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.

Ars Praedicandi: Pentecost, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Educators and scientists,
entrepreneurs and parents,
doctors and spiritual directors,
all recognize the importance
of asking questions,
but especially of asking the right questions.

The ancient Greeks understood this in spades
and we inherited from them the so-called Socratic method:
a style of education rooted in questions
that prod us into discovering the underlying assumptions
of our positions and beliefs.

This questioning approach is not meant to intimidate
but to provoke “productive discomfort”
coaxing one into increasingly beneficial levels
of honesty and insight.

Some insist that certain explorations
benefit from specific and sophisticated questions
that only the specialist can ask.
However, there is also general wisdom afoot
that prizes questions posed by non-experts
who are happily naïve about what can or cannot be asked.

Sometimes the naïve question
is a first step towards fresh wisdom
and experts can inadvertently get in the way of that wisdom.

When it comes to questions about God or Jesus or the Spirit,
when it comes to questions about Pentecost or other feasts,
sometimes the experts get in the way.

So in my preparation for this morning’s preaching
I was gifted with an unexpected yet eye-opening conversation
with an imaginative 9-year-old
about the meaning of Pentecost.

I was staying with her family and had brought my laptop along
trying to find a fresh angle on preaching this feast
that I have preached at least 3 dozen times.

For her birthday a few weeks before
Samantha had gotten a small robotics kit
and was in the process of constructing a mechanical spider.

When she asked me what I was doing
and I told her I was trying to write a sermon for Pentecost.
She wasn’t sure what that was.

When she asked about it
I told her that it was a special day of thanking God
for sharing the Spirit of Jesus with us.

When I asked her if she knew about the Holy Spirit,
like any self-respecting 4th grader in Catholic School,
she said, “of course.”
She then went on to explain that the Spirit was God’s breath;
it was like oxygen
and that when we prayed we could breathe in God
that helped us to be good.

Then, this budding theologian looked at the mechanical spider
she had named Twitchy in the process of its construction.
She turned it on and as it awkwardly crawled around
she said “Twitchy doesn’t have breath.
He can move but has no oxygen.
He will never be able to breathe in God.”
Too bad she couldn’t be here this morning to preach!

The advice to “just breathe” is ubiquitous.
It is on t-shirts and mugs, placards and greeting cards.
It is woven into the instruction of everyone from yoga instructors
to emergency room personnel.
“Just breathe” has been the inspiration for everything from
self-help books and videos
to music by Pearle Jam.

The wisdom here is rooted in great science
that demonstrates how deep breathing
not only helps us relax but can positively effect
the heart, the brain, our digestive and immune systems
and even help people manage pain.

A number of years ago I was preparing to preside at a wedding.
The couple had been together for a number of years
but wanted their marriage blessed in the church.

A few months before the wedding
they discovered they were pregnant
and scheduled a sonogram.

They gave me the results in a sealed envelope
and wanted me to include the gender reveal
as part of the ceremony.

As I have never seen a sonogram up close
and had no idea how to interpret one
my anxiety was even higher than usual.

In the sacristy before the wedding
I needed to open this envelope
and see if I could decipher the results
so that this reveal moment wouldn’t be revealing
how dumb the presider was.

With a rapidly increasing pulse
I unsealed the envelope which held a single sheet of paper
with a smiley face and a message that read
“Just Breathe, IT’S A GIRL!”

Pentecost is ordinarily described
as a feast commemorating the 50th day after the resurrection
when God’s spirit descended upon the apostles
and the church was born.

That description is alternately true and problematic.
On the second Sunday of Easter, the gospel we read from John
reported that on the day of the resurrection itself
Jesus appeared to his disciples,
showed them his hands and feet,
breathed on them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit.”

Furthermore, it is a well-documented early Christian belief
that the church was born not on Pentecost
but on Good Friday when blood and water
flowed from the pierced heart of Christ.
So what exactly are we celebrating today?

