19th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Active Love

John 6:41-54 | 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Active Love

Anyone with a close relationship with anyone knows the cliché that love is not a feeling, it’s a verb. Relationships must be fed or they die. God is no different. He desires a relationship with us more than anything. If our relationship with Him is not fed, it too will die. With continued care, though, we can access the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7).

Because God is Who He is, omnipotent and omnipresent, He could demand our presence. But forced to be there, we would take off at the first opportunity. Because that’s not real relationship, that’s not what God wants. So He gave us free will. We get to choose whether we are in relationship with Him. He is always there waiting. If He is our choice, then we trust Him, and at the first sign of trouble, we won’t flee.

Jesus hammered this concept in repeatedly when He taught. God doesn’t want blind faith—He doesn’t want slaves. Jesus came to bring us freedom, active relationship. He wants His people to willingly take responsibility to choose God.

In this section of the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus repeats the word eat multiple times. To eat is an active choice. We can choose to eat of the Bread of Life, but He’s not going to force it down our throats. Neither the Father nor the Son want to be a feeding tube, a passive mode of giving us something good. They want us to want to come because we choose the good stuff.

But it’s not always the palatable choice. What they offer isn’t all creamy chocolate mousse. Sometimes what’s on offer appears to be soggy and oversalted green beans. But God knows we need the nutrients those beans provide, and He knows we can’t get the vitamins from any other source. So there are times He asks us to choke them down. Because we are in a relationship with God, because we have chosen to be committed to Him, we trust the Giver and swallow the beans. But if we choose to “eat of my flesh and drink of my blood” (v. 54), now—even when the body and blood are beans and not mousse— then we “shall have eternal life” and be “raised on the last day” (v. 54).

Seemingly perfect relationships may be enviable, but they are hard-won and never instant. Along the way to that perfect moment, there were plenty of disagreements, fights, compromises, and probably threats to quit. Relationship with God is no different. To get to the “peace that surpasses all understanding,” we have to be willing to go through the same struggles and stick through them. God will never threaten to quit, though we might. But He understands if we need to rail against Him. That’s real relationship. It’s trust and love, and God wants nothing more from us. He loves us, and His love is active and always moving, and His arms are always open.


18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – He is Waiting for Us

John 6:24-35 | 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

He is Waiting for Us

The Bread of Life Discourse in John begins with the people looking for Jesus. Some of them had just been fed in the miraculous Feeding of the 5,000, and now they want more of Jesus. They actively seek Him out. Coming to Jesus isn’t a one-time proposition. As humans, we come to Him, are fed, and then must return again and again. He is always there and available to us; but it is our responsibility to seek Him. God’s gift of free will means it is up to us to take that responsibility.

As humans, we want the miracle—a healing, a feeding, a dramatic miracle. We want the one-time event to happen again and again, at our command. We want magic: “Sir, give us this bread always” (v. 34). But Jesus isn’t magic. Jesus doesn’t want us to have just a one-time thing—He wants us to have eternal life. So He gives us Himself: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (v. 35). It’s not magic that brings eternal life but belief. Belief in Jesus. And belief isn’t a one-time thing; it has to be fed continuously.

Jesus tells the crowds, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (v. 26). The people might think the miracle bread is what drew them to Jesus, but they were searching Him out again because what satisfied them was the Bread of Life, not physical food. Once we truly find Jesus—not the magic when He does what we want Him to do, but the real Jesus, who feeds a need we didn’t know we had—we are compelled to return to him over and over. We have been filled by something we didn’t know we hungered for.

We often call something a miracle if we have prayed for a specific result and that result occurs. I’ve certainly prayed for a number of miracles. Sometimes my desired result happens and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the miracle we usually want Jesus to produce. If we had followed Jesus in the first century AD, we too would have wanted Him to defeat Rome. If it had gotten to the cross, we too would have wanted Him to jump down and show His power and authority. But those demonstrations of power wouldn’t have done anything to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

We can’t know when Jesus will give us the miracle we want because we can’t know the Big Picture. We simply don’t see all the moving parts. It can be very hard to explain to a non-believer why you believe even after something bad has happened. It’s easy to believe in God when things are good or when He has just answered a specific prayer the way we wanted it answered. But true belief is evident when those things haven’t happened, but we still trust that He is good and right and knows best. And that trust can only happen when we have gone to Him continuously and have seen His good playing out in our lives. Jesus wants us to get in the boat and go find Him. He is waiting for us.


