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Change Agents – Br. Mark Brown

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Mark-Brown-SSJE-2010-300x299I don’t usually refer to my sermon preparation when I preach, but I will today.  For some reason I found this time around particularly challenging: I can’t remember getting so tangled up in words and using the select and delete functions on the computer quite so many times–I’ve nearly worn off the letters on the “delete” key.  The subject of the gospel today is prayer—which is the air we breathe around here.  But it’s something I rarely preach about.

 In the last few days, a war of words has broken out inside my head between the rationalist faction and the mystical. The rationalist says to the mystic, “You don’t know everything.”  Then the mystic says to the rationalist, “You don’t know everything.”  They’re both right; I love them both even though they quarrel a lot.

“Then Jesus told them a parable about the need to pray always and not lose heart.” It’s a funny little parable.  But big ideas can be conveyed in funny little parables.  This one is about a woman’s persistence in demanding justice for herself before the local judge.  The parable is about persistence in prayer and God’s response to our prayers.

We believe Christ to be in and through all things–through him all things came into being [John 1:3; Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:2]. Sometimes we experience this in a direct, unmediated way: Christ ever present, always and everywhere.  And not only in the grand and beautiful and powerful things of the universe, but in the lowly and ordinary things.  And we believe Christ to be especially present wherever human beings are in need, whether the need is for justice or freedom or provision or the relief of suffering.  We remember those very resonant, convicting words from Matthew 25: “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Christ is present in all circumstances of human need—in my need, in your need.  In our prayers for health and well-being, whether for ourselves or for others, we meet Christ in his desire, his own prayer.  Christ, the persistent one, the truly persistent one, has a persisting desire for our wholeness and well-being.  Because he is in us and we are in him, his desire for our wholeness and well-being becomes active within us.  When his desire becomes active within us, we give voice to this desire in our prayers.

It can seem as though our prayer is coming from us, but the impulse to pray is a spring whose source is Christ himself, dwelling within us.  All compassion, all desire for well-being, all prayer has its ultimate source in Christ himself—like the spring gushing up to eternal life within us in the story of the woman at the well in John 4:14.

Pray always, he says, and don’t lose heart.  We are to be courageous in prayer, even in the face of apparent failure.  Regardless of any “results”, we may still be present to Christ.  To pray in discouraging and even desperate situations is still to know that spring of living water within us, the spring of Christ himself, the compassionate one, who is always with us.

Regardless of the visible results of our prayer, regardless of whether God’s response seems quick, slow or not at all, we are invited to stand with Christ in all situations of human suffering and need and give voice to Christ’s own desire for the well-being of all people—including our own well-being.

God can intervene in the affairs of human beings and the natural world—the Bible is full of examples and many people have stories to tell.  But in my own experience, God’s preferred mode is to remain hidden.  Most of the time, God seems to prefer to let the laws of nature work as they were intended to work.

And why not?  Is there anything more magnificent in all creation than the laws of nature, the ordering principles of the way things are deep down in things?  The primal elements, the fundamental components of reality so ordered that increasing levels of complex organization result in living things?  That these living things over vast expanses of time have evolved into creatures possessing not only consciousness, but a moral compass, a sense of good and evil, right and wrong?  Beings so wonderful we might even be tempted to genuflect before them? A natural world so ordered by its creator that the fundamental components of reality are not only gathered together in such a way as to come alive, but then, in time, to give up that life, that is, to die—the natural dying which creates new ways for living things to emerge from the matrix of life?  The natural world is God’s first and primary miracle—why should we expect more?  Well, God has encouraged us to expect even more.

So most of the time, it seems to me, God has agents within the natural world, working within the laws of nature.  We are those agents, God’s change agents, God’s agents of healing and repair.  St. Teresa of Avila, the 15th century mystic and monastic entrepreneur par excellence, famously put it this way:

“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

This is how the world changes; this is how the world heals.  Standing with Christ, his life springing up within us, his desires become ours, his prayer becomes ours, we become his agents of change. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, heal the sick, visit the poor and imprisoned, render justice.  This is how God usually gets things done. God often answers prayers—with our hands. Sometimes even quickly.

But it starts with prayer, standing in solidarity with Christ who stands in solidarity with all who suffer, giving voice to his desires.  Standing and waiting with a dogged persistence, not losing heart.  Sometimes like Mary and John at the foot of the cross, able to do nothing but stand there in solidarity.  Sometimes finding that ours are indeed the hands, ours are the feet, the eyes, the voice of the One who lives forever. And we do stuff—healing stuff, blessing stuff, making things better in real ways for the human beings Christ so persistently, so desperately loves.

Perhaps the war of words in my head has been a more benign thing, a debate, perhaps.  If I were keeping score, I’d say “Rationalist, 1;  Mystic, 1: Game tied.”

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