Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A

by Ed Foley, Capuchin.

There are many goals preachers have
when preparing and delivering a homily.

Some hope to inspire, others entertain.
some want to convert people to their brand of Christianity.
Others hope to present Christianity as viable,
especially to the young

I have been variously motivated by all such goals,
but one that arose in this week’s preparation,
and rears its challenging head from time to time,
is the basic goal that I don’t want to look stupid

It is goal that frequently rises,
in view of texts or issues about which I know little
whether that is about marriage or divorce,
wealth or children,
adolescence or falling in love.

A good friend who teaches preaching on the East Coast,
a specialist in rhetoric, especially writings of Aristotle
notes that the character and credibility of the speaker
was what Aristotle considered the “ethos” of the event.
This is the persuasive quality of the preacher
based on their informed approach to a topic
and display of having best interest of assembly at heart.

I don’t know much about marriage or children,
finances, and many other topics that arise in the readings.

I also don’t know much about physical blindness,
a pivotal disability in today’s gospel,
and an image shot through this liturgy

So to establish a more credible ethos,
I asked a friend who is blind, though not from birth,
what she thought of this gospel.

She offered many helpful insights
about the fear and pity of people with disabilities,
the stigmatization of their families,
but her most surprising comment
was about what she called Jesus’ “quick fix:”

Giving sight to the blind.

That stirred the pot of identity politics
and turned upside down the life of the man born blind,
his parents, religious leaders,
and local faith community

That aspect of the gospel, had never occurred to me
and set me off on a cautionary journey through today’s readings
and my own preaching
so that this does not devolve into quick-fix Sunday.

A quick fix reading of this gospel and the supporting lections
which both deal with sight and blindness, light and darkness,
could be something like:

God sees rightly – we don’t
sin disables us to see God’s ways.
If we renounce our sin and turn to Jesus,
all will be clear and we will live in the light.
Through Christ our Lord … Amen.

This rendering of the texts is both quick
and provides a religious “fix”
while such preaching is usually not that transparent
and quick fixes are often couched
in more nuanced rhetoric.

That fact that such a quick fix approach
is rampant among preachers and bloggers.
Is evident to me in the number of them
who suggested preaching on the text “Amazing Grace”
with its “once I was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

Is it really that simple?
And if not,
what is the alternative to quick fix Sunday?

A few years ago,
I was introduced to the work of Wes Jackson & the Land Institute,
a nonprofit agricultural research organization
developing what they consider
a more natural approach to farming.

In 2004 they staged a conference entitled
“Toward an Ignorance-Based Worldview.”

The conference was inspired by the writings
of farmer-poet-activist Wendell Berry,
who has emphasized the importance in farming and life
to respect mystery.

He writes:
If we are up against mystery, then we dare act only on the most modest assumptions. The modern scientific program has held that we must act on the basis of knowledge, which, because its effects are so manifestly large, we have assumed to be ample. But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance. Acting on the basis of ignorance, paradoxically, requires one to know things, remember things — for instance, that failure is possible, that error is possible, that second chances are desirable (so don’t risk everything on the first chance).[1]

Maybe an ignorance based approach to governing

Would allow congress to craft health care legislation
what would actually contribute to the common good,
and not just to the wealthy.

Maybe an ignorance based approach to immigration

Would allow the U.S. Government
to craft immigration policies that both enhanced the dignity of all
and enrich this great country
with diversities of knowing, being and believing.

Maybe an ignorance-based approach to racial equality

Would disallow individuals and communities
from thinking that they understand or even know the other
and thus would disallow anyone from thoughtlessly
or arrogantly simply standing their ground.

Is it surprising that a few years ago, the Harvard Business Review
published an article titled:
“Wanted: A Chief Ignorance Officer”

Last year, I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ devastating
Between the World and Me;
it is an epistolary work directed toward Coate’s 15 year old son.
This letter contemplates the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being black in the United States.
Coates recapitulates the American history of violence against black people.
The book’s tone is bleak, guided by Coates’s experiences growing up poor and always in the way of bodily harm.
He prioritizes the physical security of African-American bodies over the black, Christian tradition of optimism, and eventual justice
Coates does not believe there is reason to be optimistic, and does not expect the association between America and white supremacy to ever change.[2]

One of the refrains of the book
that I found both shocking and disturbing
was Coates’ continuous references
to “those who consider themselves white,”
language that echoes that of literary mentor James Baldwin.

