Were you listening?

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. (…) Allow us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” [MK 10:35, 37]

Um…James and John, excuse me, but were you listening?

Jesus’ disciples were slow to learn. This is evident throughout the Gospels. There were probably many times when Jesus just shook his head in frustration. But the lesson of servant-leadership was as radical then as it is now; Jesus knew it was dangerous; he knew it meant suffering, entailed self-denial, relinquishment of power and any  expectation of reward. He also knew it was the only way.

The Gospel of Mark was written about 66-70 C.E. for a community of marginalized, mostly Gentile Christians living amid the Jewish revolt against Rome, a time when anything deemed to be anti-Roman was a valid cause for persecution. For many, the choice to remain Christian meant certain death, so the question of “is this really worth it?” was their reality. The Gospel writer’s aim was to shore up the community’s faith in Jesus’ identity and to help them make sense of their suffering in the context of Jesus’ call to discipleship.

We still need this reassurance, don’t we? I know I do, and Mark’s focus on discipleship—who “gets it” and who does not—is one of the reasons I love studying it.

For the past six weeks (the 24th through 29th Sundays in Ordinary Time), the Sunday Gospel readings have drawn us into the particular journey of the apostles and the larger group of disciples following Jesus as they neared Jerusalem. Jesus’ lessons along the way could be called a “way of the cross” because through them he reveals the conditions and rigors of discipleship. [MK 8:22-10:52]

This is why James and John’s question to Jesus is so appalling. When the two brothers approached Jesus he had just finished telling the twelve, for the third time, about his impending death. You have to wonder if James and John heard a word of what he said.

Perhaps they developed selective listening because they already heard Jesus predict his death twice before [MK 8:31-35, 9:30-32], and the more graphic details Jesus provided about being handed over, mocked, spit upon, and flogged before being killed didn’t register with them. [MK 10:33-34a]

Or maybe they zeroed in on Jesus’ words about rising on the third day, concluded they were in the clear and began to work out their own bright futures in the Kingdom. [MK 10:34b]

Perhaps they did not listen when Jesus redirected his comments about how hard it was to enter the Kingdom of God from the rich man to the disciples? [MK 10:24]

Surely they remembered the time when Jesus shot down the idea that any of the disciples should consider themselves the greatest. [MK 9:33-37]

Maybe James and John thought the other times Jesus spoke about the first being last and the last being first [MK 9:35. 10:31] he meant if for the others, since the two of them plus Peter seemed to be in Jesus’ inner circle. (Mark’s  gospel includes three important events with Jesus that the other apostles were not privy to: the raising of Jairus’ daughter [MK 5:21-43], Jesus’ Transfiguration [MK 9:2-13], and keeping watch while Jesus prayed in Gethsemane [MK 14:32-42].)

After Jesus predicted his death the third time James and John seemed to say, “Hey Jesus, phew! That sounds rough. So glad it’s going to work out, though. Just wondering…when you get to the heavenly banquet could you save those seats on either side of you? You know, just throw your cloak or something over them so everyone knows they are taken. Thanks dude!”

In their zeal for winning favoritism they eagerly assure Jesus they can drink the same cup and share the same baptism. Their affirmation, however, does not indicate they comprehend the depth of Jesus’ cup: that it is filled with suffering then salvation, and his baptism leads to death then resurrection.

James and John’s question speaks to the overall incomprehension of Jesus’ followers—contemporary Christians included—of the cost of discipleship. Mark’s Gospel continues, “When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.” [MK 10:41]. We might initially think the ten were upset by James’ and John’s selfishness, but it is likely at least some of them shared the same self-interest and were ticked that James and John beat them to the punch. Ouch.

The community for whom Mark wrote his Gospel may also have included a few members who misunderstood the lesson of true greatness. Perhaps like James and John in today’s passage, they wanted to hitch their wagon to Jesus’ glory. Today’s church is no different. We want the glory but aren’t that thrilled about all the heavy lifting that goes with it. The thing is, to understand Mark’s gospel is to grasp that discipleship progresses to the cross.

Jesus’ teaching on service is clear. The privilege awarded to the disciple entails carrying that cross for others, and that leads to redemption. Jesus calls us to follow him, and fortunately for us he never throws up his hands and gives up on us, even those times when we drop our cross.

Mark’s Gospel tells us no disciple is perfect. Everyone, including the reader is in process.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

My Hungry Ghost

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

A guest post by Buddhaguysays.

