July 24, 2016
This homily was preached on July 27 and 28, 2013, at then-Blessed John XXIII University Parish in Knoxville, TN. It reflects the readings for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C): Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:12-14; and Luke 11:1-13.
This year, we’ve talked about how the Gospel of Luke is the gospel of history, the gospel of women, and the gospel of the Holy Spirit. Today we focus on it also being the gospel of prayer. We’ll return to Luke’s insights on prayer in our Sunday readings throughout the month of October.
There are three sections to today’s gospel passage. The middle section bothers a lot of people. It talks about the grumpy neighbor we wake in the middle of the night to ask for bread for unexpected guests. Jesus says, “if he does not get up to give [you] the loaves because of [your] friendship, he will get up to give [you] whatever [you] need because of [your] persistence.” Is God like a grumpy neighbor? No! That’s not the point of Jesus’ analogy! The point is that we should be persistent in our prayer. The third section of the gospel passage sings the praises of persistence in prayer.
And in case you have any doubts about the benefits of persistence in prayer, our first reading is the ultimate example of what happens when we’re persistent in our conversation with God.
We are seekers. We continue to knock on the door. We have asked “our Father who art in heaven” for the Holy Spirit, and he has lavishly fulfilled our requests!
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” We are all seekers of the kingdom of God, but most of us in this room are further along the path of seeking than the general population. We believe that there is a God. We have come to understand something about who God is through Jesus Christ. And we understand that belonging to the Church community – both local and universal – is essential to our continuing growth in discipleship. Parents, you have come to understand this deeply enough that you have asked us to “knit” your child into Christ’s Body in a way that can never be undone. You have promised to raise her as a member of the Church community – both as a member of Blessed John XXIII Parish, and as a member of the worldwide Church.
Many, many people in the world are not nearly as sure as we are that God exists. They are skeptical of our claims about the man known as Jesus of Nazareth. They are extremely skeptical of an institution as large and as old as the Church. We have an obligation to welcome and encourage those people who are seekers, even those who don’t know yet what they’re seeking. I’m sure you remember from last week’s homily that you’ve all agreed to sit as far away from the back door as possible for the four weeks of August. (It’s still July, so you’re not in trouble today.) And you’ve agreed to greet any spiritual seekers sitting near the door by saying “We’re glad that you’re here!”
You may have heard that Pope Francis issued his first encyclical three weeks ago, called Lumen Fidei, the Light of Faith. It’s actually mostly the work of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, with a few tweaks by Francis. I love this encyclical because it talks about faith and belief to people who live in the scientific, post-modern culture. Francis and Benedict seriously engage with those people who question the most basic concepts of faith, acknowledging that many secular people see faith not as light, but as darkness that leads to blind obedience and fanaticism. They discuss the ideas of two people we wouldn’t expect to hear mentioned in papal documents: Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously declared “God is dead,” and a fictional character of Dostoevsky who is repulsed by a painting of Christ’s crucifixion.
If we really want to minister to people who are seekers, we must take their concerns seriously, rather than dismiss them as foolish. Until they come to believe in God, we are all that they have to represent God. We must be open to their persistent questions, as God is open to our persistence in prayer. Actively listening is exhausting work, but we must strive to have the energy to listen authentically to those who seek. When the young uneducated baker Isaac Hecker followed his heart to the Brook Farm transcendentalist commune in the 1840s, he was so authentic in his search for the divine that the leading thinkers of the day – including Ralph Waldo Emerson – nicknamed him “Earnest, the Seeker.” After Isaac Hecker was baptized into the Catholic Church, became a priest, and founded the Paulist Fathers, he was always willing to listen to the people who themselves were earnestly seeking the kingdom of God. A remarkably high number of those people eventually became Catholics!
Jesus proclaims, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” But there’s a danger in our welcoming of the true spiritual seekers. We may set the bar too low for those of us already aware of our relationship with God. When we pray to our Father, “your kingdom come,” we have to really mean it.
Last year, a man named Thomas Bergler wrote a book called The Juvenilization of American Christianity. In it, he argues that we’ve become so good in recent years at promoting “come as you are” spirituality to genuine seekers, that sometimes we make it sound as if being a spiritual seeker is all that you need to do to be a disciple.
No! We are called to grow. To use the analogies of Francis and Benedict (that really appeal to me as an amateur musician and a former optical engineer), once we have seen the light of faith, we must listen the Word of God. We need to be challenged continually by God’s word to us, to grow continually in our personal relationship with God, and through that to grow continually in our relationship with all the people of God. We have to risk continually, to trust in God continually. It’s not a one-time deal!
Francis and Benedict speak about the example of Abraham, our father in faith. Abraham had to trust for 25 years for God to fill the promise of providing an heir, to trust later that God knew what he was doing when he asked Abraham to sacrifice that same son, and to trust for centuries after his own death that God would fulfill the promise of descendants as numerous as the stars in a land of their own. To be a person of faith, say Francis and Benedict, we can’t just remember God fulfilling promises to us in the past. We must also remember God’s promises about the future, and live our lives in ways that are authentic to those promises. We must open ourselves to God’s invitation to keep growing. Otherwise, how will God make the future possible?
Because faith is a task of remembering the past and being open to the future, Benedict and Francis declare, “It is impossible to believe on our own. Faith is not simply an individual decision… nor a completely private relationship between the “I” of the believer and the divine ‘Thou’ [of God]. Faith is open to the ‘We’ of the Church” (#39). We are strengthened in faith by the men and women in all places, passed on from generation to generation (#38).
Yes, we continue to seek the kingdom of God, but our deepening understanding of God’s kingdom calls us to greater discipleship. God will ask more and more of us as we continue on the path of discipleship. Like in any caring relationship, there is always more that we can give to one another. God continually challenges us to serve more, to grow more, to be more authentic, to be more forgiving of everyone in debt to us. The light of faith and the Word of God continually call us to push ourselves beyond what’s comfortable, to ask God for the gifts that we don’t yet possess.
Like Abraham, we need to remember God’s promises about the future. And what better way is there for us to envision the promise of the future—and the passing on of faith to the next generation – than to celebrate the baptism of a baby? If we know how to provide gifts for our children and for the spiritual seekers in our lives, how much more will God give the necessary gifts to those of us who ask with persistence?