While I have not yet recovered from the book,
it has allowed me to begin to recognize
in the language of a very helpful colleague
that given my fundamental ignorance of what it means
to be black in this country
I am a racist … but hopefully not a bigot.

My instinct is that the non-quick-fix reading of today’s gospel
suggests that the dynamic in the word is not a binary
between blindness and sight
between grace and sin
between followers or non-followers of Jesus,
but an invitation into the kind of believing,
predicated upon our ignorance of God and God’s ways.

In the first reading Samuel, even though God’s prophet,
did not know which of Jesse’s sons to anoint as king.

In the Gospel the Pharisees thought they knew it all
about sin and blindness and wandering Rabbis,
but their surety became their trap
since the empirical evidence of a miracle
shone threw the new eyes of the man born blind
and upended their convictions
about who could and when might
an actual miraculous healing occur.

This is not quick-fix Sunday,
but it does have another name, a liturgical appellation.
This 4th Sunday of Lent is a traditional Sunday
when those moving towards Easter sacraments
undergo public scrutinies.

Exorcism … yes exorcisms and blessings

Acknowledging, not just for themselves, but for the whole church
that there is prejudice and evil and greed and selfishness
rooted in each of us
that needs to be exposed and expunged,
realized and remedied
so that God’s good grace,
in all of its ambiguity
might overtake our surety
and lead us into humble discipleship.

For when such candidate journey through scrutiny and exorcism,
the church honors them as photozomenoi, enlightened.
Not necessarily to see the light with laser clarity,
but to be the light to and for each,
even in the midst of ambiguity, mystery and even darkness.

While it has been embellished over the years,
they say it is a documented event in naval history:

The captain of the destroyer was standing on the bridge, watching the ship steer through the dark night.  Suddenly the first mate yelled out, “Captain, a light on the starboard bow.”  The Captain responded, “Is it turning, or steady on its course.”  The Mate yelled, “steady on its course.”  The captain had the communications officer to signal the other vessel to turn 20 degrees to port.  A message came back, advising the destroyer to turn 20 degrees to port.  The captain sent another message, that he was a Captain of the U.S. Navy, and was ordering the other vessel to turn 20 degrees to port.  Another message came back, indicating that on the other vessel was a seaman 1st class; respectfully instructing the captain to turn 20 degrees to port.  Finally, the Captain had the communications officer relay that this was a U.S. naval destroyer, and the other vessel should turn 20 degrees to port, and do it smartly.  The other vessel communicated back that it was a lighthouse, and the captain should turn 20 degrees to port, smartly.

We’re not the lighthouse,
and even though we sometimes act like it,
we’re not even the destroyer.

I think of myself more like the rowboat
the one Ann Sexton occupied in her poem
“Rowing toward God,”
a poem published posthumously after her suicide.

In part she writes:

I grew and grew
and God was there like an island I had not rowed to,
still ignorant of Him, my arms and my legs worked,
and I grew, I grew,
I wore rubies and bought tomatoes
and now, in my middle age,
about nineteen in the head I’d say,
I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyeball,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside of me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands
and embrace it.[3]

Ignorance based knowing.

Humility based loving.

Ambiguity based believing.

It is an amazing grace,
but maybe one that does not provide the quick fix.
Musically enshrined as sin to grace,
from blindness to sight.

So in recrafted words we metaphorically sing:

Ambiguous grace,
Mysterious God
Who strangely beckons me
I was once sure
But now not so
Yet doubt can set me free

Ambiguous grace
Relentless god
Why you have chosen me
Is no longer clear
Yet you abide
With me in mystery.

Welcome to scrutiny Sunday … through Christ our Lord.

