(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 28, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Genesis 18: 20-32; Psalm 138; Luke 11: 1-13.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventeenth Sunday 2013]
I’ll begin my homily today with a couple of stories:
One night a little boy was kneeling beside his bed with his mother and grandmother, praying in a very soft voice: “Dear God please bless Mommy and Daddy and all the family, and please give me a good night’s sleep.” Then he suddenly looked up and shouted, “And please Lord, don’t forget that I need a new bicycle for my birthday!” His mother said, “Johnny, there’s no need to shout like that. God isn’t deaf.” The little boy leaned over toward his mother and whispered, “No, but Grandma is!”
One Christmas Day a four-year-old boy was asked to say grace before dinner. So he did. The boy thanked God for all his friends, naming them one by one. He thanked God for his mother, his father, his brothers, his sisters, his grandmother, his grandfather, all his aunts and uncles and cousins. Then he thanked the Lord for the food. He gave thanks for the turkey, the stuffing, the salad, the cranberry sauce, the pies and the cakes and the bread. Then he paused—for a long time. Finally he leaned over to his mom and said, “If I thank God for the broccoli, won’t he know that I’m lying?”
I give those two little boys a lot of credit, because each of them understood an important truth about prayer. The first one understood that God sometimes answers our prayers indirectly through other people (in this case, through Grandma); the second understood that it’s important to be honest when we pray—because every interpersonal relationship of love should be rooted in honesty! I think that for all too many people prayer is like a telemarketer’s call: it’s “strictly business.” But true prayer is supposed to be a dialogue (not a monologue!)—a dialogue with Someone whom we love. In other words it’s supposed to be an action whereby we nourish a relationship—a relationship with a Father who loves us with an eternal love. That’s why Jesus said to his disciples in today’s gospel, “When you pray, say, ‘Father’.” We are called to relate to the all-powerful, all-holy, all-knowing Creator of the universe like a little child relates to his dad! That’s an awesome privilege!
Abraham does that in today’s first reading does he not—in this very famous text where he intercedes for Sodom? By the way, the major sin in the city of Sodom was the sin that was eventually named after the city: a sin that our Supreme Court has recently told us is no big deal!
Today we should ask Abraham to pray for us as he prayed for the original Sodom all those years ago.
But my reason for mentioning this scene today is not to focus on that aspect of the story (that will be the topic for another homily), but rather to focus on the fact that Abraham relates to God in this scene like a typical son relates to his dad.
“Dad, can I go out for awhile with some of my friends tonight even though I have school tomorrow?”
“Sure, that’ll be ok.”
(5 minutes later) “Dad, can I stay out with my friends until 9 o’clock tonight?”
“Yes, I guess that would be ok.”
(5 minutes later) “Dad, would 9:30 be ok, since we have an awful lot to talk about?”
“Alright, 9:30 is fine.”
(5 minutes later) “Hey, Dad, how about 10 o’clock?”
“Don’t push it, kid! Be in at 9:30.”
I’m sure many of you dads—and moms!—have had conversations like that with your children (some of you probably have them on an almost daily basis!).
Abraham had that kind of conversation with Almighty God.
And God didn’t mind at all, because God wants us to relate to him in a personal, intimate, genuine, honest way. Take a look at the Book of Psalms sometime. The Book of Psalms was the prayer book of the Jewish people, through which they expressed themselves in a personal, intimate, genuine, honest way to the Lord. Today’s psalm at Mass was a psalm of thanksgiving; but there are psalms of praise, psalms for people in distress, for people in sorrow, for people who are confused, for people who need forgiveness. In fact, they say there’s a psalm for every human emotion and circumstance. And that’s the way it should be, because as human beings we experience a whole range of emotions and circumstances in our lives. Consequently, if we’re going to be honest and “real” with God, we need to be able to express ourselves honestly and genuinely to him in our prayer, regardless of what we’re dealing with in the present moment. If we’re happy, we need to be able to express that to the Lord. The same is true if we’re confused or grateful or sorrowful or repentant, etc.
The psalms give us that opportunity. So we should use them, at least occasionally, when we pray.
At the Steubenville Youth Conference every year one of the points they really try to drive home to the teenagers is that our Catholic religion is first and foremost about a relationship—a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that’s rooted in love and truth—and prayer! It’s not first and foremost about rules and commandments (which of course is what many people mistakenly believe!). That’s not to say that rules and commandments are unimportant. They are actually extremely important! But what makes them important and meaningful is their connection with this personal relationship we’re called to have with Jesus Christ and his heavenly Father! Properly understood, the commandments are “rules of love” that are meant to guide and enhance our relationship with the Lord. They’re rules that help us to love Jesus himself, and Jesus present in our brothers and sisters.
I’m always pleased when I see young people (and not so young people) begin to “get this”—as many teens do at the youth conference.
Then a lot of things about their Catholic faith start to make sense—including this idea about the role of prayer in nourishing and strengthening our relationship with the Lord.
Let me give you a few examples of what I mean. After the conference we invite the teens, if they wish, to write down their personal reflections in a notebook—and a number of them did that after the retreat concluded last Sunday. Here are some of the things they wrote . . .
One young man, reflecting on the powerful Saturday night prayer experience, said, “The night started out entertaining, and I was pumped! The songs and prayers that were said made me feel at peace with the Lord. I’ll admit, I was starting to get a little impatient waiting for Adoration to start. But, once it did start, I felt the Holy Spirit enter me. Whereas last year I cried, this year I wasn’t as emotionally impacted. However, this only ensured that the meaning and message of Jesus embedded itself in my soul in a more permanent spiritual manner. I almost cried at times, and at others I almost laughed. All I can say is I was at peace, and I knew that Jesus was always with me. That is what comforted me the most.”
(Notice the idea of “relationship” that stands behind his words.)
Another teen wrote, “This was my second year at Steubenville. Similar to last year, the awesome music helped me pray and worship and focus on Jesus. Although I felt that God had a different message for me than last year, it was good to come back and really feel the complete love Jesus has for all of us.”
And here’s one more from a young man who initially did not want to go: “I had originally thought about not going to Steubenville. I eventually changed my mind, and that was the best decision of my life! If you ever think about not coming, JUST COME! You won’t regret it! Steubenville is an awesome retreat! Lights flashing, music blaring, talks and Adoration that bring people to tears! You will leave a new and changed person! The people you meet are so respectful and everyone is open to making friends. [As the song says], ‘Chains be broken, lives be healed, eyes be opened when Christ is revealed!’ You honestly have no idea how good you’ll feel reviving and/or strengthening your faith and relationship with God!”
I couldn’t have said it better myself!
Prayer is where we nourish our personal relationship with Jesus Christ—first here at Mass, and then in our personal prayer time. Prayer is where we get the power to live and to love the way Jesus calls us to live and to love.
These teenagers, after their Steubenville experience, “get” that: they know it, and they understand it.
Hopefully we do, too.