Ars Praedicandi: Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Difficult Times

Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Old St. Patrick’s, Chicago
Edward Foley, Capuchin

I have a young colleague at CTU where I teach
new on the faculty
very gifted, in demand
teaching, publishing, consultations, speaking

While filled with passion and energy
the colleague also noted how full life had become
in this new life as professor and mentor
concluding, “I don’t wake up any morning”
and wonder what I should do today”

if and when I am scheduled to preach
I do not wake up any morning in the preceding days
wondering what I should preach about
As a matter of fact
having to preaching
in the face of so much violence and division and scandal
regularly keeps me up at night

That was true this past week
as we experienced 5 more days of riveting testimony
in the Lacquan McDonald case
Then when a former TV star
whom the media once dubbed “America’s Dad”
was sentenced to 3 to 10 years
for sexual assault
as pressure mounted for the Pope
to accept the resignation
of the cardinal archbishop of the nation’s capitol
for failing to protect the innocent from abusive clergy

Then, of course, there is what one Republican Senator dubbed
the intergalactic freak show
surrounding the confirmation process for Brett Kavanagh
almost surreal testimony
incendiary denials
political machinations on both sides of the aisle

No, not once this week
did I wake up after restless sleep
and wonder what I should preach about

But every morning, and most afternoons and evenings
I was haunted with the thought over and over again
“how” … how to preach
in such a divisive, truly toxic environment

Unfortunately, the scripture readings slated for today
do not ease the burden

Decades ago, I studied with a celebrated Methodist liturgical scholar
who promoted the value of the lectionary
when lectionary usage was virtually never the custom
among U.S. Protestants
and instead most Protestant preachers in this country
weekly selected the scriptures to preach

My professor commented that very often
preachers would choose innocuous or safe scriptures
what he dubbed “user friendly texts”

He said, by contrast, the lectionary is not safe
as it assails us week after week with
what he characterized as “The sword of God’s word”

His comments could hardly be truer
than for today’s readings
one of the toughest amalgams
of challenges and chastisements scripturally imaginable

including Moses’ challenge
to the territoriality and jealousy of Joshua
in the first reading
James’s tirade against the rich
and jabs against employers
in the second reading

and then there is that gospel from Mark
in which inept disciples crash and burn
in their attempts to corral the Jesus spirit

and in response the Only Begotten uses
some of the most severe and condemnatory language
that populates the gospels

So how to preach the ecclesial and societal chaos today
through the lens of biblical texts
that seem to sear with the same intensity
of the asbestos-proof fire to which they allude?

One approach is to revisit the texts, especially that gospel
to consider if it is really as condemnatory as it first sounds

I am helped here by commentators
who clarify a form of proverbial wisdom
sometimes called the “better than” proverbs[1]
such proverbs present sharply opposed choices
one of which is clearly good and the other not

Jesus borrows this rhetorical approach
but both hyperbolizes it to the nth degree
while simultaneously framing it as a paradox

The paradox arises because
Jesus presents the painful and distasteful
drowning tethered to a millstone
and multiple amputations
as the better choices

The hyperbole precisely comes
through 200lb millstones and triple amputations

The purpose of “better than” proverbs according to one blogger
is through exaggerated judgment
and extreme demand
to jolt the listener … the disciple
to look at human behavior in a whole new way.

Ok … I’m in …
but what’s the new way?
How does this exaggerated and demanding proverb
summon new eyes
in an era of such mean spiritedness
and social toxicity?

One thought was to image the biblical conflicts in today’s Word
as reflections of our own ecclesial and societal traumas
racial divisions
abuse of the innocents
political intolerance
and xenophobia
through the lens of tribalism

The Jesus tribe in the gospel
disciples as a self-appointed orthodoxy committee
had decided, without consulting their leader,
to excommunicate others who are actually doing good
because they were not wearing the blue and gold
did not sport the OSP logo on any clothing
were sporting no Cubs Jersey
or otherwise demonstrating that they belonged

As I was exploring tribalism
as an appropriate frame
for examining biblical and contemporary divisions
I ran across a series of YouTube presentations by Kevin LaPlante

A former university professor
chair of the department of philosophy at Iowa state
and respected scholar

LaPlante has given up the university classroom
for the internet and other modes of discourse
where he gets to ply his considerable gift for clarity
and his artistic ability as an illustrator

