Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s on the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

In these politically testy times
there are certain topics
preachers are warned to avoid.

I know I am not supposed to support any candidate by name
from the pulpit,
not supposed to espouse explicitly any partisan position
during the homily,
and the general advice from punsters and practitioners alike
is that I am supposed to sidestep any issues
that could potentially divide the assembly
or trigger a phone call from the bishop.

As much as I try to respect these advisories and warnings,
this morning there is one contentious issue in our country
that I cannot avoid mentioning
and I apologize in advance if it is upsetting to you
but I think we need to talk about
the final installment of the Game of Thrones.

I mean really – should it have been Bran?
Was the demise of Daenerys at the hands of her
lover/nephew justified?
Why did the dragon incinerate the throne
and not the assassin?

Ok .. I get the tear-wrenching moment
when Jon Snow is reunited with Ghost,
but Sansa becoming queen of the North?
And Arya sailing off into the sunset?
Give me a break …

While I admit that I didn’t watch the final episode
and in all honesty I haven’t watched any of it,
virtually anyone with a modicum of consciousness and interest
knows at least the main points of the season finale.

Ironically, even people who haven’t watched the beast
have weighed in on social media
to debate the final outcomes
and even begin a petition drive
to remake season 8 …
unlikely as HBO already spent over $90 million on that season.

The reason I express my faux shock and unhappiness
about the conclusion of this cultural phenomenon
is to underscore two powerful themes
coursing through today’s word.

One is about the essential role of debate in culture and religion
and the other concerns what it means to “keep one’s word.”

Human beings are hardwire to debate, argue, even to feud.
Humanity’s tendency towards play justifies us being called
Homo ludens.
Some believe our penchant for storytelling justifies the name
Homo fictus.
But I think our penchant for argumentation justifies the moniker
Homo contensiosus.

Some neuroscientists maintain that it is actually
the design of the human brain
that instantaneously prompts us
to divide our worlds between them and us,
to create a relatively unified view of life
that enables our coping with the chaos of the everyday
and to defend our “us,”
our world view and constructed reality
whenever it is explicitly challenged
or even implicitly threatened.

Our instinct for argumentation even extends to religion
a favorite story comes from a Rabbi and good friend.

In the synagogue there was always a dispute over whether to stand during the recitation of the SHEMA or to sit. One faction felt it was disrespectful to sit, and preferred to stand; one faction felt that standing was bad, and that all should sit. It was awful . . . every time the rabbi would begin the Shema the congregation would erupt in disputes and argument. The standees were trying to lift the sittees, and the sittees were trying to pull down the standees. Every Shabbat it was the same: argue, argue, argue.

So the congregation sent a delegation to the congregation’s founding rabbi, consisting of sittees and standees, “Rabbi, is it our tradition to sit during the Shema or stand during the Shema?” The rabbi thought for a long while then said, “It is not my recollection that our tradition was to sit during the Shema.” The Standees were exultant, but their delight was short-lived as the old rabbi lifted his hand in warning. “In my recollection, it was not our
tradition to stand during the Shema.” And the Sittees were exultant, but only for a moment.

“But Rabbi, if it is not our tradition to sit, and it is not our tradition to stand, what is our tradition?” The old Rabbi said. “It is our tradition to ARGUE during the Shema.”

Christianity’s long tradition is also filled with arguments and debates, some more contentious than others.
Today’s first reading
reports that such debate was even at the birth of Christianity.
What is notable, however,
is the way in which the “dissension and debate”
was handled … even diffused.

It was not diffused by imposing rigid uniformity
by apostolic decree
or some primitive form of an evangelical velvet hammer.

Rather it was diffused with tolerance,
with outlining a few essentials
and then respecting diversity,
a respect that seemed to result in the Jesus gift
noted in the Gospel: the gift of peace.

But that peace came at a price,
for such tolerance resulted in diversity of practice
among the follows of Jesus
with some following traditional dietary laws, for example,
and others not.

Tolerance is messy, even in religion,
and the moral virtue of tolerance seems to challenge
even the way we are neurologically wired.
As we struggle to make sense out of life’s daily disorder
and keep chaos at bay,
tolerance makes an intentional space for the many “thems”
so different from us
and in the process undoubtedly amplifies the chaos
and even the stress of our lives.
Intolerance is easier – but it is not especially Christian.

This connection between tolerance and diversity,
between peaceability and chaos,
relates to a second theme in the game of Thrones controversy
and today’s readings,
and that is Jesus’ instruction about keeping God’s Word.

