Saturday, July 28, 2007

Teach Us to Pray

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
28-29 July 2007
Holy Cross Parish, Hutchinson, KS

“Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”.

It would be hard to imagine more of a press than what Abraham puts on God in our First Reading today. He ventures to bargain even with the Lord: if there were 50 good people in Sodom? …if there were 40 would you destroy it? …30? …20? Would you destroy the good along with the bad if there were 10 good people left in Sodom? Abraham serves as an example of that closeness and dependence on God, which Jesus tries to urge people to in the Gospel of St. Luke today: ”I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence”.
“Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”.

What is prayer all about? What is petitioning God in prayer all about? What is there to gain out there by asking something of God? Fame or popularity? Fortune, maybe? What can we ask for and expect to receive from our good God?
There are folks out there who would like you to believe there is some kind of material recompense already in this world waiting for one and all. All we need do is ask. That’s not this Sunday’s message, however. Neither is it a good rendition of what the Old Testament promises to God’s Chosen People nor do such claims have much to do with the New Testament and what Jesus promises to those who follow Him. If you will, look from one end of the Bible to the other and see how many examples of selfish prayer requests you can find that were granted by God. Lord, let me win the lottery and I’ll cut you in for 10%... No! Try, on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, to convince me that God favors his beloved on this earth with material prosperity, health, success in business, politics and love, just because they ask insistently… Or better, don’t waste your time as the Christian life, life with God, is something quite different.
Remember too, Abraham didn’t ask for himself; he didn’t bargain with God seeking something for his own benefit. He asked on behalf of Sodom; he bargained with God for the sake of the good people, like his nephew Lot and his family, which he supposed might still live in that city so infamous for its many sins. Abraham’s was a prayer for God to be Himself, to be just. Abraham’s prayer was inspired by a certain familiarity with God. Jesus in the Gospel is coaxing and cajoling people to turn to the Lord in their need and ask just like Abraham did. Ask for what? How does today’s Gospel conclude?
“If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

