Ars Praedicandi: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

While it might seem passé
– in this era of texting, Instagram,
Snapchat, YouTube,
WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Google hangouts -nonetheless, the spoken word can still be a powerful medium
for engaging minds and changing hearts.

Market evidence for this assertion
is found in the continued rise of audiobooks in popularity.
The Audio Publishers Association, for example,
noted that in 2020, the last year there are complete statistics,
71,000 audiobooks were published in the U.S.,
a 39% increase over the previous year
generating revenues to the tune of 1.3 billion dollars that year.

It’s not just this market trend, however,
that underscores the power and potential of the spoken word.
Note, for example, that while U.S. Constitution
does not require that the Commander in Chief
to deliver a live state of the union address
– Thomas Jefferson notably abandoned the practice
and sent a written message to Congress –
presidents since Woodrow Wilson have embraced
the power of the in-the-flesh personally vocalized address
as a way not only to report to Congress
but also to advocate for preferred policies and legislation.
So, despite the COVID surge,
you know Biden isn’t going to bypass this bully pulpit
even though it’s been pushed off until March.

While the spoken word can be effective, even influential,
it is not infallible, either in its speaking or its hearing.

A malapropism is the mistaken use of an incorrect word
in place of a similarly sounding word
resulting in at least nonsensical if not humorous results

You may remember Mike Tyson complaining, for example,
that he was “falling into Bolivian”
or Dan Quayle’s contention that
“Republicans understand the importance of bondage
between a mother and child”
Or Yogi Berra announcing that
“Texas has a lot of electrical votes.”

So with some regularly we often misspeak
and maybe with even more regularity, we mishear.

A mondegreen is the mishearing of a phrase or song lyric
that prompts the substitution of similar-sounding words
resulting in new, sometimes quite amusing meanings. [1]
These “earslips” are quite common among children, for example,
One 7-year-old thought “I pledge allegiance to the flag”
was actually, “I led a pigeon to the flag.”
Another phrase in that pledge that gets jumped in children’s ears
is “one nation, indivisible”
that sometimes comes out as
“one nation, in a dirigible”
“one nation, and a vegetable,” and even
“one naked individual.”

But, of course, it’s not just children who mishear.
Adults do this all the time – especially with song lyrics:

“This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”
Often comes out as the dawning of “the age of asparagus”

The line in Desperado by the Eagles that goes
“you’ve been out riding fences, for so long now”
gets reinterpreted as
“you’ve been outright offensive, for so long now”

And of course, the Beatles Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Has that ear puzzle “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes”
which regularly gets interpreted as
“the Girl with colitis goes by.”

What prompts these excursions into malapropisms and mondegreens
about misspeaking and mishearing
are distinctive lectionary texts appointed for our hearing today
that both underscore the power of the Word for our believing,
but also the danger in that Word
that is easily misunderstood, misappropriated
or simply dismissed as irrelevant.

Today’s opening lection from the book of Nehemiah
offers an idealized narrative of God’s chosen people
listening attentively to the book of the law
– The book of Deuteronomy as we call it –
being deeply moved by that word,
understanding it through the interpretation of Ezra
and through that word being reconstituted as a people
after the decimating experience of the exile.

The idealized, even romanticized nature of this text
is evident in a description that reports that the reading
took place from early morning until midday
(like from dawn till noon … so maybe 6 hours?)
and the people were apparently attentive through it all.
I can’t imagine attempting such a thing
with a contemporary congregation.

But what is important here is not a calculation of minutes,
but a calculus of commitment
that is possible and even required
when one immerses themselves in God’s word.

There is an apparently true story of a toddler
whose favorite storybook was kept by his bedside
and his mother read it to him almost every night
for weeks on end.
One day the mother found the toddler standing on the book
pushing very hard with his little feet
and obviously getting very frustrated.

The mother was at a loss to understand
or ease his frustration
until the six-year-old sister explained
that Tony liked the book so much
he wanted to become part of the story.

Nehemiah seems to be telling us something similar
about the fractured and broken Israelites
who wanted again to become part of God’s saving story.

