Ars Praedicandi: 31st Sunday in O.T. (B), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

While It may seem counterintuitive
I always find the beloved feasts of the Church year
– Easter, Christmas, Pentecost and the like –
some of the most challenging to preach.

That is not only because
I have preached those feasts with such regularity
that I am not sure I have anything fresh to say,
but also because such feasts
are planted so deeply in our religious imaginations
and carry so many memories and messages
beyond the multitude of preachers
we have heard or endured in the liturgy,
that being homiletically inventive –
attempting to splay open the underlying mysteries
in original or unexplored ways –
has the potential to engender resistance
in folk wishing to safeguard treasured beliefs
deeply rooted in these festivals.

While the 31st Sunday in Ordinary time is not such a beloved feast,
today’s gospel from Mark
with its deep echoes in the 1st reading from Deuteronomy
is the textual equivalent of a high holyday:
the very core of Jesus’ teaching,
the spiritual center of the Lord’s earthly ministry,
and a succinct but powerful summary of the gospels.

As one of the most cited texts from the gospels
it has been preached,
and embraced by laity and leadership for two millennia.
So is there anything new to say?

I am reminded of the event
George Steiner relates in his book Real Presences
about the celebrated 19th century composer and pianist
Robert Schumann
who, after playing a difficult étude,
was asked by one of his hearers to explain the piece;
Schumann sat down and played it a second time.

Steiner then observes that
the most responsible act of musical interpretation
is that of performance. [1]

In that vein, should the preacher avoid blemishing
this crucial revelation
by abandoning the homiletic enterprise altogether,
simply reading the passage a second time,
and then sitting down?

While that might be one solution to preaching this beloved text,
its lectionary appearance requires engagement.
My admittedly unconventional tactic for this engagement
comes from the game of billiards.

Now I am no billiards player,
only having played pool many decades ago.

While the object of pool or pocket billiards
is to sink various configurations of solid and striped balls
in the six pockets around the table’s circumference,
Carom or French billiards is played on a table with no pockets
and only three balls.
One scores points in this game not by pocketing any balls,
but by driving one of the white balls
into both of the others in a single stroke.

This task is even more complex in 3-cushion billiards.
In this variation, the cue ball strikes one other ball
and then 3 or more cushions before striking the 2nd ball.
One wonders whether you need an advanced degree
in geometry to be successful in this sport.

The reason for my excursion into billiards
is because of the design of our lectionary
whose tripartite readings are analogous to 3 cushion billiards
in which the three pericopes ricochet off each other,
in hopes that the Holy Spirit scores
and some life-giving message, even encounter ensues.

Ordinarily in playing billiards with God’s Word
I tend to employ the gospel as the metaphorical cue ball
and use it to move the other two readings
around the homiletic arena.

Today, however, I’d like to take a shot at the Word
from the perspectives of the Letter to the Hebrews.

We’ve been reading this epistle as the second reading for a month.
in my experience preachers seldom venture into that text,
a sometimes daunting theological treatise
about the priesthood of Christ.
His Jesus’ exaltation through abasement,
eclipsing Temple priesthood,
and a long section on the eternal and salvific self-sacrifice
Jesus the high priest offered
for the salvation of the world.
Many of those themes are touched on in today’s 2nd reading.

However, juxtaposing Hebrews with the great commandments
triggers a different image of Jesus’ enacted priesthood.
While it is not an explicit gospel description of him,
Jesus can be rightly understood as embodying
this second great commandment
in the great reverence he practices towards others:
Whether fisherman or pharisee,
Samaritan or sightless,
pauper or possessed,
Baptist cousin or random child,
Jesus treated them with holy reverence –
a powerful image of sacred deference
from the very incarnation of God
to its ongoing incarnation in every human being.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a favorite author of mine.
The second chapter of her book An Altar in the World [2]
is subtitled: Reverence.
Her detour into military references and guns
was not what I expected: both disruptive and revelatory.

She writes:

I learned reverence from my father. For him it had nothing to do with religion and very little to do with God. I think it had something to do with him having been a soldier, since the exercise of reverence means knowing your rank in the overall scheme of things.

Unexpectedly, she reflects how the ritual of cleaning a gun introduced her to the practices that nourish reverence in a human life: paying attention, taking care, respecting things that can kill you, making the passage from fear to awe.

