Ars praedicandi: Sunday 21A, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Recently a colleague sent a YouTube link
containing a series of tips for looking great in a Zoom meeting.
It covered lighting, background, camera angles,
and much more.

We had just finished a Zoom meeting
so the message was not lost on me.

On the other hand, he confessed
that while he looked very professional for the meeting,
clean shaven, hair combed, crisp button-down shirt,
what the camera did not reveal was the rest of his attire –
which consisted of a Hawaiian bathing suit and flipflops.

Whether its appearing on Zoom
or deciding what selfie to post on our Facebook homepage,
we all like to put our best mug forward.

What triggers this foray into Zoom tips and Facebook hints
is today’s gospel and my musings that,
if there was any video from the event,
Peter might want to post it front and center,
and Jesus might want to bury the clip altogether.

Peter shines in this passage,
shooting to the front of the class as he delivers his A+ answer.

The other apostolic students got passing grades
on the question about what other’s think about Jesus’ identity.
But when it comes to “what do YOU think”
Peter nails it: You are the Christ, Son of the Living God.

Jesus heaps praise upon his student,
announcing that he will be foundational
not only for the rest of the apostolic course load,
but for the Rabbi’s very legacy

Conversely, Jesus does not seem to come off so well.
Almost 60% through the gospel of Matthew,
he seems to be having an identity crisis.

Was it the confrontation with the Canaanite woman last week
that threw him off his game and shook his confidence,
so that now he is reduced to asking students
to clarify his career path and identity?

As so often happens, however,
Gospel meaning is not so obvious or one-dimensional,
and Paul’s caution about the inscrutability of God
finds immediate resonance here.

For example, if Peter is thinking about posting a clip
of his great triumph on YouTube,
it had better be a very short clip,
because seconds after Jesus praises him to the heavens,
he metaphorically knocks him to hell,
rechristening him not “Rocky” but Satan.

Jesus, on the other hand, should not be worried
about posting this probing and wondering video clip,
given the fact that his main profile picture on Facebook
has him hanging on a cross,
and that portrait of his wretched demise
is the unexpected portal to salvation for all.

This well-known gospel is not a pop quiz
or calculated trap for raising up then taking down Peter.
Rather, it is a dialogue of self-discovery,
a reflection about identity and mission.

Such an interpretation makes sense
in light of last Sunday’s encounter with that Canaanite woman
in which Jesus came to understand
that just as Samaritan divorcee’s lives matter,
and the lives of the sinful and the leprous matter,
and widows’ and the outcasts’ lives matter as well,
so also:
Canaanite lives matter too.

And in the process of his sacred reversal and divine rethink,
Jesus’ understanding of the commonwealth of God
was blown wide open.

USonians, as architect Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to call us,
are some of the most individualistic people in the world.
We strive to be distinctive in so many ways,
epitomized by our unique social security number
which we increasingly guard with some kind of identity lock.

Ancient middle Eastern people were different .[1]
Experts sometimes describe them as dyadic personalities,
culturally oriented to the other.
Not obsessed with their own individuality,
they were reliant upon others in their journey of self-discovery

Similarly, the Kenyan born theologian John Mbiti muses
“I am because WE are and since we are therefore I am.”
Ironically, even though as infants we all started out that way,
a dominant instinct in US society
is to abandon such thinking as quickly as possible.

Jesus’ question thus reflects a normal, Mediterranean curiosity
about what other people think
and not some divine identity crisis.

One apparent reasons Jesus needs this feedback
is because he is consistently stereotyped by contemporaries.
His enemies pigeonholed him as “Jesus of Nazareth.”
To know a person’s place of origin is purportedly
to know everything about them.
[So I am not going to tell you I was born in Gary, Indiana].

All people in Nazareth were thought to be alike and worthless,
so the future disciple Nathanael’s pointed asked:
“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

Another stereotypical identification of Jesus appears
in being labeled as “the carpenter’s son” (Mark 6:3).
Another dismissive move
summarized in the familiar maxim “like father, like son.”

Presumably fed up with being pigeon-holed,
a tried and true method for erasing folk
still rampant in our own political and social discourse,
Jesus asks his disciples what others are saying about him.

The replies:
John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, another prophet?
Honorable if mistaken perceptions.

So Jesus presses for Simon’s opinion:
Impulsive, insightful, erratic Peter,
who two weeks ago bounded over the side of the boat
at Jesus’ command,
quickly sank like a stone then became a buoyant rock;
whom next week Jesus will call Satan;
and who every Holy Week reenacts
the most famous denial scene of all time.

