Ars Praedicandi: 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

It is supposedly a true story.
A Brit was on holiday in Greece in the late 1990’s,
pre-iPhone days.
Walking past a public phone that started ringing, on a whim,
he answered it, and to his shock, it was his bank
calling him about some unusual activity on his account.

Continue reading “Ars Praedicandi: 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley”

Ars Praedicandi: Feast of the Transfiguration, Ed Foley

In many ways the story of the transfiguration is a bit mystifying
being “transfigured” is ordinarily not part
of our daily discourse, or bucket list.
To try to demystify the term I turned to a favorite source,
the Oxford English Dictionary
which was actually less helpful
than its accompanying thesaurus
The thesaurus provided 10 synonyms for transfiguration
including: conversion, transformation, mutation, metamorphosis
and, my personal favorite, transmogrification:
welcome to the feast of transmogrification!

Besides the linguistic tickle that comes from just saying it
The term transmogrification also triggered chuckles,
since the only place I have encountered it before
is in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.

Calvin invented a transmogrifier – an upside down cardboard box
that allowed Calvin to turn Hobbes or himself
into quite an array of critters.

The only problem is that while Calvin & Hobbes
saw themselves completely transformed,
everybody else just saw him as the same kid & stuffed toy;
so much for transmogrification.

Most of us would probably be as frustrated as Calvin
if we went through our own transmogrifier
and people didn’t see the change.

If we spent all those hours at the gym
or in the library
or at the hairstylist
or at the computer

and our sweethearts or teachers
spouses or bosses
didn’t see us any svelter or any smarter
any more beautiful or any more productive …

Matthew, however, gives us a different image of holy transformation,
the firstborn of all creation
shining like the sun,
but not just on today’s mountain top
but in so many ways in throughout the gospels,

but often with a fate similar to Calvin
whose transformation was not seen, understood
or fully embraced.

Jesus’ divinity momentarily shone to shepherds and Magi
but was soon chased into exile by a Herod
who wanted no one to outshine him.
Jesus’ prophetic gift glimmered from his hometown pulpit
but his inspired word advocating freedom and justice
quickly triggered rage and rejection
in a community who believed they knew a better God.

And in today’s gospel he shines in the presence of Moses & Elijah
radiant as the new law giver, the new prophet
But drowsy Peter, on cue, misses the point … again!
And hopes for a tent city in the glow of this amazing warmth.

Maybe one of the ways to plumb the depths
of this transmogrifying gospel
is to attend to a central yet often overlooked character
in this mini-drama –
not Peter or Elijah or Moses,
instead the meteorologically elusive cloud & shadow.

it was from the cloud that the divine voice emanated,
obscuring visual cues and distracting appearances,
clearly proclaiming the heart of the matter
as God’s voice is usually wont to do.

Yet while the cloud was a source of intimate revelation,
it also cast a telling, prophetic shadow,
prefiguring the descent down the mountain
and the long journey towards Jerusalem,
where storm clouds gathered on the religious horizon
leading to that most grim of transfigurations,
Jesus on the jib of a tree in the place called Golgotha.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a favorite poet and preacher.
In her book Home by Another Way,
 she writes about those shadowy and cloudy spaces.
She calls them “thin places”:

A couple of summers ago, my husband Ed and I went to Ireland. We both have roots there. It is that Celtic sense of place that is so appealing – of holy trees, holy wells, holy mountains – ‘thin places’ as the Irish call them – places where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that it is easy to step through…

You can be walking down an ordinary country lane and all of a sudden see a footpath leading off to the left. Follow it for a couple of hundred feet and you come to a little mossy hole full of crystal clear water. It would be easy to mistake it for an ordinary little watering hole if it were not for the tidy bank of stones around it, set there hundreds of years ago by people who recognized a ‘thin place’ right there in the middle of a sheep pasture…. you can sometimes feel it for yourself – a freshness that drenches you as thoroughly as a shower…. Simply to stand near is to experience living water.[1]

Thin places abound, and not just in Ireland.
They are doors ready for opening … invitations to grace.

A while back I received a letter from a young relative
who has spent 20 years in prison for an accident she caused
when she was 19 years old … resulting in 3 deaths.

She has recently moved out of prison into a halfway house.
While her letter was filled with firsts
e.g., the first automatic towel dispenser
that completely startled her,
she also narrated a small but touching vignette.

On her first day going to work, she rode in a van
sitting closest to the door.
She wrote: “when the van stopped, I just sat there.
My coworker said, ‘You can open the door and get out.’
I didn’t know … the prison vans are always locked
and they have to let me out
but that day I opened the door
and from that point on I was free!”

Who ever imagined a van door as a thin space
and permission to open that door a graced veil pulling
an invitation into freedom?

Thin places can be venues of holy revelation
like a mountaintop in Palestine
or a van door in South Carolina.

Thin places, however, can also open in the opposite direction,
and be portals to violence, even the demonic
rending the thin line between respect and disrespect
between humanity and inhumanity
between life giving and death dealing.

