Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s Homily on the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

There’s nothing like trying to get up and preach
when a preceding lesson
proclaims “praise no one before he speaks,
for it is then that people are tested”

Another translation puts it this way (Good News Translation)
“Never praise anyone before you hear him talk;
that is the real test” [gulp]

Like every week, the airwaves this week have been filled with
talk, chatter, gossip and bombast

Some of that more notable talk has been testimony
in distinguished and hallowed institutions
talk that was chilling, disheartening, evening damning

Some came from the Magistrates Court
in Melbourne Australia, this past Tuesday
when Chief Judge of the County Court of Victoria
lifted the gag order revealing that in December
the Vatican treasure, Cardinal Pell, was convicted
of 5 sexual offenses committed 2 decades ago

Then on Wednesday the 27th
that same judge revoked his bail, turned to the guards
speaking words never before said to a Vatican official
in a civil court: “take him away, please.”
With a single sentence the highest prelate in modern history
was off to jail

On the other side of the world
there was a less decorous exchange of words
in an equally hallowed setting – the halls of Congress
where the President’s former lawyer
squared off in an explosive and often contentious hearing
filled with inflammatory and unprecedented testimony
that continues to reverberate across the airways

It was a week in which such public speak
decorous and indecorous
judicial and congressional
ecclesial and civic
renders Jesus’ gospel discourse even more pointed

Today’s Jesus-speak is presented by Luke as an exaggeration
in which he compares the wooden beam in one eye
to the splinter in another
One commentator has effectively contemporized the metaphor:
“How can you get the sawdust out of your brother’s eye
if you have a telephone pole in yours?”

The congressional hearing
was certainly a battle about who had the saw dust
and who had the telephone pole
in their respective eyes

While the judicial proceedings in Australia
made the unequivocal judgement
that church leadership was the one
guilty of telephone poles in the eyes
and in the process innocents were abused.

These two civic and ecclesial cases
are certainly disheartening to say the least
devastating to the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church
and the Presidency of the United States

One way to frame these globally riveting events
is to consider them
supreme examples of bad karma
of social comeuppance
ultimate examples of what goes around comes around
both to Pell and to Cohen

My favorite example of ironic comeuppance
concerns Scottish scientist Robert Watson-Watt
who in the early ears of World War II
discovered that radio waves could be used
to locate enemy airplanes

His invention – radar – was a critical tool
in the defense of England during the Battle of Britain

Years later, Watson-Watt was living in Canada
when a policemen pulled him over for speeding
caught with – what else – a radar gun

Poking fun at himself he wrote
pity Sir Robert Watson-Watt
strange target of his radar plot
and this, with others I could mention
a victim of his own invention.

More than simple comeuppance, however,
the jailing of a prelate
the grilling of a presidential lawyer
could be interpreted as powerful symbols
of our growing national and global inability
to be self-reflective
to listen to criticism
to accept a different point of view
and even to consider being wrong.

In recent years I have done some reading in neuroscience
an area both mind-boggling and fascinating
One of the topics to which I often return
is the work done by neuroscientists and others
on cognitive biases like confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is our tendency to cherry-pick information
to confirm our existing beliefs or ideas

In his thoughtful yet always entertaining publication,
The Little Book of Stupidity
educational psychologist Sia Mohajer summarizes:

confirmation bias is so fundamental to [our] development and your reality that [we] might not even realize it is happening. We look for evidence that supports our beliefs and opinions about the world but excludes those that run contrary to our own… In an attempt to simplify the world and make it conform to our expectations, we have been blessed with the gift of cognitive biases. [1]

None other than Mr. Spock of Start Trek fame
summed up this tendency toward mental accounting
when noting: “In critical moments
men sometimes see exactly what they wish to see” [2]

What is somewhat disconcerting from a neurological perspective
is that our brains actually developed in such away
to facilitate cognitive biases

One factors in human brains development
is the need to make sense out of the chaos of life

For much of human history
people experienced very little new information
during their lifetimes
Decisions tended to be survival based

Now we are constantly bombarded with new information
and have to make numerous complex choices
all the time
to guard against neural overload
We have a natural tendency to take shortcuts.

Evaluating evidence requires our brains to work hard
and it is easier to take short cuts
saving both time and energy in decision making

Sometimes this evolutionary tendency
to avoid hard thinking
provides hilarious examples
for Mohajer Little Book of Stupidity.

