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

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

We are fascinated by lists, alternately finding them
a source of entertainment, information, or inspiration.

Long Before David Letterman’s celebrated top 10,
lists have tickled our collective funny bone there were.
For example, widely circulated lists of the top signs
you were going to have a bad day, including:
• The bird singing outside your window is a vulture,
• Your twin sister forgets your birthday, and
• Your 4-year-old tells you that it’s almost impossible to flush a grapefruit down the toilet.

Some lists underscore our competitive spirit.
So, is the number one quarterback of all time
Johnny Unitas or Tom Brady?

Is the best Superbowl commercials of all time
Budweiser’s singing frogs?
Three octogenarians asking, “where’s the beef”?
Or the talking e-trade Baby?

Aside from their entertainment or commercial value,
science demonstrates that those ubiquitous “to-do” lists
not only contribute to our productivity,
but also to our mental well-being.

So whether we are telling our Alexa to take a memo
or telling Siri to put something on our to-do-list,
creating such lists not only make us more productive
but also contribute to our health.

Early in the 20th century the Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik
observed that waiters could easily recall diners’ orders
before they had been served,
but once the dishes had been delivered
their memories erased who had the steak or the soup.
She concluded that we remember things we need to do
better than things we’ve done.

More recent studies demonstrate
that while tasks we haven’t done yet do distract us,
just making a plan to complete them can lower our anxiety
and make us more effective. [1]

What prompts my diversion into “to-do” lists is today’s gospel
which at first blush seemed like a not very orderly
spiritual to-do-list.

After the briefest of parables about the blind leading the blind,
we get wisdom about disciples and teachers
and being trained up.

A quick pivot brings us to that famous proverb
about splinters, eyebeams, and hypocrisy.
But soon we migrate from beams to bad fruit,
figs and thornbushes,
with a final breathless turn to a micro-discourse on good and evil
and the interconnectedness of hearts to mouths.

So is Luke instructing us
to create a spiritual to-do-list that includes:
• keeping our mouths in check
• not jumping too quickly to judgment
• admitting spiritual blindness
• being less hypocritical
• and cultivating good, not rotten fruit?

Given the research that even having a list reduces anxiety,
maybe Luke is simply trying to lower Catholic blood pressure
by creating this list for us.
Or maybe he is bequeathing this handy inventory
that comprises all we need to do to be saved:
check all of the boxes and heaven is ours.

If you watched any of the Olympics
you were treated to robot videography:
those high-flying cameras
providing amazing bird’s eye views
of everything from the opening ceremonies
to Nathan Chen’s winning free skate program.

Analogously, it might be helpful
to zoom out from these six verses in Luke
and catch a bird’s eye view of this whole chapter.

Doing so we discover that these disjunct verses
are the closing volleys from Luke’s version of the Beatitudes.
For over 30 some verses we hear Jesus’ famous discourse
about blessedness and curses,
love of enemies and adversaries,
and generosity and compassion.

Today we have these last few verses,
a kind of closing chapter,
on this mini manual for discipleship.

Through this discourse, Jesus does not provide
a foolproof checklist for eternal life.
No checklist will get us to heaven.
That path, as Luke outlines, belongs instead to discipleship.

It’s not easy being a disciple of anyone;
having Jesus as your teacher is especially challenging.
Evidence suggests that Jesus broke the teacher mold
for his time. [2]

Unlike other rabbis, he did not have a stable home or income.
Rather, he called his disciples into an iterant life,
never sure if they had a place to sleep
or even food for the next day.
The petition in the Our Father for daily bread
might have been a practical request
by followers of this very impractical Rabbi
whose hand to mouth existence
often made for lean pickings for his inner circle.

If following Jesus wasn’t tough enough,
this very impractical rabbi expects his own students
to themselves become teachers
of his radical message of inclusion and sacrifice.

