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. 

All In The Family

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

What does it mean to be joined by God to another? For that matter, what does it mean to be joined to God? Both of these difficult questions are at the heart of this weekend’s readings[1] which revolve around God’s plan for the life of the world: our origins, the union of marriage, openness to life, the Kingdom of God, the blessing of children and covenant fidelity to one another. In other words: family life.

Think of these readings as the meat in the sandwich between the events of last week’s wildly successful World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the much anticipated 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family which opens today and continues through October 25. Francis’ many references to the importance of the family during his visit to the United States have given me much to ponder and these combined events are guaranteed to provide plenty to chew on over the next month or so.

I recently participated in an online conversation surrounding the Catholic Church’s focus on openness to life (which for many translates solely to its opposition to artificial birth control). I took issue with one non-Catholic, unmarried person who claimed this teaching was solely responsible for the overpopulation of the planet. Um, really? I was reminded of a time 25 years ago when I, very pregnant, stood in a crowd at a busy intersection in New York City, where I worked, and overheard an intended-to-be-overheard comment from a couple standing right next to me that it was supremely selfish to bring another child into the world. True story. My ears burned for the rest of the day. Actually, it still stings a bit. I feel sorry for people who think this way.

In his address to the joint meeting of Congress on September 24, Pope Francis said,

“How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.” — [September 24, 2015, address to a joint meeting of the United States Congress]

I share Francis’ concern for the family. It troubles me deeply. But to be perfectly honest, I struggle with how to write about marriage and family because I know it is a source of pain for many. I believe strongly in marriage, the joy that children bring to the union, and the value healthy families bring to society. But I know marriage and children are not for everyone and I do not imply that they should be. My long and happy marriage is due to a combination of luck and hard work. We have been blessed to raise two healthy, well-adjusted adult daughters. I’m fully aware that this not the case for everyone. I have many dear friends who are deeply bruised by the experience of divorce and others who struggle to raise troubled children. I come from a large and loving family as does my husband. We are fortunate that both families have remained intact, despite the normal challenges which marriage and family life bring.

My family experience is not the same as yours, and yours is not the same as anyone else’s. It is wrong to compare them, but still, we do. The bottom line is that families come in many shapes, sizes, and circumstances.

The key is love.

Pope Francis affirmed this in his off-the-cuff speech on the importance of family which he delivered to the hundreds of thousands and people gathered in Philadelphia. Referring to God’s highest expression of love—the incarnation of Jesus—Francis said,

“So great was his love, that he began to walk with humanity, with his people, until the right moment came, and he made the highest expression of love – his own Son. And where did he send his son – to a palace? To a city? No. he sent him to a family. God sent him amid a family. And he could do this, because it was a family that had a truly open heart. The doors of their heart opened.” —[September 26, 2015, Pope Francis speech at the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia]

This morning I re-read this speech for the umpteenth time. With each reading I am struck anew by the simple clarity of this brief message which came from this pope’s heart. I read,

“All of the love that God has in himself, all the beauty that he has in himself, he gives it to the family. And the family is really family when it is able to open its arms and receive all that love.”

I think that pretty much sums up both what it means to be joined by God to another, and to be joined to God.

Open your arms, families of all shapes, sizes and circumstances, and let the love of God in.

Read a transcript of the Pope’s speech on the importance of family here: http://www.phillyvoice.com/transcript-pope-francis-festival-families-speech/

[1] [Gen 2:18-24, Heb 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-6]

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

I’m not the entertainment

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

For the past five weeks[1] the Sunday readings from the Lectionary have taken a detour from the regularly scheduled gospel of Mark to focus on Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse found in the gospel of John, chapter 6. When I read scripture, it is always with an ear toward discipleship, so for me this “interruption” is almost as if Jesus is saying, “Look, you can’t just tag along forever and marvel over my great works, I’m not the entertainment. It’s time to put some skin in the game.” Well, alright, then.

With the miraculous feeding of the 5000 Jesus tested the faith of his disciples [JN 6:1-15]. A short time later, Jesus identified himself as the true bread from heaven and presented the crowd with the requirements of discipleship:

  • First, anyone wishing to do the work of God must believe that Jesus was sent by God [JN 6:24-35];
  • Second, not only must Jesus’ identity and mission be accepted, it must be internalized like a hearty meal, [JN 6:41-51];
  • Third, along with this consumption of Jesus’ identity and mission, those who accepted Jesus must then open themselves to a complete change of consciousness and radical lifestyle which carries risks but ultimately leads to eternal life with God [JN 6:51-58].

