Ars Praedicandi: 26th Sunday in O.T. (B), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Among other things,
this wonderful community is celebrated for its hospitality,
a gift not only to visitors and members of the assembly
but even to presiders
for it allows me to be with you on a regular basis.

Because of my somewhat erratic teaching and travel schedule,
the staff invites me weeks in advance,
– like the other great preachers here –
to let them know what days we are available
and crafts the presiding schedule around our preferences.

One of the things that I have never done
when contacted by Skye or Keara or Fr. Ken
about my availability
is to consider the lectionary readings on my open dates
and allow them to influence my availability.

While such a consideration probably would not have
stopped me from signing up for today,
I certainly would have at least balked about being here
given these very difficult texts.

Decades ago, I had the privilege of studying
with the celebrated Methodist liturgical scholar James White
who promoted the value of the lectionary
when lectionary usage was seldom employed
by U.S. Protestants preachers
who, instead, would select the biblical passages
upon which they would preach.

Professor White observed that with some regularity
preachers would choose innocuous or safe scriptures
as the basis for preaching: he called them “user-friendly texts.”

He said, by contrast, the lectionary is not safe
as it assails us week after week with
what he characterized as “The sword of God’s word.”

His comments could hardly be truer than for today’s readings,
one of the toughest amalgams
of remonstrations and chastisements scripturally imaginable,
including Moses’ challenge
to the territoriality and jealousy of Joshua
in the first reading,
James’s tirade against the rich
and jabs against employers
in the second reading,
and then that gospel from Mark
in which inept disciples crash and burn
in their attempts to corral the Jesus spirit.

In response, the Only Begotten uses
some of the most severe and condemnatory language
that punctuates the gospels.
Maybe I should have been on vacation this week.
But I’m not, and you’re not … so let’s make some sense of it all.

One helpful move for me when broaching the gospel –
the most problematic of all of these texts for me,
though that second reading comes in a close second –
is to recognize that the language about
drowning by millstone,
hand maiming,
foot amputations,
and eye-gouging [what a list!]
are exaggerations cast in the form of a proverb.

Now I usually think about a proverb as something like
“absence makes the heart grow fonder,” or
“a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”
rather than some threatening language about
disfiguring or mutilating one’s body.

On the other hand, there are clear literary clues here
about the proverbial and exaggerations.

The Book of Proverbs has at least 19 verses
that employ the “better than” formula
we hear in today’s gospel, such as
“better is a little righteousness than ill-gotten gain,” (Prov 16:8) or
“being wise is better than being strong.” (Prov 24:5)

There is good evidence that Jesus had broad knowledge
of the forms and content of the Hebrew Scriptures
so it is not unlikely that he could riff upon this form.

As for the exaggeration part,
those same Hebrew scriptures prohibit self-laceration
and we are accustomed to St. Paul
talking about the community as a body,
about the disjunct parts of that body,
and even occasionally about “cutting off”
someone from that body if they are a source of discord.

It might also help to understand
that Mark appears to be addressing
a division between his own and another Christian community,
reminding us that sometimes
not only inter but intra-religious divisions
are some of the most savage.

There is a decidedly untrue story
of a man walking across a bridge.
When he saw a man standing on the edge about to jump
he ran over and said “don’t jump.”
When the distraught person asked “why not,”
the Good Samaritan said, “there’s so much to live for.”
And then he asked, “are you religious or atheist?”
And the man answered “religious”
The Good Samaritan said, “me too! You Christian or Buddhist?”
He said “Christian” and the Good Samaritan said, “me too!”
“Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
And the answer came back “Catholic”
And the Good Samaritan said, “me too!”
Roman Catholic or Eastern Rite?
“Roman Catholic” was the answer with the “me too” echo.
“Do you belong to a parish?”
And the newfound friend said, “Yes, St. Formaldehyde’s”
which got a “Wow me too!” response.
You a fan of Pope Francis or Pope Benedict
To which the other said “Pope Benedict.”
The Good Samaritan then abruptly turned his back,
Walked away and said, “go ahead and jump!”

Virtually every metric available today
Demonstrates that alienation, intolerance, and polarization
Are on the rise
in and between religions,
in and between cultures,
in and between societies,
and in and between nations.