17th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Go to the Source

John 6:1-15 | 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Go to the Source

When I worked in Faith Formation, we had a saying: If you feed them, they will come. But in this gospel passage, Jesus worked that saying backwards. The people were already there, and now He instructed the disciples, “Feed them.” If we’d approached Faith Formation events like that, there would have been a frantic team of us phoning the local pizza joints whenever we had a gathering.

The disciples didn’t have access to telephones nor were there any pizza places near the Sea of Galilee. Furthermore, as Philip pointed out, the money needed to feed 5,000 people (probably more like 15,000 when you include women and children) was a big issue. Philip and the others were focused on the logistics. Jesus was focused on the need. I really love that the need He wants to meet isn’t necessarily desperation. These people weren’t necessarily destitute. They gotten swept up in His teaching and lost track of the time. Now it was dinnertime and they didn’t have food. Getting to dinner and not having food is definitely something that has happened to me before. That Jesus cares about that predicament warms my heart.

Not only did Jesus want the disciples to conjure up food for all these people, but He also wanted the people to be served. Jesus instructed, “Have the people recline” (v. 10). The disciples not only served the people, but Jesus also had them clean up too: “Gather the fragments left over so nothing will be wasted” (v. 12). Now that’s real service! Having just returned from their first missionary trip where they had performed miracles in Jesus’s name, the disciples may have started to think they had some kind of elevated powers, but Jesus made sure to bring them back to earth.

I hate that feeling—just when I start to think maybe I’m doing something well and should get some credit, something happens that crashes me back to reality. Jesus always wants us to understand that without God, we can do nothing. Thus, when Jesus told the disciples to feed the people, and Peter responded that “two hundred days’ wages” (v. 7) wouldn’t be enough, I bet Jesus just raised His eyebrows. Andrew broke the awkward quiet with something like, well, there is a little, “but what good are these for so many?” (v. 9) By then Jesus was probably rolling his eyes and thinking, “Come on, guys, you just performed miracles. You know you didn’t do those on your own. Who was behind it? Go to the source!”

The source is Jesus, and when He picks up the bread, breaks it in a nod to the coming Last Supper, and distributes it, there is a plethora of food. There always is when we rely on Jesus rather than on ourselves. Sometimes Jesus’s idea of a plenty matches mine, but often it doesn’t. Often I feel cheated because what Jesus provides is not what I had in mind at all. But if I take time to think about it later, I always see how His provisions fit the bill perfectly. I just have to remind myself to trust the Source, to trust Jesus. And to go to Him, every time.


16th Sunday of Ordinary Time – No One Way

Mark 6:30-34 | 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

No One Way

I have never really paid attention to this preamble to Mark’s Feeding of the 5,000. Now I understand why the disciples were frustrated and wanted to send the people away to eat after Jesus taught on the mountain.

As we saw last week, the disciples had been sent out two-by-two for their first on-their-own missionary journey. They had all just returned and Jesus had called them together to debrief and rest. They jumped in a boat with Him, thinking they were going to escape the crowds that swirled around Him and have the opportunity to reflect on their experiences, get His perspective and advice on what they had just accomplished. But no such luck. The crowds followed them, and Jesus’s “heart was filled with pity for them…and he began to teach them many things” (v. 34).

Jesus promised the disciples, His closest friends, a chance to rest after an arduous and exciting journey, one they undertook at His behest. Then He took that opportunity away from them when He felt pity for the crowds. I bet the disciples were thinking, “What about us? Feel a little pity for us!”

How often have I felt that? “Wait! What about me? I’m trying to do what You want!”

I also find these four verses interesting because so much of the gospels encourage us to take time out to reflect and to spend quiet time with God. But here, it seems Jesus turns that message inside out—He lets go of reflection time with there are other needs. But aren’t there always other needs, other pressing important issues?

So what is the point of this passage? Possibly, Mark wanted to show that there is not one way to be holy. There is no question that reflection time, time alone with God, is important. Jesus took it regularly as is evident in all four gospels. Sometimes He even took it when people were right there begging for His help. But not this time. This time, something about these people called to Him on another level. And He gave up His promised reflection time with the disciples to be with the people. This time, for some reason, Jesus focused on the needs of the people over time away with God.

Maybe it was because He was teaching over healing. With teaching, he could help great numbers of people simultaneously. Maybe it was because He knew the people had journeyed a long way through difficult terrain to get to Him. But maybe there was some other reason altogether. This is Jesus; we don’t understand everything He did and does! Maybe that’s Mark’s point, that there’s a time and a season for every way of doing God’s will, of being holy, and it’s not up to us to decide which way gets the merit. I still feel for the disciples, just as I sometimes feel sorry for myself too! But I know on this side of heaven I will never fully understand. I can only try to follow God’s lead.