What are the good gifts Jesus is talking about? What is the object of our asking God if not to place ourselves in a position of complete dependence upon Him?
Lord, teach us to pray! The disciples asked and He responded: Say, Our Father. That is, enter into God’s life! Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit! Let the Trinity dwell in you! Be caught up into the life of the Holy Trinity! Make your life one with God!
Among the books I’m reading this summer 1 comes to mind written by a nun on prayer. Sister insists without wavering that faith is the key and that faith is what is lacking in the lives of lots of people who seek to pray. I don’t know why that idea took me somewhat by surprise. Jesus kept hitting hard throughout His ministry on that very notion: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mountain, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you…” “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
The Catechism defines faith as follows, saying: “To believe” has thus a twofold reference: to the person and to the truth: to the truth, by trust in the person who bears witness to it. We must believe in no one but God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Come to be a person of prayer by coming close to God in faith and thereby put your life and things in your life in right order. I guess that diet, exercise, reading and a social life all help to round us out, but without a relationship to God in Jesus Christ it would hardly make a complete human picture. The other day in the newspaper, they tried to gently break the news that although eating tomatoes was healthy there was no evidence that tomatoes were a cure-all for cancer and other diseases and a guarantor of long life. Without faith, without a life of prayer, such bad news could be a real downer. Seriously, “Our Father”, why does Jesus urge us to child-like trust in our Heavenly Father if not to give us the context we need to face life in this world (with or without organic tomatoes)?
Life lived within the community of believers, life in the Church believing what the Church believes and teaches, Sunday Mass, regular Confession, our fixed times of prayer each day (morning offering, meal times, examination of conscience and bed time prayers), a devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, and taking time for some part of her Rosary, I don’t think it’s too much to ask. Many lay people seem naturally to be able to incorporate daily Mass into their schedule. I’m acquainted with a group in Jamaica, called Mustard Seed which cares for abandoned children (often handicapped physically or mentally, these days frequently HIV positive from birth) and one of their principles for all who volunteer with them at Mustard Seed is that 10% of each day (2 ½ hours) belongs to God. Catholic or not if you come to Kingston to serve you spend that much time in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament each day, as do the children, who seem to understand that they’re doing something important before God. Two and a half hours!
An older priest friend of mine was sharing his deep concern with me this summer for those who turn their back on the Catholic Church and look elsewhere because they feel neglected or even hassled by the Catholic Church, the Church in which they grew up. Invariably they make their home in some group whose approach to life is more black and white, and always more emotional with no small amount of hype. My priest friend thought that better preaching on Sunday might help matters. I’m sure it would. Myself, I guess I’d be tempted also at every instance to encourage people not to be so standoffish in their relationship with God; I’d be inclined to coax and cajole people like Jesus in today’s Gospel to be asking God more, to be begging Him, reaching out to Him, “Our Father”, establishing that relationship of absolute dependence upon the only One worthy of our trust, Whom we have come to know in and through Jesus, the only One who is light and life for the world, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
You’ll invariably run into people who are convinced that life is so different nowadays that the “faith of our fathers” so to speak has to be looked at differently. Often, well-meaning people not that much a part of the Catholic Church wonder when the Church is going to modernize; they ask this without even really thinking about what they are asking or knowing the point of the question. Granted, our ancestors didn’t know high definition TV; they had no cell phones, no laptops, traveled less and had more job security. But Jesus came once and for all. Better health care and nutrition or not, life is not really that much different today than it was a hundred years ago or even more. You can’t really presume when you start out that your life expectancy on the charts will translate into a life any longer than that of your parents or grand parents or that modern day health care will secure you more quality of life or less pain than your arthritic grandmother had. Young people die all the time today too. Faithfulness a whole life long in marriage requires the same faith today as it did for them. If you live life on your own terms, without prayer and without God, the consequences are what they are. That has never really changed.
Lord, teach us to pray! Say “Our Father”. Ask, Seek, Knock! Depend upon God for that which goes beyond our daily bread! Life with and in Him, which translates into the good life without end in God!
They tell us that there’s all together too much emphasis put on youth, health and beauty. I would agree, but without forgetting that what we see in the child, the youth, the young adult is God’s gift and a reminder, albeit through the looking glass and somewhat darkly, of that which God wills for us and for all eternity. Get your act together, get things straight, and turn to the Giver of all good gifts! Say “Our Father”!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Attentive to God and Neighbor

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Holy Cross Parish
21-22 July 2007, Hutchinson, KS

