Ars Praedicandi: Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

This is clearly not the most difficult conjunction
of a national observance with the Catholic liturgical calendar
that any have ever had to preach.

In 2018 Valentine’s day fell on Ash Wednesday
so chocolates, roses, and champagne
faced off with ashes, penance, and fasting.
The looming question that day:
should lovers observe church penitential practice?
And if so, would they have to perform some kind of
relational penance for not having honored their beloved?

On an annual basis, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
recalling Christ’s temple debut 40 days after his birth
always conjoins with Ground Hog Day.
With all due respect to Punxsutawney Phil, that concurrence
makes me wonder about how Jesus might be
casting his prophetic shadow that day.
Last year, February 2nd was also Super Bowl Sunday
which made me wonder if there was some
holy clouding over the San Francisco 49s
that allowed the Kansas City chiefs to pull off
their sensational comeback?

Maybe most challenging was three years ago, in 2018
when Easter fell on April Fools day – no joke.
So how do you preach about resurrection
as God’s own foolishness in Christ
without making Christianity itself look foolish?
In comparison this coupling
of the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
with the annual celebration of our national Independence
may not seem to be so challenging.

After all, the professed values of our nation at its founding
were quite resonate with Christianity.
And though some of our founding fathers
were more a product of the Enlightenment than religion,
emphasizing reason over faith,
many of those who led this country to independence
were deeply committed Christians.
There was even an active clergyman, John Witherspoon,
who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Furthermore, that Declaration is filled with statements
that resonate deeply with Gospel values,
especially those stirring but not always “self-evident” lines
that all are created equal,
that all are endowed by our Creator
with certain inalienable rights
including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Even more, the whole of the Declaration
and the actions it undertakes
are done under an invocation of Divine Providence
and the request for holy protection.

This happy wedding of the Christian faith
and our founding independence capsulized in this Declaration
could give the impression that the United States of America,
whose pledge of allegiance announces
that we are a unified nation “Under God,”
and Christianity are two sides of the same coin.
After all, our currency does proclaim that
as a nation, it is in God that we trust,
though I always wonder what kind of God we trust in.

So maybe this July 4th is a pseudo-Christian festival
and we gather here in this temple of belief
for a liturgical affirmation of this “holy nation”
clearly blessed … even chosen by God.

But then, of course, pesky Jesus shows up today
with his sidekicks
tempestuous Paul and spunky Ezekiel,
a decidedly non-Americans trio,
who collectively pull the rug out from under smug citizens
who dare to believe that this or any country
is fully or even properly calibrated to gospel values.

In the early 1980’s a celebrated Lutheran theologian
teaching at the University of Chicago named Martin Marty
coined the term “public theology.”
In parallel writings, he talked about a “public church,”
not as a singular denomination,
but as a family of apostolic churches with Jesus at the center
that are especially sensitive to the public order
that surrounds and includes people of faith. [1]

In that same vein, he argued that such churches
engage in “public theology.”
This is not a form of evangelization bent on
acquiring new members,
but rather is concerned with the contributions
such a public church makes to civic, social, and political life.
From my perspective, Jesus was the aboriginal public theologian.
He theologized with the coin of the real in hand (Mt. 22:19-21),
he narrated parables about God’s reign
breaking into human history (Mt. 13:11-17),
he reached across social, cultural, and political boundaries
engaging Samaritan (John 4) and Syrophoenician women (Mark 7:24-29),
Roman centurions (Matt 8:5-13) and tree-climbing tax collectors (Luke 19:1-10).
Ultimately tried before both religious and civil authorities (Mt. 26:57 and Mt. 27:11),
he was executed in the public square
as an enemy of the state (Mt. 27:33-40).

Even in today’s apparently unremarkable gospel,
Jesus the public theologian had something to say
not only to his own society about God’s reign
but also about our own country’s struggle to live God’s justice.

A close reading of that gospel reveals a remarkable level
of prejudice and discrimination
operative in Jesus’ own society
and directed at this upstart outcast.

The first comes from Jesus’ own townsfolk
who had just heard him teach in the synagogue.
While many were amazed,
others clearly got their dander up
and filled with indignation demanded to know
where this rabbinical upstart got his chutzpah.

The irony is that Nazareth was this backwater town,
maybe 100-150 residents.
In my imagination, it is a bit like the fictional town of Anatevka
in the musical Fiddler on the Roof,
where everybody knows everybody else’s business.
When you know everything about an individual and their family
it is easy to launch informed and effective insults
dredging up all sorts of dirt sure to embarrass or deflate.