While this first reading is meant to complement the Gospel –
Jesus’ own inaugural state of the kingdom address
to his hometown crowd –
Luke’s story has a very different ending,
though we have to wait until next week
to hear the end of this episode
that literally turns into a “cliffhanger.”

For while there is initial admiration
for the local kid made good,
eventually his neighbors rise up in indignation,
drag him to a cliff on the edge of town
and attempt an early disposal of the Son of God.

They clearly neither had the ears nor the stomach
to hear such a justice message,
by this uppity kid from the hood.

I think that many of us live between Nehemiah and Luke,
between wanting to become part of God’s saving story
but wanting to edit out certain parts of that story
with its messages about poverty of spirit,
embracing enemies, lifting up the lowly
and accepting death as the path to eternal life.

Paul often tussled with the Corinthian community
who had similar difficulties entering the Jesus narrative.

In today’s second reading he offers a solution to this dilemma
with an original proposal about our spiritual physiology
and while in his discourse on feet and eyes and hands
he doesn’t make any explicit reference to the ear
(which he does in some other writings) [2]
he is reminding us that the earbone is connected to the heartbone
and we need to continuously adjust our perceptions
so that God’s Word can break through
our many forms of impaired hearing.

I recently read a story about Ben Underwood. [3]
Born in 1992 in Sacramento,
he went blind from retinoblastoma by the time he was 3.

His visionary mother was determined that he should
experience his childhood like any other kid
so she made practice jumping up and down steps
doing other challenging spatial tasks.

Eventually Ben began to adapt by clicking with his tongue,
making clicking noises against the roof of his mouth
and listening to the sounds that bounced back to him.
What is technically known as echolocation,
the same sonar technique that allows bats
to perceive their environments,
he literally changed his brain in the process
so he could interpret the world around him
without sight.

In this new acoustic landscape
he could differentiate a parked car from a parked truck.
He could recognize a particular neighbor by her walk.
He played basketball and tetherball
and even beat his brother at video games
simply by learning the significance of the different sounds.

Neuroscientists confirm that we can actually
transform our brain’s capacity to perceive
in new and surprising ways, as did Ben Underwood.

Analogously, is it not possible for the baptized
under the guidance that same Spirit
Jesus invokes in today’s gospel
to transform our heart’s capacity to perceive
on liberating and grace-filled ways
by learning the “Jesus click,”
acquiring the gift of cardio-location
for hearing the very heartbeat of God
in the world around us and in each other?

Paula Underwood, a member of the Iroquois Nation,
tells the story of her father teaching her to listen. [6]
Whenever someone said something to us, Dad would say,
“You remember what he said, honey?”

Paula got very good at repeating verbatim what people said,
even if they were quite long discourses.
One elderly gentleman, Mr. Thompson, would often come by
and tell her father stories.
Eventually, Paula learned all of Mr. Thompson’s stories
and could repeat them with great accuracy.

In a turning point in her own perception
her Dad once said, “I know you know his story,
but did you hear his heart?”
Paula’s perceptual world opened up that day, as she responded,
“Yes, he is very lonely and comes and shares his memories
because he’s asking you to keep him company
in his memories.”
She later reflected, that at that moment,
her heart echoed his heart.
She concludes “when you can listen at that level …
you can hear what the Universe is saying.”

The celebrated 20th-century theologian Karl Rahner
characterized human beings as “hearers of the word.”
It was his way of stressing that by our very nature
we are instinctively attuned to God’s own self-communication.

Metaphorically we might have eyelids,
but we don’t have ear-lids
and are physiologically open to the very speaking of God.

But sometimes we have spiritual ear blockage,
an inability to hear God speaking
through unfamiliar, sometimes accented voices
that sound an internal alarm
about some potential enemy
rather than another child of God.

On this “auditory Sunday”
we pray for a stronger connection
between earbone and heartbone,
between attending and embracing,
and between listening and loving
that we might grow into authentic hearers of the word
with renewed hearts
and open spirits
through Christ our Lord.

[1] Gavin Edwards, When a Man Loves a Walnut (New York: Fireside, 1997).
[2] E.g., Romans 10:14-15
[3] Beau Lotto, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently (New York-Boston: Hachette Books, 2017), 66-68.

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