In its Jewish origins, Pentecost was a harvest feast –
the harvest of wheat.
Eventually, that harvest was given a historical significance
recalling Moses’ harvesting of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

In its Christian reformulation,
Pentecost became a harvesting of the New Law in Christ
to love God and neighbor as one
and a regifting of Divine Breath, of Holy Oxygen
so that Jesus’ disciples could “breathe in God and do good”
could exhale with God’s Spirit and continue Pentecosting.

Recently I was on one of those long flights
that gave me a few hours to get some writing done
but then left enough time in the trip
to turn on the flight entertainment.

While the viewing options were extensive
feature films seldom intrigue me
and instead I am drawn to the documentaries.
There I stumbled upon a Pentecost movie.

It is called Girl Rising and narrates the journey
of 9 girls around the globe
struggling for self-empowerment through education.

The film and the “Girl Rising” movement
were inspired by the story of Malala Yousafzai,
the young Pakistani activist for women’s education
who at 15 was shot in the head for her advocacy,
surviving to become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize
and a graduate of Oxford University where she is now a fellow.

In the spirit of Malala,
Girl Rising is the remarkable tale of parallel stories
of 9 extraordinary young girls
struggling for education, liberation, and self-determination.

Like that of Wadley from Haiti
an eager and smart 10-year-old
who excelled in her studies.
One day she had successfully recited from memory
the final speech of the Haitian Leader Toussaint Louverture
who tried to win independence for the country.

Wadley’s triumph, however, was short-lived
for that afternoon, after school, at 4:53 p.m.
a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti
killing or injuring half a million people
and affecting the lives of 7 times that number
including Wadley
whose school was destroyed,
whose mother’s house and business were decimated,
and who now spent her days carrying water
to their corner of a tent city
instead of being in school.

Then one day, a miracle occurred.
For on the edge of the tent city
a makeshift school arose.
Wadley went racing for her books and returned
to sit on a bench eager to learn from her old teacher
but the teacher would not let her stay
because her mother had no money.

She left rejected but the next day
returned to the tent school
determined to stay.
When her teacher told her to leave
because she could not pay
Wadley said over and over again, “no, no, no”
and in the revolutionary spirit of Toussaint Louverture
declared “If you send me away
I will come back every day until I can stay.”

The teacher relented, a tent-school filled with oxygen
a Spirit of Wisdom descended
and Wadley could breathe again.

I never thought of the gift of education as a Pentecost.
I was probably privileged with it too much.
But for Wadley, and Malala, and other girls’ rising
it was a liberating spirit, a holy oxygen
an inspired buoyancy that allowed them to rise,
to ascend, and in turn to do good.

We don’t have to look very far to see deflated spirits,
folk with shattered dreams,
and children with punctured aspirations.

But as disciples of Jesus
gifted with God’s own spirit at baptism, and again in confirmation
renewed at every eucharist
and uniquely celebrated on this dynamic feast,
we are commissioned to inflate, to aerate
and to oxygenate those spirits and dreams and aspirations
so others can do good as well.

In other words, we are anointed to keep Pentecosting
to facilitator new and continuing gusts of God
no matter how modest or unseen,
so that the Holy Spirit can renew the face of the earth.

On my last day with the young theologian Samantha and her family
we visited a small but lively neighborhood festival.
There we saw a young girl, about Samantha’s age
holding in front of her a huge pink balloon
easily twice her size.

Suddenly, a kid whizzed by on his bike
and with some unseen instrument
jabbed at the balloon which dramatically exploded.

The girl was at first stunned and then began to cry.
Samantha gave me a “do something” look
then took the cash I pulled from my pocket
walked across the street to the balloon vendor
and bought a duplicate miniature dirigible
which she delivered to her new friend:
smile restored
spirit inflated
oxygen rendered
Pentecost reenacted.

If the church ever had a “do something” feast, it is this one
a feast prodding us to allow God’s energizing Spirit
to flow through us, together, as God remakes a world
filled with too many deflated lives and punctured dreams.

And so we invoke the poet’s blessing and pray:

This is the blessing
we cannot speak
by ourselves.

This is the blessing
we cannot summon
by our own devices,
cannot shape
to our purpose,
cannot bend
to our will.