15th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Greener Grass

Mark 6:7-13 | 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Greener Grass

It’s easy to think the grass is greener on the other side, isn’t it? Then once on the other side, it’s easy to look back and see greener grass where we came from!

Jesus tried to guard against that mindset. He sent the disciples out with the instructions, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave from there” (v. 10). He meant once the pair had been welcomed, the disciples weren’t to disparage that hospitality by house-jumping within a community. His admonition also discouraged other households from trying to woo the disciples into their home with offers of better food or a better bed. The thing is, no house is perfect. It may look so from the outside, but once you see the inner workings, you will find a flaw.

Could Jesus’s words also apply to Christianity? When someone cares deeply about faith and their church, problems within a denomination can be crushing. I often find the weight of the scandals and justifications within the Catholic Church heavy.

Fifteen years ago, I became Catholic. It wasn’t that I had issues with my church. A life-long Episcopalian, I had a rich faith life and vital relationship with Jesus. But I felt called to become Catholic. The RCIA process was life-changing and my faith life grew even more. Even though I found the process so rich, I still struggled with some aspects of Catholicism. I knew I always would. But when I talked to God about it, I was at peace with my decision. I didn’t leave the Episcopal Church because the grass was greener on the Catholic side. I left because God called me to be Catholic.

I still struggle with those issues, and now that I know more about Catholicism, there are other issues I don’t agree with as well. In these fifteen years, I’ve seen several Catholics I know well become Episcopalian, and I understand why they did. But for me to leave the Catholic Church, now anyway, would be because somewhere else the grass looks greener. I know it’s not. Every place has their own issues.

Every church is a human construct, so no church is perfect. They are founded on perfection, on Jesus, but the church as it is here on earth is not perfect—they can’t be, because here on earth, churches are led by humans, and humans are not perfect.

Of course, Jesus made provisions for when a situation is intolerable. He told the disciples, “Whatever place does not welcome you…, leave there and shave the dust off your feet…” (v. 11). I bet He also told them to pray, to talk to God about it. Don’t leave a house lightly, but if things are bad enough that you do, “shake the dust off your feet” and go—don’t look back. Where you go won’t be perfect either but the flaws will be different. We’re all flawed and Jesus wants us to realize that, but, with God’s help, we have to decide which flaws we can live with and then, despite them, flourish wherever we find ourselves!

 

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Designed for Growth

Mark 6:1-6 | 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Designed for Growth

When I visit the town where I grew up, I sometimes feel I revert back to the 18 year old I was when I left. I don’t know if that’s only my perspective or if that’s actually how others see me. I didn’t really like being 18, so it’s not my favorite time to revisit. I wonder if that’s how Jesus felt back in Nazareth—stuck in a time warp?

When He returned to Nazareth, having just performed a number of miracles, people flocked to the synagogue to hear Him speak. But they had a preconceived message they expected to hear. What He actually delivered was not exactly it. Instead of hearing Him out and altering their vision of Him, they tried to put Him in a box: “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” (v. 3).

The people we are closest to, the ones we love the most, they are the ones who can box us in the most tightly, hurt us the most acutely. Maybe this scripture wants to remind us that we have to allow people to become who they are, whether or not we are comfortable with who they grow to be.

I have no idea if Jesus was a good carpenter, but my instincts say He was. I imagine He could have had work lined up for months, as well as some very disappointed customers if He wasn’t willing to put them on a waiting list. I can hear those disgruntled customers muttering, “Who does this Guy think He is? He’s THE carpenter to get, and I have a job I need done!” But Jesus pushed the boundaries of His role as carpenter and His townspeople had to come to terms with that. They had to let Him out of the box where they had put Him.

Someone else’s new persona can also mean redefining yourself, which is not an easy task. The process can cause friendships to disintegrate and marriages to crumble. But, from the beginning, God never intended for any of us to stagnate. In Genesis, He kept creation moving forward, with new developments on the regular.

Relationships are similar, not meant to stay in the same place. They grow and mature—much like the mustard seed (Mark 5:31). It’s not meant to stay a seed—the tree is meant to come into the fullness of its being. When it does, the landscape around the tree must adapt— to the shade it now provides, to the nutrients it requires, and so forth. One person’s growth dominoes and can pile on into eternity.

The Nazarenes felt threatened by their changing relationship with Jesus. I can understand their perspective. As my husband and I move into empty-nesting, my closest relationships are fundamentally changing—with Mark and with both of my children. In adjusting to these changes, I am changing also. It’s a little disconcerting, but it’s also good. I’m trying to remember that growth is always good—we were designed for it by the Master!


