Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s Homily for November 17th (33C)

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
Old St. Pat’s Chicago

I don’t think it is an exaggeration
To characterize these readings as grim, even foreboding—
The lectionary equivalent of “it was a dark and stormy night.”

The Good Samaritan by Daniel Bretschneider the Younger, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Instead of announcing “good news”
They seem instead to announce dismal news,
And definitely signal trouble ahead for the preacher.
Especially as some of my favorite preacher-bloggers
Have hung out their equivalent of “gone fishing” signs
On their cyberspace homes,
Making it clear that preachers are on their own for this one.

Remember the “you know it is going to be a bad day” lists
That circulated in the past, like
you will know it’s going to be a bad day when…

  • Your car horn sticks on the freeway behind 32 Hell’s angels
  • When your birthday cake collapses under the weight of the candles
  • When your twin sister forgets your birthday
  • And when your 4-year-old tells you that it is almost impossible to flush a grapefruit down the toilet.

The homiletic equivalent is when,
In visiting your favorite preaching resources on the net
You find messages like…

  • “Good Luck, Buddy”
  • “Consider reading an old letter from the Bishop,”
  • Or, my favorite, “Let the visiting priest preach.”
    Problem, of course, is that I AM the visiting priest.

Not every commentator takes the easy way out this week.
There are indeed many folk
Who try to make the best of these texts.
Most seem to share a common tact here
As exemplified in sermon titles such as…

  • “Blessed Endurance,” or
  • “Rejoice and be Faithful,” or
  • “Hang in there until the end.”

__________

Some even quote the famous line from the poet Rainer Rilke:
“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror
Just keep going.”[1]
The strategy here seems to pick up on the closing lines
Of the first reading and the Gospel,
With Malachi prophesying: “For you who fear my name,
There will raise the sun of Justice with its healing rays.”
Or Luke’s “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

But that perseverance seems to require enduring
nations at war, earthquakes, famines and plagues,
Followed by being seized and persecuted,
Handed over by family and friends,
Being hated and put to death. 

But what’s the motivation for enduring all of that?
To put it bluntly: where’s the hope?

Maybe the way we discover the hope here
Is first by discovering the truth in these readings.
One central truth is revealed in Jesus’ opening lines in the Gospel
In which he offers a shocking comment
About the Jewel of Jerusalem—
Herod’s gleaming rebuilding and expansion of the Temple,
Noting the coming destruction of that sacred & revered place.

Nicolas Poussin – The Destruction and Sack of the Temple of Jerusalem, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Jesus was not a clairvoyant here.
Luke’s Gospel was written after Romans destroyed that temple,
And the evangelist is not backdating this saying
To prove Jesus’ prophetic powers or oracle-like gifts.

Rather, it seems to me that Jesus wisely understood
The terrible truth: that every temple is a doomed house,
Every building or organization, government or church
Will fade, disappoint, and eventually disappear.

At first blush that might seem quite fatalistic,
But first consider all of the destruction the world has witnessed,
Especially in the last decades
The last century: the bloodiest on record.

People have lost homes and homelands
To terrorism, fire, typhoon and earthquake.
The images of destruction that punctuate the nightly news
Are often incomprehensible to me and beyond my experience.

The only trifling example in my own life
Is revisiting the first home I remember,
A post-War starter-home my folks bought in 1953.

Since Dad traveled a lot and my older brother was disinclined,
I was the lawn boy, tree trimmer, fence and even house painter.

I left that home in the summer of 1966 to join the Capuchins
After giving it a fresh paint job and mowing the lawn a last time
The place looked great.

City Methodist Church of Gary, Indiana. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

About 15 years later, when a graduate student at Notre Dame,
I was driving to Chicago, and made a side trip
Through the old neighborhood in Gary.
The place looked like a war zone:
Abandoned cars parked on what used to be a lawn,
The same paint job now pealing and discolored,
The fence threatening to collapse.

In my own very modest way, I learned that
Every temple is a doomed house.

And the hope? The reason to endure? The promise of resurrection.
As Jesus seems to make clear throughout his lifetime,
It is not in the buildings, not in the institutions,
Be they civic or religious,
But in the people, especially:

The unexpected,
Unwashed,
Even uninvited,
Who often give community purpose & energy.

__________

A while back I ran across a TED talk by Candy Chang[2],
Urban planner, architect and artist
Concerned with creating “emotional communion in public art.”

While struggling with depression after the death of a friend,
She pondered an abandoned building in her beloved New Orleans.
A temple that had apparently met its doom,
She reshaped it into a mural of hope
By turning one side of the building into a stenciled chalk board,
Complete with big hunks of chalk
Filled with the unfinished phrase: “Before I die I want to…”

The day after it was erected every blank had been filled in:

Before I die, I want to be tried for piracy,
To straddle the international dateline,
To sing for millions,
To plant a tree,
To hold her one more time,
To be someone’s cavalry.