This is the blessing
that comes
when we leave behind
our aloneness
when we gather
when we turn
toward one another.

This is the blessing
that blazes among us
when we speak
the words
strange to our ears

when we finally listen
into the chaos

when [at last] we breathe together …

Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Ars Praedicandi: Third Sunday of Easter, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Many who commute to OSP from up north
understand with renewed awareness
the proverb that there are only two seasons here:
winter and construction.
Welcome to the Kennedy expressway.

Each morning I wake up to WBBM news radio
and hear traffic reports
about travel times reaching horrific levels.

The belief that travel is a curse is not new
One wag contends that the first road trip occurred
when God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden.

One of all time classic travel stories is Don Quixote
whose delusional anti-hero tilts at windmills
thinks his broken-down horse is a noble steed
mistakes prostitutes for courtiers
and whose sanity is restored only upon his return,
recalling that deep wisdom from the Wizard of Oz,
“there’s no place like home.”

Things don’t seem much brighter today.
A pre-COVID study about our travel exploits
Found that the average among us
experience 240 stressful travel moments in a lifetime.
Between flight delays, flat tires,
lost luggage and hotel debacles
1 out of 7 polled actually believe themselves
haunted by a travel curse.

On the other hand,
there is plenty of proverbial wisdom
and even scientific evidence
that travel is valuable, mind-expanding, and healthy.

Some believe that traveling and especially living abroad
can be strongly linked to heightened creative intelligence. [1]

There is evidence that traveling not only enhances our creativity
but also lowers the risk of depression
and things like heart attacks,
boosts our immune systems
and increases our happiness.

Besides personal travel, we vicariously enjoy the exploits of others,
whether that is Anthony Bourdain venturing into Parts Unknown
or epic travel trilogies such as the Lord of the Rings.
The risks and revelations of others
fire our imaginations and stir our souls.

While I don’t think this is the underlying reason why
Luke penned one of the most famous road trips in the NT
but if we imaginatively ponder today’s gospel
we might discover some new Emmaus gift in our own lives.

While it might be an exaggeration to call today’s gospel a road trip,
its text contains at least 9 verbs describing movement
the going, coming near, walking ahead, vanishing, returning
making it clearly a tale about movement
but not essentially of the feet but of the heart.

Two folk – possibly a husband and a wife – are traveling to Emmaus,
meaning backs are turned to Jerusalem
association with the executed messiah is severed
and discipleship is shelved.

While we cannot be sure what the two were discussing –
it was probably some combination of lament and worry:
a mix of “never thought it would end that way”
and “wasn’t that a wasted investment of time and energy,”
to “what will we say to the family”
and “so what do we do now?”

In my own imagination these two apostolic fugitives
appear to me to be utterly lost,
and it was precisely in their disorientated
and off-course wanderings
that they actually were found.

Preacher and spiritual guru Barbara Brown Taylor
offers an inspiring reflection about being lost
in her wondrous An altar in the World.

She admits that it has happened to her
more times than she can count:

  • Setting out to be married and ending up divorce
  • Setting out to be healthy and ending up sick
  • Setting out to live in new England and ending up in Georgia.

Maybe most surprising, as revealed in her memoir Leaving Church,
setting out to be an episcopal priest
dreaming of being a pastor of her own small congregation
but eventually experiencing so much compassion fatigue
that she left ministry for the sake of her own soul.

In the midst of all of her waywardness and wanderings
she admits that when she got lost
she found things that she would have never discovered
if she had stayed on the planned path.

Maybe most telling is her belief that getting lost
is actually a spiritual practice
not as a detour but as the path
not just a wound but as a gift
not a place where God is absent
but a place of divine revelation.

She concludes, “God does some of God’s best work
With people who are truly, seriously lost.”

That is a pretty fair assessment of today’s gospel
with disciples adrift after their leader was crucified
and with their dreams undeniably crucified as well.

It’s not clear whether they were intentionally
moving toward something
or simply escaping the Jesus catastrophe
that had prompted their untimely departure from Jerusalem.