But this week Peter scores a pivotal profession of faith.
And for that, Jesus honors him
with the keys to the kingdom of heaven,
allowing him and the other disciples
to withstand the very gates of hell.

That would be a useful set of keys to have these days,
given the employment hell,
the Covid hell,
the political hell,
and other personal hells we are currently enduring –
often marked with the sulphuric fumes
of intolerance, greed and animosity
belching forth with unwelcomed frequency these days.
In the midst of what appears to be a record deficit season
in public charity and human decency,
Jesus’ words can be a source of solace …
that this sometimes hellacious context will not overwhelm us.

But only if we practice his dyadic gift
and shape us, our society, our church in tune with others,
which means allowing ourselves to be seen clearly
and reflected honestly in the mirror of the other
in their needs, their dignity, their humanity,
so as to affirm them as respected key holders
who are able to unlock the potential of their own selves
and unlock that potential in us as well.

Dr.  Frank Mayfield was touring Tewksbury Institute when he collided with an elderly floor maid.  To cover the awkward moment he asked, “How long have you worked here?” “Almost since the place opened,” the maid replied.  “What can you tell me about this place?” he asked.  “I’ll show you.” She led him to the basement.  She pointed to small prison cells, their bars rusted with age.  She said, “That’s where they kept Annie.” “Who’s Annie?” he asked.  “A young girl brought here because she was incorrigible.  Nobody could do anything with her.  She’d bite and scream and throw her food at people.  The doctors and nurses couldn’t get near her.  I’d see them trying, with her spitting and scratching.  I was only a few years younger, and I used to think, ‘I sure would hate to be locked up in a cage.’ I wanted to help her, but if the doctors and nurses couldn’t help her, what could someone like me do?  so I baked her brownies.  I walked carefully to her cage and said, ‘Annie I baked brownies just for you.’  I’ll put them down and then I got out of there as fast as I could.  I was afraid she might throw them at me.  But she took the brownies and ate them.  After that, she was nice to me.  Sometimes I’d talk to her.  Once, I got her laughing.  A nurse noticed and told the doctor.  They asked me if I’d help them with Annie.  I said I’d try.  So every time they wanted to see or examine her, I went into the cage and calmed her down and held her hand.  They discovered Annie was almost blind. After they worked with her a year, Perkins Institute for the Blind opened.  They helped her and she went on to study and become a teacher. 

 Years later Annie came back to the Tewksbury to visit and asked what she might do to help.  The Director had just received a letter from a man about his daughter.  She was unruly, blind and deaf, deranged and animalistic … but He didn’t want to put her in an asylum.  So he wrote to ask if we knew a teacher who would work with his daughter.” That is how Annie Sullivan became the lifelong companion of Helen Keller.  Years later, when Keller received the Nobel Prize, she was asked who had the greatest impact on her life.  She said, “Annie Sullivan.” But Annie said, “No Helen.  The woman with the greatest influence on both our lives was a floor maid at the Tewksbury Institute.” [2]

 A scrub maid, who chose to use her power of the keys,
an almost blind incorrigible,
who chose to use her power of the keys,
and for all that unlocking
a world was enriched, a Nobel laureate emerged ,
and a story of dyadic love again finds incarnation.

The God of Jesus Christ has aptly been described as a God for us. [3]
Jesus was the ultimate incarnation of that holy instinct
of a divinity continuously communicating
“I am for you, I am for you.”

This Sunday, we are reminded that in birth and baptism
we were created and recreated in the image of that God;
we, and not just the pope,
were given the ministry of binding and loosing
and have our own set of keys
that can either be used for socially caging those around us
and imprisoning ourselves in self-righteousness,
or for setting captives free,
for unlocking doors of dignity and affirmation,
and announcing individually and collectively
to the marginalized and abused,
to the downtrodden and forgotten,
to the homeless and the hopeless,
I am for you, I am for you,
as you wield your own power of the keys.

May the Eucharistic act that looms in our insistent future
inaugurate us again into the grace of true communion,
so that through our dyadic living
the gates of hell in whatever form they take
in our individual and collective lives
might be forever sealed,
and the gifts of the spirit be unlocked
and flow abundantly around us and through us,
through Christ our Lord.


[1] The following paragraphs rely heavily upon this biblical commentary for this Sunday,
[2] Leah Curtin, Nursing Management – Chicago 24:5 (1993) 7.
[3] Catherine LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (1991)

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