Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
December 13, 2015
Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Philippians 4: 4-7
Luke 3: 7-18
Here we are on “Gaudete” or “Rejoicing” Sunday. We have reached the halfway point in Advent, which we mark by lighting the pink candle on our Advent wreath this morning. It signals that we now have less than two weeks to prepare our hearts and our world for welcoming our Lord Jesus Christ, who came into our history as a vulnerable and innocent child, at Christmas. And so, Saint Paul’s admonition in today’s reading from his Letter to the Philippians: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything….” came to me as a thunderclap—especially in the wake of the foreign and domestic terror attacks of the past month. “Really,” I thought to myself, “do not worry about anything?” And then, seeming to add insult to an incandescent injury, Saint Paul goes on to say, “…but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guide your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Clearly, I groused, Saint Paul’s words have nothing to do with the backdrop to this Christmas of 2015 and our violent and distracted world. I wonder just how many of us are “rejoicing”—let alone “praying”—with just eleven so-called shopping-days until Christmas and, more ominously, in the overshadowing presence of such sheer evil—foreign and domestic—in our midst.
And, if we widen the lens of our vision just a little, we must somehow reckon as well with the sad irony that children are suffering and dying all over our world: 8,000 die every day from illnesses caused by lack of access to clean water; 20 percent of American children live in poverty; and at least 250,000 civilians—many of them children—have been killed to date in Syria’s on-going civil war, with almost one-half of that country’s population having been driven by the fighting to foreign refugee camps or to the dangerous and unwelcoming shores of southeastern Europe. We need not look any further than our news outlets to see that Bethlehem’s “Holy Innocents” are still being slaughtered in their thousands by the “King Herods” of our world! For so many of us, rejoicing may not even be on our agenda this Advent.
And then, there is, perhaps, an even deeper and more troubling question: Why “pray” at all since God knows everything? What is the use of our “supplication” through what we call petitionary and intercessory prayer? There is, after all, a disposition in our world these days—even among believers—to question the value and importance of prayer, especially petitionary and intercessory prayer. The banner headline of the New York Daily News regarding the San Bernadino terror assault caught the sentiment when it screamed: “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS!” Why, many rightly ask, do we need to pray for others and ourselves when God already knows our desires and our needs? If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then surely a God who, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “is our righteousness” doesn’t need our prayers or our goading to act with justice, righteousness, and redemption. So, why pray for ourselves or for others—especially in these circumstances? Surely, they cannot have escaped God’s notice!
Now, this is all quite true and, as I often tell those who come to me for spiritual direction, God is neither informed nor enlarged by our prayers. And yet, this is not the real issue with prayer. Once we understand prayer as fundamentally a relationship and communion with God—regardless of our words or lack of them—prayer becomes an opportunity for us to become more deeply connected to God, that Horizon of gracious and loving Mystery, by God’s grace. God may not need our prayers, but God surely wants them because we need them so much, especially in times of crisis and tragedy such as we are facing these days. Any opportunity for conscious, intimate relationship with God—and with others in God—makes our actual words of prayer far less significant than our desire to be related to God, to our sisters and brothers in Christ, and to the people of our crazed and suffering world. In the life of prayer, motivation and intention are everything. As Saint Teresa of Avila, that great sixteenth-century mystic and “Doctor of the Church” has written, “Prayer is never destroyed by the lack of attention, but only by the withdrawal of intention.” So, while God may not need our prayers, God surely wants them, and we need to pray them because they are a priceless and graced opportunity to grow in love, intimacy, and communion with God and with our neighbor. And this, God wants very much; not for God’s sake, but for ours. That tabloid newspaper was right: God is not going to fix our violent and distracted world without us because God has made us free creatures and has chosen us to join God in God’s unfinished and ongoing Creation of this world. By virtue of our Baptism, we gentiles are also God’s covenant partners in what the Jewish people call “tikkun olam,” the “repair of the world.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, God knows that we have no power in ourselves to become human persons fully considered unless and until we are consciously and intimately related to God as the Ground of Being, the Hidden Ground of Love. Each and every time we raise our minds and hearts to God in prayer—with or without words—we take another decisive step toward becoming who we truly are and who God intends us to be. Prayer deepens our knowledge and our communion of love and trust with God and with each other. And yes, we joyfully engage the work of prayer “with thanksgiving” because we are privileged to join God in Christ in the hard work of suffering love for our world. And it doesn’t matter whether we pray with words or without them in the silent, wordless “prayer of loving intention,” the “prayer of the heart,” “contemplative prayer.” It only matters that, as Saint Paul expresses it in another of his letters, we “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in every circumstance.” And, once again, we are assisted in this undertaking by the good advice of Saint Teresa of Avila when she admonishes us never to worry over the trial of distractions in prayer. She wisely tells her spiritual children: “Just let your mill clack on while you grind your wheat.”