And what changed them,
reversed their flight into the unknown
transposed their loss to gain
and triggered the most famous U-turn in the gospels
was the unlikely gift of a stranger.

As Taylor notes,
to receive the hospitality of strangers
can change us far more than providing it ever does.

A number of years ago, before Google Translate,
I was on my first visit to Japan
landing at Narita airport in Tokyo.

Being a somewhat seasoned traveler and typically wanting
to experience as much of ordinary life as possible
I opted for public transportation into the Center of Tokyo
and then a train to within a few blocks of my hotel.
The first leg of the journey into town was fine
but when trying to access the Metro
I experienced the travel curse.

Neither my credit card nor debit card worked
for purchasing a ticket from the ubiquitous machines
(and there were only machines).

So I exited the station and searched for an ATM.
After wandering for a half hour, I located a bank
and a whole row of ATMs
but none of them would talk to my debit card.

In frustration, I must have yelled something
in my best Chicago accent.

Then from a few machines down
an undeniable Boston accent
like your cousin out of a Sam Adams commercial, asking: “Are you ok?”

The 20-something-year-old Bostonian attached to the accent
then walked over, quickly analyzed my dilemma
led me to the international ATMs
then, helped me make an Emmaus U-turn back to the Metro
assisted in my acquiring the necessary ticket
put me in line for the right train
pointed out the correct stop for my exiting
and waited until my underground chariot arrived.

As the train was arriving, and we were about to say ciao
he turned to me and with a sudden seriousness asked
“Have you ever considered giving your life to Jesus?”
I laughed out loud, shook his hand, and said
“I work for him.”

I was no disciple on an Emmaus exit
and my dreams had not been crucified.
Rather this was an admittedly modest and amusing encounter
but still one in which a complete stranger
at the most unexpected of moments
invited me back into Jesus mode
rather than that of a petulant tourist,
and reminded me that on every journey
if we allow the stranger to open our eyes
whether by bread breaking
or ATM liberation
we might perceive again God’s spirit accompanying us
even when our dreams actually have been crucified.

From the ancients comes a wisdom tale
about a poor Rabbi named Isak
who lived in medieval Krakow and had a repeating dream
to travel the long distance from Krakow to Prague
and there he would find a bridge leading to a great castle
and if he dug under the bridge he would find a great treasure
that would put an end to his poverty.

After the dream repeated 3 times, Isak set out for Prague
and after many days he reached the city, sighted the castle
and found the bridge under which he was to dig.

But he could not dig as the bridge was guarded
day and night by soldiers.
After loitering about for many hours
the Captain of the guards approached him
and asked him what he was doing.

Being an honest man, the Rabbi shared his dream.
The captain scoffed at him saying he didn’t believe in dreams
for he too had received a dream telling him
to travel the long distance from Prague to Krakow
and there seek out the house of the Rabbi Isak
and dig behind the old stove in the back of the house.

There he would find a great treasure
that would put an end to his poverty
but he was a soldier and didn’t believe in such dreams.

The Rabbi thanked him, for he knew that old stove
traveled the long distance back to his own home
and there dug behind that stove,
finding a great treasure that put an end to his poverty.

The Rabbis tell us that the true meaning of the story
is that our real treasure is not very far from us
usually in our own homes, in our own selves
but it takes the shared dreaming of another to discover it.

When the stranger encountered the two lost disciples
on the road to Emmaus
the hidden Christ helped them find the treasure
not on the road
not even in Jerusalem
but in their own believing, their own ministry, their own selves.

We pray that no matter what road we are on
no matter how lost we might be
that the gift of others might help us, as well,
to discover God’s dream for us: our true treasure.

And in this season of baptismal renewal
we also commit ourselves to assisting the lost
those who feel themselves straying from the path
of their own treasure,
those who need some life-giving U-turn,
no matter how major or modest
so that in us they find the stranger they need
accompanying them toward
the resurrection God promises
through Christ Our Lord.

[1] Beau Lotto, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently (New York – Boston: Hachette Books, 2017), p. 230.