 

[1] https://landinstitute.org/land-report-article/toward-ignorance-based-world-view/ (accessed 23.iii.17)

[2] Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Between_the_World_and_Me (accessed 22.iii.17)

[3] https://ikereeser.wordpress.com/the-poem/ (accessed 21.iii.17)

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20 comments

  1. I guess that might fly at a seminary or at a Mass for graduate students with a major in theology and a minor in English imagery. In my parish I ended my homily by leading the assembly in Amazing Grace. Quick fixes still work among people who aspire to less sin and more light. But thanks, Ed.

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      I was there, in the somewhat ordinary-extraordinary Sunday gathering where Ed preached this on Sunday; it flew very well. People got it. Good imagery is good imagery, and its very nature is that it works and accesses part of the imagination that doesn’t rely on intellectual processing but goes straight for the deeper layers. Stories work.

      I would counsel against underestimating our people.

      Respectfully,
      JKB

  2. I’ve got a moral problem with this very poetic and well-motivated homily.

    Acting on the basis of ignorance causes a lot of trouble in our world today, from refusing vaccinations and taking a “who cares” attitude toward carbon emissions, to accepting false claims about the criminal tendencies of immigrants and believing news sources that are rife with false information or just throwing up one’s hands and saying “no one knows” so I am going with my gut.

    Valorizing a certain kind of humility before what we don’t know by calling it “acting on ignorance” is — I believe — a big mistake, because the real, toxic results of actually “acting on ignorance” are with us daily. Praising doubt and ignorance, when we are increasingly de-centered, and prey to whoever proposes to fill the gaps, doesn’t necessarily make us better. It can also create anti-reaction: fundamentalisms of various sorts appeal to people when doubts overwhelm them. At this point, I worry about our public life. Facts are treated like chips in a game and phony ones substituted at will.

    The problem with the Pharisees in the gospel story is not that they needed to “act on ignorance.” It’s that they were wrong about things they could and should have known by reading the prophets.

  3. Ed can speak to this better than I, but I don’t this this is advocating simply “acting from ignorance,” but an “ignorance-based knowing” as Berry suggests.

    awr

  4. Excellent Homily, Father Ed. The Pews are filled at Old St Pat’s in anticipation of your preaching every time. The poem by ANN Sexton was very good. It was published after her suicide. The line, “God will take it with his two ands and embrace it.” has stayed with me. It brought such peace to my heart. Thanks for being a special preacher for Old S t Pat’s.

  5. “God sees rightly – we don’t
    sin disables us to see God’s ways.
    If we renounce our sin and turn to Jesus,
    all will be clear and we will live in the light.
    Through Christ our Lord … Amen.”

    “Is it really that simple?
    And if not,
    what is the alternative to quick fix Sunday?’

    But why exactly isn’t it that simple? For me, that question needs to be explained before the homily continues, for the rest of it to have any meaning.

  6. Thanks, Anthony! Same objection, though. I’ve read many times things like: “How do we know that vaccinations don’t cause autism? We don’t know. Therefore I will protect my child by not vaccinating.” Outcome: everyone gets measles. Sounds like “ignorance-based knowing” to me. The thing that mom is most sure she knows is that she doesn’t know something, and so goes with her fears. I know I am being devil’s advocate here, but I just don’t see how at this point in history we can ignore stuff like this. The idea of humility before mystery, and knowing that we don’t know everything, is great. But it is not well captured by a plea for “ignorance based knowing.”

  7. Ed has a great understanding of the assembly at Old St. Pat’s, and crafts his homily well to the asssembly. His suggestion of “holy ignorance” was challenging to people who, by and large, “know it all.” The comments made by his blind friend were most engaging for a sighted community. AND his concluding piece, a parody of Amazing Grace, was a fine summation. The music director followed the homily by setting the parody to the melody of Amazing Grace. Powerful and profound!!!

  8. I hesitate to criticize preaching when I have not experienced it in situ, since context makes a huge difference. But I do kind of want to speak in favor of the quick fix of grace that is amazing. In what Fr. Foley presents as the quick fix reading of the text—

    God sees rightly – we don’t
    sin disables us to see God’s ways.
    If we renounce our sin and turn to Jesus,
    all will be clear and we will live in the light.
    Through Christ our Lord … Amen.