I spend my life fighting my own selfishness, the urge to filter the world through the lens of “what’s in it for me?” As I have aged, raised a family, moved forward in a career, made friends, become part of various communities, this selfishness—my hungry ghost— has continued unabated and in fact has grown and expanded. It now has become tinged with worry and fear: “What if I don’t have enough to retire on, what if my way of life—my comfortable way of life—gets unhinged in some way through financial loss, illness or separation from family, or changes in my routine, or my community?” On, and on, and on the feedback loop goes.

I fight this urge to cling.  I strive to be “ego-less” to get outside myself and turn towards others. This I know is the right path, the path that my Catholic teaching exhorts as do the great wisdom teachings I have explored and tried to embrace in my lifetime.  But man, is it hard.  It is a battle I wage regularly and more often than not, I lose.

The reading from the Gospel of Mark contains the well-known passage: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” [MK 10:25]. Jesus advises a rich man to sell all he has and give to the poor in order to attain treasure in heaven.  After the rich man leaves, despondent over this daunting requirement, Jesus tells his disciples that “there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age…” [MK 10:29b].

In my simplistic reading of this gospel, it is the call for me to be “ego-less” to stand in relation to God, which of course means in relation to my neighbor (broadly defined as all of humanity and not just those in my family, town or country) within whom God dwells.  It is about turning off the filter that clings and hoards and says “what’s in it for me?” and turning on the filter that says “this life is not just about me, it is about God and all of God’s creation and living according to the gospel teachings.” This message is the hardest for those who have the most to lose.

I know the truth in this teaching. My selfish hungry ghost however is my constant companion. The battle continues.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

I’m the greatest!

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

When I was a kid my younger brother had a maddening habit of sneaking up behind me and whispering, “I’m the greatest!” He’d repeat this claim multiple times, driving 13 year-old me to, on occasion, throttle his little pencil neck. Sorry about that, brother, but what you didn’t understand was that I, your older and more fabulous sister, was the greatest. Ha!

But, seriously, the whole “I’m the greatest” thing and the need to prove it is not limited to sibling squabbles, it lies at the heart of every human conflict. Think about any one of the myriad disagreements surrounding what identifies a people, a nation, a culture, a political party, or what distinguishes an economy or power. Even in the adult family dynamic the need to be “number one” is responsible for conflicts that continue for generations. My theory, my religion, my politics, my needs, my suffering, and my personal goodness: no matter what it is mine is greater than yours.

This claim to greatness is connected to our sense of self-worth and as such, is fragile; it is easily threatened by external events and the needs or perceived greatness of others. How will this new thing or new, potentially better person affect me? What about my needs? I must prove my worth and stake my claim! Clearly, the general understanding of greatness is backward; it lacks justness, humility, compassion, and love.

The traits of true greatness, which also include self-awareness and empathy, create a culture of righteousness, of living in right relationship with others—the exact kind of righteousness the writer of the Letter of James exhorts his community to embrace. The passage begins, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” [James 3:16] He goes on “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” [James 4:1] Yes. Wars and conflicts do come from our self-serving passions.

Jesus attempts to teach his disciples about true greatness. When he predicted his death to his disciples Jesus told them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise.” [Mark 9:31] The scripture goes on to say the disciples did not understand and were afraid to question Jesus. But when I read this, I can imagine the disciples thinking to themselves: “This can’t be. If what Jesus is saying is true, what will become of us?”

Theologian, John Shea, explains the disciples’ lack of response this way,” Since their focus was completely on themselves, they naturally were afraid for themselves.”*  I wonder if they even heard the part about “and three days after his death he will rise.” It’s like a case of selective listening; they jumped over it because their primary concern was “what about us?” Jesus was inviting them into a higher consciousness, but they, like us, were not yet ready to accept it. Instead, they began to argue amongst themselves who was the greatest, and perhaps, the most likely one to carry on Jesus’ ministry after he was gone.

But then Jesus makes the meaning of true greatness clear to the disciples: Greatness is not about you.

Earlier this week I was standing in front of my house talking to a good friend and neighbor. We were talking about flu shots. He and his wife had just gotten theirs. The conversation turned to the fact that in some known cases, the protection offered by childhood immunizations diminishes. My friend commented that he used to have mixed feelings about inoculations, but what he said next really struck me. He said he chooses to get annual flu shots and inoculations not so much to reduce his own chance of sickness but to help prevent someone else who is weaker from getting ill.

Now, who’s the greatest?