One involves a Mr. McArthur Wheeler who decided to rob a bank
Since he knew that lemon juice when used to write on paper
became invisible, except when held next to a heat source
he smeared lemon juice on his face to become invisible
He checked his trick taking a selfie with a polaroid
For whatever reason (defective film?) the picture was blank

So Wheeler robbed not 1 but 2 banks in Pittsburgh that day
Not surprising, he was arrested a few hours later
Wheeler was stunned that his plan didn’t work
even protesting to the detectives, “but I wore lemon juice”

Cognitive biases can lead to some pretty stupid and funny events
but the collective logs in our eyes can also contribute
to social marginalization, diminishment and oppression

While delivered with a keen wit and clever tongue
African-American minister Raleigh Washington
underscored how cognitive biases lead to racial discrimination

He preached: When I was born, I was black. When I grew up, I was still black. When I go out in the cold, I’m still black. When I go out in the sun, I get more black. When I’m sick, I’m black, and when I die, I’m sure I’ll still be black.

But I found out that when white people are born, you’re pink. When you grow up, you become white. When you go out in the cold, you turn blue. And when you stay out in the sun, you turn red. When you’re sick, they say, “You look green.” Now what I want to know is why do they call blacks “colored people?” [3]

I’ve read that passages dozens of times
It always makes me chuckle,
but when remembering the racist telephone pole in my own eye
it doesn’t stay so funny,
underscoring how our societal cognitive biases
sustain racism, segregation, and discriminations of every stripe

Last week I hosted the celebrated Colombian Theologian
Hosffman Ospino, Professor at Boston College [4]
He came to the U.S. 20 some years ago to do a Ph.D.
When he got to immigration the official asked for his name
He said: Hosffman Javier Ospino Salazar
The officer said, “too long” … and wrote Hosffman Ospino
Then the officer asked: “What’s your race”
Hosffman had never confronted that question before
He was Colombian
The officer wrote down “Hispanic”
So, my colleague remarked
That’s how I became an Hispanic named Hosffman Ospino

Race – like gender and ethnicity and economic status
is one of the social telephone poles in our collective eye
We see someone, we presume to know who they are
They wear a turban, the must be a terrorist
They can’t speak English, they must be stupid
They don’t look like us, they can’t be trusted

Psychologists and organizational strategists have concocted
multiple strategies for overcoming cognitive/confirmation biases [5]
One is to seek out information from a range of sources
and consider situations from multiple perspectives

Another approach is to surround yourself
with a diverse group of folk
seeking out ideas that challenge your opinions

Jesus was neither a neuroscientist nor organizational manager
but he had some pretty useful strategies
for avoiding telephone poles in the eye

His strategies are found in classic Jesus-speech:
when he offers a parable concern who is our “neighbor”;
when he calls Samaritan women and tax collectors disciples;
when in his final discourse he names his disciples “friends”;
and when he lays down a new commandment
that we must love one another

In 1982 Joseph Bernardin assumed leadership, succeeding a legendary autocrat. In a poignant moment, the Archbishop-designate signaled a seismic transition in leadership in a memorable way. On the night before his installation as Archbishop in 1982, Holy Name Cathedral was filled with Chicago clergy invited for evening vespers. At the onset of that prayer, it was not the blare of trumpets or a blast from the organ that announced the arrival of the new archbishop. Rather it was Bernadin himself– carrying the paschal candle down the darkened nave, singing “Jesus Christ is the Light of the World.”

Later in that service, Bernardin closed his first homily to Chicago’s famously independent clergy with these words:

As our lives and ministries are mingled together through the breaking of the Bread and the blessing of the Cup, I hope that long before my name falls from the Eucharistic Prayer in the silence of death you will know well who I am. You will know because we will work and play together, fast and pray together, mourn and rejoice together, despair and hope together,
dispute and be reconciled together. You will know me as a friend, fellow priest, and bishop. You will know also that I love you. For I am Joseph, your brother! [6]

Neighbor – disciple – friend – sister – brother
these are the names we practice
for beam extraction and telephone pole removal
for combating prejudice
and breaking down the walls that divide us
for embracing the other as the very image of God in Christ

Admittedly, today is not the feast of Pentecost
Nonetheless, at each eucharist
we pray for the descent of the Holy Spirit
upon bread and wine
and upon the baptized who received that bread and wine
that both might be transformed into the very body of Christ.

In these times of such eye-beam blindness and social myopia
of Civic dismay and maybe even ecclesial despair
we await again the outpouring of God’s saving Spirit
at this Eucharist
and so brace ourselves for change as we pray
“Send us your Spirit, send us your Spirit,
Send us your spirit, Oh Lord.”



References:
[1] Sia Mohajer, The Little Book of Stupidity: How we Lie to Ourselves (England, 2015), p. 7.

[2] Star Trek, season 3, episode 9 (“The Tholian Web,” 1968).

[3] David Barrett, Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion (Wheaton IL: Tyndale House, 2002) 225.

[4] Used with Prof. Ospino’s permission.

[5] Stewart Clegg, Martin Kornberger, Tyrone Pitsis, Managing and Organizations: An Introduction to Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications, 2016) 64.

[6] The Selected Works of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Vol. I: Homilies and Teaching Documents, ed. Alphonse P. Spilly (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2000), 288.

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