The Nazarenes were as gifted as any in this regard,
first trying to squash Jesus because they knew his trade.
He was slotted, categorized and pigeonholed as a worker
in polite language a craftsman,
but nonetheless someone who worked with his hands,
was presumed to inherit his father’s status
and expected not to rise above that state.

Then an unusual slap in the face that Mark does not whitewash
though Luke will offer in a more politically correct version.

If it was not enough to collapse Jesus’ identity into his job,
the same villagers insult him about his family.
It is ordinary at the time of Jesus to identify a son by their father:
so we have Simon-bar-Jonah or son of Jonah,
James and John the sons of Zebedee …

But here Jesus is identified as the “son of Mary,”
a not too subtle hit that he was conceived illegitimately.
No wonder the text comments that this fatherless lineage
was scandalidzo in Greek: the nice translation is
“took offense” but this was scandalous.

In response, Jesus the rebel, Jesus the public theologian,
Jesus the incarnation of God’s freedom from prejudice,
announces in prophetic terms
a Christological declaration of independence
from small mindedness, from classism
and, by extension, from every type of racism or sexism,
for his prophetic role, while rejected by his clannish neighbors,
could not be suppressed by their bias.
His messianic announcement of inclusion and dignity,
not just an inalienable human right but a divine gift,
could not be extinguished by small minded neighbors.

Today our nation revels in our independence
but the rebel Jesus demands interdependence.
Today our nation thumps it chest about our strength
but the cantankerous apostle Paul boasts only of weakness.
Today our national recalls a declaration that detailed
how England had broken its covenant with its colonies
while gutsy Ezekiel reminds our forebears and us
how we have so frequently shattered our collective covenant
embedded in our religious and national traditions
to treat all people as created equal with inalienable rights.

In the 1950’s beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti
penned a searing indictment of contemporary society.
A onetime orphan, who had witness the horrors of war,
who walked the streets of Nagasaki after its nuclear destruction,
and wondered if America had lost its soul, wrote:

I am waiting for someone
to really discover America and wail …
and I am waiting for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting for the Age of Anxiety to drop dead …
and I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth without taxes
and I am waiting …to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody …
and I am waiting for … a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the storms of life to be over …
and I am waiting for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent in a new rebirth of wonder.

While poets have the right to muse and gift for wondering,
prophets are further entrusted with a mission.

At baptism each of us was chrismated priest, prophet, and king
as we, or godparents for us, vowed eternal allegiance to Christ
and the Jesus Spirit that still broods over this and every nation.

On this Independence Day,
when we boast about the many gifts and graces of this country
we also recognize, like Paul, our need to embrace our flaws
and, like Ezekiel, to recognize that with shocking regularity
we have broken the covenant of equality and liberty,
too often out of reach of the marginalized and oppressed,
out of reach those who work with their hands
or lack a privileged family lineage.

And so as Catholic-Christians, as nascent public theologians
with a prophetic vision that moves us beyond national boundaries,
this day we sing a beloved tune with a different text,
praying that God not only bestow blessing on this land
and those whom we might anoint as true Americans,
but upon every land, every nation, every people:

God bless the world we love,
Stranger and friend,
Go before us, restore us
With a hope that despair cannot end.
Ev’ry people, ev’ry nation,
Mighty ocean, heaven’s dome.
God bless the world we love                                    
Our fragile home.
God bless the world You love,
Our fragile home. [2]

May our honoring of this grand country today
never obscure that sacred gift of interdependence
divinely inscribed in God’s startling declaration we call incarnation
and our prophetic mission to embrace
the holy birthright of every human being
to live in the freedom of God’s children
through Christ our Lord.

[1] Martin Marty, The Public Church (New York: Crossroad Press, 1981), p.3.

[2] Jack Bloomfield, Celebrating Humanity: Reflections, insights and Hope for a United Planet (New York-Lincoln-Shanghai: iUniverse, 2008), p. 80.

One comment

  1. This was a well crafted piece. I detected a slight bit of loyalty to an entity called the “USA”. A number of problematic issues related to the founding that need to be corrected. The remedy for slavery and the genocide of American Indians has not really occurred.

    I am not sure how Americans can square that circle about its founding.

    I did like the allusion to a re-founding and that holds a lot of promise but it is a tough time for USA. Strengths and opportunities in this difficult period.

    I hope latter day prophets will rise up but might be hard to hear above the massive noise of 24 hr cable and steady diet of national propaganda in major newspapers.

    This piece was good and I had to re-read twice. Strong but subtle.

    Keep up the work on this blog though ! It’s very thought provoking and diverse selection of writers.

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