Jesus said, “if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” [Mark 9:35b]

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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*John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 230

Come away, and rest a while

16th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Imagine: You and a team of trainees just returned from an exhausting week in the field. Every day brought new challenges. You spent the majority of your time teaching, problem solving and helping people who desperately needed your assistance. The stakes were high, and your work was exemplary. You are exhilarated, exhausted and hungry. Back at the office your supervisor listens as you recount your adventures, and invites you and the team to a brief offsite retreat. Meanwhile, the news of your success is spreading rapidly, and during the short time you are traveling to the retreat site an urgent request for assistance arises. Upon your arrival you discover a crowd of anxious people waiting. So much for taking a break. But here’s the thing. Without breaking stride your supervisor assesses the situation and responds with patience and compassion. You never sense frustration or disappointment or bother, because it is not there. Your supervisor is showing you what solidarity looks like.

This is the gospel of Mark 6:30-34. You might notice that Mark spends a lot of time presenting the rigors of discipleship to his readers. This story began with the disciples witnessing Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth by his own people (MK 6:1-6), followed by Jesus summoning the twelve and sending them off in twos to help spread the message far and wide (MK 6:7-13), and finally the disciples return from their mission, euphoric and bursting with tales of their success. But Jesus has more in store, of course.

“He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.” [MK 6:31]

It’s important to understand the depth of poverty in Jesus’ day. The majority were non-landowning peasants, day laborers if they were lucky, and dirt poor. Even those who had jobs barely had enough to get by thanks to the burden of religious and secular taxation. The crowds following Jesus were always hungry. Everyone was.

So, coming away to a deserted place away from the crowds in order to eat makes sense. I totally get it. As a young mother I regularly ate my lunch in the bathroom. My daughter, an absolutely adorable and ravenous 2-year-old, used to follow me around the house saying “Hungry, Mama. Hungry.” I fed her. I fed her her food and then I fed her my food. Her excellent hearing included knowing when the refrigerator door was being opened. There I’d be, the upper half of my body inside the fridge, sneaking a piece of sliced turkey and she would appear behind me, her angelic face looking up at me asking, “Some?

Coming away has another meaning according to John Shea. “To come away to that place means to return to the source, to be nurtured by God.”[1]  In that place, the disciples could find refreshment. But again, there is more to Jesus’ invitation.

If work is done in order to be completed, no matter how energizing it once was, it soon becomes a chore. Furthermore, it doesn’t take very long to discover no job is ever finished. Even in our “deserted place” the work awaits our return. There is no escape. Mark doesn’t say how the disciples reacted when they saw the crowds, whether they groaned about needing a break, or if they were disappointed because they just wanted to finish their sandwich in peace. What Mark does tell us is how Jesus reacted from the deserted place. He was filled with compassion, literally. The original Greek says his gut was wrenched by the sight of the crowd. These were his people.

Jesus’ solidarity with the poor provides us with an important lesson: If our genuine concern for others emerges solely from a sense of difference, for example, those who are poorer, those who are less healthy, those who have less opportunity, those without a stocked pantry, those without clean water, and so on, we quickly tire because there is no end in sight. But if what we do for one another comes from a place of solidarity, we enter the resting place, our source and our refreshment; we recognize our commonality in the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. These are our people.

This is why Jesus instructed the disciples not to take anything on their mission other than a walking stick and a pair of sandals; they were to move about the community as equals with those they served; they had to depend on God’s providence just like everyone else.

This is what discipleship means. When our starting place is our common humanity, our focus shifts. What we do for others, we soon realize, we do because they are just like us, and we cannot stomach having it any other way.

Today’s readings can be found here. 


[1] John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 184.

How does your garden grow?

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

There is a weed in my garden commonly known as Bishop’s Weed (Aegopodium podagrariaI). Were it not for its resemblance to Poison Ivy this invasive and vile three-leaved specimen surely would never have been allowed to flourish. I have attempted many times to destroy it including most recently pinching off the leafy part of about 2 million stems, taking care not to disturb the root lest it get the memo I am out to kill it, and hoping that by defoliating the plant and preventing the process of photosynthesis it would perish. However, this method has been a complete failure. Instead of death by starvation, this little bugger taunts me by sending up hundreds of new shoots. Every stinking morning there they are, waving their perky little annoying crowns at me. Oh, hello, Susan! Have a beautiful day! Grrrr. Why I oughta…

Then I read the Gospel for this weekend’s liturgy, the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, and it occurred to me that the foe in my garden might better be called the Disciple’s Weed. For this plant’s persistence amidst adversity is analogous to the missionary identity and activity of the first evangelists, Jesus’ disciples.

