This homily is based on Matthew 18:15-20.
A controversial short film by Mexican director, Alonso Álvarez Barreda, won the 2008 Cannes Film Festival’s online short film competition. Approximately five minutes long, the short film, “Historia de un Letrero” (or “Story of a Sign”), tells the story of a blind beggar sitting in a park with a sign that says, “Have pity! I’m a blind man.”
The park is filled with people, but few, if any, notice or help the beggar. Then a young man walks by the beggar, stops in his tracks, and notices how no one is giving alms to the beggar. The man is moved with compassion, but he doesn’t give any money to the beggar. Instead he picks up the old man’s sign, scribbles on it, and after positioning it beside the beggar, he walks away.
Then something strange happens. To the blind beggar’s bewilderment and delight, passersby begin tossing coins into his can. Needless to say, the sound of coins is music to his ears. Later, as he collects the coins scattered around him, he detects that the young man has returned. Gratefully, the beggar asks, “What did you do to my sign?” The man responds, “I wrote the same, but in different words.” Smiling, he leaves the beggar with his fortune.
Exactly what the young man has written, you will have to watch the short film to find out! But I share this story with you because of the line our Lord utters in the Gospel reading today: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Our Lord promises that where two or three gather and pray in his name, he will surely be present there. But these same words have also been traditionally interpreted to refer to communal prayer–i.e., prayers said not only by an individual, but by a community of even just two or three. When we pray together, our prayer as a community is more powerful than when we pray individually.
A friend of mine recently blogged about this scientific experiment that, my friend claims, has disproved “once and for all” the efficacy of prayers. Intrigued, I did my own research and found the findings quite fascinating.
Conducted by a group called STEP (Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer), the experiment studied the effect of intercessory prayer–and the knowledge or certainty that prayer is being provided–and how that influences the recovery of cardiac bypass patients. Not only did the experiment prove that intercessory prayer had no effect on the patients’ recovery from cardiac bypass, but a higher incidence of complications were found among patients with the knowledge of receiving prayer!
Interesting! But contrary to my friend’s claim, the experiment by no means disproves any claim we have–or that the Lord has made–about prayer. It only reiterates that God is no vendo machine that automatically grants any request as long as the right button is pressed. It proves what any believer already knows from experience: that God is radical mystery, and that he will grant the prayer that he, in full freedom, wishes to grant.
Going back to what our Lord’s words in today’s gospel, I believe that the Lord probably isn’t just referring to praying together, but also to acting together. In the short film, the blind beggar has probably been praying for people’s generosity–but to no avail. The young man who comes to his rescue prays with him not only through words, but also through his actions. I suspect that when the Lord talks about gathering in his name, he is referring not only to communal prayer but also communal action. The Lord’s presence will be experienced not only when we pray together, but also–and perhaps more powerfully–when we act together.