In a YouTube clip on the “dangers of tribalism”
LaPlante first surprised me by asserting
that tribes aren’t bad
as they are basically a group of people who feel connected
in a meaningful way
around religion, or sports, or language or ethnicity
So in some ways the members of OSP, “we’re” a tribe

Tribes give people a sense of security
while allowing people to identify folk who are other
to make distinctions between us and them
That also is not a bad thing
recognizing that everyone is not like us
does not share our world view or values
can be both enlightening and enlarging

The danger, as LaPlante points out
is not tribalism
but the polarization that tribalism feeds
the in-group solidary fed by animosity toward the out-group

LaPlante argues that the result of growing polarization
is a permanent attitude of suspicion, hostility and fear
toward the other
Sound familiar?

Another casualty of extreme polarization is a grasp on reality
Extreme tribalism erects systems of belief
increasing unmoored from reality
resulting in moral and political isolation from the truth
Thus we live in a society in which truth telling
is dismissed as fake news

Jesus was a wall-demolisher
and anti-isolationist

Instead he pursued social and religious interactions
with Jews and Samaritans and Syrophoenicians
Pharisees and fisherman and lepers
women and men and children
all glimpses of the in-breaking of God’s reign in his mind’s eye

Thus it is no surprise
that he would spiritually bushwhack his own disciples
intent on building their own religious bubble
and decrying the healing by someone outside their tribe
as fake news
and through hyperbole and paradox
lays down a new law
that if these chosen ones
wanted to remain in the Jesus Tribe
such polarizing attitudes
attempts at character assassination
and rendering of truth as fake news were anathema to him

And what about our own day
How do we take up this new law?
How do we remain in the Jesus tribe?
How do we resist such insidious polarization?

In the hyperbolic language of the gospel
our options are stark: either the ax or the cup

The way of the ax is to chop off our limbs
pluck out our eyes
and probably have our tongues surgically removed
so that we are no longer capable of slurring
or demeaning
or erasing another
A pretty drastic antidote

The other option is the way of the cup
What does Jesus say?
Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink
will surely not lose their reward

Sounds simple, right?
Sharing a cup of water with the other
acknowledging the well of their own dignity
admitting that the ocean of humanity outside our tribe
is beloved of Christ
and belongs to God

That is what Pope Francis, I believe, has mirrored for us
A true cup bearer not ax wielder
who in the early days of his pontificate
scandalized many in the Roman Catholic Tribe
by admitting that even atheists can get to heaven
and calling those without belief “precious allies”
How’s that for a spiritual ambush on the orthodoxy committee?

and yet it seems so foreign to us
often so far beyond our individual and social instincts
and so we eschew the cup
and reach for the ax …
and while we often attempt to wield it toward
another individual, another tribe
we so often end up axing our own
severing our social and spiritual jugular
bleeding our own tribe
and the whole of the human race.

And so the foreboding of the poet:

[piano dissonant Haugen, “Send down the fire”]

Six humans trapped by happenstance, in bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood.  Or so the story’s told.
Their dying fire in need of logs, The first woman held hers back,
For on the faces around the fire, She noticed one was black.
The next man looking cross the way, Saw one not of his church,
And couldn’t bring himself to give, The fire his stick of birch.
The third one sat in tattered clothes, He gave his coat a hitch,
Why should his log be put to use, To warm the idle rich?
The rich man just sat back and thought of wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned, From the lazy poor.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge as the fire passed from sight
For all he saw in his stick of wood, was a chance to spite the white
the last man of this forlorn group, Did naught except for gain
Giving just to those who gave, was how he played the game.
The logs held tight in death’s still hands, Was proof of human sin
They didn’t die from the cold without, They died from the cold within[2]

The asbestos fire for those authentically in the Jesus tribe
is not a hell fire that sears eternally
some damned group repelled by holiness

but a baptismal light that cannot be extinguished
Holy Spirit tongues that rain down in the justice of God
the electric passion of chastened disciples
who do not crouch fearfully in such times of spiritual chaos

but stand boldly in the presence of the ever-living God and pray

Send down … send down … send down
The fire of your justice
Into our world … and into our hearts
So we never again
die from the cold within,
through Christ our Lord.

[Haugen, reflective singing of “Send down the Fire”]

[1] See Alyce McKenzie, “Hi, Perbole! Exaggeration, Anyone? Reflections on Mark 9:38-49
[2] James Patrick Kinney, “The Cold Within,” public domain.



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