Message: Gratitude is not automatic (just look at the nine lepers) but it opens the door of salvation and prayer.
Last Sunday I concluded a series of homilies on the Geography of Faith. The Geography has three basic places: Egypt, the Desert of Decision and the Promised Land. We saw that we can lose the Promised Land, but by God's grace, return and take up the work of re-building, restoration. To rebuild we have to start with prayer.
I have come to realize that many Catholics do not know how to pray and they do not pray. Surprisingly, even some Catholics who attend Mass and are involved in the parish do not pray. It does not have to be that way. Although I am no expert on prayer and I sometimes have a hard time praying, it turns out that the Gospel for today - and for the coming few Sundays - address the issue of prayer.*
Today we hear about the most basic form of prayer: gratitude. Jesus heals ten lepers. Like them we all experience unexpected blessings. At that moment a person has a choice. He can say, "That's nice," and move on. Or he can pause and express thanks. That's what the Samaritan did. He returned to thank Jesus.
And Jesus said to him, "Your faith has saved you." Gratitude is the heart of faith. It is the first step in our relationship with God. When we sit down pray, the first things we should so is spend some moments thanking God. "Thank you, Lord, for my life, my family, all the gifts of creation and for your Son Jesus who has saved me."
Prayer of gratitude has great power. We might be facing some trial or temptation, but when we start praising God, the devil flees. The devil is a proud spirit. He has set himself in competition with God. He cannot stand hearing God praised so he flees.
Let me give you a comparison. It's a little embarrassing, but when I was a young priest I found myself in competition with another priest.** I don't think he saw me as a rival, but I felt a rivalry with him. He was tall and I am short. He had a full head of hair and even though I was only in my twenties, I was going bald. He had a deep, rich voice like a Shakespearean actor. Some people actually thought he was from England or maybe Australia. I remember being in room with people singing his praises: How they enjoy his homilies, how helpful he is in the confessional and what a great leader he is! I hated him!** And I couldn't wait to get out of that room. Well, it's something similar with the devil. When we praise God, he can't get out of the room fast enough.
I'd like to explain how gratitude works when we face temptations. Let's take the common temptation of gluttony. Suppose I wake up some morning and all I can think about is fried food - bacon and fried eggs, deep fried chicken and country fried steak. I might grit your teeth and say, "No, no, I won't give in to those temptations." It is better, however, to use gratitude. Thank God that he has given such delicious foods, but then besides fried foods he gives other wonderful food. I think about an apple and how it shines when I rub it against my shirt. And when I bite into it, so crisp and juicy. I thank God that he gives such wonderful foods ready to eat: apples, tomatoes and fresh cucumbers.
Okay, but suppose that, in spite of all the positive thinking, I still find myself at that drive-in window ordering a Big Mac and fries. Instead of guiltily gobbling down the burger and then kicking myself afterwards, I take a moment to thank God. The burger and fries ultimately come from him. If I'm thankful to God, I am more likely to share my own failing with some other person, maybe even in confession: "Father, it has been two months since my last confession and I committed the sin of gluttony about five times."
A person doesn't have to give the priest the whole menu. But Jesus does tell us, "Go, show yourself to the priests." The word confession has two meanings. It means to confess one's sins, but it also means to confess God's mercy. Confession is an act of thanksgiving, a powerful weapon in our spiritual warfare.
Gratitude doesn't come easy; sometimes it's hard to be thankful. For example, many of our young people feel burdened, weighed down with debt. But, you know, the best way to confront a problem like debt is to start with thanksgiving. Instead of focusing on all the things you don't have, thank God for what you do have. I can guarantee you that people in other countries would trade places with you tomorrow. If they could get even a minimum wage job, they would think they had died and gone to heaven.
Gratitude requires boldness. The Bible teaches tithing: returning the "first fruits" to God, recognizing that he is the source of all we have and thanking him. It's not just that the church needs your support (we do), but that you need to give. It seems counter-intuitive, but I know people who have tithed themselves out of debt. Tithing turned their minds around. Instead of grumbling, they became grateful givers. Gratitude began to penetrate every aspect of their lives.
Gratitude makes possible a relationship with God - and with each other. At the beginning of the homily I gave you a personal example of rivalry. What finally happened? Well, instead of focusing on what I don't have, I began to thank God for what I do have. It turns out that I have some ability and determination in learning a second language. Although the other priest did not join me in Hispanic ministry, he became one of my biggest supporters. He went from being my rival to being my ally. I've told this to young people who sometimes feel bad when they compare themselves to some other person. He's smarter than I am; he's a better athlete than me; he's more popular. Okay, but God has given you some gifts. Develop them gratefully and be grateful for the other person's gifts. Someday he might become your vital ally.
Gratitude is not automatic (just look at the nine lepers) but it opens the door of salvation and prayer. We will learn more about prayer next week. For today we see that in the spiritual combat Jesus has given us a powerful weapon: gratitude. In the words of today's Psalm, "Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done wondrous deeds...break into song; sing praise." Amen.
*The Sunday readings make possible a four-part series on prayer: Gratitude (this weekend - 28th Sunday); Intercession (29th Sunday); Humility (30th Sunday) and Self-Emptying (31st Sunday).
We sometimes take prayer for granted. Doesn't every Catholic pray? Not so, says Sherry Weddell. In her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, tells about a person who attends Mass, participates in parish activities, but who admits that she never prays. As contradictory as it sounds, we have to face the fact that many Catholics do not believe in a personal God. They see God as an impersonal force and consequently do not believe prayer is possible.
As Sherry writes, "The majority of adult Catholics are not even certain that a personal relationship with God is possible...The majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized, but not evangelized. They do not know that an explicit, personal attachment to Christ - personal discipleship - is normative Catholicism as taught by the apostles and reiterated time and time again by the popes, councils and saints of the Church."
In my homilies over the coming few weeks, I hope to address that contradiction. The Gospels will help us understand what prayer is and how to do it. More next Sunday!
**To fellow homilists: If you like this illustration, you can say, "I heard about a priest who was in competition with another priest..." But much better to use an example when you found yourself in competition and heard that person praised in your presence.
MP3 recording of this homily
From Archives (28th Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
KRA's & SMART Goals (updated September 2013)
My Top Ten Teaching Opportunities
Geography of Faith, Part Four (audio file of homily given on October 6, 2013)
Geography of Faith, Part Three (audio file of homily given on September 29, 2013)
Geography of Faith, Part Two (audio file of homily given on September 22, 2013)
Geography of Faith, Part One (audio file of homily given on September 15, 2013)
Geography of Faith - Overview (MP3 audio file of 50 minute presentation given on September 25, 2013 to parish Generations of Faith)
Outline of Geography of Faith
Geografia de Fe