In a sense Chang’s vision and empathy
Turned a doomed temple into a launching pad for hope.
According to her website, over 5000 similar chalkboards
Have been erected around the world.[3]

“Before I Die…” in London, courtesy flickr.

Folk are desperate for hope,
In the face of wars and personal catastrophes,
Ecclesial decay and governmental scandal,
They look for it every and anywhere.

One poor mother, who was raising her children on a small salary
Earned from long hours of difficult work was asked,
“Why do you waste your money on a lottery ticket when you can hardly make ends meet?”

“Yeah, I buy a ticket every day,” the woman acknowledged.
“But a dollar is not too much to pay for 24 hours of hope.”

Jesus had a profound understanding of people’s longing for hope,
But his divine wisdom also perceived
That such hope was not grounded in institutions,
Which is why he didn’t create any.

Next week is the feast of Christ the King
Though, ironically, Jesus never ran for election,
Or sought an earthly crown.

His “kingdom” was about people
And his legacy of hope was embedded in a community
                          of care and belovedness,
                          of justice in service of human dignity,
                          of the marginalized and lost sheep,
Who together, with his Spirit, would be a fountain of hope.

Hope, as Jesus insistently reveals, is in the Temple of his body,
And that, my friends, is now us.
We are the enduring body of Christ.
And, thus, we are commissioned as emissaries of hope
Even and especially in the midst
Of the darkness and destruction
Imaged in today’s Word.

The second reading today from Paul to the Thessalonians
Underscores this when he writes that
“If anyone was unwilling to work neither should that one eat.”

At first glance it sounds like bad welfare reform
And inhuman social policy.

Another take on that text, however, understands “work” as mission
And condemns the “idleness” of those who do not live in witness.
This line retranslated sounds something like:
“If someone doesn’t work for the Church,
Then don’t let them eat of the Church’s food.[4]

The Church’s food, of course, is Eucharist:
The meal of eternal life.
Dining on the Temple of Jesus’ own Body
So that we might become what we eat,
And nudge hope into the spotlight, Even in the face of crucifixion and death.


It is a true story.[5]  Her name is Sister Helen Mrosla.
She taught at St. Mary’s school in Morris, MN.
At the center of the story was Mark Eklund,
A favorite student whom she first taught in third grade
And again in junior high math.

About that latter class, she writes:

One Friday, things just didn’t feel right. We had worked hard on a new concept all week, and I sensed that the students were frustrated with themselves and edgy with one another. I had to stop this crankiness before it got out of hand. So I asked them to list the names of the other students in the room [and then] think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down.  [I collected the papers at the end of the class period. Then I wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper, and I listed what everyone else had said about them. On Monday I gave each student his or her list. Before long, the entire class was smiling. No one ever mentioned those papers in class again, but it didn’t matter. The exercise had accomplished its purpose.

Several years later, returning from vacation, my parents met me at the airport. As we were driving home, my father said, “The Eklunds called last night,” he began. “Really?” I said. Dad responded quietly, “Mark was killed in Vietnam,” he said. “The funeral is tomorrow, and they’d like you to attend.”

…After the funeral, Mark’s former classmates headed to Chuck’s farmhouse for lunch. Mark’s mother and father were waiting for me. “We want to show you something,” his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. “They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it.” Opening the billfold, he removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped, folded and refolded many times.  I knew without looking that the papers were the ones that listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him. “Thank you so much for doing that” his mother said. “As you can see, he treasured it.”

Mark’s classmate Charlie smiled sheepishly and said, “My list is in the top drawer of my desk at home.” Chuck’s wife said, “Chuck’s is in our wedding album.”  Marilyn said. “Mine is in my diary.” Then Vicki reached into her purse, took out her wallet and showed her frazzled list to the group. “I carry this with me at all times,” Vicki said without batting an eyelash. “I think we all saved our lists.” 

“That’s when I finally sat down and cried,” Sr. Helen wrote. “I cried for Mark, for the friends who would never see him again, and particularly for all those who do know that—especially in times of war and crisis—that they are fundamentally loved.”

One of the most famous gospel pieces of the 20th century
Is the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow,”
A signature tune of Mahalia Jackson.

It powerfully reminds us that God is faithful,
And that in troubles and tragedy we can revel in God’s care.

But Jesus embeds that care not in the heavens,
Or in some doomed temple,
But in his living body, the Church.
We are God’s hands and ears and eyes
In this troubled world.

And so we keep our eyes on the sparrows and the little ones,
That in our nurturing love they might discover hope.
And in the process find it ourselves,
Through Christ our Lord.


[1] Book of Hours I:59.
[2] https://www.ted.com/talks/candy_chang_before_i_die_i_want_to/up-next
[3] http://candychang.com/about/
[4] http://homebynow.blogspot.com/2016/11/is-god-ever-going-to-act.html
[5] Sr. Helen Mrosla, “All the Good Things,” in The Power of Love: Fifteen Stories and Essays, ed. Jim Langan (West Berlin NJ: Townsend Press, 2015).

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