She concludes this reflection by noting that practicing reverence is not an invitation to debate, it is about standing in silent awe:

Some of the most reverent people I know, she writes, decline to call themselves religious. For them, religion connotes …. [the ability] to hold your own in a debate with someone who believes otherwise … They do not want to debate anyone. The longer they stand before the holy of holies, the less adequate their formulations of faith seems to them. She concludes: Angels reach down and shut their mouths.

There is little doubt that we live in a most contentious age
in which people loudly profess love of God,
but love of neighbor is increasingly less apparent.

To inject new meaning, even vitality into this crucial commandment,
what if we replace the over-used language of “love”
with a vocabulary of reverence?
Reimagining this second great commandment
through a lexicon of awe and admiration
practiced through devotion to the dignity of all.

What if we practice the royal priesthood
that 1 Peter [2:9] reminds us is our ecclesial birthright
by honoring the very sacramentality of the other
participating deeply in the liturgy of the neighbor
as was Jesus’ constant practice,
sometimes requiring that we simply welcome those angels
who gently shut our mouths.

Recently I viewed the Oscar Nominated film “Feeling Through,”
a short but powerful tale of conversion
from selfishness to reverence.

A central character is Tereek, a homeless teen.
Though apparently enjoying a late night with friends,
he is also trying to find a place to sleep
rather than spending one more night more on the street.

An older beggar approaches, but Tereek waves him off
because as he says “I got nothing.”
But then Tereek spots Artie, a deaf-dumb-blind man
who needs help crossing a street and getting a bus.

Artie communicates by writing on a pad
and Tereek responds
by the quite intimate act of writing in Artie’s palm.

Though texted by his girlfriend that he can spend the night,
Tereek realizes that Artie is too vulnerable to leave alone
and so he becomes his temporary guardian angel.

When Artie gets thirsty, they go to the store and
Tereek buys him something to drink,
but when paying for the drink
also takes $10 from Artie’s wallet for himself.

Because of this shopping excursion they miss the bus
so Tereek is stuck even longer
ultimately missing his chance to stay with the girlfriend.

The two eventually fall asleep at the bus stop,
Artie’s head on Tereek’s shoulder.
A cinematic moment of silent communion.

When the bus does arrive,
Tereek is thoroughly invested in this mission
not only gets Artie on the bus
but commissions the driver
to get Artie off the bus at the right stop.
In a penultimate moment
Artie gives Tareek a hug
and writes into his palm
“you’ll be ok.”

As the bus drives away,
Tareek actually waves goodbye
a gesture of course not seen by Artie
nut impelled by his newfound care
for a man he will probably never see again.
As he turns to go, Tareek sees the older beggar
who had asked for money earlier in the night,
now asleep on the street
with that same empty paper cup in his grip.

Tareek carefully slips the stolen $10 into the cup
And walks away into the night.

Writing over 100 years ago, the Theologian Charles Allen wrote that the innermost secret of Christianity is a distinctive type of reverence. He elaborates that it is “a reverence for the Eternal goodness who is ever seeking to save that which is lost … [It is] a self-reverence which aspires to the noblest ideals because each of us is a temple of a Holy Spirit who goodness we must ever more and more apprehend and emulate… [And it is] a reverence for the divine image in even the most degraded and for the possibilities of goodness there.” He concludes by characterizing such reverence as “enthusiastic philanthropy.” [3]

Philanthropy is literally the love of humankind.
In our baptism we were Chrismated
into the philanthropy of Christ’s own priesthood:
the reverence that freed him to touch lepers and the dead,
to confer discipleship on fisherman and Samaritan divorcees,
and to welcome multitudes
whether at a communal meal on a Galilean hillside
or on golgatha, where he was nailed in a stance
of eternal welcoming
wrms incapable of closing, even in death.

May this festal gospel,
this irrevocable commandment,
this most difficult mission of loving others
move us again: to care, to devotion, to unrelenting reverence
for friend and stranger through Christ our Lord.

Featured Image Source: 2021 Oscar-nominated LIVE-ACTION Shorts – Keeping it Reel

[1] George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago), p. 20.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010).

[3] Charles Allen, “Reverence as the Heart of Christianity,” The Harvard Theological Review 4:2 (1911) 266.

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