much more. We are about to plunge Nicholas into the water, not just to wash him but so that he will die to himself and then rise to new life in Christ. One way to understand original sin is that it is a genetic defect in us that keeps us from being able to recognize God truly. The waters of Baptism heal the defect and make it possible for us to see God as God is, and us as we are. This prepares Nicholas for the mission for which we will then anoint him: to be priest, prophet, and king: a priest who offers sacrifice to God and helps others understand who God is; a prophet who speaks God’s word of love, and mercy, and forgiveness; a King who brings the kingdom of God into being her and now, in the land of the living., by caring for those around us.
In a few minutes, Maggie and Brian and Julie and Jim will renew their own Baptismal vows, saying them for Nicholas as well. I ask all of you who are baptized to renew your own vows by answering “I do” to the questions. I ask you to do this to indicate to Maggie and Brian that you will support them in their efforts to bring Nicholas up in the faith. But also do it as a prayer that helps you understand who God is, and who God calls you to be: priest, prophet, and king. The help you remember that you are called to be the light that makes this loving, caring, forgiving God visible to those around you who are living in darkness and the shadow of death.