by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
Before rap was a widely accepted musical form
now with its own category in the Grammy awards,
the term concerned one’s reputation:
a rap sheet was a criminal record
and getting a bad rap was acquiring
a sometimes-undeserved bad name.
While you will be relieved to know
that I am not going to deliver this homily as a musical rap,
I do want to consider what happens
when someone gets an undeserved bad name.
Certain animals, for example, have gotten a bad rap:
maybe you can blame Lion King
for making hyenas seem devious, dumb, almost criminal
even though they are highly intelligent survivors.
Various dog species have been banned in parts of the U.S.
and other countries – or at least by insurance companies –
such as Doberman Pinschers,
American Bulldogs and Great Danes
apparently because they scare folk
and are known to knock kids off bikes.
As someone who lives with a Great Dane-Bulldog mix
I contend it’s not the dog but the human trainer.
Our 105-pounder is a great watchdog
and when you come into the house
the only thing you are in danger of
is being licked to death.
His breeds have a bad rap.
Certain jobs have also gotten a bad rap.
Did you know that according to some sources
the most hated profession is that of a dentist?
School principals are not far behind – really?
And then there are the celebrities we love to hate:
the Tiger Woods and Pete Rose of sports fame and infamy,
the Ellen Degeneres-es and Will Smiths.
And I won’t even go into elected officials.
There is no doubt that animals, people, and even vacation spots
get a bad rap
because of some real or perceived truth
that makes it difficult for reaffirmation, reconciliation
and reincorporation into our heads and hearts.
In that vein, I would contend that Martha in today’s gospel
has acquired a bad rap because of an irrefutable truth:
she got chastised by Jesus himself.
Not sure that even Johnny Depp could recover
from that one.
At the same time, I think Martha’s bad rap
is somewhat undeserved.
She was such a conscientious host,
caring about the well-being of her sacred guest
and for exhibiting that most human of emotions: anxiety.
Ok, maybe she’s a little OCD,
a touch controlling,
and even a little insensitive.
But she also is a bit of a model for me,
maybe even for us,
as she copes with her anxieties in the presence of God.
A favorite science author, primatologist and neurobiologist
Robert Sapolsky, whose 2017 800-page tome Behave
was a run-away New York Times Bestseller
and whose smarts is only matched by his humor
rendering him a YouTube star
and much sought-after speaker.
I’ve read a number of his works,
the most entertaining of which is his A Primate’s Memoir – ostensibly a recollection of early days
as a grad student doing fieldwork in Kenya
but ultimately a reflection on our humanity
revealed in jungles, politics, and passion.
But it is his first major work that these readings bring to mind
aptly titled, Why Zebras don’t Get Ulcers
which you can access through his free lecture on the topic
delivered a few years ago at our very own U of I.
A basic point that he makes early in the book
is that stress is not inherently bad
but that we are the only species
which generates internal stress
and our psychological stressors contribute significantly
to our physical and mental demise.
When chased by a lion, zebras are under stress
so their bodies secrete adrenaline along with 11 other hormones
and in 4 minutes they are either free or dead
which means the stress ends.
Most human beings, however,
are not literally chased by lions or tigers or bears.
But we are chased by
financial and relational and personal
lions and tigers and bears
so we turn on our own stress responses.
But unlike the Zebras, they don’t last for 4 minutes.
Sometimes they last for 4 decades
or as long as our bodies can handle them.
Stress is not bad in the short term,
but is highly problematic in the long term
as anyone on blood pressure medicine can attest.
Thus, it is not just Martha who is getting a bad rap
in today’s gospel,
but maybe even the very human experience of anxiety
and I don’t think the gospel or liturgical message today
Is “don’t feel stress”!
Go back to that celebrated first reading from Genesis:
a revered tale of extraordinary hospitality
in which Abraham runs around
like a metaphorical chicken with its head cut off
creating a hospitable experience
for his angelic visitors.
The passage doesn’t say that he saunters towards his guests
or leisurely texted Sarah about calling for carry out
or inquired among his servants
if there was any extra beef in the food locker.
No, the text stresses that
he runs to greet his guests,
hastens to Sarah to make bread,
runs to the herd to pick out a steer,
and has a servant quickly prepare it.
Sounds like he has everybody stressed out.
But isn’t that the cost of hospitality
or even what we might call “good anxiety”?
Now that might sound like a contradiction in terms,
but psychologists actually believe there is such a thing
as “good anxiety”
Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology
at New York University
argues that instead of trying to obliterate
any feelings of anxiety
with the accompanying tightness in the chest,
and knot in the stomach,
we can actually make friends with our anxiety
and reap all the gifts it can offer.
She wisely notes that anxiety is an important information source
underscoring what we appreciate
and value in our lives.
She says, “that is where the good anxiety lives.”
So we are anxious about relationships
because they are important to us.
We are anxious about safety
and about violence in our neighborhoods and on our streets
because the well-being of our community is important to us.
It is anxiety for the unproductive or the selfish,
the misguided or self-indulgent urges
that contribute to our spiritual hypertension & ill-health.
The supposed story is told of a woman
whose greedy husband was at the end of his life.
His dying wish was that he be buried with all of his money
telling her point blank
that he loved his money more than anything.
Despite advice of family and friends,
she acceded to his instructions when he died,
placing a large envelope in his casket before it was closed.
When asked by friends how she could do such a thing,
she said that she felt obliged to carry out his last wish
so she put all of his money in her bank account
and placed a check for the total amount
with him in the casket.
Anxiety about accumulating wealth or power
is a pursuit valued by many
who might protest
that it does bring them satisfaction – even happiness.
The gospel question, however,
is whether it brings others joy.
Notice Jesus does not instruct Martha in the gospel
not to be anxious,
only not to be anxious and worried about many things
rather than the one important thing:
the abiding presence of God in our midst.
That may be why this gospel is paired with that Genesis reading:
if we are to be anxious about important things
about the welfare of others,
about the safety and well-being of our communities,
then we are called to be anxious about hospitality,
especially to the unexpected guest,
the disguised angel
and the unrecognizable Christ.
The Academy award winning film, “the unexpected Lunch Date”
is about a woman, in Grand Central Station
who bumps into a man, spills all of her packages,
misses her train and loses her wallet.
She makes her way to a cafeteria,
scrapes some coins together from the bottom of her purse
and buys a salad, gets to a booth
drops all her packages there
and goes back to get a fork.
She comes back to find an apparently homeless man
sitting there eating her salad.
When she protests, he keeps on eating
tired and upset she attacks the salad with her fork
the stranger, calm as Mary in the gospel,
continues to eat with her off the same plate.
He eventually gets up
reappears with two cups of coffee
and gives her a cup with sugar.
When it’s time to catch her train, she leaves
but then realizes she has left all her packages;
she runs back to the cafeteria
but the man is gone, the shopping bags are gone
only the empty salad plate and coffees cups remain.
Devastated she turns to leave
but then notices a few booths down
her untouched original salad and all her packages.
It dawns on her: the man did not steal her salad
She stole his.
After the Our Father at each Mass
we pray to be safe from all distress,
though I think the previous translation, “undue anxiety”
is more instructive …
We do not pray that we be delivered from the natural emotions
that punctuate our living fully,
but that we might employ them
to spur us into gospel living
and develop holy anxiety for the good things
that render glory to God and joy to others
through Christ our Lord.