After being rejected by his people in Nazareth [MK 6:1-6], Jesus took his message to the surrounding villages. In Mark’s gospel, one now senses in Jesus an urgent need to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God. He summons the twelve, authorizes them with powers so they too can participate in his mission, and sends them off in twos. Even though they frequently misunderstood him, he trusted the twelve to get it right.

The scripture does not say how long the disciples were gone nor does it say what Jesus did in the meantime. All the gospel tells us is that they could bring a walking stick and wear sandals, and they were to depend on the goodwill of others for everything else including food and shelter. In other words, the disciples were to do the work of Jesus in the exact same way he did it. And, if like Jesus’ experience in Nazareth, they entered a place where they were not welcome they were to move on, because there were many other villages and people awaiting their message of hope.

This is really good news for Christians. Jesus entrusted the delivery of his message to disciples who were slow but earnest students, just like most of us. And by virtue of our baptism we are likewise included on Jesus’ team of missioners. We don’t have all the answers, we sometimes bumble along and make a mess of things, but we persist. Jesus trusted the twelve to get it right; I believe he can trust us as well.

(I still want that Bishop’s Weed gone, though.)

Today’s readings can be found here. 

And he was amazed at their unbelief

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Gladys: Oh look who’s preaching today, Abner. It’s Jesus, back from his semester abroad, and he’s brought some of his friends again.

Abner: He’s probably going to show us all how something good can come out of Nazareth.

Gladys: Oh come on, he’s alright, and besides, what are you talking about? It’s not like he doesn’t have something to say. Haven’t you heard what he’s been doing?

Abner: No, Gladys. But I’m sure you will tell me.

Gladys: It’s impressive, and he has quite the following. Although, remember the last time when that crowd followed him here? His mother and brothers thought he had lost his mind. She worries. Who wouldn’t? Him, out and about all the time with those people. Still, he’s a good boy and a great preacher; some even say he’s a prophet. And, don’t forget all the people he has helped…those with unclean spirits, the sick and diseased, lepers, paralytics, even a man with a withered hand! Why, just last week…

Abner: Hmmm?

Gladys: Shhhh, he’s talking! I’ll tell you in a minute! Did you just hear what he just said? Seriously? How could Jesus have such wisdom?

Gladys: Okay, so apparently there was this woman, ostracized for twelve years, with the bleeding. She could barely leave her house! But when she found out Jesus was passing through her town she managed to work her way into the crowd and got close enough to touch his tunic! And she was healed! She thought he was upset with her for touching him, but he was not. He said her faith healed her, imagine that! Now she’s just going about her business like it’s, well, nobody’s business! Ha!

Abner: Oh Gladys!

Gladys: And that’s not all, Abner. On the same day Jesus raised a little twelve-year old girl from the dead.

Abner: Stop it.

Gladys: Abner, believe me. Say,…do you think the number twelve means something?

Abner : Nah, probably just a coincidence. But Gladys, something’s fishy here. Where would someone like Jesus get the powers to do such mighty acts? He’s just a kid from the neighborhood. No different from our kids.

Gladys: Yeah, now that you mention it. Why Jesus? What makes him so special? Didn’t all the boys go to the same Hebrew school? I’ll bet Mary got him a tutor. Who does he think he is? He’s just a manual laborer, a carpenter, isn’t that right? And his family, well, er…I don’t want to be unkind, but you know what they say about his birth. Let’s just say she’s ordinary, to be nice.

Abner: Yes, no different from us! Huh? Wait. What? Gladys, Stop poking me!

Gladys: Abner! Did he just call himself a prophet?

Gladys: You know what? I’m done listening to this. I know what everyone says he has done, and that he’s so special, but I’m not buying it. Who can believe this? Plus his message is over the top.

Abner: Yeah, me too, let’s go!

Gladys: See? Now he can’t do anything. Wasn’t I right? I’m going home.

“And he was amazed at their unbelief.” MK 6:6

Today’s readings can be found here.

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The rejection of Jesus progresses from members of his family, who thought he was out of his mind [MK 3:21, 31-5], to his townsfolk, whose initial amazement was quickly replaced with skepticism and culminates with being rejected by members of his Synagogue [MK 6:1-6]. (It’s worth noting that after this incident in Mark’s gospel Jesus is not found teaching in the Synagogue again.) In response to the skepticism shown by his old neighbors, Jesus comments, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Jesus’ former neighbors thought they knew all they needed to know about him, and they didn’t like what they heard.

Maybe they felt defensive, even slightly insulted that Jesus had moved on while they remained trapped in Nazareth. Perhaps the idea of giving up a “normal” life for one of service to others was as suspect then as it is today. It’s conceivable that their offense came when Jesus’ radical practice of the greatest commandment, to love God and neighbor, exposed their own prejudices. And maybe they were offended by the evidence of Jesus’ power and wisdom, both seen as divine gifts.

