Ars Praedicandi: Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

At first glance today’s are not the most challenging lectionary readings
filled as they are with a multitude of gracious and affirming images:

  • a meek savior
  • peace for the nations
  • God’s mercy
  • the Spirit dwelling within
  • a messiah who lightens our burdens.

At the same time there are ominous allusions to problems or dangers:

  • the warrior’s bow
  • challenges of the flesh
  • the ignorance of the presumedly wise
  • and the burdens of labor and life.

So our task is to explore this stew of ideas
that they emerge as at least a modest spiritual banquet
rather than homiletic pablum devoid of any gospel spice.

It is a well-accepted principle
that the frameworks you use to examine an issue
impact the outcome of that examination.

It is also well-established that our favorite strategies
are not always the most effective.

This is sometimes known as the law of instrumentation 
which stresses the ineffectiveness
of using the skill or tool most familiar to us.
Thus the famed psychologist Abraham Maslow wisely noted:
“If the only tool you have is a hammer,
it is tempting to treat everything in the world as if it were a nail!”

I know my tendencies toward certain preaching strategies
like using the sciences or capitalizing on contemporary news stories,
like NASCAR racing in Chicago or the racial unrest in France,
but these seemed inadequate for tackling key themes
punctuating today’s Word,
particularly about the intricacies of relationships
and especially the demands of friendship.

In casting around for a suitable tool for prying open these texts
I remembered an unexpected gift received years ago.
Friends sometimes send a book that might resonate with my preaching.

This gift, however, was completely outside my literary universe:
a massive, boxed set of the complete Calvin and Hobbes comics
comprising 1440 pages stretching over 3 volumes.

Assured by the gift-giver that there was wisdom to be gleaned here,
my OCD-self had to devise a strategy for excavating that wisdom.

Since each fully illustrated book opened to about 2 feet across
I placed it on an old wooden book stand on a side table
and commenced daily reading of a page or two:
a task that stretched over two years.

Calvin and Hobbes centers on the relationship between
a precocious 6 year old boy named Calvin
and his philosophical partner in crime: a stuffed tiger named Hobbes.
The key dynamic is that Calvin sees Hobbes as fully human and alive
while everyone else sees him as an inanimate stuffed toy.

They are sometimes touted as the best friends in the history of comics:

  • they were always exploring; adventure was best when shared
  • they invented clubs or activities that often included only the 2 of them
  • they told each other the truth though that was usually Hobbes to Calvin
  • they supported each other’s crazy ideas
    • especially Calvin’s insane experiments or daredevil escapades
  • and Hobbes always knew when Calvin needed a hug. As Calvin remarked, “things are never quite as scary when you’ve got a best friend.”

In multiple ways throughout the Gospel
Jesus defines his relationship with his disciples
as one of friend and companion, rather than parent or master.
But in redefining this divine-human dynamic
he reveals serious challenges to being God’s friend.

Akin to those depicted in the “gospel according to Calvin and Hobbes”:

  • Jesus calls us out of our complacency into the unexpected adventure we call discipleship
  • sometimes that experience of discipleship can feel like a very small club, like only you and God’s first born are on mission
  • the Spirit of Jesus prods us into risky endeavors like loving enemies and embracing strangers
  • this relationship is marked by searing truthfulness, usually Jesus calling us out
  • And Jesus understands when we need a holy hug … but today that comes to us in the form of an evangelical yoke.

The yoke is a metaphor often used in Jewish literature
to reference the law given to Moses
a law that encompassed not only the 10 written commandments
but the oral law encompassing 613 other commandments
as well as over 1500 so-called “fence laws” for people to obey
akin to preventative barriers or defenses
intended to keep people from breaking God’s law.

As one can imagine, trying to observe the 613 commandments
and the multitude of those well-intentioned canonical “fences”
could be a burden.

As an alternative, Jesus offers his “lighter yoke”
his distillation of over 2000 fences and laws into 2
loving God, and neighbor as ourselves:
both required for initiation into Jesus’ friendship.

In this post-pandemic era, our society seemed newly primed for friendship.
However, despite renewed interest in the topic
and many well-recognized health benefits 
the role of friends today is experiencing a pronounced decline.