13th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Healing for All

Mark 5:21-43 | 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Healing for All

The stories of Jairius’s daughter and the hemorrhaging woman in Mark underscore the availability of Jesus’s healing to all.

A well-off synagogue official, Jairus was at the end of his rope. His much-loved daughter was “at the point of death” (v. 23).  Jairus had the freedom to approach Jesus to ask Him to “lay hands” on his sick child. Hearing of Jairus’s plight, Jesus headed out with him, and Jairus, whom medicine had been unable to help, must have felt a measure of relief. If anyone could heal his daughter, it was this Man. Jairus probably wove through the crowds pretty quickly, his last hope now beside him. Not much was going to keep him from getting home. Until the hemorrhaging woman intervened.

A societal outcast without the protection of a male, the woman was aware of her place and didn’t ask Jesus to acknowledge her. She merely wanted to touch His robe. Doctors had caused her to “suffer greatly” (v. 26) as they had either tried in vain to heal her or ignored her plight and took her money. Now broke, she, like Jairus, was at the end of her rope. She had nothing to lose so reached for His garment.

Yet, when her fingers touched it, Jesus gave her His full attention. While Jairus stood there, likely irritated at the intrusion, and probably near despair, Jesus claimed the frightened woman as family, “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction” (v. 34). The woman must have floated away. Not only was her affliction gone, but she had been noticed, claimed her, and been deemed worthy.

Meanwhile, Jairus received the news that His daughter had died. He must have been crushed. He was so close to having Jesus there, and yet…so far. But his companion was Jesus, so the story wasn’t over. And, of course, Jesus followed through, and Jairus’s daughter “arose immediately and walked” (v.42).

In these two stories, Jesus helped both the powerless (the woman and a child) and the powerful (Jairus). He helped the overtly religious and one about whom nothing is mentioned of her religion. For both patients, their acknowledgement of their faith and willingness to step out in that faith made them Jesus’s daughters, His family. Jairus believed, asked for help, and received it. The woman believed too and even without words, acted on that faith, and Jesus also helped her. Even more importantly, with His attention, Jesus recognized her humanity.

Do we have the courage to claim the spot on Jesus’s family tree? He wants to put our name there—but it’s up to us to ask for what we need in true faith.


12th Sunday of Ordinary Time- Waking the Captain

Mark 4:35-41 | 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Waking the Captain

Does Mark really say that Jesus sent His disciples into a storm, the thing fisherman would fear the most, and then fell asleep, leaving them to cope on their own?

Jesus told the disciples, “Let us cross to the other side” (v. 35). The day was closing out, and Jesus beckoned to His friends, “Come on. Let’s go.” The disciples might have glanced up to make sure He was serious, but they had faith in Him. If Jesus said it was ok to cross in the dark, they figured it was ok. Maybe it was even more reassuring that Jesus fell asleep. If I’d been in that boat, I’d have been nervous when the captain crashed out as the night turned black. But I can also see how the disciples could have thought, “Hey, look at that. Jesus is asleep. If he’s really not worried, we should follow His example.”

And there we have it. Following Jesus will not necessarily make our lives easier. Not by a long shot. He might even, and probably will, lead us right into a storm. And then appear to fall asleep. We won’t see Him. We won’t feel Him. But, and this is key, He’ll still be there, just as He was still in the boat.

When they woke Him, Jesus rebuked the disciples, “Why are you terrified? Do you not have faith?” (v.40) But I don’t think waking Him up was the problem. They did just what Jesus wants us to do in a storm: ask Him for help. What He had issues with was the wording, “Teacher, do you not care…” (v. 38). Of course, He cares! That mere wind and rain could make them think He didn’t care, now that rankled.

Jesus wants us to go to Him. But when we do, He wants us to have the same faith as he woman who believed if she touched His cloak she would be healed (Mark 5:21-34). The disciples on the other hand, thought if they followed Jesus, life would fall neatly into place, just how they wanted. When it didn’t, rather than examining the depth of their faith, they questioned His motives. That’s what Jesus rebuked. It’s easy to believe when things are good. But in a storm, the default is to question, to ask “why me?” To feel sorry for ourselves, and that’s what Jesus questioned.

I don’t know if Jesus knew there was going to a storm that particular night. But He knew the disciples would face storms. Similarly, I don’t know if Jesus tests us to prove our mettle. But He does know we will face tests. Sometimes they are big tests that toss our boats or flood our houses or make us question the fairness of the world. But, sometimes they are little tests, which are just as difficult to navigate.