It seems like forever that we have been pondering our southern border
as a “thin space” of grace and malpractice
where redemption is achieved, and dreams are dashed.

Then recently, there was the sentencing of Robert Bowers
who five years ago gunned down 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue,
an event that turned a house of Torah and teaching and prayer
into ground zero for the increasingly thinning space
between tolerance and bigotry.

And in the violation of that boundary
we witnessed not only the most heinous anti-Semitic attack in U.S. History
and the traumatization of a world religion,
but the grievous wounding of humanity
both in the killings
and then again in Bowers’ death sentence.

Instead of pulling back the veil on the beauty of the beloved
this curtain was drawn on the ugliness of racial and religious arrogance.

In 1997 Stephen Spielberg directed the movie Amistad.
              It was based on a true story of a slave ship in 1839.
When the Mende tribesmen who were being sold into slavery
rebelled and took control of their captor’s ship,
though they attempted to sail back to Africa,
instead they were captured in U.S. waters
and imprisoned as escaped slaves.

An epic legal battle ensued,
with at least four litigants claiming
that the slaves were their rightful property.

The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court,
where none other than former president John Quincy Adams
defends the Africans.

In a penultimate scene before the court case opens,
Adams tries to explain to the Mende leader, Cinque
how difficult this process is going to be.

John Quincy Adams: Cinque, look. I’m being honest with you. Anything less would be disrespectful. I’m telling you, I’m preparing you, I suppose I’m explaining to you, that the test ahead of us is an exceptionally difficult one.

Cinque: (speaking through a translator) We won’t be going in there alone.

John Quincy Adams: Alone? Indeed not. We have right at our side. We have righteousness at our side. We have Mr. Baldwin over there.

Cinque: (speaking through a translator) I meant my ancestors. I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me. And they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.[2]

On this Transfiguration Sunday
Christians summon the first born of all Creation,
the invincible son of justice – our life-giving ancestor
who birthed us as church
as he hung on the cross
and blood and water flowed from his side.

In the terrible beauty of that ultimate transfiguration
as the Only-Begotten literally hung
in that thin space between heaven and earth
we the baptized were missioned
to inhabit every thin space,
especially those where the vulnerable,
the lost,
the broken and the oppressed dwell,
whether in a synagogue in Pittsburgh
or on death row in Pennsylvania.

We are missioned to pull back the veil in such spaces,
denouncing the arrogance of bigotry,
and the violence of capital punishment,
acknowledging every human being
as created in God’s image.

In this season of transformation, we are missioned
to uphold the belovedness of every Muslim and Jew,
Hindu and Sikh, Buddhist and agnostic,
and so be the living presence of Christ in the world.

For in truth, in this place, at this moment,
Christianity itself can be imaged as a symbol
of why our divine Ancestor Jesus became human at all,
why the incarnation itself even occurred
and the pivotal way that transfiguring mystery
will continue to be recognized
if only we pull back the veil of belovedness.

Through Christ our Lord.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way (Lantham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 58-9.

Ars Praedicandi: Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

He was not quite the Karate Kid:
no Jaden Smith,
no Ralph Macchio,
nor budding movie star … after all, he only had one arm,
having lost his left one in a devastating car accident.

To build up his confidence
and with much encouragement from his family
he decided to study judo with a seasoned Master.

The boy did amazingly well,
but after three months of training
he had only been taught one move.

“Sensei,” he asked, “shouldn’t I be learning more moves?”
The Master replied, “this is the only move
you will ever need to know.”
Trusting his wise teacher, he continued training.

Months later, the Master enrolled the boy in a public tournament.
He did amazingly well, winning match after match
until, to everyone’s surprise, he ended up in the finals.

His opponent in that match was not only older
and more experienced,
but was considerably stronger and towered above him.

Concerned that the boy with only a right arm might get hurt
the referee wanted to call off the match
but Sensei insisted that it go on.

With this daunting challenger
a grueling struggle ensued
but when his opponent dropped his guard
the boy used his one move to pin his opponent
winning match and tournament.

On the way home, after some silence
the young champion asked his Master,
“Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only 1 move?”

Sensei replied, “You won for two reasons:
first, you mastered one of the most difficult throws
in all of Judo,
and second, the only known defense for that move
is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”

There you have it,
a baptized equivalent of a Sheldon Cooper “bazinga”
the unexpected final twist that catches us off-guard
ambushes us with wisdom,
pulls the rug out from under our presumptions
and delivers a considerable dose of humility
to those who think they understand.
It’s called a parable!

Jesus was a master of the parable
his most characteristic form of instruction
on full display again in today’s gospel.

Like other teaching strategies
parables have multiple dynamics,
which is why they are so effective.
One obvious dynamic,
like in the right handed karate kid story
employing a move than can only be countered
by grabbing a missing left arm,
is the element of surprise
that knocks the listener off balance.

In the process the parable dismantles our presuppositions
disrupts our usual line of thinking
and proposes unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable
new truths.

These dynamics are effective
because parables are the ultimate narrative onion
comprising increasingly complex layers
whose central message cannot be skimmed off the surface
but requires thoughtful excavation.