Ars Praedicandi: Easter Sunday

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

I am not a great basketball fan
and know so little about the game
that when I first heard someone mention the Final Four,
I thought they were discussing
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Since then I’ve figured out that terminology
and adopted some other basketball jargon
so, I know when I’ve been out of bounds;
when some of my sermons have been airballs
and even use the term “three-peat,”
though for me that translates into
having to preach 3 weeks in a row.

This meandering into basketball slang
not only signals a sigh of relief that March Madness is over,
but also because more than one blogger
has suggested that preaching at Easter is a slam dunk.

The slam dunk came to prominence in the late 60s.
Though at first banned in high school and college
– some say because of the college phenom
Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar –
it still draws a technical foul in some situations.

The term has worked its way into broader secular usage
to mean a sure thing, a no-brainer,
a metaphorical insurance policy.

It is in that sense that one blogger suggests that
the homily today is a slam dunk,
opining that this is the ultimate good news, happy feast.
His advice: announce the resurrection, sing Alleluia,
then immediately sit down,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is, however, some serious difficulty with this advice.
While our sanctuary gleams with lights,
war rages in Ukraine.
While children feast on jellybeans and chocolate rabbits,
humanitarian crises rampage
through Yemen and Afghanistan.
And while festive tunes enliven our worship,
laments fill the air
across a bruised and battered world.

How often I hope that Easter liturgy might be
a momentary respite from the devastating news
that too often haunts our newspapers and fills the airwaves.

March Madness was particularly troubling
with tornadoes flattening small towns in Mississippi,
refugees losing their lives in the Mediterranean,
and one more mass shooting at a school in Tennessee.

So do we sing Alleluia? Or phooey?
If Christ is risen
death vanquished,
and resurrection assured
why do the innocent still die
and so much suffering endure?

The question of suffering is as old as humanity and religion.
It was the central question that spurred a South Asian Prince
25 centuries ago
to renounce his wealth and seek enlightenment:
a path now known to the world as Buddhism.

In Christianity it is the paradoxical springboard to resurrection:
paradoxical because without Good Friday
there would be no Easter.
Paradoxical because Easter does not erase the crucifixion.
Paradoxical because the resurrection vanquished death
but did not eradicate it
instead, giving it meaning.

That might sound like a catch-22 kind of theology:
since none of us has any choice about whether to suffer or die
we construct some silver-lining version of faith
that produces the religious equivalent of
making lemonade out of lemons.

But there may be more here than religious rationalization.
Recently I heard a podcast by psychologist Paul Bloom
entitled: “Why we choose to Suffer”

The title of the podcast caught me off guard.
I could not imagine ever choosing to suffer
so I listened both with interest and resistance.

Bloom easily pulled the rug from under my presuppositions
by illustrating that suffering is often something we choose.

He asks, why do we watch scary movies,
listen to sad songs,
eat spicy foods,
or run marathons?

His first explanations were understandable:
that good things in life only make sense
relative to the bad things.
Winning a competition is satisfying
only if there is the possibility of loss.
If all our experiences are positive, he argues,
they increasingly cease to become positive;
you need a negative for that.

But it was his pushing deeper that intrigued me the most
suggesting there was a deep connection
between suffering and morality.

Take, for example, the celebrated ice bucket challenge
for promoting awareness of ALS disease and
raising more than $115 million to date for research.

Key to the challenge was nominating others to either
pour a bucket of ice over their heads
or make a donation:
so either suffer physically or suffer financially.

Notice it wasn’t a veg-out-on-the-couch-with-sweets challenge
nor a sip Veuve Clicquot by the pool challenge.
We don’t celebrate cookie or champagne martyrs.
Rather it is suffering for the sake of some good
that we instinctively value.

In that vein, Bloom opines that suffering is not only
linked to morality, but ultimately linked to meaning:
believing that our lives must include some suffering
in order for them to be meaningful.

Bloom illustrates by discussing something I know nothing about:
why people choose to have children,
especially in the current age when it is a clear choice.

