Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s on the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

One of the unwritten rules of travel
is not only that you have to return
with selfies in front of
every major landmark you visited,
but also you have to nonchalantly mention
the famous personalities you encountered on the trip.

The other day I received an email from an old friend
whom I had not heard from in years.
She had learned that a member of my community was ill
and she assured me she was praying for him
as she got on the plane from Rome to Chicago,
saying the rosary for him
on the beads she had recently received
in her private audience with Pope Francis.

Not exactly subtle … have to admit that I laughed out loud
when I read the e-mail.

In today’s first reading,
we have what could be considered
part of an ancient email from the peripatetic Paul
and his sidekick Barnabas
enumerating some of their many stops
on their first missionary journey.

Unlike my papal name dropper, however,
Paul and Barnabas don’t report
bumping into famous Greek philosophers or ancient dramatists.
Actually their travelogue about their recently completed voyage
is quite undramatic …

They called the church together,
intending to announce
what God had done through them on this voyage,
but I wonder if they kept the church’s attention.

For there is no reporting that God split open the heavens,
showered down tongues of fire,
smote their enemies,
or gave them the wings of angels to dazzle the unbelieving.

Instead God helped them open a door.
You can almost hear the communal yawn.

Opening doors is not only a prosaic, uninspiring practice,
it is also out of vogue.

Much more fashionable,
especially in the current political climate
is door slamming,

whether that is slamming the door
on refugees immigrants,
on environmental protection and international cooperation,
or on civility, common courtesy, and common decency.

Recently I listened to a fascinating memoire
Dr. Damon Tweedy’s

Black Man in a White Coat,

Damon Tweedy, Black Man in a White Coat (New York: Picador, 2015).

the reflections of an African American Doctor
and his journey through medical school,
residency, and practice.

From a working class family
with only public education behind him,
Tweedy was accepted
into the prestigious medical school at Duke University.

But although this important door was open,
it had a tendency to keep slamming shut.

He narrates, for example, being in a large lecture class
and during a break in the lecture
while students were milling about …
the professor, who seldom if ever spoke to students,
made a b-line for Tweedy and asked
“are you here to fix the lights?”

When Tweedy didn’t understand the inquiry
the professor pointed to one section of the lecture hall
where the lights were noticeably low.

And so he asked again, “so you going to fix the lights?”
When Tweedy said “no,”
the Professor then asked “then what are you doing
in my class?”
“I’m a student in your class,” Tweedy responded.

This prompted the irritated professor to turn without a word
and return to the front of the room,
slamming the door on the dignity of a promising student
judged worthy of only being part of a maintenance staff
because of the color of his skin.

While door-slamming is certainly in vogue these days,
it might be surprising to discover that door opening,
that door attending,
that door hospitality
was actually an ancient ministry of the church,
a minor order that went by the name of “porter.”

Every candidate for priesthood, before 1972
received this lowest of minor orders
and though officially abolished by Pope Paul VI,
it has reemerged as a ministry of hospitality,
embodied in the gracious women and men in this place
who unlock and open the doors,
prepare a welcoming environment,
hand you a worship aid,
and help you find a place to sit.

While OSP often acknowledges its gift for hospitality,
I am not always sure we say “thank you”
to the maintenance staff
that keeps this space so open and gracious
and to the faithful volunteers
who at this and every Sunday Eucharist
stand at those back doors
and welcome us here … welcome us home.
So let me say publicly to JC all the ministers of hospitality,
thank you for your often unheralded,
gracious, timely ministry.

Door opening is an interesting way to interpret
the new commandment Jesus articulates in today’s gospel
directing us to “love one another.”

“Love” is an overused, easily debilitated word
often reduced to an emoticon on Facebook
or in a text message.

The love of which Jesus speaks, however, is not an emotion
but a stance that acknowledges and respects
the dignity of others,
whether friend or foe,
medical student or maintenance worker.

The command to love one another
takes seriously John’s revelation in the 2nd reading
that God’s dwelling is with the human race,
not with one nation, one ethnicity, one gender or one party
but God dwells with the whole human race
and all human beings are worthy of respect and dignity.