Jesus’ amazement at the community’s lack of faith paralleled their taking offense at his message. Their unbelief not only closed them to receiving Jesus’ message, it prevented Jesus’ from fully expressing it. Although he was shocked, he was not deterred. He knew it was pointless to try to move people who refused to hear, so he took the message elsewhere to a more receptive audience. And this is excellent news for every one of us.

Perceive the Imperceptible

11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Imagine a flower in a vase. Simple, right? You see the shape of the vase, a single or multiple stem, a few leaves, and of course, the flower’s color and variety. Now, erase that, and visualize just the space surrounding a flower in a vase. The exercise immediately becomes less concrete. Conjuring the invisible is not as easy. We generally think in terms of positives and tend to start with what is palpable. This is what we understand. But, seeing completely requires perceiving the imperceptible.

This concept was revealed to me as a young art student. I recall my instructor informing the class there were no lines in nature. She said what defines an object is the space that surrounds it. Our assignment was to draw the unknowable space. And, with that, the lens through which my 14-year-old eyes viewed the world changed forever. In the art world, this concept is called negative, or white space.

I once studied yoga with a deeply spiritual Catholic woman whose Shavasana (the final relaxation, and the best part for me) always included a guided meditation on the gaps between our inhalations and exhalations. She encouraged me to linger in the gaps, to pause for a few seconds between breaths and glimpse the pure and silent “God space” that existed there. It occurred to me that the gaps between my breaths shared the same unknowable space that surrounds all that is visible.

John O’Donohue, the late Celtic poet and author, calls the unknown space “the invisible,” saying it “is one of the huge regions in your life.” He says “when you become aware of the invisible as a live background, you notice how your own body is woven around your invisible soul, how the invisible lives behind the faces of those you love, and how it is always there between you. The invisible is one of the most powerful forms of the unknown.”[1] He goes on to say we tend to be uncomfortable with what we cannot know. It’s true. Don’t many of us try to control the invisible and unknowable gaps in our lives by filling them with pointless activities and noise, often interfering with Holy mystery in order to produce something palpable?

To explain “how it is” with the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells a parable about a seed growing itself (Mark 4:26-29). A man scatters seed on the ground and goes about his daily business. A few days later he sees that it has begun to grow, but does not understand how it happened (without his help). Theologian and author, John Shea, retells the story with a modern twist. In this tale, the man who sowed the seed, not wanting to miss a single moment of its germination, went out to the garden every day and uncovered the seeds to see how things were going. As a result, nothing grew.[2]

It’s so easy to fall into the same trap as the man who interfered with the seed, and it’s hard to permit the unknown, to dwell in the gaps, and to trust the invisible. Nicole Gausseron knows something of this subject. Nicole is the director and co-founder of Compagnons du Partage, a homeless shelter for men in Chartes, France, and the author of The Little Notebook: A Journal of a Contemporary Woman’s Encounters with Jesus, During a six-year period of intense work and prayer, Nicole experienced a deeply personal relationship with Jesus which she recorded in several journals. Many of the entries in her journals focus on the need to allow Jesus to work through her, to hand her worries over, and trust that the seeds of her work with the homeless were growing.

We might not always perceive it, but the world is flush with white space, sacred gaps, and the invisible activity of life. Divine activity occurs quietly, mysteriously. Even though we sometimes get in the way and uncover the seeds, or mess up relationships, or clutter our minds with deadlines, fears, and worries for the future—and leave little or no time for prayer and reflection—God’s work continues. It takes root almost imperceptibly, in the quiet, in the unknown spaces. Do you perceive it?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] O’Donohue, John. 2000. Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong. Reprint edition. New York: Harper Perennial. Page 27-28

[2] STD, John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 151

Photo: 1 Sunday Morning at the Backyard Photolab. ©2015 Robert Cowlishaw

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John O’Donohue (1956 –2008) was an Irish poet, author, priest, and philosopher. He is best known for his written works on Celtic Spirituality, among them the international bestseller, Anam Cara.

John (Jack) Shea is a theologian, storyteller, and prolific author who lectures nationally and internationally on storytelling in world religions, faith-based health care, contemporary spirituality, and the spirit at work movement.

Nicole Gausseron, the director and co-founder of Compagnons du Partage, a homeless shelter for men in Chartes, France, Her first journal was published under the title “The Little Notebook.” Three other journals were later translated and published.