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

All those of you who are fans of the monthly prayer book MAGNIFICAT may have noticed that the cover picture for July, a painting from Johann Friedrich Overbeck, entitled "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary", not only captures the scene of our Gospel today, of Jesus admonishing Martha and taking Mary’s part, but through the window in the painting we can see last week’s Gospel of the parable of the Good Samaritan! That’s a wonderful sort of art as far as I am concerned. We should never underestimate the value of good Christian art not only to help lift our minds and hearts to God in prayer because of its beauty, but to inspire and teach us as well.
Just as we see it in Overbeck’s painting, so it is in fact: the teachings of these two Sundays are different but complementary. Being a neighbor to those in need like the Good Samaritan was for the man left for dead by robbers on the road to Jericho is a crucial part of our Christian calling. No less important is genuine and generous hospitality, true hospitality as illustrated in the First Reading and Gospel for today, that is, attentiveness to the guest.
What was Martha’s mistake that won her a little reproof from Jesus? Abraham too in the First Reading from the Book of Genesis is rushing around. It’d be hard to fault Martha on that account, but Abraham, different than she, really is attentive to the three passersby: he welcomes them, he feeds them, and most importantly, he has time to talk with them. Martha has an idea of how this visit from Jesus and His companions should come off and is always looking over her shoulder at her sister wishing for her help in the kitchen. But it is not Martha; it is Mary who understands that a guest in their house is there to be with and to be cherished, first and foremost. Preparing and serving the lunch and deciding which dishes or napkins come out with that lunch may have a certain importance, but Mary has chosen the better part, much to the pleasure and approval of her Sacred Guest.
Abraham did not go to all the fuss he did because he guessed the true identity of the three men. No, he offered the hospitality common to his day and because he kept the men company as they ate and rested in the shade Abraham was also rewarded with an encounter with God and good news of the heir, the baby boy by his wife Sarah, that the couple had all but given up hoping for.
Visiting with my cousins up in Sioux Falls this summer the topic of “progressive dinners” came up and there was a laugh and a comment about not only how rarely people entertain today, but how the quality of potluck suppers has fallen as people resort to delis for their contribution, as no one seems to have time for cooking any more. The progressive dinner thing was definitely out as that would mean upsetting not one but five households for an evening. Abraham’s and Martha’s concerns might in a sense belong to another culture and other times, but attentiveness to the other, to the guest, never goes out of style and carries with it the same reward, as it did for Abraham (receiving confirmation of a covenant promise to him, which he had all but despaired of seeing fulfilled) and as it did for Mary in her home in Bethany seated at Jesus’ feet and taking in His every word.
A retired priest friend of mine up north told me about the small town or rural weekly newspapers he enjoys so very much yet today, not only because of the obituaries, but also for the news items about someone’s son and his family who were home to the farm for a visit and the like. I didn’t realize that such papers still existed, papers that value what’s important to Mom and Dad, so to speak. I don’t think Father knows all these people, but he sees the small town papers as placing the accent on what’s really important. They come from that more personable world of once upon a time, which had its etiquette and its propriety, it was often quite formal, but because of this deliberate, and though by our standards slow-paced lifestyle, a world marked by social interaction. It was a valuable world of relationships, more valuable I’d say than what we glean from a whole Sunday afternoon of TV or video games or phoning and chatting on the internet.
Did Abraham expect a visit from God personally by his tent under the terebinth of Mamre? Was Martha any less aware of the importance of Jesus than her sister Mary? Maybe neither question is to the point and doesn’t or can’t lead us where we want to or ought to go. Sunday afternoon visits to and from relatives were not exactly what you’d call transcendental experiences and nothing would be gained by bringing them back, but much is lost in the distracted isolation which is so common to our society. Distracted isolation steals time from immediate and extended family; distracted isolation leaves little room in our lives for God and His surprise visits.
God entered the lives of Abraham and Sarah, of Martha, Mary and Lazarus through attentive social exchange. I have no doubt that the reason Perpetual Adoration is so popular today is because it’s one of the few face to face encounters left in our lives; it’s a quiet break from all the pushing, shoving, elbowing and digital connectedness which keeps us at arm’s length from everyone, including ourselves.
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Jesus is speaking to lots of us here today. What are we to do? Take the reprimand and react! Don’t waste another moment! Choose the better part as Mary of Bethany did!
People may not be able to manage the time needed for you to slaughter and barbeque a fattened steer, bake bread and set out curds and milk, as Abraham did for strangers, but then as Mary knew and Martha learned, that really wasn’t the point. The win or gain comes in treasuring the other and opening up to him or her.
Quality living begins at home as we take time for our spouse, for our children, for our parents, and for the extended family and neighborhood. How much time is wasted on Google Searches and the like, which could be better “wasted” in listening to someone or just being together and thereby affirming the other’s worth, even without words.
It’s not a question of choosing a different, alternative or otherwise radical lifestyle, it has nothing to do particularly with ecology or of moving to an acreage and raising goats and chickens, but represents a choice in favor of real society and is indeed a premise for possible encounters with God in our lives, which may be no less striking or dramatic for us than they were for Abraham and Sarah or for the family in Bethany.
Let thoughtful interpersonal relations open another door to prayer and adoration of the One God living and true for each and every one of us! The two great commandments of love of God and love of neighbor require not only sacrifices of us but attentiveness to the other, human or divine, which carries with itself its own reward.