Deacon Cornell’s Homily


Jeremiah 20:7-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27


August 27-28, 2005, Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

Take up your cross and follow me. I would guess that when most of us hear that command from Jesus we take it as meaning that we must endure suffering and pain if we are to be good disciples. Today's readings suggest another way of hearing that command.

A couple was expecting their second child but they had put off telling their first child because they didn’t know how he would take it. As the mother was starting to show signs of her pregnancy, they decided that they couldn’t wait any longer. The youngster listened to their announcement with a very straight expression, and took a moment to respond. Finally he turned to his mother and asked, “Did you pray for the baby?” His mother decided that truth was the best approach so she answered, “No I didn’t pray for this new baby.” The boy turned to his father and asked the same question. He too responded, “No I didn’t pray for this new baby.” The boy broke into a big smile and pumped his arm as he exclaimed, “Wow, God really does listen to me!”

Since a very early time, even before Christianity, people have wrestled with the question of whether prayers of petition actually accomplish anything. I think it is safe to say that for most of us, if we are honest about our prayer life, the predominant type of prayer that we pray is a prayer of petition, so the answer to this question should be very important to us. The debate is very lively because it pits two very central experiences against each other. On the one hand, we have this foundational understanding of God that God is unchangeable; no mere human can influence the divine.

On the other hand, as Christians we have a very, very long history, going back to the beginnings of our Judaic heritage, of prayers of petition “influencing” God.  From the beginning of Genesis we have stories of human beings not only petitioning God but actively arguing with God, and often prevailing in those arguments. Abraham argues with God about whether Sodom should be destroyed. Moses argues with God after the Israelites built the golden calf, and convinces him to refrain from destroying the lot. A few weeks ago we heard Solomon ask God for wisdom which God gives him in abundance. Jesus tells several parables that and is explicit in teaching his disciples to ask and they shall receive. At every Mass we present our prayers of petition.

So the conflict is: if we firmly believe that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, then how do we think that God wants us to pray, expressing our wants and need?

The answer of course is mystery, and we can never fully understand how God works. But through the ages, many theologians have given us several ways of looking at this that help us to see that God is unchangeable and yet prayers of petition are effective; they do make a difference.

One such way of looking at things is that the way that prayer changes things is that it changes the pray-er most of all, and, since we are all connected, it can even change other humans. I like this way of thinking about it because it helps me to remember that, if prayer is to change me, then it is important to pray correctly. If I understand that praying helps me to change, I am less likely to pray as Fr. Joe called it last week, by giving God advice, and then waiting for God to get on the stick and make things right. So instead of praying as if God has got it all wrong, and my impeccable logic, or flood of tears, or the depth of my passion should convince God to change God’s mind, I enter into my prayer of petition with the confidence that God already knows what is best. I have to trust God, trust that God’s plan is somehow better, and more likely to be done, than any plan I might have.

This is what our readings suggest. Jeremiah is wracked with physical and mental anguish because of God’s plan for him. Yet in the midst of his lament (of which we heard only the first part), he cries out that God is his mighty champion who is with him, and he sings praise to the God who has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked.

In Matthew’s gospel we have Peter’s audacity of trying to suggest that his plan is better than the Father’s, sandwiched between Jesus’ praise of his recognition that he is God’s anointed, and the transfiguration that show’s Jesus’ glory. Jesus rebukes him because he is trying to distract Jesus from the Father’s plan.

It is comforting to me that people like Thomas Aquinas have come down firmly on the side of the question that says prayers of petition are effective. It really comes down to remembering that not only is God unchangeable but that God is also all loving, and so has already provided all that we need to experience joy and peace in this world and the next. When Jesus tells us that we have to pick up our cross and follow him, I suggest that instead of looking at the cross as the symbol of pain and suffering, we look at it as the symbol of Jesus’ trust in the Father. To be a good disciple, we must trust in God, and Jesus whom God sent into the world as its savior. If we remember who Jesus really is, and who God really is, then the only way to pray is to praise them for who they are, present our petitions, and then trust that God's plan is really the best for all. Keep praying; it makes all the difference in the world.

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