We should wake Jesus up even in the smaller storms. But if we do, it shouldn’t be to ask Him if He cares or to tell Him how to fix things. It should be because we have an unshakeable faith He will take care of us in the way He knows best.


11th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Growth—“Of its own accord”

Mark 4:26-34 | 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Growth—“Of its own accord”

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the parable of the Mustard Seed. The inclusion of the parable in all three synoptic gospels underscores the importance of the message. In all of us, faith starts small. But when it matures, it becomes exponentially more powerful. Only Mark, however, details the actual process of the plant’s growth: “the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord, the land yields fruit…the harvest has come” (vs. 27-29).

These verses in Mark apply to all kinds of growth. How does something that weighs just a few pounds grow into the young woman I picked up from college, one with a passion to help the less fortunate in ways that are more than just a Band-Aid? How does that bald scrawny bundle develop into the young man I just witnessed graduate from high school, the one who always pushes me to think in new ways? While I like to think Mark and I aided the process at least a bit, my children’s power existed when they were just a ball of cells, and (believe me), they let it be known.

Jesus wanted to emphasize this power that is in each of us. The right conditions are helpful of course. A good family, food to eat, a faith background, strong schools, all help to nourish people just as good soil and enough water, sun, and nutrients help seeds to flourish. But plants can spring up in the most unlikely places, and power in people can burst forth under the most surprising circumstances.

We never know when what is in us is going to burst forth. My son wanted desperately to be taller than his sister, but for years he had to look up to her. Then one summer—bam!— he grew seven inches. One afternoon, I visited my daughter her first summer as a camp counselor, and I saw a person who had truly grown into her own skin. She had grown seven inches too, but her growth wasn’t physical. The thing is, I couldn’t make either of those spurts happen. Nor was I responsible to do so. The same is true for faith.

We aren’t responsible for another’s faith. God gifts us our power and abilities, and we should use them to help others, but God alone is the author and creator. We are mere assistants. That reality should be freeing. It doesn’t resolve us of all responsibility in creating as optimal conditions as possible for another’s faith (and all) growth, but it does free us of the final responsibility.

Ultimately, we don’t understand how growth occurs. Science explains to a point—bones need calcium to grow— but there’s still the why. Why is calcium the necessary nutrient? It’s a mystery. The mystery of faith. God unleashes our growth and our power at the optimum time, and then and only then do we “yield fruit [because] the harvest has come.”


Body and Blood of Christ – The Eucharist—the Breaking of Temporal Bonds

Mark 14:12-16, 22-26 | Body and Blood of Christ, Year B

The Eucharist—the Breaking of Temporal Bonds

When Jesus entered Jerusalem for what was to be the last time, it was on a high note. On Palm Sunday, He was hailed as a king and it was pandemonium in the streets. The disciples probably rode that wave, high-fiving each other. The Guy they had dropped everything to follow, He really was the Messiah, the One who had come to rally the Jews and lead them to victory. I bet more than one or two of them sent messages back to their families to crow that despite all the doubts, they had made the right choice. From this point on, Jesus’s followers probably thought they would go from strength to strength—that failure was not in the cards.

Failure wasn’t, but success wouldn’t look they way they thought it would either.

Jesus knew, at least in broad strokes, what was on the horizon. He knew the high the disciples basked in was not the end, that the success they craved was merely temporal, and Jesus was beyond temporal. He came to break the earthly bonds. But His followers didn’t understand that, maybe (like us) they couldn’t understand that. We are a temporal people, bound by natural laws. Jesus isn’t.

So, Jesus, out of His great love for them (and us), offered a thread (really a rope), a connection to Him for all eternity. At the crest of their wave, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet to remind them of their true mission of service. Then He gave them access to His body and blood for all eternity. He knew they needed the tactile reminder. What could be more human, more tactile, than His body and blood?

Jesus wasn’t saying don’t celebrate, don’t feel the victory deep. But He was reminding us that our definition of victory isn’t God’s. He was reminding us that our concept of victory is limited. So, when our wave crashes us to the beach, Jesus wants us to know He is still with us.

When the Eucharist is part of our daily lives, regardless of whether we’re at the top of the wave or buried in the sand, we have a tactile connection to the source and summit of Christian life—a reminder that Jesus has been in both places. If we regularly take part in Jesus’s last physical gift to us, we stay connected to Him in a way that defies temporal bonds. We can trust His way will lead to success, no matter how that may look.

Gifts can connect us physically to people who are no longer here. Jesus knew we needed that connection, so He gave us the most precious gift He could, Himself. He wanted to remind us that one day, though not necessarily now, we will understand, that when we are rejoined with Him, the temporal bonds will fall away.


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