A while back, I ran across an insightful and amusing TED talk.
The talk was given by Margaret Heffernan
on the work of biogeneticist William Muir of Purdue University.

Muir was interested in the issue of productivity,
so he decided to study chickens, since productivity
is so easily measured with them: just the count eggs.
Prof. Muir devised a simple experiment.
Since chickens live in flocks,
he first selected an average flock of 9 birds
and left it alone for six generations.

He then created a second flock
of the individually most productive chickens he could find.
Heffernan called them superchickens.
Muir put nine of them together in a superflock,
and each generation Prof. Muir selected
only the most productive fowl for breeding
in this collective of über-birds.

After six generations had passed, what did Prof. Muir find?
Well the first group, the average group, was flourishing,
all plump and fully feathered,
and their egg production had increased dramatically.

As for the second group,
all but three of the nine were dead.
They’d pecked the rest to death.

The three remaining birds
who had plucked each other during incessant attacks
were now nearly featherless.

The individually productive chickens
had achieved their success
only by suppressing the productivity of the rest.
In the process they destroyed their own well being.

From my perspective
door-slamming is a superchicken instinct,
an assertion that my personal welfare
that my ascendancy
that even my security
is dependent upon my putting you down
or socially erasing you, locking you out,
or even jeopardizing your well being.

If anyone could have asserted his superiority,
his innate value over that of another human being,
it would have been Jesus of Nazareth,
utterly human and totally divine.

But Jesus rejected any superchicken mentality,
any door-slamming demeanor,
any instinct that aligning himself
with immigrants or the oppressed
refugees and outsiders
would somehow diminish his humanity
or tarnish his divinity.

On the contrary, Jesus consistently affiliated himself
with those that some politicians
would like to sequester on the other side
of some social or economic wall.
The irony, of course, is that when we erect such walls
Jesus will metaphorically be on the other side.

Jesus was a door opener,
a wall obstructer,
a barrier resister …
and those of us baptized into his image
are commissioned to do the same

As a few of you may know,
one of the things I do in my free time
when not here or teaching at Catholic Theological Union
is that I am responsible for promoting
the canonization of a Capuchin priest,
a member of my community who died in 1957
and was beatified in Detroit in 2017.

His name was Solanus Casey,
a kid from Milwaukee
from a large Irish family of farmers
who witnessed a violent crime as a young man
that put him on a life changing course
and led him to the seminary.

While passionate, Solanus was not very bright
in the eyes of the world, or his seminary professors.
He flunked out of the diocesan seminary in Milwaukee
and was advised to look for a religious order
that maybe was less intellectually rigorous …
So, of course, he joined my community, the Capuchins.

But even in the Capuchin environment
Solanus struggled with his studies,
and while they did decided to ordain him in 1904,
he was ordained a simplex priest,
not allowed to exercise the ordinary sacramental ministry
of his priesthood,
and instead he became a porter.
Yep … for over 50 years he answered the door.

For many in that era this would have been quite a humiliation.
A priest not allowed to hear confessions or preach
but all day long a servant to the doorbell,
and to top it all off, with a lay brother … not even another priest
as his supervisor.

While others would have labored grudgingly at this task,
Solanus brought simple joy and care
in response to every knock … every inquiry
and his reputation spread as not only a kindly man,
a good listener,
but also a healer … his superiors had asked him
to document reported favors to those he counseled.
By the end of his life there were over 6,000 of them.

When Solanus died in 1957 over 20,000 paid their last respects,
and when he was beatified in November of 2017,
70,000 filled Detroit’s Ford Field to honor him
and give God praise
for this simple man
who literally and figuratively
opened for multitudes the very door to God.

At the beginning of this morning’s worship
we happily thundered Marty Haugen’s wonderful tune and text
“All Are Welcome” …
Now as God’s missionary word pierces us to the core
and prepares us for service in the world,
let us each in our own way …
whether with great sophistication
or unmitigated simplicity
take up the utterly mundane task of Hospitality
Of Door openers,
becoming God’s own porters day in and day out
so that as we graciously usher others into our lives
we might also find ourselves ushered
into the very presence of God
through Christ our Lord.

Featured Image: “The Artist’s Mother Opening a Door” by Edouard Vuillard

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