Ars Praedicandi: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

Rebecca Saxe and Atsushi Takahashi / Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT / Athinoula A. Martinos Imaging Center at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, MIT

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

A number of years ago
there was a paper circulating around theological faculties
– including my own –
with the provocative title, “Why God Did Not Get tenure.”
It was pretty amusing,
at least for any who have endured the tenure process.

Among the purported reasons that God did not get tenure were:

    1. He only wrote one book;
    2. It had no footnotes;
    3. Some doubted that he wrote it by himself;
    4. The scientific community could never replicate God’s results, as in the creation story;
    5. God rarely came to class, telling his students: read the book;
    6. Often God had his untenured Son teach class in his place.

In a similar but more-timely vein,
this past week an analogous list has been circulating
delineating why Jesus could never win a political election.
Included in those reasons were:

    1. His ludicrous views on nonviolence that rendered him unpalatable to national security voters in all parties;
    2. That he provided free health care so must be a socialist;
    3. He undermined family fishing businesses by recruiting labor out of the workforce, so is an enemy of small business;
    4. He was not particularly available to the wealthy or powerful, spending too much time with illegal aliens and unregistered voters;
    5. He rebuked a follower for using a concealed weapon to defend him in the garden of Gethsemane, revealing his weakness on the 2nd amendment and inability to get an NRA endorsement;
    6. And, He was more interested in the kingdom of God than the good old U.S. of A.

I not only agree that Jesus would never be elected
to statewide office, congress,
the senate, and especially as president
but also, that he would be supremely unqualified for the job
especially because of his broad and inclusive commitment
to God’s reign.

Admittedly today’s readings do not seem much focused on God’s reign
and appear to seem more like virtually impossible instructions
for would-be disciples, such as:
sell all your belongings,
give them all to the poor,
and live on high alert for God’s imminent appearance.

However, reducing today’s readings
to an unrealistic checklist for future apostolic recruits
could be just a pretext
for not taking today’s readings seriously.

If we reduce God’s Words to a series
of utterly preposterous instructions for becoming disciples
then it is easy to dismiss and ignore such a Word.

What happens, however, if instead of dismissing the readings
as outrageous requirements for reluctant disciples,
we read them, instead,
as insights into the very nature of Jesus?

Suddenly all of those images and teachings about “faith”
enumerated in the reading from Hebrews
not only illustrate the virtues of Abraham
but also, of Jesus
who similarly was “as good as dead,”
but from whom came forth spiritual descendants
as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Likewise, all of those Gospel directives
about having no wealth,
about giving everything you have away,
and about living every minute as though God
might momentarily burst onto the scene
and all start to take on an air of realism
because they perfectly describe the Son of God
who had no earthly treasure,
not even a place to lay his head
and constantly thrived in the presence of God.

There is an obvious problem in pursuing this thinking, however,
for if you now are prone to believe that today’s readings
are more descriptions of the exceptional Jesus
rather than unrealistic expectations
for his very unexceptional followers
you might be wondering,
why we read them at all?
Do they have anything to do with us
other than awe or embarrass us
in the presence of this amazing Christ?

In order to dig myself out of this homiletic hole,
I need to make a small excursion away from the readings
into an insight from a brilliant colleague [1]
who works at the intersection of theology and the sciences.

This colleague introduced me to the work of Allan Schore
a psychologist who studies brain development in children
especially during the first few months of life.

Schore describes the life of a newborn as somewhat chaotic,
filled with unformed feelings and new sensations,
made more complex because they lack
any verbal comprehension of their world.

The role of the nurturing parent, according to Shore,
is to mirror the infant’s inner emotional life
– the excitement, pain, joy, sadness –
and give these emotions both verbal and physical expression
on the child’s behalf.

We’ve all done or at least observed this process:
holding and comforting a child when crying or startled
patting their bottoms and making sympathetic sounds
singing your equivalent of “Soft Kitty,”
manufacturing those foolish baby sounds and faces
when playing peek-a-boo
or improvising airplane noises
as you try to fly the pureed peas
into the unsuspecting mouth of a 6-month-old.

