Ars Praedicandi: 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Years ago, I had the privilege of studying
with a prominent Protestant scholar
who often critiqued his own preaching tradition.

While there has been significant change since then,
at that time most Protestant preachers did not
follow a lectionary and instead selected their own texts.
Professor White complained that some
took advantage of this option
and consistently chose what he called “user friendly texts.”
While not wanting to dishonor his splendid teaching legacy
I quite frankly wished that such was an option for me today.

There is no way under heaven that this text could be construed
as “user friendly.”
Rather, it is one of the toughest pieces of Jesus speech
not only the most controversial verses in Matthew,
but maybe in the whole of the NT.

Commentators have offered multiple strategies
for dealing with this text’s shocking severity
Three come to mind:

Strategy 1 – the evangelical chickening out approach
which is to read the short version of the gospel
avoiding much of what sounds like a divine tirade
and instead preach about the other readings
or better yet approaching Valentine’s day
(which sounds like a ministerial copout to me).

Strategy 2 – explain everything in the text
presuming that a line-by-line exegesis
can render this text palatable.
While an interesting approach we don’t have 2 hours
and even gifted exegetes are often stumped here.

Strategy 3 – select some bit of the text
and use it to shed light on the whole text.
While more promising than the other two
which segment do you choose?
The gruesome eye gouging
or the one the preacher knows the least about
like adultery or divorce?
Or the one the preacher knows the most about… not going there.

In the end, this still sounds like a masked attempt
to create a user-friendly text.

So I opt for a 4th strategy
and without trying to psychoanalyze God –
– risky business if not a potentially heretical one –
attempt to suspend the flawed human wisdom Paul critiques
and explore the divine wisdom, even motivation
behind this difficult gospel.

Vatican II asserts that the church has much to learn from the world [1]
and maybe this Valentine weekend provides a useful prism
for discerning the holy passion behind this challenging text.

Even though the Church doesn’t officially celebrate St. Valentine, [2]
US society celebrates this feast turned holiday with decided gusto
throughout this “Valentine’s weekend.”

Economists predict that, while still below pre-pandemic levels,
we will shell out almost 26 billion dollars on this holiday,
making it the 4th biggest commercial holiday of the year.

It is a season often marked by extravagant display,
e.g., back when they were talking
Angelina Jolie spent $30,000 on a 200-year-old olive tree
for Brad Pitt who seems to have a thing for olives.

Kim Kardashian got a living room full of roses one year,
Complete with Kenny G serenading in the midst of the roses.

Beyonce once got a platinum cell phone from Hubby Jay-Z.

Not to be outdone, one year David Beckham gave Mrs. Spice
an $8 million dollar Bulgari necklace.

Such extravagance is certainly beyond the pale,
and though embarrassing giving the grinding poverty
so many endure around the globe,
these levels of excess still intrigue if not awe us.

While baptism does not promise us earthly wealth
it does enfold us in the extravagant love
of an outrageously demanding
impossibly persistent God.

It is scandalous that God would ask for so much: “be perfect”
and indulge in such gospel exaggeration,
(like being condemned to hell for calling someone a fool!)
but no more scandalous than what God did for us
in the living, dying and rising of Jesus Christ.

But what should we expect
from a God whom Jack Shea describes as an “insomniac,
pacing the night sky …
two star-blazed eyes raking the earth” for us. [3]
It is almost laughable that the eternal “Hound of heaven”
who holds sway over galaxies and nebulas,
yet yearns for the attention of his creatures.
That the Holy One who infused the Son with life-giving blood
so that he could pour it out in love for us.

Unlikely Friendships is a New Your Times bestseller by Jennifer Holland
that describes unusual, even outrageous stories
of animal bonding across species.

There is the Canadian Great Dane who found a baby fawn
and took charge of raising it until it could return to the forest,
though the grown deer still comes back for visits.

Or the English donkey who rescued a sheep
from an attack by a pit bull
and stayed by the sheep’s side until it healed.

