Being insistent in prayer: Sermon for Sunday, August 13, 2023
St. Paul gets away with saying some crazy things in the Scriptures. In the letter to the Colossians, he writes that he is making up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Col 1:24). To the Galatians he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal 3:28). And today he tells us that he could wish that he were “accursed and cut off from Christ” (Rom 9:3).
Paul is speaking about the anguish that comes from seeing his own people – the Jewish people – reject the Messiah. The epistle today from the ninth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is his wail of lament for their lack of faith. Paul emphasizes that Jesus came from the Jewish people, that He is the fulfillment of the promises made to them from of old. “They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (Rom. 9:4-5). The entire Old Testament, the entire history of the Jewish people, not only points to Christ but already contains Him in mystery. To see those who should have been the first to recognize Jesus as Lord reject Him as a false prophet brings Paul “great sorrow and constant anguish [of] heart” (Rom 9:2).
I think that we can all relate in some way to Paul’s lament, his “great sorrow and anguish of heart.” Many if not all have had the experience of anguishing over those we love who are even greater inheritors of God’s promises than the Jewish people. Anyone who has received the life of Christ in Baptism has received not only the promise of Messiah to come but actually has experienced the Holy Trinity dwelling within himself – taking part in the inner life of God. And yet we all know people – members of our families, our children, our friends, former members of our parish – who have chosen not to acknowledge God’s call to them to participate in the life of Christ in His Church.
So if you have experienced this “great sorrow and constant anguish” over someone you love who is not living in accord with her baptismal dignity – who has abandoned the Church or faith in Christ altogether – you are in good company. Maybe you have even desired that you yourself would lose the gift of faith if it would bring back that other person. Or maybe you have wondered whether you can accept the faith of a Church that has seemed to reject someone you love. Paul himself says that he “could wish to be accursed and cut off from Christ” because of the pain of seeing the people that he loves excluded from salvation because of their refusal to live as Christ’s disciples.
So how do we respond to the sorrow and anguish that exists in so many of our souls because of the lack of faith or lack of willingness to practice the faith around us? St. Paul shows us the first step. We should not run from this trial but should embrace it and recognize the pain that it causes. The texts of the Holy Mass are filled with such urgent pleas for God’s assistance. In the entrance antiphon we heard today: “Look to your covenant, O Lord, and forget not the life of your poor ones forever. Arise, O God, and defend your cause, and forget not the cries of those who seek you.” Most of us bring God prayers of petition on a regular basis, but how often do we make clear the urgency of our request? Too often, our prayers are a hurried afterthought rather than the urgent and desperate pleas of the saints.
A person is prepared to plead urgently and desperately when he knows that the person with whom he is pleading has the power to grant his request. But if we’re not sure, if we don’t really know that the other person can do what we want or need, we ask hesitatingly and give them implicit permission to say no. It’s like when you ask an employee at a store, “Hey, I don’t know if you all can do this or not, but would it be possible to …?” When they tell you “no,” you smile and assure them it’s okay. You’ve been polite and considerate. But this is not what our prayers should be like, especially our prayers for the conversion of those we love.
When I lived in Italy, it was a frustrating experience to get anything you wanted on a shopping trip. Whenever what I was looking for wasn’t available on the shelves (which was pretty much always) it was time to do battle with the store clerk. I knew that they had what I wanted in the store room, but the clerks were always too lazy to go get it. The most common response was: “Non esiste.” (“It doesn’t exist.”)
One day I went shopping with a friend. He asked the store clerk for something and got that singularly aggravating response: “Non esiste.” I swooped in and told the clerk that what we were looking for existed last week and was still labeled on the shelf, and that he had better go get one from the store room. Sure enough the non-existent item soon appeared. Leaving the store, I told my friend – who was still rather in shock – “You have to understand that for Italians, ‘no’ is not an answer. It’s a negotiating position. And it’s the one they always start from.”
If we had stopped with my friend’s timid response – the one that gave the shop keeper the permission to sit there on his lazy rear end and pretend that the item that we wanted didn’t exist – we would have walked out empty handed. But instead, I knew that he had what we wanted, and I knew that his shop was the only place we were going to find it without having to walk all the way across town through crowds of tourists in the sweltering Roman heat, so I knew that timid response wasn’t going to be enough. Something similar happens when a person in need asks for your help. If he asks you, “Hey, it would be nice if you could spare some change,” you’re probably not going to do anything. But when you meet someone who is truly in need, and you look into his eyes and just know that unless you help him out he is going hungry tonight, then your hand starts moving for your wallet before you’re quite sure what is happening.
That is the attitude we should take before God in prayer. As St. Augustine wrote, “Man is a beggar before God.” When we pray for those who have fallen away from the true Faith, we must enter that anguish expressed by St. Paul, even to the point of being capable of wishing that we ourselves would be cut off from Christ if we cannot win souls back for Him. When we have this total reliance – knowing that God can work the miracle for which we plead and knowing that only He can do so – then we will have the faith of the mustard seed that is able to move mountains (Matt. 17:20).
When we plead urgently and desperately with the Lord, we do not wear out his patience. Rather, we profess our faith that he is the one who can work miracles, not us. One person who lived this was St. Monica. Her profligate son was living a life of dissipation, but she never ceased to plead with God for his conversion. Eventually, in His own time, God directed her son to a mentor and good friends who would lead him to Christ. According to his autobiography, it was the tears of St. Monica that lead to the conversion of her son, who went on not only to become a faithful Christian but even a bishop, a saint, and the greatest theologian in the history of the Christian West, St. Augustine of Hippo (and the author of the first ever autobiography, The Confessions).
If you have great sorrow and constant anguish in your heart over your own “kindred according to the flesh” or over any other beloved brother or sister in Christ, do not despair, but also do not be afraid of the sorrow and anguish you experience. Bring them to the Lord with urgency and earnest trust that only He can convert hearts back to Himself, and the pain you experience will become an offering pleasing to the Lord that will bring about conversion and healing and move the most surprising of souls to join with the Apostles in professing, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XIX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXIII
Image: Gustave Brion, JESUS AND PETER ON THE WATER (JESUS ET PIERRE SUR LES EAUX ), 1863