17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

No one is an expert on prayer. We all have something to learn, and we all have something to teach. Despite our common ideas about prayer, it is still very much a personal experience, much like relationships. Someone else’s triumphs and tribulations might resonate because certain things about relationships can be observed and quantified, but not everything. So people who are terrible at relationships can still give relationship advice, and write books, and get paid for it. It’s the same thing with meteorologists. In the end, having expert knowledge isn’t what really matters most. Instead, it’s about how that expert knowledge is conveyed. Basically, you’re trying to convince people to want what you have to offer. And if they already like what you’re offering, that life can be even better when they have more of it. Details at 11:00.

In its simplest form, prayer is any attempt to communicate with God. Sometimes we speak of praying to the Virgin Mary, or to some saint or other. Clearly, prayer is communication on a level other than the physical or material. We don’t refer to our conversations with friends as prayer, unless they’ve moved on to the great beyond. But we can communicate with the living even when they’re physically absent, as when we send letters and cards, or email or voicemail or text. Using physical and material things assures us some interaction is happening. And we can communicate in real time as well, using a phone, or skype or facetime, or some other app. Or we might actually meet with them at some physical location, in the same time zone and zip code, the same building, the same room, complete with eye contact or physical touch, over dinner or drinks.

Prayer however is never accomplished as easily or as efficiently. When talking to a living, breathing person, we can pick up observable cues, little hints they drop even when they don’t realize it. And they can tell whether we’re even listening or not, and whether we’re even pleased to see them or not. If you doubt you’re sending these cues, talk to someone who can be brutally honest with you. Even the best poker face will let their guard down eventually. But God rarely if ever gives us so much as a clue.

When it comes to prayer, science is seldom a useful tool. So we judge the quality of our prayer based on our feelings or convictions. Some people believe they can tell whether God is listening or not. Others are sure God is always listening even when they feel nothing. It’s all extremely subjective. And you don’t argue about it or dismiss it.

Abraham was among a very select few in the bible able to converse with God as good friends do. Today’s passage from Genesis picks up where last week’s story ended, with Abraham hosting three travelers at his tent in the desert. Abraham knows they were no ordinary visitors. So after they had eaten, the Lord tells him the real reason for the visit. He was on his way to see for himself whether the outcry against Sodom was as bad as he had heard, apparently because people told God about it in their prayers. And Abraham sensed divine retribution was on its way. So he pleads to God for the clueless residents of Sodom, hoping the opposite was also true, that a few good apples can save a basket of stinky rotten wormy ones from the compost heap.

So Abraham bargains with God, which is a completely predictable response when things happen that we disagree with or dislike. It is also a significant step in the process of death and dying, and how we believe any bad thing can be prevented or undone by sheer force of our resistance or non-acceptance. And Abraham acted without regret, going that extra yard or two, hoping God would change course. And yet he wasn’t bargaining for his own benefit. The safety of his nephew Lot who went to live in Sodom might have been a factor. But Abraham was clearly pleading with God for other people, exactly what persistent, unrelenting, persevering intercessory prayer looks like.

In the gospel, Jesus also tells a parable about the power of intercession, about a man who unapologetically bothers his next-door neighbor already in bed just so his visiting friend doesn’t go hungry while under his roof. The man wasn’t embarrassed that his neighbor would see him every day after that. He was more concerned that a passing guest would be inconvenienced by his lack of basic hospitality, though he probably won’t see him again anytime soon. Hospitality was a big deal in their culture.

This culture of hospitality explains the man’s strange behavior, and the things that transpire while Abraham pleads with God. During their conversation, God’s two traveling companions continue on to the house of Abraham’s nephew Lot in Sodom. A mob had gathered at the door because Lot is a foreigner in their midst, and they are very suspicious of his mysterious visitors, demanding that they be handed over for mistreatment and abuse. History and tradition have summarily assumed that the sin of Sodom had everything to do with sexual perversion. But in the chapter just before the passage we read from Luke today, Jesus tells the 72 disciples he sends out ahead of him that “it would be more tolerable for Sodom than for those towns that reject them and their message.”[1] Did Jesus mean to say something was worse than sexual perversion? In this context, the towns that lacked hospitality and rejected his disciples’ mission of repentance and reconciliation were committing a greater offense. And we should recall that God sent Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt because he heard their cries of anguish for their mistreatment and abuse. Moses would remind Israel not long after that they should not mistreat any foreigners either because they were foreigners once themselves, and when they cried out to God, God heard them, and punished their oppressors.

Persistent, persevering intercessory prayer is the act of unapologetically pleading with God for the suffering and the broken, for our friends and neighbors, and yes, even for strangers, anyone alienated from God and from one another, undeterred by shame and self-respect, or of being an unbearable annoyance, or of throwing away a treasured friendship because the safety and welfare of another is a greater priority than one’s own perfect image or pride. It is what Abraham did for the clueless residents of Sodom. It is what Jesus did embracing his passion and cross to reconcile sinful humanity with God. It is the same mission Jesus entrusted to his church, to speak for those without a voice, the weak, and the suffering, to plead with God for them, without fear or shame.

Our politics may diverge on many different issues. Hopefully we find ourselves on the same side as God where it matters, and a basketful of stinky, rotten, wormy apples can be healed and transformed by a few good ones. So be among the few, good apples, who will not tire of crying out to God on behalf of his children in need.

Rolo B Castillo © 2019

[1]Luke 10: 12