Maybe most bizarre is the orphaned baby hippo
who chose a 130-year-old giant male tortoise
as its surrogate mom when it arrived at a Kenyan zoo.
Equally bizarre was the male tortoise’s response,
not only because of their age and sex differences
but also because tortoises never raise their young.

Cockatoos and cats,
lowland gorillas and kittens,
snakes and hamsters,
and rhinos and Billy goats: strange bedfellows to be sure.

None hold a candle to the coupling of God and humankind
and the Holy One’s attachment
to this most fickle and imperfect species we call human.

Playwright William Congreve famously wrote
“hell hath no fury like a woman scored.” [4]
Today’s gospel proves him wrong,
revealing the God of Jesus Christ
so often spurned, even by the baptized
could still be so passionate about us.

But the illogical love of this divine stalker goes even further
as evidenced in today’s Gospel tirade
revealing that this daft divinity, infatuated with humanity
is in no way jealous or exclusive.

On the contrary, God wants us to love every other creature
with the same passion, the same consistency
the same faithfulness, and the same charity
revealed in Jesus, who loved us unto death.

Even though God recognizes our very flawed nature,
the gospel yet demands litmus tests of care and purity
modesty and charity.
I doubt that Francis of Assisi or his papal name’s sake
could meet this high bar.

In his incriminating poem, “As I walked out one Evening”
W.H. Auden writes:

‘O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
   With your crooked heart.

Happily, even in this crooked, skewed, and listing world
there are still glimpses of that purity of care
that Jesus seems to be pummeling us toward: a true story.

A middle school football team in Michigan
schemed without their coach’s knowledge
to create a small miracle for Keith,
a classmate with learning disabilities
who struggles with boundaries in the sweetest of ways
giving everyone he meets hug after hug.

Keith had been invited onto the football team
but obviously never scored a touchdown.
During one game the team moved the football
as close to the goal line as possible without scoring
actually taking a fall on the 1-yard line.
Fans were not happy.

Keith was then surrounded by every player, given the ball,
and pushed into the end zone for a score.

Network news interviewed the team’s 14-year-old wide receiver
Justice Miller, who said that they just wanted Keith
to have a memorable experience.

When the interviewer asked him how he experienced it
it was clear that Justice was profoundly changed as well,
reporting that after the event he had the widest smile
that nothing could wipe off his face.

then, this young theologian reflected:

you know, Keith has never been cool or popular
and he went like from being pretty much a nobody
to making everyone’s day.

Justice also admitted that it was not his idea
but in the final moments of that interview
with tears running down his cheeks said:

I went from somebody who mostly cared about himself
and my friends to caring about everyone
and trying to make everyone’s day in everyone’s life.

You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your own crooked heart.

In about 8 months we will hear a section from Matthew’s gospel
in which Jesus tells his disciples not to fear
because he will be with them always.
The primary way Jesus chose to fulfill that covenant
was to impart his spirit to the baptized.

When the interview asked Keith’s mother
about the meaning of the event for Keith,
she said she knows that somebody
will always have his back from now
until the day he graduates.

Jesus demands we do the same
in all of our imperfections, in all of our crooked ways
to have the backs of equally flawed friends, family, and strangers
from now until each of us graduates into the eternal banquet.

That covenant is achieved by stopping evil before it escalates:
no anger: too often a trigger for killing;
no lusting: too often a trigger for infidelity;
no false oaths: too often a trigger for greed.

That sounds extreme, and it is.
But in these days of too many mass shootings,
too much racial prejudice, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia,
too much war and poverty and polarization
extreme measures seem necessary.

God has forged a covenant with every member of humankind
something, as Paul reminds us,
the leaders and governments of this age
do not know always grasp,
certainly not as well as a middle school football team does.

In this eucharist, we rehearse that covenant
and our response to it
so that we might choose rightly, live justly
and love peaceably through Christ our Lord.

[1] Gaudium et spes, no. 40.

[2] The Roman Calendar has the feast of the Apostles to the Slavs, Cyril and Methodius.

[3] John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected (Niles IL: Argus, 1977), 31.

[4] Mourning Bride (1697), Act III, scene 2

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