Ars Praedicandi: 21st Sunday in O.T. (B), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

I’m not sure anyone looks forward to having a grimacing mechanic
say to us, as our car is going up on the rack at the garage,
“never seen a car that needs such serious repairs,”
or your contractor shaking his head, pulling out his calculator
and noting that this renovation is really going to be expensive,
nor do we want our surgeon to tell us that
the procedure we are about to undergo will be one for the textbooks.

In that same vein, you probably don’t want to hear a preacher say
these are some of the toughest readings
I have had to preach on in a long time.
Unfortunately, that was my honest assessment
as I studied and prayed these readings this past week.

The reading from Joshua is the easiest,
chosen to resonate with the gospel
and offering a quite positive response of people
when it comes to following the Lord.

The second reading is a gendered powder keg:
there’s a longer and shorter version.
It’s the longer one that starts out about wives being
subordinate to their husbands that has
“danger” and “don’t you dare go there” written all over it.

I know biblical scholarship shows Paul was actually progressive
in the face of his patriarchal culture
demanding that both wives and husbands honor each other,
but to 21st-century North American ears
it sounds like a return to pre-suffragette days
so I tend to navigate around this Ephesians passage
when it looms on the lectionary landscape.

However, if I thought I was going to find refuge in today’s gospel
these final verses of John 6 offered a rude surprise.

We have been reading the 6th chapter of John now
for a month of Sundays
even though we are in Cycle B focused on Mark’s gospel.

Back on July 25th the lectionary suddenly switched to John
and we have been reading sections of this long 6th chapter
for multiple Sundays in a row.

Since we are at the end of this journey into John’s gospel,
a little recap might be in order.
Chapter 6 begins as a narrative of compassion:
Jesus’ heart went out to all who had been following him
so Jesus performed a miracle of the heart
feeding the 5000 with a few loaves and fishes.

After feeding his followers literally
Jesus begins nourishing their minds and hearts
by revealing himself as the bread of life.

However, three weeks ago and about 40 verses into John 6
things start to get ugly as the crowd murmurs
that they know his family, they know where he comes from
and it isn’t from heaven.

Then, like a rambunctious school board meeting on COVID-19,
things rapidly go south
as Jesus not only identifies himself as “bread”
but as “flesh” … a God with skin on,
a God not only responsive to human need,
but a God now become fully human,
whose incarnation is now maybe too close for comfort.

All the flesh talk really gets the crowd going
like a first-century congressional shutdown,
or one of those pseudo-news talk shows
in which disagreement quickly devolves into insults.
Much of the crowd thinks he’s crazy,
but Jesus stands his ground, insisting that
unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood,
they will not have life.

So here we are, the last Sunday of John
episode five of this gospel cliffhanger,
but instead of a happy resolution, congressional compromise, or some other metaphorical handshake across the aisle,
the Son of God basically gets booed by his own supporters.

Even hand-picked disciples found his words difficult.
Not only were some unwilling to accept them
but in a stunning reversal and even personal rebuke,
John writes that “many of his disciples returned to
their former way and no longer accompanied him.”

Yes, there are a few hardcore adherents who stay
but one wonders whether this is a gospel for the remnant,
an announcement of beliefs to be embraced
only by the few instead of good news for the masses.

The British writer and lay theologian, G.K. Chesterton
is popularly known for his fictional priest-detective Fr. Brown.
Featured in multiple films and TV series
Chesterton was baptized as an infant,
but fell away from the Church.
He was led back to the Church of England by his wife
and eventually entered the Catholic Church in 1922.

While living his Christian commitment with great zeal,
Chesterton was also constantly reminded of its challenges.
This awareness is well summarized in his famous comment that
“the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.
It has been found difficult and left untried.” [1]

In pondering the challenges of following Christ,
both in his own day as well as in ours,
I recalled a fictional exchange
between an auto mechanic and a heart surgeon:

The heart surgeon took his car to his local garage for service, where he often exchanged a little friendly banter with the owner, a skilled but not especially wealthy mechanic.

“So tell me,” said the mechanic, “I’ve been wondering about what we both do for a living, and why you get paid much more than me.”

“Go on,” said the surgeon.