    —I can’t find a single statement that I disagree with. Of course, there’s a lot that it doesn’t say. Above all, it doesn’t say how hard it is to renounce sin and turn to Jesus. But I know few people who have tried to live as Christians who don’t know this already.

    Maybe it’s just a matter of taste or temperament, but my impression is that what most people want is the promise that there is any “fix” at all that we can hope for, even if it is not quick, even if it is not to be had for most of us in this life. I can’t help but wonder if the valorization of ignorance and ambiguity is not a symptom of a certain level of material comfort that allows us the luxury of enjoying the frisson that tarrying with them brings. People who are hungry, homeless, addicted, discouraged, or ill don’t seem to need the Church to tell them about ambiguity; they need a word of hope, a word that promises a grace that is amazing.

  9. I was in the congregation when Ed gave this sermon. Jack, I feel you. To imply, however, that the theological sophistication and intertextual richness of a homily such as this is likely to be a liability in all but the most highly rarefied of congregational contexts is to take a legitimate concern with audience and context a few steps too far. The folk sitting all around me in the pews—probably all college educated, but not a single one of whom, one could safely assume, had ever spent a minute in a graduate theological classroom—were talking about how excited they were to hear “Fr. Foley” preach. In fact, I overheard the people sitting directly in front of me tell other regulars that they brought their out-of-town guests to the 09:30 Mass expressly so that they could get a “Foley homily.” Foley groupies? I suppose. Cult of personality? Hardly. They were there for the same reason I was. They were hungry for a homily designed to find an authentic way to the heart and soul without simply instrumentalizing the most basic cognitive functions of the mind. Ed knows why people come to hear his sermons. They enjoy being nourished by homilies which combine good nutrition with the provocatively sophisticated flavors only a true gourmand knows how to concoct. I would venture to guess that if we checked the reservation books, the 3-star Michelin restaurants of Paris are not booked months in advance by students of Le Cordon Bleu. Imagine how many Parisians would be lining up at Arpege and Le Cinq if the meals, like Ed’s homilies, were free! To continue the metaphor, after mass what I heard was people actually discussing the courses—including and especially the idea of “acting on ignorance.” It was crystal clear to me, and many others in the congregation that, as Anthony said, Ed was talking about the humility of “ignorance-based knowing” and not the arrogance of thinking one knows things one does not. To paraphrase another congregant: “I never considered how much of a spiritual problem it is not to recognize what we don’t know.”

  10. Suzanne : @Rita Ferrone: I agree that your examples of acting on the basis of ignorance exemplify living with a lack of knowledge or partial truths but I have learned that this is not what an “Ignorance-Based Worldview” is. The parent who refuses vaccinations, an apathetic attitude toward carbon emissions, belief that immigrants are more likely to engage in criminal behavior are based on a rigid belief system and closed-mindedness unwilling to entertain or imagine another truth. An “Ignorance-Based Worldview” is one based on a humility that I don’t know everything, there may be another viewpoint or solution, and always being open to new information and perspectives. It is not about being ignorant but recognizing our ignorance (lack of knowing). From this viewpoint I will never know what it feels like to be blind, African-American, an undocumented immigrant, and innumerable other situations. I strive to live with an Ignorance-based worldview. Gratefully, I attended the beautiful liturgy celebrated yesterday by Fr. Ed Foley. The soulful sung reflection of Ambiguous Grace was moving. The Church exited well-fed.

  11. What an interesting homily, and what interesting comments! The robust defense from those who were present to hear it preached, certainly illustrates the perils of critiquing a homily simply be reading the text, apart from the preacher’s delivery and an in-depth knowledge of the faith community to whom it’s addressed.

    I am one of those persons who hears an interesting or provocative statement midway through a homily and then, if the preacher doesn’t pursue it, tends to sink into a bit of a reverie around that statement, thus missing the remainder of the talk. (I’ve often worried that this would happen when I’m in the midst of giving a homily myself, but I’ve striven to immunize myself by never saying anything interesting or provocative).

