16 Oct 2016
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Everybody was gathered around the table. The candles were all lit on the birthday cake, and they’d just finished singing “Happy Birthday.” And somebody said, “Ok, now make a wish and blow out your candles!” Of course, it was a “silent wish,” because you’re not supposed to say it out loud. And all the candles were blown out in a single breath, and the smoke floated up as the party continued on. But whatever happened to that wish?
About five years ago, Saint Clare Parish did some long-range planning. And, in that, there was a lot of focus on wishes and dreams. There were dreams of unity in the parish. There were wishes for a new, single worship site; there were also wishes of keeping our church buildings. There were dreams of more meaningful, engaging celebrations of Mass; there were wishes for innovation, there were dreams of respecting tradition. There were dreams of a new sense of community and collaboration.
There were a lot of wishes and dreams five years ago. Whatever happened to them? When the smoke cleared from Saint Clare’s birthday cake, where did the dreams go? Did they die? Are they just on hold? Are they still in play? And, of course, we could ask that question about any dreams we have or any wishes we make; especially the ones that just seem to disappear with the birthday candle smoke.
In all our readings from Scripture today, there’s a constant theme of “persistence;” especially persistence in prayer. And I suppose one message we could take away from that is: Persistence will get you what you’re looking for. In the gospel, there’s the widow who returns again and again to the dishonest judge, demanding a just judgment from him. As we heard, that judge eventually caves in because of the widow’s persistence. And in Genesis, Moses’ ability to keep his arms raised—even when he just can’t do it anymore—his steadfastness wins the battle against the Amalekites.
So, I suppose we could say that persistence (in prayer) will get us justice and victory. And those are both good things. But what about when our faithfulness to prayer—our persistence in asking God for what we need—what happens when that doesn’t bring any returns? Well, then I suppose we would hear the voice of Saint Paul chime in and say, “Be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient;” whether it is fruitful or not. In other words, he’s saying: Remain hopeful and positive in our prayers and wishes.
But there’s a piece missing in this whole picture. We know what our dreams and wishes are. But what about God’s? After all, God is pretty big dreamer; I mean, just look at all the variety and intricacy there is in the created world! You have to have a pretty big imagination to dream up (and make) everything that’s “visible and invisible.”
I imagine most of us have been in a situation where somebody just keeps talking and talking and talking. And that other person just won’t let you get a word in. And even if they do, somehow they manage to turn it around so that, before you know it, the conversation is centered on them again. Of course, that’s what we call a “monologue,” not a “dialogue.” When we think about our dreams and wishes—whether as a parish or as individuals and families—we have to ask: Are we engaged in a monologue with God listening, or in a dialogue where God also has a voice? That’s is so often the missing piece when it comes to persistence in prayer. We’re persistent in voicing our wishes, our dreams. But we’re not persistent in asking God what his dreams and wishes are. And we know he has them.
When Jesus says, “Pray always,” he’s saying, “Be in dialogue with God always.” The original Greek word in the gospel [proseúxomai] we translate as “pray” means more literally to “exchange wishes.” It means to “interact with the Lord by exchanging our human wishes with his divine wishes.” In a nutshell, that’s what it means to pray.
Now, we use all sorts of words to describe that exchange. We talk about being in “conversation” with the Lord, or being in “dialogue” with the Lord. We talk about prayer as a “sharing” with God, or as “walking humbly with our God.” And, of course, we all hear about being “in relationship” with God.
But this isn’t just a casual relationship. It isn’t an exchange that happens when we’re “in the mood.” Jesus says, “Pray always.” And, again, Saint Paul says, “Be persistent whether it’s convenient or inconvenient.” And this is where the story of the widow comes in.
In the gospel we hear the dishonest judge say, “Because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” And, again, the original Greek word is helpful. It shows that the widow wasn’t just “bothering” the judge, she was “beating him down.” The original Greek means, literally, to punch somebody in the face just below the eye. It means “to give someone intolerable annoyance;” to beat somebody down, to wear somebody out by asking and asking and asking and asking.
And that’s what Jesus puts out there as the model for praying to God. We’re supposed to be like a congregation of 3-year olds who will just not stop asking God questions! That’s the sort of exchange Jesus has in mind when he says, “Pray always.” But, here again, it’s not persistence in a monologue; it’s persistence in a dialogue, in an exchange between our wishes, our desires, and God’s wishes, God’s desires.
Jesus asks one of those questions that sort of lingers through the centuries. He asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” So Jesus was talking about prayer, and then about persistence in prayer, and now he’s asking about faith. “Will he find faith on earth?” And there are several definitions of “faith” (all related). But the “faith” he’s talking about in the gospel today is that “persistence in prayer,” that “persistence in the exchange between God and us.” But faith isn’t merely a conversation with God; it’s letting God’s wishes and dreams take priority over our own—by trusting that God’s will is real and good.
And so the models of faith Jesus puts out there for us are people like Moses. In the midst of the battle with the Amalekites, Moses kept up his persistent exchange of thoughts and desires with God—and let God take the lead, whether it was convenient or inconvenient. We can even look to the widow as an example of faith. She’s someone who would beat on God’s door incessantly, shouting out, “God, what’s your will!? How is this supposed to go!? I’ll do what you want, but you gotta make it clear to me! Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!”
Faith is that incessant exchange between God and us, where we’re like that congregation of 3-year olds who will just not stop asking God what his wishes are! It’s about letting God persuade us that his way is a good way, and letting his wishes and dreams become ours.
There were a lot of wishes and dreams five years ago when Saint Clare Parish did its long-range planning. When the smoke cleared from Saint Clare’s birthday cake, the dreams and wishes didn’t go anywhere; they’re still around. They’re still in people’s hearts and minds; they’re still on paper; they’re still in discussion. But until they’re brought into conversation—and exchange—with what God has in mind for us, they’ll only be what we want. And we won’t have acted with as much faith as we could have.
And so, with this “call to faith,” this call to an “incessant exchange between God and us,” and letting God persuade us with his dreams and wishes—with this call in mind, the parish will go into a time of more intense prayer and faith to discern what is God’s will for us. What are God’s wishes for us? What does he have in mind?
Over the next three months, until around the end of January, we’ll be working on this with God’s help. God so oftentimes reveals his will through the course of human history. And so, starting today, we’re going to work on writing a parish history. Where did St. Mary Greenleaf, St. Patrick Askeaton, and St. Paul Wrightstown come from? What are the stories of the people of those former parishes? How was God working (or not working) in the lives of our not-so-distant ancestors?
And what’s been the history of St. Clare Parish these past eight and a half years? How has God been working (or not working) in our lives as a parish? It’s an important question to consider—our parish and God’s will—because, of course, it’s his parish; it’s his church. How has God worked in the past, in the present, and what is his will for us for the future? Look for more information about this important project of writing our parish history.
And then in Advent, there’ll be a parish-wide retreat: eight days of considering what God’s wishes are for each of us as: individuals, families, youth, elderly. More information to come on that. And then, at the close of January and the start of February, our new picture directory will come out, our parish history will have started in a big way, we’ll hopefully have become more focused on the will of God, and we’ll put the wishes of God in exchange with wishes and make some of those important decisions about our direction and identity as a parish. But that direction won’t come without first answering the Lord’s call to faith.
Jesus asked, “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will he find incessant faith right in this parish? Well, let’s hope so! Let’s be like a congregation of 3-year olds who just won’t stop asking God all those questions of faith: “God, what is your will? What do you want? Well, how does that work, God? Here’s what I think . . . what do you think? Ok, that sounds good.” Let’s be a parish of incessant prayer and exchange with our God. Let’s be a people of real faith.