According to Shore, the nurturing parent [or celibate uncle]
helps to strengthen and consolidate the child’s awareness
of her own feelings by amplifying them often by exaggeration.

The parent takes the chaotic and unformed feelings of the infant,
synthesizes them,
and then offers them back to the child.

In a sense, the parent is loaning the child
the use of her more mature brain
as the child struggles to organize her experiences.

In the process, empirical evidence demonstrates that
the child’s brain actually changes because of this process:
the neural bridge between
the rational, problem-solving part of the brain
and the emotional limbic system gets stronger.

Patterns of attachment and security
through nurturing and emotionally available parents
are thus literally engineered into our brains
and subsequently influence for the rest of our lives
our ability to relate, to trust, to be emotionally available.

The reason I make this excursion into intersubjective psychology,
limbic systems, and parenting
is not to distract you from the homiletic hole I created for myself
when suggesting that the readings
are more about Jesus than about us,
but to provide a strategy for thinking about sacred texts
proclaimed to very flawed and imperfect disciples.
that describe the flawless Son of God.

Borrowing psychologist Shores’ model
I suggest that, like infants, we live in a chaotic world,
a global politic of disregard and derision
filled with violence and indignities
especially the brutalization of innocents
indiscriminately bombed,
deprived of food and clean water,
or more genteelly subjected to discrimination
allegedly even at Sesame Street Theme parks.

Like a nurturing parent,
today’s readings invite us to encounter a Jesus
who, instead of offering us his pre-frontal lobe
to give order to our chaotic emotional lives,
spiritually loans us his divinely mature soul,
his faith, his self-lessness,
and his vision of God’s reign,
so that we, in turn, can not only reengineer
our very plastic brains
and change our patterns of thinking,
but maybe actually change our much less plastic hearts
and change our patterns of living,
becoming more empathic, inclusive, and vulnerable:
spiritually evolving from distantiated
even lethargic observers of faith
into committed disciples forged in the image of Christ
missioned to be agents of change.

There are an increasing number of people in the world,
including Christians, though that may surprise you,
who no longer believe in Jesus’ divinity.

Since all are welcome to this praying and this preaching
in-person or on-line
and while respecting people’s individual belief systems
I contend that it is undeniable
that Jesus was a world-class change agent:
through his teaching,
his healing,
his preaching,
and his sustained example of a self-sacrificing life
culminating in his self-sacrificing death.

Jesus changed the way that countless millions, even billions
think about God and about each other.

By lending us his soul, his vision, his word
even his sacramental body
he commissions us to enflesh the virtues he enfleshed,
those gifts that our society and our city need so desperately:
care for the marginalized and the sick,
witness against violence,
defense of the dignity of every individual,
and above all peacebuilding
between nations and neighborhoods,
between law officers and law-abiding citizens,
and between those of every political persuasion
who too often believe that
a different political opinion
is license for uncommon hostility
and disturbing malice.

In November of 1961, The Catalonian Maestro, Pablo Casals
was invited to perform in the East Wing of the Whitehouse
for President and Mrs. Kennedy and other distinguished guests.
Performing a program of works by
Felix Mendelssohn,
Robert Schumann,
Francois Couperin,
and even one of his own compositions.

At the time he was 85 years old,
widely touted as the finest cellist of the century
and some contended among the finest of all time.

In an interview around that performance
he was asked by a cub reporter
why he was still practicing some 4 or 5 hours each day
even though he stood at the pinnacle of the musical world.

Casals reportedly responded, “because young man,
I think I am showing some progress.”

We pray we do as well,
no matter what our age, no matter what our position in life
our vocation or our state of well-being:
we can all continue to make some progress,
through Christ our Lord.

[1] David Hogue, “Because we are: Practical theology, intersubjectivity and the human brain,” in Practicing Ubuntu: Practical Theological Perspectives on Injustice, Personhood and human dignity, ed. Jaco Dreyer, Edward Foley, Malan Nel (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2017), pp. 180-190.

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