A 2021 survey reports that

  • we have fewer close friendships than we once did
  • we talk to our friends less often
  • and we rely less on friends for personal support.

While there are multiple factors contributing to this situation
including increased post-pandemic mobility
and the heightened demands of our families and employment,
there is also scientific evidence that the older we get
the more difficult it is for us to make friends.
Some calculate that creating casual friendships takes 50 hours;
nurturing a close friendship takes at least 200 hours
not including the many ensuing hours of maintenance
such intimacy requires.
Such relational challenges are pushing some folk to the point
of needing to hire a friendship coach!

In a sense, through baptism we have the best coach in the cosmos
God’s Spirit …
whose gifts such as wisdom, prudence and courage
prod and enable us
into the Jesus yoke of authentic love of God
and enduring mission to our neighbors
all the while nurturing that all-important ingredient of self-love
embedded in this succinct Jesus code.

The implicit challenge to accepting this coaching, however,
evokes the key dynamic in the Calvin & Hobbes tale:
Most of us don’t have the vision of Calvin
to see that the Tiger is real,
to hear the wisdom from those whom we render invisible,
to accept the hug from those we’d rather erase than embrace,
and to recognize the spirit of God in the stranger, other, or enemy.

I know the Paul we heard proclaimed in the second reading
can sound like a bit of a social killjoy or morally superior:
“don’t do this, don’t do that …
don’t flirt with evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22),
don’t drag believers to court (1 Corinthians 6)”
and today, “don’t live according to the flesh.”

But what Paul is NOT saying is that we should give up being enfleshed
abandon incarnation
decide not to be a completely embodied believer.

On the contrary, the Pauline corpus is precisely about
fully materialized, substantiated, tangible believing
and treating everyone else as an embodied reflection of God.

Like many small children – like Calvin himself –
a little girl was afraid of the dark and struggled to go to sleep.
Time after time, she came back to the family room
and begged her mother to stay with her all night.
“I can’t do that,” her mother replied, “but you should not be afraid
you are not alone. God is always with you. ”
“But I don’t want God,” the little girl cried.
“I want somebody with skin on! ”

The baptized have many titles

• mystical body
• priestly people
• beloved disciples

But eschewing the easy frameworks
cautioned by that law of instrumentation
what if we are allowed to be reconceived as the “skin of God?”
people yoked to the very flesh of humanity
in which no one is reduced to an inanimate object,
even a cute one,
and no child is allowed to feel that their only friend is invisible to others.

One of the prejudices that increasingly shocks me today
is the growing vitriol towards the trans community.
Admittedly this is not a world I know a lot about
but I do have a young relative who identifies with this community
and they are one of the brightest,
most emotionally intelligent
and loving young people that I know.

Unfortunately many would apparently like to turn her into a Hobbes
basically invisible, certainly inaudible, maybe even inanimate
because of their own inability to see with the wisdom of a Calvin.

One trans blogger, finding solace in the Gospel of Calvin & Hobbes, wrote:

the strip suddenly … describe[d] things that resonated with me: what it was like to live in a world where expressing your realest self is … penalized, and [how important it is to find] a friend … [especially] if your blood family fails to understand or accept the truest version of you. Calvin could never fully be himself; the worlds he dreamt up were always lovelier and more marvelous than the dull world he was supposed to live in. It reminded me of the pressures I had felt … pretending to be what the largely anti-queer society … wanted me to be…. And yet [Calvin] … found Hobbes … who understood him and allowed him to live out his dreams….

Jesus’ gospel invitation today is not to live a life without burdens,
but to take on his yoke
sweetened by mercy,
shouldered in generosity,
and lightened by love.

The living saints around us honor us with their witness revealing
time and time again
that here is no burden in carrying
the beloved, the child, the sibling
only grace and gratitude …
for as the folk wisdom reminds us,
“he’s not heavy, he’s my brother.”

Today we take up that yoke again,
especially with those that society too easily erases,
embracing the Hobbes among us,
while praying for the heart of a child, the eyes of a Calvin
through Christ our Lord.

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