Ars praedicandi: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

While it might not be kosher to admit it publicly,
and as much as I usually agree with his content
(although not always his approach),
I need to take exception to the wisdom from St. Paul today,
especially when it comes to the topic of anxiety.

In Paul’s world view, admittedly not mine,
he presumes that the unmarried are only anxious
about the things of the Lord,
while the married are anxious
about the things of the world.

I have spent a lot of time around the unmarried,
especially clergy and religious,
who are appropriately anxious
about all sorts of things of the world, e.g.,
about keeping a parish afloat during a pandemic.

Conversely, I know many married folk
who, juggling work and life and
finances and family,
have deep concern about the things of the Lord.

No matter whether the source of our anxiety
is our prayer life, property tax
or just putting food on the table,
living with stress is not good for body or spirit.

The celebrated neuro-endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky
has a funny yet informative book on the topic
aptly entitled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
If you want the abridged version,
watch the YouTube of Sapolsky lecturing on the topic
at the University of Illinois in 2017. [1]

Backed by formidable research including over 25 years
observing primates and their zebra colleagues in Africa,
Sapolsky demonstrates that some stress is not only good
but necessary, e.g., when being chased by a lion.
Stress kicks the body into high gear,
prioritizes what instincts to take over,
and increases our chances for success in fleeing danger.

What is not useful, however,
is human’s evolved capacity
for long term psychological fretting
about non-physical threats,
about possibilities, misgivings, or suspicions
which take not just a psychological but a physical toll.
Psychological stress is a documentable contributor to disease
including diabetes, heart problems and even cancer.

Today’s readings, like today’s world,
point to various sources of anxiety.
In particular, they raise questions around issues of trustworthiness
of authenticity
and the enduring question
about whom to invest with authority.

In today’s segment from the book of Deuteronomy
Moses, the stuttering whom God invested with authority,
reminds his listeners that God will raise up prophets
whose words must be heeded,
with the additional warning that anyone
who dares to speak for God falsely
will suffer a terrible fate.

A key problem with this short passage, however,
is that it does not provide any criteria for judging
who is of God and who is not,
except if someone happens to keel over dead
in the middle of a prophecy:
not a criterion most of us would like to apply,
certainly not I in the midst of this preaching!

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is at least momentarily invested with authority
after his nifty exorcism in a Galilean synagogue,
which could be a pretty good reason
for affirming another’s power.
Ironically enough, however,
many eventually tried to divest Jesus of authority
And many more never made the investment in the first place.

I personally have never witnessed
such a dramatic or effective exorcism,
though I have often wished for one.
If you have, please email the details to me.

So in the absence of sensational demon expulsion,
how do we decide not only how or when to empower another,
but also when and how to authorize ourselves
as proclaimers of God’s Word?

While it could jeopardize the possibility
of some of you investing any authority in my preaching,
especially on the cusp of Superbowl 55,
I have to admit that I am not much of a sports fan.

Oh, I have a Cubs’ t-shirt – a gift from a relative,
and a Bear’s sweatshirt – a gift from a relative,
and a Tiger Woods’ baseball cap – a gift from a relative,
and Blackhawk’s sweats: Now in unison –
“a gift from a relative” … like a family responsorial psalm.
Nonetheless, I have virtually no passion
for following any competitive sports team …
even though I’m a triple Domer
and a card-carrying alum of Notre Dame.

That doesn’t mean I think sports are unimportant,
which is why I try to keep up on the latest sports news,
a topic so important for so many.

It is also a prominent arena
in which millions of folk invest their time and finances
and by extension provide empowerment:
for coaches, teams, schools, and especially star athletes.

And from time to time,
it also provides some guidance on criteria
for anointing groups and individuals
as worthy of our trust and energy.

As real baseball fans know, this past week,
for the first time since 2013,
the Baseball Writers Association of American
did not elect anyone to the baseball hall of fame.

It was notable that three of the folks not elected,
in their 9th of 10 years of eligibility,
were Kurt Schilling, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

As widely reported in the media,
contributing factors to that outcome
were the many demeaning comments of Schiller,
belittling folk because of race or gender,
and for Bonds and Clemens,
the wide-ranging charges that both used
performance-enhancing drugs,
intimating that they were professional cheats.

I looked up the rules of voting for the hall of fame last week.
They include this instruction:
voting shall be based upon
the player’s record,
playing ability,
and team contributions.

