Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s Homily for Baptism of the Lord

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

One of the most celebrated contemporary experiments in psychology
tested the human capacity to pay attention
it is the so called “invisible gorilla” video.

In this “selective attention test,”
participants watch a short video in which
a team of three in black shirts and a team of three in white shirts  
passed two basketballs to their respective team mates. 
At the beginning of the video viewers are asked to count
“how many times the players wearing white pass the basketball.”
Most of the participants came up with the correct answer:
the white team passed the ball 15 times.

Then the researchers asked an unexpected second question:
Did you see the gorilla? 
This question often elicited blank stares. 
On average, 50% never saw the faux primate
dancing through the video.

The researchers then replay the film, and plain as day
as the black and white teams are passing basketballs around
someone in a gorilla suit saunters into the video
walks dead center into the middle of the action
beats its chest a few times, and then exits. 

It sounds crazy but I know missing the gorilla is possible.
A number of years ago a student conducted this experiment
And multiple students along with their distracted instructor (me!)
missed the dancing primate. 

Over the years the same researchers
have repeated this experiment and devised others
to test the prevalence of what they deemed
“inattentional blindness”

[Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, The Invisible Gorilla: How our Intuitions Deceive Us (Broadway Paperbacks, 2009)]

They conclude that when we direct our “mental spotlight”
to something like the passing of a basketball,
it leaves the rest of the world and its dancing gorillas in darkness.

Thus, human beings suffer under what these scientists call
the “illusion of attention.” 
We think we see the world as it really is,
but actually often experience a striking mental blindness. 
That is why these researchers could document that
experienced professional pilots do not always notice
the plane blocking the runway right in front of them
as they are coming in for a landing,
or a police officer can actually miss seeing a physical assault
which he bypasses when in determined pursuit
of a suspect in a different crime. 

In these and multiple other situations,
the ignored data or overlooked incident
was not what the pilot or police officer were looking for. 
Their “mental spotlights” were focused elsewhere
and in the process they missed the proverbial gorilla. 

I tell this story because, for us baptized,
who renew our baptismal commitment this day,
there is always a spiritual gorilla in the room and on the street,
in our cities and in the world
and that spiritual gorilla through the gift of incarnation
is the Christ
roaming around not in a gorilla outfit
but masquerading as a human being
on every street corner and in every shopping mall.

The season of Christmas concludes today.
A societal misfire as most in our society
believe Christmas ended a long time ago.
My local Walgreens eve started its “after Christmas sales”
On December 23rd.

But this crazy … or at least stubborn Church
holds onto Christmas until this feast of baptism
as an affirmation that the season is not just about birth …
about God assuming human flesh only in one time and place,
but about God wedding the divine self with humanity
and the consequences of that ongoing covenant
not just throughout the life of the historical Jesus
but throughout the life of Jesus’ ecclesial body, the church.

Baptism is a radical induction into the body of Christ,
a reassurance from God that incarnation continues,
and the provocative invitation to commit ourselves
to respecting God’s continued intervention in human history.
Unfortunately, however, we quite often miss
the spiritual gorillas in our midst,
overlooking Jesus charading as a human being.

With characteristic honesty,
poet and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor
provides a public confession for us all on this topic.

In her An Altar in the World, she writes

I have an easier time loving humankind than … loving particular human beings.  Particular human beings hug my bumper in rush hour ….  Particular human beings drop my carefully selected portabella mushrooms into the bottom of my grocery bag and toss cans of beans on top of them.  Particular human beings talk on their cell phones when I am having a quiet lunch … talk on their cell phones when I am waiting to pay them for my gas, and talk on their cell phones when I am trying to step past them on the sidewalk. 

[An Altar in the World: Finding the Sacred beneath our Feet (Canterbury Press, 2009), p. 27.]

We smile because we recognize ourselves
in her unvarnished truth telling,
but it gets more uncomfortable when she pushes us further
as she did when preaching a sermon on the well-known parable
of the Good Samaritan
with its stinging critique of righteous clergy, religious insiders
and shocking validation of the loathed outsider.

As Talyor notes, the Good Samaritan was never one of us.
He was the enemy, the foreigner
belonging to the other side.

Jesus turns the Samaritan into the hero.
But the punch of the story occurs
when you try to imagine the hero
as the last person in the world you want to call good.

Who is the last person in the world, she asks,
you would want to give you CPR?
The kind of person you would hate to thank
for saving your life.

She concludes, “that is your _____ [fill in the blank]”

Who is that for us?
The most distasteful CPR provider?
The kind of person we would hate to thank?

Would it be because of their race and nationality
like some Somalian?  
Or maybe their religion, like some Muslim woman,
or someone else whom we might dismiss simply as odd,
like the person who identifies as pan-gendered
and opts for the pronouns us/we/them?

