Deacon Cornellís Homily


Genesis 18:20-32
Colossians 2:12-14
Luke 11:1-13


July 24-25, 2004, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

There were two young brothers staying overnight at their grandparents. They had been tucked into bed in the room right above their grandparents and were settling down to sleep when the younger one jumped out of bed, knelt down and started praying in a very loud voice, "Please God, let grandma and grandpa get me a bike for Christmas." As he got back into bed, his older brother said, "You don't have to shout. God isn't hard of hearing you know." His younger brother retorted, "I know that, but grandma and grandpa are."

It is pretty clear that our first and Gospel readings today are about praying; in particular they are about how to pray. I suspect that what our readings say about how to pray is not so clear. When I first read these readings, the theme that seemed to jump out of them was that by praying with perseverance we can wear God down so he grants us our petition. In the reading from Genesis, we have Abraham seemingly haggling with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The first impression is that God gives in to Abrahamís persistence. Then in the Gospel, Jesus tells the story of the man who gets a surprise guest during the night, and who has to go next door to beg for bread for his guest. Jesus doesnít finish the story but all his listeners know what the outcome was. In a culture that put such a premium on hospitality, the neighbor will get up and give the man some bread. And the famous ďask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be openedĒ is the poster quote for persistence. So I guess there is nothing else to talk about. The readings tell us that if we pray long enough and hard enough, God will finally cave in and grant us our prayer.

I donít think so!

The main problem with this way of thinking about prayer is that it runs counter to our most fundamental understanding of God: God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, Amen. So how can we think of prayer changing the mind of God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow? We canít of course. The other aspect of thinking that these readings tell us we can change God's mind or wear God down through perserverance is that it trying to make God over in human form. Do we think that God is hard of hearing, or that he is not paying attention, or that God missed a few salient points in his decision so that when I point them out to him, he says, "You know Charlie, I never thought of it that way. Of course you are right. What was I thinking?"

So what do our readings tell us about how to pray? Letís take a look at them a little more closely.

In the first reading, we have to understand the context. Abraham is trying to understand what kind of God he is following. Remember, he has no history, no tradition of this God to rely on so he has to figure things out from how God acts in his life. In this story, he starts to understand that this God is a just God, one who values human life. As for changing Godís mind, the story canít be about that because we all know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.

What about the Gospel? Again, we have to look at the context. This passage starts and ends with the revelation by Jesus that God is like a father to us. One of the primary aspects of Jesusí mission on earth was to reveal who God is to us.

I have a godson who occasionally asks me whether God is the one who causes earthquakes and floods and other disasters that cause the deaths of so many people. He reminds me that the Old Testament contains many such stories, including the one that follows our Genesis reading today, where Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by sulphurous fire from heaven. It is hard to answer him because it means looking at Scripture very differently from the way a lot of people do. Scripture is not a flat complete story describing an static reality. Scriptures are an unfolding story of God revealing God to human beings, and human beings gradually starting to understand. There is a big difference in how the authors of the Genesis story understand God from the way that the authors of the Gospels and Revelation understand God. The whole point of the incarnation is that we hadnít gotten it right yet so God sent his only begotten son so that we might see God in human form. Jesus consistently reveals to us that God is not about retribution and condemnation but about nurturing and saving. We are to pray to God with the understanding that God already knows what we need and has made provision for us to have what we need. In fact the Greek word that we heard translated as perserverance in the story Jesus told only aquired that meaning several hundred years after that Gospel was written. Its original meaning was "without embarrassment", the way a child asks his or her parent for something. We ask and seek and knock without embarrassment because we know the God to whom we pray is Abba Ė Poppa. Jesus is teaching us to pray with the attitude of a trusting child petitioning his or her loving father.

By our baptism, we are called to continue Jesusí mission of revealing the true nature of God to the world. We are to live our lives in such a way that the Fatherís love and care for his creation are enfleshed and made visible to those we meet as we go about our daily lives. So let us continue to pray long and hard and even loud at times, not to change God's mind or wear God down, but to present our petitions without embarrassment to our Poppa, confident that God already knows what we need, and made it available to us.