Ars Praedicandi: Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Sometimes I “pray-dream”
that the Holy Spirit monitors the news,
maybe listening to podcasts from the Wall street journal
or Fox News, or MSNBC.
Obviously, I envision the Spirit as a non-partisan consumer.

While I am not suggesting that some divinely programmed Alexa
or Google angel literally feeds the Holy One
with flash briefings and news updates,
I am yet struck by how the lectionary
read under the guidance of the Holy Spirit
has an uncanny knack for highlighting
critical realities affecting our world, and our lives.

Take for example that opening line in the gospels
where Jesus recognizes that fear abounds.
He was naming a reality for his followers
whose worst fears would be violently realized
in his death and their own persecution.

A similar fear existed for Matthew’s community
to whom this word was first addressed decades later
facing similar threats of persecution and death
as they tried to embrace and export the Jesus message.

Then there is Jeremiah in our first reading
who knew a little something about fear,
prophesying as he did under the threat of the Babylonian
invasion, the destruction of the Jewish monarchy
and the ultimate fall of Jerusalem.
It is no surprise that humans pay attention to danger,
We like other species developed that instinct
so vital for our survival.

What sets human beings apart from other creatures, however,
is our fundamental mechanism for combatting fear.
Some creatures evolved physiological traits to face danger
like the ability to camouflage
or great speed for outrunning some predator
or sharp claws, quills or deadly poisons to ward off attacks.

We evolved differently.
According to one commentator our fragile bodies are constructed
with the biological equivalent of duct tape
and lumber scraps.
For example, our spines are a mess
become bipedal curved our spines forward at the lower back
but to keep our heads balanced, the upper spine curved
in the opposite direction
creating tremendous pressure on the lower vertebrae
so something like 80% of adults have lower back pain.

Instead of rhino skin, cheetah speed or porcupine quills
to help us cope with impending threats
we developed our brains, not primarily to ponder or philosophize
but to survive, avoid ambiguity, and find safety.

While there are certainly upsides to this evolution
there are also downsides.
One of them is that as our cultures have evolved
various organizations and movements have learned
to capitalize on the brain’s danger alert systems
by catering to our appetite for news about danger.

We are the only species that experiences fearmongering.
While there is clear data that news media
exploit different tactics for fermenting fear,
such tactics are also employed by
advertisers, politicians, and even preachers.  
Rest assured, that does not provide a clever excuse
for shaping the rest of this homily
as a fire and brimstone tirade against the evils of the world.

Humans have developed various mechanisms over the millennia
To combat fear, sometimes summarized as fawning, freezing, fleeing and fighting:

  • Fawning is the attempt to please whoever is triggering the fear to prevent them from casing harm
  • Freezing is staying very still until the danger passes
  • Fleeing is our cheetah imitation to escape the danger
  • And fighting is deploying aggression against the aggressor.

The Indian mystic Rajneesh taught “Anger is fear in disguise”
and we live in an era in which disguised fear abounds
being it on a global stage like the war in Ukraine, or
in little explosions
like parental outbursts at little league games
or the ubiquitous events of road rage.
Rage seldom settles anything.

A man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy street. When the light turned yellow he appropriately  stopped at the crosswalk.  The tailgater hit the roof and the horn, screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to get through the intersection. In mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a police officer.

The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a holding cell.

After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.

He said, I’m very sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, making many unladylike gestures, and cussing a blue streak at the guy in front of you.

I noticed the Choose Life license plate holder, the “What Would Jesus Do?” bumper sticker, the “Follow Me to Sunday-School” bumper sticker, the “Jesus is the way” sign in your window, and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk.  Naturally, the police officer said, I assumed you had stolen the car.

Sometimes, maybe too often,
the world might assume
that someone has stolen not our car but our baptism –
that distinctive salvation vehicle
that configured us to Christ
and his legacy for confronting fear with care
for responding to aggression with friendship
for countering violence with love.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting beautiful South Korea,
my second such opportunity.

Seoul is only 31 miles from the demilitarized zone
that 160 mile long buffer that divides a country
with two heavily reinforced militaries
engage in a dangerous face-off on the brink of detonation.

You seldom feel that threat in modern-day Seoul
a place of soaring towers,
stunning gardens, an enchanting river walk
and much beauty.

I know a family with twin sons, born of a Minnesotan father
and a Korean mother.
The mother died when the twins were 3.
I often buy Jake and Ben souvenirs when I travel:
t-shirts, Notre Dame jerseys – things 13-year-olds would like.
However, when the stepmother heard about Korea
she asked that I find them something different:
something to remind them of their Korean heritage.

One of my privileges of teaching at CTU for so many years
is having students from around the world, including Korea.
I had the chance to reunite with a number of them.
When I shared my Korean heritage task with them
One suggested a terrific solution.

In one part of Seoul, rather than the typical tourist shops
there is a neighborhood dedicated to traditional arts.
One shop individually crafts delicate hand-sized stamps
of your name in Korean characters called a dojang.
I found a matching set for the twins:
complementary but distinctive little works of art
and had them carve Jacob and Benjamin in Korean.

Stamping your name on a form or a letter communicates identity.
Stamping your name forged in the language of your ancestors
also announces legacy,
embraces tradition,
and claims birthright.

At baptism we were metaphorically stamped with Christ.
Remember the term many of us learned as kids?
The language of “indelible mark”
what one young theologian called a Jesus tattoo
marking us in the legacy of the only begotten
anointed in the Spirit, claimed for eternal life.

While recognizing that we have been imprinted with Christ,
Christianity is not an invitation into elitism.
So we also acknowledge that every child, every person
every member of our species
is stamped as Imago Dei 
wrought in the image of God.

Unfortunately too many of our sisters and brothers
find themselves imprinted with prejudice
branded as outsiders
stamped with diminishment, marginalization, even abuse.

Today’s gospel is part of Jesus’ mission instruction to his disciples
proverbs about how to behave on the journey
how to respond to fear
how to nourish the same kind of care,
mirrored in God’s care for the smallest of creatures
even the apparently insignificant sparrow.

It reminds us that there is no insignificant creature,
no insignificant person
and it puts us on mission with the disciples
to communicate that message
with the graced stamp of our own care
that announces legacies of dignity and value
with elegance and beauty.

A number of years ago, NPR reported on the music and performances
of the Bosnian cellist Vedran Smajlovic.

In the spring of 1992, a mortar shell hit a bread line in Sarajevo, killing 22 people. The next day, Smajlovic – a classical musician – put on his work clothes – black tie and tails – and took his cello to the bomb crater and played Albinoni’s Adagio. He continued to play one day for each of the dead. After that, he played at  bombings sites throughout Sarajevo. He became a hero and a legend but eventually was forced to flee his homeland, moving to Northern Ireland where he continued to play, and concertize in the face of violence and fear.

Mission is seldom envisioned as the call to beauty.
But beauty is not just a painting by Picasso,
or a sculpture by Calder,
or a play by Shakespeare, or a song by Sondheim.

St. Augustine understood that true beauty
is an attribute of God
who is the source of every beauty.

Before him Confucius taught that everything has beauty
but not everyone sees it.

It is time to see it ourselves, and help others do the same.
It is time to renew the ongoing mission
of infusing the world with the beauty of God
assisting the abused, marginalized, and erased
in embracing their own belovedness.

Christ and his disciples have an eye and heart on them
fellow sparrows, branded as God’s own
may they endure, flourish, even fly,
through Christ our Lord.

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