“Well consider this,” said the mechanic, as he worked on a large and sophisticated engine, “I check how it’s running, open it up, fix the valves, and put it all back together so it works as good as new. We basically do the same job, don’t we? And yet you are paid ten times what I am – how do you explain that?”

The surgeon thought for a moment, then gently replied with a smile, “Try fixing it with the engine running.”

Without in any way disparaging the importance of car mechanics,
I do feel that negotiating the spiritual life
is a little more like open-heart surgery than engine repair.

This is especially true in the call from today’s readings
to decide, believe, follow, and endure:
Tasks we have to achieve in our spiritual lives
when the rest of our relational, medical,
fiscal and emotional selves are running at full throttle.

Faith is a tricky business!
In the words of the writer and preacher Frederick Buechner:

“Faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises….Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.” [2]

And yet, in this waiting stance,
in the ambiguity of the in-between
while engines are running at full throttle around us,
we yet are expected to discern, decide, act and be faithful
in life, relationships, and belief.

Of course, such deciding has consequences
as in that graced and precarious relationship
Paul broaches in our second reading: Marriage.

As someone who knows precious little about marriage,
I ordinarily avoid preaching on this topic.
The only time I ever heard my parents disparage a priest
was on the way home from church
after he had preached on marriage,
which my folks assessed as “uninformed and stupid.”

I would not like to say something stupid
especially in the presence of so many marriage experts.

I do understand something of the leap of faith
that becoming and sustaining this sacramental life requires,
insights that come from wise relatives and friends,
how over the decades have shared their wisdom about
the commitment of marriage in the proverbial
good times and bad.

Particularly poignant for me is a reflection by friends and theologians
James and Evelyn Whitehead who, at my request,
penned an essay on the spirituality of marriage
refracted through the 50+ years of married life they shared.

They write about multiple movements, evolving seasons in marriage
from infatuation to commitment
then to fidelity and generativity,
the evolution of shared care and a married lifestyle,
finally arriving at the stage of devotion.

It is that final stage that most captures my imagination.
They write that devotion is love that is well-aged.
It is the enfleshed affection that survives illness and aging.
By this point, child-rearing is long gone,
active careers are over,
and the couple’s love becomes an affection
nuanced by the awareness of final days
of threatening illness.
They conclude that such devotion might be considered
Eros with wrinkles.

They illustrate this devotional journey by citing the memoire
of John Bayley, which recounted his care for his wife,
the British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch,
as she suffered the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

Bayley wrote:

After more than forty years of taking our marriage for granted, marriage has decided it is tired of this and is taking a hand in the game. Purposefully, persistently, involuntarily, our marriage is now getting somewhere. It is giving us no choice, and I am glad of it. [3]

That reflection by Jim and Evelyn Whitehead was published 2 years ago
is even more touching in light of Evelyn’s death last fall.

Her husband, Jim, is more than ever
pondering the deep vocation of that devotion
as he grieves the loss of his beloved partner.

Our society, our Church would benefit greatly
by drinking deeply of this difficult devotional gift:
a counterpoint to the pervasive “make me great” mentality,
the antithesis of the power-lust and egocentrism
that threatens the “us” with the almighty “I”
that eschews the common good for personal gain,
that brow-beats the other for personal advancement.

The bible reminds us that it is not good for people to be alone (Gen 2:18).
It is right and just that we endure with each other
in good times and in bad,
in sickness and in health,
and in the fullness of living and the auguring of death.

Thus today we honor in a distinctive way the married:
those who embody God’s own covenant with humanity
that the church declares to be the most perfect image
of Christ’s spousal bond with his Church.
The covenant love and devotion
forged in the crucible of married life
reveals the stubborn and enduring faith
mirrored at the end of today’s gospel.

So we pray that the gifts of those who live this sacramental bond
might anoint this broken world, scarred church, and divided country
so that God’s covenant with humanity, that they embody,
might blossom into a new covenant with each other
be that family or stranger;
friend or foe;
or comrade in race, religion, or political affiliation
or opponent across each of those spectrums
as we are nonetheless all children of God,
through Christ our Lord.

[1] G.K. Chesterton, “The Unfinished Temple,” in What’s Wrong with the World, Collected Works (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 4:61.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 72.

[3] James and Evelyn Whitehead, “Promises to Keep: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage” (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2019), 9-10.

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