A superficial reading of today’s parable about wheat and weeds
could give the impression that God’s reign is binary-
black and white,
good and evil-
that there are only wheat and weeds:
saints and sinners,
Christians and non-Christians,
and Irish and those who want to be –
one is obviously good … the other is highly questionable.

We are wired for this instinctive and problematic kind of thinking:
a source of much humor and critique:

Like Mark Twain’s: “There are basically two types of people.
People who accomplish things
and people who claim to have accomplished things.

He concluded: “The first group is less crowded.”

Dear Abby suggested that the two kinds of people
are those who walk into a room and say, ‘There you are!’ and those who walk into a room and say, ‘Here I am!’

Humorous Robert Benchley summarizes:
“There are two kinds of people in the world,
those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world
and those who don’t.”

Jesus is clearly in the second category.
In his ministry he did not divide folk up
into redeemable and irredeemable,
worthy and unworthy,
or lovable and despicable.

Rather, his ministry was nothing less than an extended parable
that continuously scrambled traditional thinking,
upended well established categories,
and redefined the very reign of God.

That disruption is clearly operative in today’s parable
that in some ways raises more questions than answers.

From one perspective you could argue
that the agricultural advice Jesus is dispensing here is
‘don’t pull out the tares, the darnel, the lolium temultentum –
the weed that looks like wheat,
but is bitter to the taste and even poisonous.

Instead, a surface reading has Jesus saying “wait!
Hold on until harvest when we will savor the wheat
and torch that bothersome weed,
that weapon of the enemy.  Justice will be served.”

But like every parable, things aren’t always what they seem.
Maybe the weed is the equivalent of the wheat’s left arm!

In the topsy-turvey Jesus program
maybe this isn’t the obvious “last judgment parable”
a warning to all evildoers that they are going to burn,
and instead a warning to Jesus’ followers
that we were not anointed to be weed hackers,
crop judgers,
or field cops.

Instead, we were planted in God’s kingdom of diversity
and instructed to live in harmony
not to uproot each other, and instead
to share the soil with apparently invasive species,
even to embrace the crabgrass.
At base level, I think Jesus was a weed lover

While this interpretation might verge on the outlandish
it appears less so when considering how this tale of two seedlings
is deeply rooted in Matthew’s gospel:

  • written in turbulent times,
  • shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem
  • when a growing Gentile population confronted his largely Jewish audience
  • and his community was challenged by false prophets, internal tensions and sometimes outright conflict
  • spiritual crabgrass was everywhere.

So is the Jesus program the divine equivalent of
a Scott’s lawn care program designed
to execute any Dandelion family
that dares to set foot in our community?
Or is it more like the prairie restoration programs
that increasingly grace our region,
revitalizing important native ecosystems
and serving as important sanctuaries
for migratory species, native plants,
and essential pollinators?

Let’s face the facts: the Chicago park district does not have
a weed eradication program
for the Burnham Wildlife Corridor
though plenty of movements and legislatures today
do have programs intent upon
eradicating diversity
excluding migratory peoples, and ignoring
the graced pollination only these strangers can bring.
Ironically, maybe in their eyes, we are the weeds
trying to choke them out of their own human dignity.

Suzanne Simard is a Canadian scientist and forest ecologist
who forever changed how people view trees,
their interconnection to each other and other living things.
Maybe you know her moving memoire, Finding the Mother Tree.

Born into a logging family in British Columbia
she began working for the public forest service
whose approach to sustainability
was clear-cutting large areas of the forest
and replanting a single, marketable species.

This approach was based on the notion of species competition
and the need to eliminate all competing plants or trees
in order to get the best, sustainable economic value.

Simard proved that this approach was counterproductive
that trees communicate through a complex web of fungi
that birch and fir were not competitors but collaborators,
that magnetic hubs or Mother trees at the center of forests
communicate, nourish, and protect their environment
and in their dying become even more generous
sharing their carbon nutrients
with whatever species was in need.

Simard summarizes:

Somehow with my Latin squares and factorial designs, my isotopes and mass spectrometers and scintillation counters, and my training to consider only sharp lines of statistically significant differences, I have come full circle to stumble onto some of the Indigenous ideals: Diversity matters.

In his stunning exposé on Soviet labor camps
the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
in his The Gulag Archipelago, warned

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The Gulag Archipelago (Collins, 1974), 28.

Instead of destroying hearts,
weeding out differences,
or eradicating strangers like invasive species
the Jesus program for kingdom care offers a different path:
to share soil
learn to cross-pollinate
nourish the flowering of others
even to develop holy envy for their flourishing.

In a word, hearts are not to be destroyed but changed:
softened, opened, extended, and transformed
mirroring that Sacred Heart of the only begotten,
so vulnerable and accessible
that it was ultimately pierced on the cross,
dramatically splayed open
that all might be nurtured in its love.

And so with the poet we pray
change our hearts
change our hearts
change our hearts O Lord
through Christ our Lord.  Amen.


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.