Finally, after witnessing the departure of many in the crowd, Jesus turned his attention to his disciples. Did they understand? Did they have what it takes to fulfill the requirement of discipleship? Would they stay or would they go? [JN 6:60-69]

Jesus’ teaching made the crowds very uncomfortable. It ran counter to their understanding of the divide between human and divine life. He blended physical life with spiritual life in a way that derailed traditional concepts of a transcendent, omnipotent God. Not only did Jesus claim intimate knowledge of God’s nearness and the existence of eternal life with God, Jesus said that HE was the way to God and eternal life.

The concept of an intimate God is as challenging today as it was then; it flies in the face of classical theology which stresses our abject unworthiness. Yes, we are sinful, but are we really unworthy? Would the invitation have been offered to us in the first place if we were unworthy of it? Entering into Christ’s consciousness opens us up to this truth. Jesus shows us what human perfection looks like, and invites us to strive to be like him and share in his glory. In doing so, we are transformed.

Some of the disciples found Jesus’ words hard to swallow and returned to their ordinary life. [JN 6:66] Those who remained with him understood, or at least the text tells us they did. “Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” [JN 6:68-69]. We know that is not the end of the story for Peter; we know his faith was not yet as rock solid as it would one day be. But the transformation of Peter and the others had already begun.

No doubt, this is hard stuff. We prefer our Jesus patiently awaiting us, perhaps standing in a fragrant meadow with his hands extended towards ours. I know I do. The truth is the cost of discipleship is dear. Jesus is pretty firm on the requirements (see above). Discipleship means loving God and neighbor in a radical way. It requires us to be servants, to behave a certain way, to detach from the idea of self-sufficiency, to make sacrifices, to do the hard stuff and be prepared to do it again and again until like the crowd of 5000, everyone is fed. Discipleship entails accompanying Jesus to the cross, and taking up the counter-cultural task of changing the world one step at a time. And we do this not because we are stained, we do it because we are beloved and worthy of the task.

Look around you. Can you see all the good disciples quietly at work in the world?

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] 17-21st Sundays of Ordinary Time, Year B. Although John 6 is read in weekday liturgies the second week of Easter, their proclamation on Sundays occurs just once in the three-year lectionary cycle. It is important to pay particular attention and discern how the message applies to your faith life.

Born around the table

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

“Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink”. [John 6:53-55]

Eww… Forgive me, Jesus, but that is kind of disturbing. “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” [John 6:52] No matter how Jesus’ words are re-framed or explained in the context of God’s gift of manna from heaven to the Israelites, and God’s gift of Jesus as the bread from heaven to the world, many of us are still left with the feeling we don’t get it. Unlike simple (and unsatisfactory) examples of 4-leaf clovers, pretzels, and trefoils employed by some to explain the Trinitarian doctrine of three persons in one God, this third part of Jesus’ bread of life discourse defies imagery and abstract language.

Still, in order for us to advance in our understanding we really need to stop being so literal and focus on what Jesus is saying about how eating the bread of life will transform us.

Jesus utilized the food analogy for spiritual purposes. Recall that analogies compare one thing to another in a way that is “like” but “not like” the reality being described. Analogies are never intended to be literal. Phew! Thank you, Jesus! The key here is to identify the traits of the one thing that hold true (food and drink satisfy physical hunger) in the context of the teaching (unlike manna from heaven which temporarily relieved physical hunger, Jesus is the bread from heaven who satisfies spiritual hunger for all of eternity).

Food and drink have the power to transform us from within. To that end, two foodie films came to mind as I prepared this reflection. One is King Corn, a documentary exposing America’s corn-based food supply. The film is described as “a humorous and touching documentary about two best friends who decide to move to Iowa to grow an acre of corn after finding out through laboratory hair analysis that their bodies are primarily made out of corn.” If you doubt this is true, please search for and watch this movie, and get back to me. http://www.kingcorn.net/the-film/synopsis/.

What we put in our bodies, be it food, drink, or outside influences including opinions, art or media really, truly does impact the health of our mind, body and soul [Eph 5:15-20].