    But what interested and provoked me in this case was the notion of Jesus’ cure as a “quick fix”. The homily seems to suggest that the notion of a sudden cure for blindness wouldn’t be an alloyed blessing, but what is the negative about the “quick fix”?

    1. @Jim Pauwels:
      Jim, he actually expanded the question of why the “quick fix” isn’t as simple as it looks a little in the spoken version, which had a little more to it…he talked about his friend who was blind, and she said something to the effect of, “I have always been blind; I know how to find my way around the world blind. I don’t know if I could find my way if suddenly one day I could see.” –which makes a lot of sense if you think about it, having this entire new sense thrust on you by complete surprise; there would need to be some adjustment I would imagine…

  12. I would only offer a thought about what seems to be a common crutch in some Catholic homiletics today that is alluded to in the piece: a preacher’s need to establish credibility with the congregation. You will not get that from telling, only by showing. A preaching hook or angle that functions primarily to establish or maintain cred is more about the ego need of the preacher than the breaking open of the Word amid the People of God.

  13. I have nothing but the greatest respect for Ed Foley. I have been present for a number of his addresses to NPM gatherings over three decades. His presentations are always so rich in texture that it stretches my mind and heart. Feehily to Foley, over and out.

  14. Ed Foley has studied deeply and knows how to use words effectively. He does not back down from controversy. I have seen this at NPM conventions. Those who go to see and hear him preach can testify to this, as several of you have here. Indeed he has “written the book,” as it were. At the same time, I would not consider the homilies that have been cited in this blog as examples to be followed in other assemblies. In fact, I decry the whole industry of homily examples and would not call attention to them myself. Why would he, especially since he really did not intend to appropriate anything from them? Most of all, I am convinced that homilies should not be about the homilist, especially when they state clearly (as so many do) that “I’m xxx and you’re not.” Homilies have to be about the entire assembly in its journey to the Lord, in its assimilation of Word and Eucharist. Ed’s homily on the Sunday after Election Day ended by placing a wall between himself and anyone present who did not vote as he did; at least on my ballot I saw no plebiscite for or against the Kingdom of God. If I had the opportunity I would use homilies to present bridges that we all could build together toward each other, so that we could celebrate the Lord among us more visibly, especially at the Banquet.

  15. I found Pray Tell Blog several years ago and I am most grateful…I have learned much from this awesome assembly of erudite liturgists and teachers.
    Today, having read Ed Foley’s homily, I am both lifted up but also saddened. I think the homily is brilliant. It “works” effectively on many levels and has linguistic moments of challenging insight. As a whole, it “feels” a tad long to me (but Fritz is correct….reading a homily is not the same as being present for the “experience” of a homily. I applaud Ed Foley as the wonderful wordsmith and thought-provoking messenger he truly is.
    My sadness comes from the great panel of cultivated critics. Most responders seem ready to criticize. How can a homily do its transforming work when the hearers are less in an open and receptive mode, and more in the business of being a reviewe… listening/looking for and finding faults?
    Perhaps others know the deeper sadness behind my comment. For years, I’ve seen a growing reality in our culture, one that surely is now firmly established in church. We live in a culture, not only where folks feel it their duty to find fault, to pick apart, to critique, but where the person in the pew often is not grounded in the basic skills needed to be an effective hearer.
    There was a time when we went to mass in order “to worship God.” We never complained about the presider…it wasn’t part of our mindset. And, even if he wasn’t a great preacher, we didn’t criticize. It just wasn’t done. It’s not why we were there.
    I’ve believe the difficulties facing preachers will continue to grow, especially as the people in the pew feel more comfortable in their role as “audience members,” there to give a thumbs up, or just “one star out of four.”
    Homilies are written and proclaimed by humans. There could never be a perfect homily. Nonetheless, our tradition shows that God invites our participation. To me, that suggests that God wants a human homily. And that means, a homily is going to tell a human story, a…

  16. I might suggest to the editors that in the future if something is being shared but not meant to be responded to then comments should be turned off.

    I can appreciate that some people (particularly, it seems, those who heard it given) really, really like this homily. But I see no reason why those who feel otherwise can’t also share their reactions.

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