He says that the negatives of having children are obvious
(even to celibates):
the money, the anxiety, the sleep deprivation.
He then notes that when you tell parents
“Kids don’t make you overall happier”
the common response is
“That’s not why I love my kids.”

Rather their children give their lives
a particular degree of meaning, of deep joy,
not despite the cost
but maybe because of it.

Theologian Gene Walsh once said, “Jesus makes you two promises:
your life will have meaning
and that you will live forever.”
He concludes: “if you get a better offer, take it.”

We certainly have easier offers
for, as G.K. Chesterton noted:
it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting
rather it has been found difficult
and left untried.

The enlightenment we celebrate in Christ is decidedly difficult
as evidenced in his own passion and death
which this glorious feast neither ignores nor erases.

Rather the magnificence of Easter
is precisely rooted in the suffering of the Only-Begotten,
transformed into a path of eternal significance
and sacred mission for us all:
mission to a world marked
by so much meaningless violence
so much prejudice and dehumanization.

The baptized are today re-commissioned in the Christ
to be the yeast that Paul demands in the 2nd reading
assisting others to cope, endure, even rise,
and to discover some gracious meaning
in this tumultuous and challenging existence.

This past week I revisited Gregory Boyle’s
sometimes hilarious and always poignant Tattoos on the Heart [1]

In one chapter Boyle recalls the baptism of George at a probation camp after successfully passing his GED exam. Boyle knew 17-year-old George and his 19-year-old brother Cisco, both gang members from the barrio. In his 9-month stint in this camp, removed from the environment that keeps him unsettled and crazed, George began to thrive becoming nearly unrecognizable. The hardened teen with the gangster pose morphed into a thoughtful measured young man aware of gifts and talents.

The Friday night before George’s baptism, his brother Cisco was walking home when the quiet was shattered by gunshot. Cisco fell in the street killed instantly. His girlfriend, 8 months pregnant with their first child, ran outside cradling Cisco in her arms and lap … until the paramedics pried him away from her arms. Boyle considered cancelling his visit to the detention camp to stay with Cisco’s grieving family, but then remembered George and his baptism.

He writes, “When I arrive before Mass, there is George, standing by himself, holding his newly acquired GED certificate. He heads toward me, beaming. We hug. He is in a borrowed crisp white shirt and thin black tie and the regular issue camouflage pants. At the beginning of Mass, I ask him “what is your name?” “George Martinez,” he says with an overflow of confidence. “And George, what do you ask of God’s Church.” “Baptism,” he says with a steady, barely contained smile.” It is the most difficult baptism of my life, for as I pour water over George’s head … I know I will walk George outside … put my arm around him, and whisper gently as we walk out onto the baseball field, “George, Cisco was killed last night.” I feel all the air leave his body. As he heaves a sigh that finds itself a sob in an instant, we land on a bench where he sobs quietly. What’s most notable is the absence of the usual flaying and rage and promises of revenge in his rocking and gentle wailing. There is none of this. It is as if the commitment he has just made in water, oil and flame has taken hold and his grief is pure and true and more resembles the heartbreak of God. In truth, George’s baptism was the beginning of resurrection for him, living a graceful future in the midst of all of his present distress and grief.

The poet reminds us
that the road to Easter always runs through a cemetery.

Last night Christians around the world embraced this belief
as they and we initiated the elect in water, oil, and flame
all achieved in the shadow of the Cross.

On this resurrectional morn
despite whatever Good Friday yet lingers within us
we profess that Christ has risen from the grave
and recall that in water, oil and flame
we too have not only been elected to resurrection,
but that in our journey to that looming gift
whether our time be brief or extended
we embrace the Easter covenant
to enact the resurrectional gift here and now
lifting up all those
still yearning to rise
so that theirs and every life might have meaning,
be treasured,
even shine with light
through Christ our Lord.

[1] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York: Free Press, 201), pp. 84-5.

Ars Praedicandi: 5th Sunday of Lent, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

The last couple of weeks I have been having some trouble
with the calendar … or should I say calendars
on my phone.