As one indicator, a recent pole documents
that in today’s political climate 62% of U.S. Citizens
do not tell the truth about their feelings or beliefs
because they might offend someone.

On the darker side, over 50% of those with strong liberal views
supported firing business executives
if they personally donated to Trumps’ reelection campaign!
A much higher level of intolerance than so-called conservatives. [4]

And what’s the Jesus response to this growing alienation,
what one blogger called “enemy-creep”
beyond metaphorical hand removal,
millstone drowning,
or self-mangling?

In the succinctness so typical of the Only-begotten,
it’s in a cup of water.
“Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.”

An evangelical preacher, David Roberts,
once offered a reflection on this Markan text
rooted in his own question for Jesus.
He characterized his dilemma as either following
the way of the ax or the way of cold water.

He recounts his faith journey,
recalling that he lived with a Bible in one hand
and an ax in the other.

He was taught to avoid temptation and resist sin and secularity
so he axed rock music from his life,
he axed a girlfriend who wouldn’t pray within him,
he axed friendships and even college choices
all in the name of avoiding temptation.

He had whittled, even shrunk his understanding of God
whose power mostly lay in the threat of punishment
rather than love and grace.

Then he turns to this section of Mark’s gospel and comments:

notice how ridiculously high the bar is when faith is centered in the avoidance of punishment and sin and the pursuit of a perfect life without sin. You’ll have to cut off parts of your body, pluck out your eyes, and disfigure yourself.

Essentially, Jesus is saying if you want a perfect life, the only way you will be able to do that is to incapacitate yourself completely, to go through life so mutilated and so maimed you literally can’t do anything but exist.

Now, notice on the other hand how ridiculously low the bar is when faith is centered in acts of generosity. One cup of cold water. That’s it. One cup is enough for an eternal reward.

Last month I traveled internationally for the first time in over 2 years.
It was nerve-wracking with new tracking apps,
COVID tests to get in and out of the country,
and limited plane schedules forcing me to travel to Madrid
only through Dallas-Fort Worth.

My 15-hour transit gave me not only time to read and sleep,
but also watch some videos.
While I could have watched the entire Harry Potter series again,
Lord of the Rings, or catch up with the Marvel universe,
I opted for animated shorts over action adventures,
foreign films over Hollywood franchises,
but especially gravitated towards documentaries.

The one that caught my attention the most
which I watched three times over the course of my travels was
The Lonliest Whale: The Search for 52

The focus is an individual whale of unidentified species
who calls or “sings” at the unusual frequency of 52 hz,
higher than other whales following the same migratory patterns
like blue whales from 10-39 hz
or fin whales at 20 hz.

The whale has been detected in many locations since the 1980’s
but always singing out alone, with no detectable response.
Over the decades it has sparked international interest
and a contention by many
that it is the perfect image of modern-day life,
with so many people singing out alone and no one answering.

While the Jacque Cousteau-like adventure never spots no. 52,
the film does end with what one critic calls “a rapturous surprise.”

Spoiler alert:
At the end of the movie, collaborating scientists report
that sound buoys in the ocean not only detected whale 52 calling
along previously documented migratory paths,
but they reported that its responses were being answered.
It was no longer the loneliest whale in the world.
It had a friend, maybe even a mate.

In today’s gospel the disciples condemn someone
in concert with the spirit of Jesus
because “he does not follow us”!
The pronoun is alarming – they did not follow us, rather than
they did not follow YOU –
did not follow the cup-of-water-Christ,
whose generosity is often too much for us.
So the disciples got out the “us” ax.

The word today helps me reimagine my enemies,
my adversaries,
my political antagonists,
my religious rivals
as spiritual and personal no. 52s,
calling out at a frequency I am not calibrated to hear.
So I cut them off from the pod,
excommunicate them from the clan
rather than tuning to their frequency
where I might not only hear the voice of need
or isolation, or friendship,
but also hear the voice of God.

While we’ve been children of God since our conception,
it was at the baptismal font that we became followers of Christ,
an eternal event that occurred with the pouring
of what amounted to a simple cup of water.
We don’t allow axes at baptism.

And so in this age of so much division and intolerance,
we metaphorically take up that baptismal instrument
recalibrating ourselves to every unaccustomed,
even unwelcome, frequency
cup of water in hand, as we pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me so love;
where there is injury pardon;
where there is faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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