If and when we find our Samaritan
maybe we will have just discovered Jesus’ best disguise,
his most convincing costume,
his most subverting gorilla move,
and in the process not just celebrated Epiphany,
but actually have had one.

The celebrated Protestant preacher Fred Craddox
was once invited to preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church,
the church of Martin Luther King Senior and Junior.

He had moved to the pulpit to read the gospel when the pastor began to sing.

“Then the associates started singing, and the musicians went to their instruments, the piano and the organ and the drums and the electric guitar, and the people started singing. I’m standing up there with Mark 8, waiting. Then, I suddenly realized, I’m the one up front, I’m the leader of this, so I started clapping my hands and singing. Then everybody stood up and started clapping their hands and swinging and singing, and it was just marvelous. Then at a certain point the pastor … put his hand out, it got quiet, they sat down and I started preaching. I could’ve preached all day. Afterwards I said to [the pastor], “Well, that kind of shocked me a little bit. You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.” He said, “Well, I didn’t plan it.” “Then why did you do it?” And he said, “Well, when you stood up there, one of my associates leaned over to me and said, ‘That boy’s going to need some help’.”

Reflecting on the gospel about the baptism of the Lord, Craddock repeated, “That boy’s going to need some help.”  He continued,

“I can just see The Father and The Spirit peering down from heaven onto the John the Baptist Revival Center and Riverfront Tabernacle down by the Jordan.  Here comes Jesus, determined to get started on his mission and full of vim, vigor and bright ideas.  And The Spirit turns to The Father and says, “That boy’s going to need some help.”  And The Father thinks about it a few minutes, looks out over the horizon and into the future and sees there trials and tribulations, sadness and sorrow, great adulation mixed with abject failure and frequent rejection.   And The Father nods sadly and says to The Spirit, “I believe you’re right.  That boy is going to some help.”  And then a slow smile spread across the Father’s face and he said, “And guess what Spirit; you’re it.”

[Fred Craddox, Craddock Stories, p. 128.]

I like that story for a variety of reasons.
It reminds us that the preacher can always rely on musicians
for a little help.
It also reminds us that baptism – both Jesus’ and our own –
is about action, not holiness;
about doing something, not just being somebody;
and we can always use a little help
when doing gospel work … especially justice work.

A week ago, I visited that same Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta
and stood outside at the tomb of Martin Luther and Coretta King.
The tomb is on an island in the middle of a gentle waterfall.
And that waterfall is engraved the prophetically inspired text
that King sometimes repeated:
“We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water
and righteousness like a mighty stream”

Jesus’s baptism launched him into the deep waters of humanity,
into a mission to erase
our inhumane inattentiveness to each other,
to raise up the dignity of all,
to let justice and righteousness role like a mighty stream.

But as in his own day, today there are many currents of prejudice,
rising tides of hatred,
torrents of acrimony,
threatening to submerge the dignity of people
around the world and in our backyard.

And so we take up the baptismal challenge
assured that we too who need a little help,
might be strengthened with God’s mighty spirit …
To do the justice work Isaiah proclaims in that first reading,
to continue the Jesus work of healing of the oppressed
that Peter urges in the second reading.

­There is an ancient tradition
that when the Old Irish immersed a babe at baptism,
they left the right arm out of the font
so that it would remain pagan for combat.

On this feast we are reminded to re-immerse that right arm
so that it is ready only for holy combat:

to find the lost,
heal the broken,
feed the hungry,
release the prisoners,
rebuild the nations,
bring peace among all  [From a poem by Howard Thurman]
and let God’s mercy rain down, rain down, rain down,
through Christ our Lord.

4 comments

  1. A masterpiece of a homily that made me wonder, reflect, appropriate my prejudice and cherish at what Christmas is offering me. So grateful for the time I spent at CTU and my most demanding teacher who continues to demand as I hear his challenging Gospel message.

  2. Powerful preaching, Ed! This boy’s gonna need some help, especially when pushed like Barbara Brown Taylor does. Thank you for the push and the help of the Spirit and the reminder about who and whose we are.

  3. Reading your homily just now touches my heart and inspires me to go out and live out my baptismal calling to be the hands of Jesus as much as I can. It was a gift to hear you deliver your homily this am at OSP. Seeing it in print though and having another chance to reflect on your carefully crafted story has allowed me to understand Jesus’ baptism with a fresh perspective. Almost like I’m there in the River Jordan with Him.
    I’m grateful for this blog site and will eagerly check it again for your homilies, Fr. Foley.
    Gratefully,
    Karen Flavin

  4. I am moved to tears each time you are the presider at mass and also was so at your First Friday event on Advent. Reading your descriptive words has done the same, brought me to tears and reflection. The education And feeling I receive from your words is powerful. Thank you for the motivation and encouragement.
    Best,
    Carmen Gross

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.