Sunday, July 25, 2010

Final Words

Homily at Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NYC, July 25, 2010

(Mass of Thanksgiving for 10 Years as Associate Pastor)

It has, occasionally, been alleged that if I don’t know an answer, I just make something up. So let me assure you right away that everything I am saying to you today is for real – and from the heart.

An Episcopalian friend of mine once told me (more than 30 years ago now) that having a set Lectionary, instead of being able to choose the readings for yourself, is actually a great blessing, because it forces you to let God’s word set the theme instead of setting it yourself. If it had been up to me to pick the scripture readings for my final Mass as your Associate Pastor today, I very much doubt I would have chosen Abraham’s tedious argument with God about the doomed Cities of the Plain (Genesis 18:20-32). But that’s what the Church has set before us today – I presume in order to reinforce the Gospel’s emphasis on perseverance in prayer (Luke 11:1-13).

To be honest, I’m not sure how well that pairing actually works. Apparently, after all Abraham’s persistent effort, not even 10 innocent people could be found, and so the cities got destroyed anyway – not really the best advertisement perhaps for the benefits of petitionary prayer. Jesus may have had that in mind with his charming story of the father who knows enough to give his son the right fish or egg, no matter what. The reality is that a lot of our prayers don’t seem to get answered – at least not when and how we want them. I can remember praying to become a priest for far too manyyears before it finally happened. Now that I am finally getting to do what priests are primarily meant to do, serve a community as its pastor, one helpful friend recently quoted these words of Jesus to me and suggested tha tthe ;ien between the egg and the scorpion may be a very fine line indeed.
Maybe that’s why Jesus introduced his discussion of prayer with a prayer text of his own. Volumes have been written over the centuries about the Lord’s Prayer, and I certainly have nothing new or brilliant to add – not even anything to make up! But it does seem to me that Jesus was making a point by the way he structured his Prayer.

The first part of it is all about our conforming ourselves to God's agenda. The fact is God’s name will be hallowed, and God’s kingdom will come, whatever we say or do. What we’re really praying for here is that we may be fit for membership in God’s kingdom. When we look at it that way, then everything else we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer - and everything else we ever pray for anytime - only makes sense in relation to that primary petition. Abraham could presume on God’s response because he had already so completely aligned himself with God’s will.

And so must we.

So whatever we pray for, it becomes true prayer insofar as we are striving to align ourselves with God’s will and God’s kingdom, a task that is really the work of a lifetime. Jesus invites us – indeed, challenges us, and it is a challenge, because it really is hard sometimes to believe that our prayers are going to be answered. Jesus challenges us to trust that, whatever work we do and wherever we do it, when we align ourselves completely with his kingdom and make that the primary thing that we are about, then everything else will fall into place.

Additional Comments at the End of the Mass:

So now it’s time to say good-bye. (By this time tomorrow, I should be already ¾ of the way to Knoxville).

It’s been a great 10 years, and I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for everything – and above all for you, the people of Saint Paul the Apostle Parish, who have made this parish what it is and have made my time here such a blessing and a joy. I have repeatedly reminded people these past several weeks that good-bye does not necessarily mean farewell, and that with today’s technology people can remain as connected to one another as they care to be. Much more importantly, however, I believe – presumably we all believe (which is why we are in this Church here today) – that we are already all connected to one another where it matters most in the Body of Christ, the Church. Wherever we go in life, whatever we do, whatever our successes or our failures, we all always have a place together at the Lord’s Table.

And so, since the Church invites us to talk about prayer, I ask you finally to pray for me, to pray that I will be the person, the priest, and the pastor God has called me to be – that, as a person, my relationship with the Lord will grow ever more real, that, as a priest, I may be ever more conscious of the great treasure I have received in this vocation, and that, as a pastor, I may be a worthy shepherd for those I have been sent to serve.

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