We need prayer most of all during crisis, confusion, doubt, and in those dry seasons when it seems that God is absent, silent, or not listening at all. In fact, those are the most important times to persevere in prayer because, as Jesus reminds us, our heavenly Father always gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask God. This life-creating “ruach,” this “breath” of Love and Truth, the Comforter, Teacher, Counselor, and Paraklete—the “one who walks beside us”—unfailingly gives us the good that we need, even when we don’t know what that good is or, more likely, when we think that we do. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I give thanks to God every day for the many requests that—in God’s infinite, loving providence and wisdom—God did NOT grant me, thereby mercifully sparing me from so many false choices and apparent goods. For very often, God is merely waiting for our readiness to listen and to hear and to receive our real good before God responds to our prayers. And, what seems like God’s silence or delay is only God’s patient, persistent, dogged pursuit and cultivation of our alert receptivity for what the Anglican poet T.S. Eliot called “the purification of our motives in the ground of our own beseeching.” When we have Jesus’ promised gift of the Holy Spirit, we have everything that we could possibly want or need, because the “gifts of the Spirit” are “wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and due reverence for God.” And, according to Saint Paul, the “fruits of the Spirit”—which are the fruits of all our praying—are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, endurance, and faithfulness.” Can we conceive of desiring anything more than these gifts and fruits of the Spirit from our life of prayer?
My friends, God has an eternity to make us disciples and to give us the good that we need. And sometimes, we must be patient and wait for the “life of the world to come” for our complete satisfaction and fulfillment. Father Richard M. Benson, the founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, gave eloquent expression to this truth when he wrote:
“We are not to think that God cannot, or will not answer any prayer because he seems to let it go by. Remember that every prayer, prayed in union with our Lord, has stirred the depths of the Divine heart, and is treasured there for an eternal response. Wait, and you will find the answer, if not in this present time, then on the eternal shores of paradise—the answer of peace! Our prayers go ringing on in the ear of God until they are accomplished in the gifts of eternity.”
So we must never despair when, in our doubt or anger or confusion, we have no words or cannot find the right words to approach God in prayer. A wise monk once told me that, often, the best prayer of all is just the three simple words: “God help me.” I can’t even begin to count the times that I have simply cried out to God in my frustration, rage, or confusion with only these three, little words: “God help me.”
God is always yearning and searching for us, more consistently and ardently than we search and yearn for God. As Jesus reminds us, God wants to fill us with every true good, but we must be willing to persevere in the life of prayer and to open our hands to God in faithful prayer. We must take the leap into the circle of mutual love, intimacy, and communion that is the very inner life of God, a life that Christians haltingly call the “Holy Trinity.” And when “we dare not, or in our blindness cannot (BCP)” find words to ask God for God’s will for us, we must remember that the Holy Spirit is groaning and praying within us “with sighs too deep for words,” as Saint Paul expresses it. Prayer is a relationship, and it is only necessary that we show up for the “date” with the “naked intention for God,” mindful that, as the great German mystic Meister Eckhart has written—and as I have said many times before, and will likely say again—“God is always at home. It is we who have sometimes gone out for a walk!”
Let us pray, then, on this Third Sunday of Advent—and in the wake of the truly horrifying murders in Paris, Colorado, California, and around the world in this time of war and terror—for the true and abiding gift of prayer, remembering God’s pledge of the Holy Spirit to help us and Jesus’ promise that “everyone who asks, receives, and everyone who searches, finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” So, on this “Gaudete,” this “Rejoicing” Sunday, we can say with Saint Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guide your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The “ladies and gentlemen of the press” did have it right for a change: God will not fix our violent and distracted world because God expects us to repair it through the graces that come with the true gift of prayer!