The second film, and one I have seen many times, is Babette’s Feast, a culinary drama set in 19th century Denmark in which a renowned Parisian chef takes refuge as a housekeeper/cook for two aging spinsters. Much like Wisdom dressing her meat and mixing her wine [Prv 9:1-6], Babette spreads a table for the townsfolk. Each time I see this film, with its emphasis on the preparation of a final meal and the eventual transformation of the characters from a kind of death to life, I note deeper themes of Eucharist: service, sacrifice, forgiveness and reconciliation. You will want to experience some authentic French cuisine with friends after watching this film. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092603/.

Babette's feast

© 1987 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

It has been said that the church was born around the table. It has also been mentioned that the prominence of meal sharing in Jesus’ ministry points to the humorous conclusion that Jesus ate his way through the gospels.[1] But as the bread of life discourse reveals, the real meal is Jesus’ ongoing and unconditional sharing of self.

Jesus’ flesh and blood represent his life; Jesus’ life discloses his  consciousness of being one with God. His flesh and blood refer to his earthly ministry and willing sacrifice, his union with God, and what he continues to do through his church, the body of the living Christ [1 Cor 12:27].

This consciousness of Jesus, this oneness with God, and mission to reunite God and creation is the “this” which Jesus at the last supper refers to when he says “do this.” It is the meal, the mission, the union: all of it. The whole loaf. The doctrine of real presence is more readily consumed with this understanding. Christ is truly present.

When we receive Eucharist, we give our fiat, we say “yes, please” to taking Jesus’ consciousness and all that it entails into our bodies. In this way, we become the host. Imagine the transformation of Christ’s church today if every person stepping forward to take communion was attentive to this point.

We have many ways to be aware of God: in nature, in human relationships, in worship, and in prayer, just to name a few. But Eucharist is different. It is the one act in which we physically eat what we profess to believe.

The communal act of receiving Eucharist runs the risk of becoming a meaningless ritual, a symbolic reenactment that tells us the mass is almost over. But when it is properly understood as taking in Christ’s consciousness it is impossible to remain unchanged, and even more impossible to deny the requirements of discipleship.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Particularly in Luke’s gospel. Robert J. Karris, O.F.M.’s book Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel is a good read on the topic. (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2006)

Traffic Jam Spirituality

19th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

The other day I was tailed and then passed by a heavy-duty pickup truck with a message. It told me from its bumper, in large bold caps, to TRUST JESUS! I have never been a fan of bumper stickers. Not only do they (in my opinion) junk up a car’s appearance, certain bumper stickers foist religious (or not) beliefs, push moral and political stances, and crow children’s accomplishments in the faces of disinterested strangers in a way that is, well, obnoxious.

Bumper stickers that tell others how to act are particularly boorish in traffic. They speak to the popular notion that whatever we think must be proclaimed publicly. Perhaps we are headed for a dialogue-free society in which everyone just blurts out their opinion using the nearest technology and then disappears in a plume of exhaust.

Maybe I make too much of it.

In all fairness, I knew nothing about the driver of the TRUST JESUS! truck. He was just like every other person on the Turnpike who simply wanted to get from one point to another. But he happened to be in front of me for several miles and having this command in my face started to bother me. What exactly did this driver mean by “TRUST JESUS!” and who did he think he was, anyways?

Jesus said “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” [John 6:51]

Although their bellies were filled, the crowd did not see God’s hand in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. And while they recognized Jesus’ teaching authority and wondrous deeds, they were blind to his true relationship with the Father. They found his claim, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” [JN 6:41b] to be preposterous. After all, everyone knew Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, so how could he claim to have come down from heaven? Their opposition mounted and yet the crowd remained in his presence, grumbling and murmuring  within earshot of Jesus. These people, his opponents, were limited by their partial view of life, and of God. They trusted God, not Jesus.

It has been said that if you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of God made visible in the world. However, as theologian John Shea says, “One who is not in touch with the inner light of God cannot see it in the outside world.”* For this reason, Jesus’ enemies were not capable of seeing Jesus for who he was, and they did not see God’s doing in Jesus’ mighty works. Neither could their hunger be sated, because they refused to ingest Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus is talking about transformation. He offers his unconditional gift of self as food for the world to all of humanity. It is an invitation to the table. “And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” [JN 6:51b]. This goes back to why the TRUST JESUS! bumper sticker bothered me. Of course we should trust Jesus. But there’s more. Discipleship requires active and ongoing participation in Jesus earthly mission, here and now. Jesus did not say trust the bread, Jesus said eat the bread, all of it. Eat the entire loaf, take it in completely and be transformed.

EAT THE BREAD. Now there’s a bumper sticker I would not mind following.

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. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 204.