Homilies and Poems

I am a Catholic Deacon and a Professor of English at Oregon State University. I've created this BLOG as a way of sharing my Sunday homilies, for anyone who would like copies, as well as some of my poetry. I'm also very glad to continue the conversation, over email or in person. Just click on "profile" and then onto my email address. Peace be with you and the Lord be with you. Also visit me at my website.

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Location: Corvallis, Oregon

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Prayer and a Programmable Coffee Pot (homily)

Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Timothy 2:1-8 and Luke 16:10-13

One key to my prayer life is a programmable coffee pot. I’m a morning person (sort of), and so it’s best for me to try to pray in the morning, and it really helps to have the coffee ready when I stumble out of bed. It also helps to go to bed early the night before. I can hardly wake up when I’ve watched TV all night, and I just have to discipline myself to stop doing that. I can’t serve both God and the West Wing. I can’t serve both God and ESPN.

And it’s prayer I have to serve. Prayer is everything. St. Paul says in the letter to Timothy today that peace and tranquility are the way things should be, peace enough that all of us, everywhere, can lift up our hands in prayer, and he’s right. I just came home from two days of retreat on the coast: the sound of waves, the smell of salt air, mass and prayer in a quiet place. I always feel so much clearer after time like that, so much surer of God and of myself, and that’s the kind of experience everyone should be able to have, not just monks and mystics, St. Paul says, everybody.

It’s true that through God’s grace I can afford to take a few days off. Not everybody can. Through God’s grace I can afford a programmable coffee pot. But that’s just the point. That’s where the other two readings come in. Amos and Jesus are scolding the rich in the readings today exactly because they want everybody to have the peace and dignity that make prayer possible.

It’s hard to pray when all you can think about is the corner office or a fatter portfolio. It’s hard to pray when you’re consumed by consuming. It’s like when you’re buying a car, how the thought of it crowds everything else out of your mind, and that’s fine for a while, but not always, and for too many of us it is always. We are always getting and spending. But it’s just as difficult on the other end. It’s hard to pray when you’re starving. It’s hard to pray when the bombs are falling. It’s hard to sleep at all when you’re working three jobs just to pay the rent, and that’s how it is for many, many people. Money is time. Without enough of it, as with too much, there’s never the time we need for prayer.

Both the rich and the poor serve mammon, in other words, not God, but the rich serve money because they’ve chosen to, the poor because they have no choice. And that’s the point of the readings: that most of us have a choice, most of us are rich in the gospel sense. We don’t need the new car, we just want it, we don’t need the big screen TV, we just want it. In this way we are the ones Amos is thundering away at: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy / destroy the poor of the land . . . Never will God forget a thing you have done!” It’s a simple equation, what the prophets have always preached. The rich have too much and the poor too little, so the rich have to give away their surplus, now. A billion children in the world go to bed hungry, every night. A third of the children in this country go to bed hungry. Things have to be leveled out, the poor raised up to that threshold of dignity, the rich brought back from compulsion and lust.

We have political choices, for example. St. Paul, after all, is praying for kings and those in authority in this passage from Timothy, because he knows it’s partly political structures that can bring about the tranquil life that is our birthright. For us in 2004 what that means is voting in the upcoming election as Catholic Christians--not voting for this or that particular candidate or party but voting in light of Catholic teaching. This is important. Cardinal Ratzinger has just issued an official statement making it clear that Catholics of good will can disagree about methods and approaches. Or as the American bishops put it in their pamphlet, The Challenge of Faithful Citizenship, there are ten questions that we should ask in this year’s campaign--ten questions--and it’s up to each of us to answer them for ourselves, following the dictates of our own conscience.

But these are the questions, these are the issues, and they all have to do with the readings today. What we all must do as Catholics is consider the goals of Catholic social teaching--all of them--and then act accordingly: the rights of the unborn, the rights of the poor, the rights of women, the rights of prisoners, the rights of workers, the rights of the sick and the elderly and disabled, the rights of creation, of nature, of all those are who are weak and trampled on in the ways Amos means, in the ways Jesus means.

And our choices are not just political, of course. Just as important, finally, are the choices we make in our personal lives.

I know a young father of two who is struggling a little right now. Between working at HP and changing diapers and doing the dishes he barely has time to catch his breath, he says, and I know that’s true, for now, in a way. There are periods for all of us when jobs or families demand all we have, they really do, in which case to do the will of God is to surrender to those demands, for a while, to ride out the storm until calm returns.

But prayer, St. Paul says, is the way things should be, prayer is who we really are, and I think most of us can make the time. We can and we should. I don’t have to watch West Wing. I don’t have to stay up late. I don’t have to do a whole lot of things I do every day, things that take away a lot my time, a lot of it, and I think having a prayer life is a matter of sitting down and very practically, very realistically, carving out a few minutes here and there, giving up what we can really give up. The people who do Eucharistic Adoration are absolutely right and do us a great service when they talk about spending time with Jesus. Yes. If Eucharistic Adoration fits who you are and the way you think, it’s a wonderful thing, one of the many resources in our rich tradition. There are many others: lectio divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, centering prayer, the rosary. Try them all. Find the one that works for you.

Buy a new coffee pot if you need to, or a tea pot, or a juicer. Do whatever it takes.

Because it’s prayer we must serve. Prayer is what we are called to, and we have to change our lives to make it possible. Prayer is what everyone is called to, everyone, and we must change the world to make it possible.

At this retreat center last week, on the coast, there was a group of homeless men from the shelter at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, about a dozen or so, and they all seemed to be really liking it, walking in the woods and looking out at the ocean. As we sat in a circle together that evening, for mass, I thought how good it was that St. James and Catholic Charities had paid for them to come, particularly now that the government safety net has more or less disappeared. And I was glad that I was there, too, really glad. For a moment, entirely through grace, I was given the gift of prayer. I was given peace. The waves were coming in and the sun was setting and we were gathered around the table, all of us, not serving mammon, not serving one idea or ideology, but serving God, serving each other.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s what we are about to do again, around this altar, and it’s what we are called to continue doing when we leave.

To pray and to serve.