Ars praedicandi: Fifth Sunday of Lent Lent, Year B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

In today’s Gospel, a group of visiting Greeks – probably Gentiles –
posed a question to the apostle Philip,
who had a Greek name,
could have spoken Greek,
and may have been perceived as the go-to-Greek
when it came to Jesus and his inner circle.

The question they posed is flatly translated as
“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”
But they are not looking for a quick selfie,
or a Jesus autograph on a scrap of papyrus,
but more an opportunity to talk,
to dialogue,
to engage.

Like 1st century precursors of Oprah,
it sounds like they want to interview Jesus,
to chat over lunch
or have a leisurely dinner and ask the real questions.

You may have run across a similar question
that has been asked of celebrities and friends,
shown up in college applications and job interviews,
and been floating around for decades:
‘If you could have lunch with anyone, who would it be?’

Or, in its more elaborate form,
if you could throw a dinner party
and invite any 6 people, living or dead,
whom would you invite?
I spent far too much time
going down that rabbit hole on the internet
but the results were fascinating.

Frequently named guests were
Abraham Lincoln,
Albert Einstein,
Nelson Mandela,
Thomas Jefferson,
and, not surprisingly, Jesus.

Some took a more challenging turn,
like inviting some of the world’s most notorious criminals,
populating a dinner party
with Jessie James, Al Capone and Adolf Hitler.
Others opted for a circle of artists such as Russian novelists
or celebrated musicians from Mozart to Hendrix.

Most of the lists I could find online were dominated by males,
though occasionally a Michelle Obama or Elizabeth I
made the shortlist.

While it is of little value for me to disclose my own list –
trying to upstage every other dinner party
with my mythical gathering of luminaries –
what intrigues me more is the “why” behind the lists.
Is the gathering for entertainment?
If so, I’d invite Mark Twain.
Is it to solve mysteries?
If so, I’d be sitting next to Amelia Earhart.
Or maybe it just a serene wisdom moment
with Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Gamaliel & me,
quietly enjoying a Japanese tea ceremony.
Today the word does not simply ask us if we would like to see Jesus,
to have him autograph our baptismal certificate,
give us communion,
or maybe have a home Mass with our families.

Rather the always impertinent Word of God wants to know why.
What would be the outcome of such a meeting?
A euphoric high documented by a few great photos?
The interview of a life-time sure to garner a Pulitzer prize?
Or the prophetic gift of Jeremiah announced in the 1st reading:
a radically envisioned life of covenant,
a transformed way of being,
and a divinely inspirited heart transplant?

In my imagination, the prophet Jeremiah is one of those folks
I’d rather read about than live with.
He must have been one incredibly tough truth-teller,
not only announcing when my wardrobe was out of style,
my manners on the wane,
and even my hygiene slipping,
but also, when my spirituality was beyond pathetic
and on the verge of being eternally embarrassing.

He was that kind of truthtellers for God’s first Chosen People,
reminding them how
they had violated their covenant with their Creator,
especially because of their worship of other gods,
but also, as reiterated by other theologians of the period,
because of the way they had oppressed the poor.
Sound familiar? Love of God AND neighbor?

So pious yet assertive, Jeremiah pushes the covenant envelope
and announces a second chance – a fresh covenant;
not one with new content,
but rather one with new geography;
not an external set of stone tablets
useful for whacking us
when we get out of line.
But a more visceral set, inscribed on hearts,
on internal flesh,
on the very center of our being
that does not shame us with commandments,
but fires us with love.

In attempting to imagine what a heart inscribed covenant might be,
I am helped by imaginative bloggers and believers.
One of them, Baptist minister Stacy Simpson
offers this reflection entitled “Branded by God.”
She writes:

The image of God writing on the heart of the people is a compelling one, it also has a frightening aspect to it.

Think of a tattoo. Better yet, think of getting branded. Now that tattoos have gone mainstream, those who stay ahead of trends are getting branded. I met a guy who did this. He said it “hurt like hell” for a very longtime. Now it’s a scar and he is “branded for life.”

Pain, indelibility, identity are the central aspects of what it means to be marked. If it didn’t involve pain, it wouldn’t be indelible: marks that don’t hurt are the ones that wash off. If it were not indelible, what it revealed about a person’s identity wouldn’t be so critical. Literature on tattoos and brands warns potential customers to be sure that they want the mark they are getting and to consider it permanent. Tattoo your arm with “Roseanne” in your 20s, and you better still be married to her 30 years later.