Some GOT aficionado’s contend that the screenplay
for the HBO series, involving multiple writers
did not “respect the word” of George Martin
who authored the novels behind the story.

That’s an interesting perspective
since Martin has only authored 5 of the supposed 7 novels
in his A Song of Ice and Fire series
and will get to write his own ending when he gets to book 7.

Nonetheless, some argue that the fast paced final season
with too many gaps and erratic character turns
does not respect the careful plot construction
and character development Martin brought to his writing.

Over the last few months I have been working on a project
that has taken me into a study of chaos theory.
You might remember something of chaos theory
from the movie Jurassic Park
with Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm,
the self-styled chaotician
arguing against attempting to control evolution
noting that life will not be contained.
“Life breaks free.”

With roots in the 19th and early 20th century,
the so called father of chaos theory
was MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz
who tried to develop a mathematical model
to accurately predict the weather …
something he later admitted was practically impossible.

The shorthand for Lorenz’s work is the so called butterfly effect,
as Lorenz gave a paper almost 45 years ago
in which he asked “does the flap of a butterfly’s wings
In Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”

The point is that minute localized change
in a complex system
can have large effects elsewhere

So when multiple hands are at play
in an HBO screenplay for a complex system such as GOT,
even small changes have large scale effects …
maybe like the assassination of a Queen
or the crowning of an unlikely king

The connection between Chaos theory and Christianity
might not be immediately evident
but I think there is a sometimes all too obvious relationship …

Jesus tells his disciples to keep his word
and while he models one distinctive way that is to be done,
he does not lay down explicit instructions
about how his disciples are supposed to do that
except with the incredibly broad command
that we love each other.

Jesus does not write a guidebook for his followers
or set out policies and procedures,
best practices and punitive processes
to keep future Christians in line.

Instead Jesus promises to send an advocate,
a holy companion,
a Spiritual guide to walk with us,
to teach and remind us
how he acted, how he embraced others, how he loved.

But allowing us … even expecting us
to live out that word,
to live out that love
each in our own individual and collective ways.

So the spiritual butterfly effect is alive and well
with over 1 billion Catholics scattered across the globe.

Sometimes we flap our wings in self-interest
in apologetics and defensiveness
and the results can be disastrous … even abusive.

Then we engage in such selfish wing flapping, chaos abounds,
bolstering wagon-circling and self-interest in others,
thus nourishing a Christian worldview
that is decidedly unchristian
as it forgets Jesus’ revelation
that God has a love affair first and foremost with the world
and not with any individual religion or Church.

On the other hand,
what happens when 1 billion-plus pair of spiritual wings
metaphorically take to the sky
in defense of the most vulnerable
or in respectful witness to those of other faith traditions
or even in miniscule ways,
refuse to stand in silent toleration of the racial slur
Or the gendered belittlement?

It might seem futile, even perilous
in the current political climate
actually to step up … to speak out
as we ponder the calculus
of what one person … one community can do.

But chaos theory reminds us
that even the disruption of a single butterfly
can trigger a tornado in Texas, a revolution in respect,
the foregrounding of love …
and isn’t that what the singular human being Jesus did?

The Jerusalem vision in today’s second reading
notes that the resplendent City, the new Jerusalem
had no need of sun or moon,
for the Glory of God gave it light … and its lamp was the lamb.
That text brings to mind the writings of C.S. Lewis
and a phrase popularized by the first president Bush
in which Lewis describes the appearance of stars
in the darkening heavens of Narnia
as “a thousand points of light.”

On this memorial day weekend,
we remember those who sacrificed their lives
in the birthing and nurturing of this nation,
in the last century totaling almost 660,000 of the mostly young,
equivalent to the population of Washington DC.

Our gratitude for their sacrifices mingles with distinctive sadness
as we ponder what light those 660,000 young lives
might have continued to shed,
what ripple effects those 660,000
metaphorical set of wings
might have contributed if tolerance and respect had reigned,
if Jesus’ peace had been given a chance.

We are not in the eternal city of Jerusalem,
but in a sometimes grimy and violent world,
one not always illumined by the Glory of God.

As we honor those summoned to war,
we affirm Jesus’ invitation to embrace peace

and pray that the unpredictable gifts
of his followers might illumine this sometimes
dark and violent world
with chaotic love, random kindness, shocking respect,

and so contribute to shaping a true city of God,
Through Christ our Lord.

Featured Image: The Butterfly Effect, photo taken by: Candace Lindemann



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