Apparently, I tapped the wrong app
or googled the wrong website
but somehow got the national everything day calendar
unhappily integrated
into my daily schedule.

In the process of trying to remove it, which took some doing,
I learned that there are over 1500 national
or international day celebrations
that occur on some calendars in the U.S.
Some of these are familiar to us
like Groundhog day on February 2nd
or International Women’s day on March 8th

Besides these, however, there are a host of others
ranging from the utterly serious
like Memorial Day and Veterans day
to the completely wacky
like national public sleeping day on February 28th, or
national ask a stupid question day on September 28th.

In that vein, I guess many of you are hoping
That this is not national preach a dumb sermon day.

One upcoming day, however, that grabbed my attention
on the calendar for next Thursday, April 6th
is national plan your epitaph day,
described as a perfect day to figure out
what you are going to have to say about yourself
before you’re gone that will linger after you’re gone.

There is actually a long tradition of self-designed epitaphs,
many published in print and online:

like that of Mathematician Paul Erdos, whose tomb reads
“I’ve finally stopped getting dumber”
or the Poet Robert Frost’s
“I’ve had a lover’s quarrel with the world”
or Sonny Bono’s
“and the beat goes on.”
Mel Blank, the man of 1000 voices including Bugs Bunny
requested “That’s all folk” on his tombstone,
poet Dorothy Parker wanted
“excuse my dust”
and then there’s Rodney Dangerfield’s
“There goes the neighborhood.”

As you can probably guess, it was the gospel
that triggered these musings, as I tried to imagine
what epitaph would have graced Lazarus’ tomb?
Some bloggers suggested that the first epitaph should have read
“Short death,” or
“Judgement delayed,” or
“I’m at my sister’s house.”

But then there would have been that 2nd epitaph
Maybe “I stinketh again,” or
“This time for good,” or
“Waiting for the Savior’s voice one more time.”

The raising of Lazarus is without doubt
one of the most dramatic stories in the gospels
but one that raises many persistent questions, such as
why did Jesus wait for 4 days to show up?
a question highlighted by Martha’s poignant statement
“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

It is a comment that reverberates across the centuries
sometimes rephrased as:
“if you had heard my prayer,
my child would not have overdosed,”
or, “if I was a better person,
maybe God would have heard me”
or, “how long Lord, before you answer my prayer?”

Common judicial wisdom is that
justice delayed is justice denied.

But for believers, is a divine response delayed
a divine response denied?
Ultimately, how do we understand or even cope with
the apparent silence of God?

In 1963, Simon and Garfunkel sang about The Sounds of Silence
a West African proverb states, “Silence is also speech”
the 6th century, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu claimed that “Silence is a source of great strength.”

Nonetheless, it is generally agreed that
Americans and Canadians are uncomfortable
with more than a few seconds of silence in conversations.

While there are many cultures, notably Asian,
in which silence before a response
is a demonstration of thoughtfulness, even gravitas,
many in the West view silence as a void that must be filled
especially to fend off any appearance
of ignorance or indifference.

Recently a colleague of mine alerted me to a few studies
extolling the advantages of silence.
One summary article, for example, notes that dedicated silence
– a silence set aside for reflection and meditation –
has innumerable positive effects, for example:

    • practicing silence boosts our creativity,
    • allows us to inventory often ignored signals from our body,
    • facilities the brain’s reorganization,’
      • even giving it space to heal itself,
    • and it encourages the processing of negative thoughts
      • that unaddressed can lead to destructive behavior.

These and other scientific assertions,
especially about the healing power of silence
empirically establish that silence need not be unproductive,
empty, or diminishing.
But what about the silence of God?

Apparently unheard prayer,
the delayed response to pressing need
whether in ancient Bethany or contemporary Chicago,
can be the source of deep anxiety and faith-testing.
In the presence of such silence, there is even the real temptation
to reject the very existence of God.

Few experiences in human history
underscore the trauma such silence can inflict on belief
as the Holocaust of World War II, the Shoah,
the murder of 6 million people of the covenant,
the extermination of over 60% of all Jews living in Europe.