I wonder if we can borrow those as at least a partial list
of criteria for discipleship and our own authoritative role
as proclaimers of God’s Word?
Besides this baseball drama playing out this past week
more prominent is the current race to Superbowl 55.

One of the more highly anticipated matchups in that race
was the game between the Buccaneers and the Saints,
featuring two of the most celebrated quarterbacks
in the history of the game.

It is old news that the Buccaneers vanquished the Saints,
and subsequently the Packers,
so are on their way to the Super Bowl.

What was enlightening to me, however,
was the viral YouTube clip of a simple exchange
that occurred after the Bucs beat the Saints.

By almost every standard Drew Brees is a first-class act.
The 2010 sportsman of the year
making multiple USO tours, a true philanthropist,
committed to a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina
as evidenced by many huge donations,
including a recent $5 million gift for pandemic relief.
As a committed Christian his creed is his four “f’s”:
faith, family, football, and philanthropy.

There is wide speculation that Drew Brees is about to retire.
After his loss to the Bucs, a camera caught him
back out on the field with his wife and 4 kids
after the stadium had emptied,
maybe soaking in his final moments as a player.

In the midst of this symbolic last dance,
the opposing quarterback, Tom Brady,
without fanfare or display,
quietly came onto the field.

He hugged Drew, Drew’s wife,
shared a quiet moment of mutual respect
and when Drew’s oldest boy, Baylen,
approached Brady with a football,
the six-time super bowl champ
tossed a perfect dime pass to the boy
(I had to look that one up) [2]
right into the corner of the end zone,
with the compliment “we could have used you tonight.”

And as he quietly left the field, he high-fived the kids,
and told the three sons, “be nice to your sister.”

There has been an unfortunate trend,
in our country, in our schools, in business,
and even in our churches
to allow power to be ceded to the loudest,
to hand authority to self-authorized bullies.
Maybe gentlemen quarterbacks suggest another option.

While it is sometimes thought to be an urban legend,
the Director of National Intelligence confirmed its veracity
in an official speech, when he reported:

There’s a party talking to a ship at sea that says, “Ship at sea, please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.” The response was, “Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.” The first party responds, “Sorry, sir, but you will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.” The answering party says, “This is the captain of a United States naval ship. I say again, divert your course.” The first party says, “Pardon me sir, you must divert your course.” Now the American ship says, “This is an American aircraft carrier, the second largest ship in the United States fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers, numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north. I say again, that is 1-5 degrees north or counter-measures will be taken. Do you understand?” The response was, “Dear Captain, the next move is your call. This is a Canadian lighthouse.” [3]

Decades ago, the celebrated psychologist, Carl Rogers (d. 1987),
identified three core conditions [4]
that a client needs in order for their therapy to be effective.
They have been consistently embraced.
I learned them 50 years ago as
empathy, genuineness, and respect.
Pushy, belligerent, and self-serving never made the list.

Jesus of Nazareth was no pushover
but he was no bully either.
His core message was love;
his continued witness was care;
his ultimate act was total self-giving.
It would be difficult to imagine a more incarnate version
of empathy, genuineness, and respect in human history.

Jesus not only spoke God’s saving Word,
but was revealed as that Word eternally.

In these days of too much distorted speech
and a bewildering chorus of voices claiming
personal license, religious warrants, and societal power,
and as we grow together in discerning
who truly speaks a holy word,
who embodies spirit-driven empathy, genuineness, and respect,
and who is worthy of being invested with an authority
resonant with that of the Christ,
and as we grow in our baptismal call
as chrismated as prophets
commissioned to announce in word and deed
the Good News in Jesus Christ,
we pray for the same Spirit
that guided Jesus,
that anointed Jesus,
that authorized Jesus,
that accompanied him on Golgotha,
that rested with him in the tomb,
and that raised him up on the third day
so that, as the psalmist prays,
no hearts are hardened
but instead are only rendered supple and open and wise,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: Stress and Health” by Dr. Robert Sapolsky
[2] Technically a “dime” is a pass that travels at least 30 yards in the air and fits into windows of one yard or less.
[3] Remarks and Q&A by the Director of National Intelligence Mr. Mike McConnell, March 12, 2008
[4] Carl Rogers, “The Necessity and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change,” Journal of Consulting Psychology 21:2 (1957) 95-103.

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