That’s an interesting reflection, at least for this Roman Catholic,
who learned at an early age
through endless catechism classes
that baptism left an indelible mark on our souls?
Translation: at baptism, a covenant was inscribed on us.
Our very hearts were tattooed by God
in the image of the only-begotten.

Over the past few weeks,
I’ve been listening to a most amazing book:
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity by Yuval Noah Harari.

While there are multiple aspects of this book that intrigue me,
one that resonated with today’s Gospel is in chapter 5,
in which this Israeli scholar and Oxford grad
discusses the power of wheat.

Harari begins this discussion, imbedded in what he calls
the agricultural revolution,
by reminding us that 10,000 years ago wheat was just wild grass
confined to a small range in the Middle East.
But within a few short millennia
it was growing all over the world, becoming what he calls
one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth.
So, world-wide wheat covers 2.25 million square kilometers,
10 times the size of Britain.
In explaining this phenomenon,
Harari notes that we lived largely as hunter-gatherers
until 10,000 or so years ago,
but then our forebears began investing more and more effort
into cultivating wheat,
living a much more difficult life than hunger-gatherers
who only worked about 4-6 hours a day to feed themselves.
Now homo sapiens spent 10 hours a day
clearing fields of rocks,
eradicating weeds and insects and foraging animals,
and digging irrigation ditches in the scorching sun.

The traditional language is that we “domesticated” wheat,
but the world domestication comes from
the Latin word “domus” which means “home.”
And, as Harari points, out,
the wheat is not living in “homes,”
it’s homo sapiens who had to create dwellings
right next to the fields to care and protect them.
His conclusion is that we did not domesticate wheat;
instead, it domesticated us.

Jesus was no wheat farmer, but he lived close to the ground,
figuratively and literally as a 1st century Palestinian Jew.
And while not an agriculturalists,
he understood something about domestication,
whether it was sheep or fig trees,
prodigal sons or fishermen apostles.

Jesus’ domesticating stories are unusual,
particularly in one respect.
Harari narrates wheat’s power to domesticate
because the wheat promises life.
Jesus as God’s first grain of wheat, however,
invites a domestication
that presumes homo sapiens build huts,
remove stones and pebbles,
and eradicates pests and pestilence
not so the wheat can thrive,
but so that it can die –
so that it can give up its life
to seed justice and care,
to seed respect and dignity,
and to seed a love of neighbor equal to a love of God.

Just when the end of Lent seems within reach,
Easter is looming on the horizon,
astronomical spring dawning across the land,
and vaccinations are ramping up across the country,
this could be a somewhat discouraging, even troubling message –
not only because it reminds us
that Good Friday is the gateway to Easter,
but that our own self-sacrificing vocation,
to be wheat for others,
tattooed on our hearts at baptism
is yet to be fully realized.

Sister Dorothy, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur,
spent most of her ministry in Brazil
working to give the poor of the Amazon Region a voice.
Sister Dorothy was martyred in 2005 –
shot 6 times –
for standing up for the rights of the poor,
as well as refusing to be intimidated
because of land disputes
which resulted in mass deforestation
in Brazil’s Amazon forest.

In 2009 HBO released a documentary, “They Killed Sister Dorothy,”
chronicling Sister Dorothy’s life and death
as well as the trial that brought to justice not only the shooters,
but the landholders who were behind the murder.

Premiered in Dayton Ohio, Sr. Dorothy’s hometown,
after the movie there was time for comments and questions
with the producer of the movie,
as well as Sister Dorothy’s brother, David –
also a missionary,
who was integral in the making of this movie.
David recounted events which had caused him to believe
that “Dot” knew that her life may be ended
by those she had angered
by her unrelenting dedication to her Gospel beliefs.

One of Sister Dorothy’s colleagues commented
about how Sr. Dorothy’s was buried on the land she loved so much.
Then, after a pause, she stated that
“Sr. Dorothy was not buried, she was planted.
Her work continues to grow, change is happening.”
The audience sat in stunned silenced after these words,
and then erupted in applause for this “planting” of Sr. Dorothy,

Dorothy planted in Brazil –
Jesus planted on Calvary.

And Christians, planted deep in a baptismal pool
where we rehearse transformation,
we learn to germinate
and we practice dying,
so that not only we
but others who have suffered through
too many broken covenants,
too much oppression,
too much marginalization,
can also find life in this world and the next
through Christ our Lord.

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