Many Jewish intellectuals pondered the silence of God
during this unthinkable genocide.

In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in Night
(Elie Wiesel’s poignant memoire-novel
of his own survival of the Nazi death)
the teenage Wiesel and thousands of others
were forced to watch the execution of a child
all through it a voice behind him asked,
“where is God? Where is he?” [1]

Some, maybe even Wiesel at that moment,
came to believe that in those dark days,
evil won out
and that in the Holocaust God died.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber
was one leading figure who had to rethink this divine silence.
In his classic 1923 work I and Thou
he argued in pre-War days that God speaks constantly
but after the Holocaust he returned to
an ancient biblical teaching (Deuteronomy 31:18)
about the Hiding of God’s face
acknowledging that an eclipse of God
is possible at any time.

He further suggests that whoever knows God must also know
God’s remoteness and the ensuing agony of divine drought
upon a frightened heart. [2]
Did not Jesus cry out on the cross
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

Buber maintained his belief in a faithful God
but pointed to a fresh understanding of that presence
when he ponders God’s revelation to Moses
“I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14)
and translates it into German as
“I am there as whoever I am there.” [3]

In a similar vein, theologian Melissa Raphael [4] ponders God’s silence
particularly at the death camp of Auschwitz.
She admits that it is difficult to separate
God’s non-intervention in the Shoah from God’s non-existence.

Yet she offers an amazing image of hope
when she changes the question from
where was God in Auschwitz?” to
who was God in Auschwitz?” [5]

She answers that question through the testimonies
of women imprisoned in these death camps
who mothered, nurtured, and comforted others
and interprets their extraordinary tenderness
as a revelation of God’s presence
in a place whose very existence would seem to reject it.

God’s face was revealed in these gracious women
and posited holiness in the midst of inexplicable evil.

At the end of World War II, much of Europe was in ruins
including London, where over a million houses were damaged
one in six Londoners were homeless,
and many orphaned children wandered the streets.

One morning an American soldier was driving his jeep through these war-torn streets when he spied a little boy, dressed in rags. The boy stood with his nose pressed against the steamed window of a pastry shop. Inside, the cook was working a large lump of dough for a fresh batch of doughnuts.

The soldier stopped, walked into the little shop, and bought a dozen doughnuts. Then he left the store and offered the bag of fresh doughnuts to the boy. “Here,” he said. “I bought these for you.”

The boy looked at the soldier with wide eyes and took the bag. But as the soldier started to return to his jeep, he felt a tug on his coat. He turned back and faced the boy.

“Mister,” the boy asked, his eyes still wide, “are you God?”

None of us will ever call a Lazarus back to life
nor will most of us ever touch the barbarism of a death camp
where shattered souls begin to doubt their own humanity.

But we can emulate our Christ,
upholding life and refuting God’s alleged silence
by remembering the women of Auschwitz
and in much more modest ways
acknowledging those around us
in family, neighborhood, work or even in this place;
those who feel entombed,
even abandoned by the God we profess
and are no longer to perceive the presence of the Holy One.

Our announcement of that presence,
our call to life may not be “Lazarus, come forth,”
but to the marginalized child, it could be:
“Son, come home.”
To the estranged sibling:
“We’d like you to celebrate Easter with us.”
To the alienated friend:
“I thought I’d surprise you with a phone call”
Or to the isolated co-worker:
“let’s grab a beer after work.”

So many folks in our own ambit
are languishing in the darkness of some tomb
hoping God or one of God’s people
might speak or act in such a way
that they hear the resounding invitation
to come forth, leave the darkness behind,
be unbound, and step into the light.

When simple human kindness shatters deathlike silences
the divine presence is revealed once more,
the eternal voice is again heard
now newly amplified through attentive disciples
who mirror holy care
and enable resurrection to abound once more,
through Christ our Lord.

[1] Eli Wiesel, Night, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013), p. 64.

[2] Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970),  p. 147.

[3] Ibid., p. 160.

[4] Melissa Raphael, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theory of the Holocaust (London-New York: Routledge, 2003).

[5] Ibid., p. 54.