So the good news and the bad news today
is that enlisting as a Jesus disciple
automatically enrolls us in the Christian equivalent
of the “teach for America” program,
baptismally recruited as life-long student-teachers
in this divinely established “Christ-corps”
perennial apprentices to the Master teacher
whose tutelage we never outgrow.

Teaching is a harrowing profession,
particularly distressing for student teachers
– something I remember vividly.

Its challenges are symbolized in the exaggerated story
of a student teacher’s imagined interchange
with a supervisor encouraging them
to take a teaching job in a metropolitan public school system.

The would-be teacher summarizes: [3]

Let me see if I’ve got this right. You want me to go fill my students with a love for learning, and instill a sense of pride in them, modify their disruptive behavior, observe them for neglect, wage war on drugs and bullying, and check their backpacks for weapons of mass destruction. All the while I am supposed to teach them good citizenship, to fair play, how to register to vote, how to balance a checkbook and how to apply for a job. I also have to insure that all students pass the mandatory state exams, even those who don’t come to school regularly or complete any of their assignments. Plus, I am to communicate regularly with the parents by email, text, phone, newsletter and report card. All of this I am to do with just a piece of chalk, a computer, a few books, a bulletin board, a big smile AND on a starting salary that qualifies my family for food stamps! You want me to do all of this and yet you expect me not to pray in the classroom … no thanks.

Now you might be saying to yourself
I’m no teacher and this is not a school –
it’s a parish, a worshipping community, a gathering of friends …

But I would demure;
think about the multiple obvious indicators that OSP
is a school of discipleship,
an institute of practical spirituality and Christian living.
Such as the many efforts in religious formation
from Foundations to the RCIA process,
from retreat and reflection opportunities,
to the largest Catholic grade school in the archdiocese.

OSP is not simply a lovely wedding venue
or virtual destination for worship,
it is a school of radical discipleship
celebrating those values Jesus articulates in
the lesson plan of today’s gospel
which nudges each baptized to evolve
from pupil to apostles,
from student to student-teacher in Christ,
and take up the harrowing task of mentoring others
in gospel living and dying.

Joseph Laycock is a teacher, who works out at a martial arts gym.

He writes:

Most of the regulars [at the gym] are amateur fighters with dreams of going professional. When they’re not here, some of them work as firefighters or bouncers. I’m definitely the only schoolteacher in the room.

My students take interest in my training. Sometimes I’ll enter the classroom with bruises or a slight limp from the gym… Every class asks me the same questions, “Have you ever beat anyone up?” And “Why are you a teacher instead of a professional fighter?” When I tell them the truth — that I have never been in a fight and have no aspirations to go professional — I get a range of reactions from disappointment to accusations of cowardice. “So why do you do it,” they always ask. [He answers:]

I believe that life is a spiritual struggle. My battle is not against another fighter but against the unjust and apathetic system that is attacking my students. I get up at 6:30 a.m. and work at least a 10-hour day. I take students who have serious gaps in their learning — some of them can barely read — and I do my best to help them graduate from high school.…There is no point in pretending that this is an easy job.

In martial arts, laziness, apathy and despair will cost you the fight. As a teacher, these traits are deadly for at-risk students.… When I work the heavy bag until I feel faint, or have a 300-pound stranger pin my face to the mat with his knee, I am cultivating the strength of will necessary to make a difference. Like everyone else in the gym, I am training for battle. My battle is every day, in every classroom, for every kid

Piano: Here I am Lord

Luke’s shaping of Jesus’ teaching
into an instruction manual for would-be disciples
reminds us that announcing God’s reign is also a battle
quite often with ourselves –
a battle to model in our own living
the discipleship that our baptism expects us
to hand on to others.

We gather in this place,
to be strengthened in word and sacrament
that we can continue to answer that call
with whole heartedness and in deep faith
through Christ our Lord.

[1] W.J. Masicampo, & R. F. Baumeister, “Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (20 June 2011, Doi: 10.1037/a0024192

[2] Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth: What he wanted, who he was  (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012), 73ff.

[3] The source of this story has been lost. If you recognize it, please let us know so we can give them credit.

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