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THE TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

Numbers 11:25-29

James 5:1-6

Mark 9:38-43, 47-48

I had been lulled to the point of stupor by the droning of the preacher.  Insightless and inane are descriptive words that come to mind.  I was jarred to consciousness when the pastor announced that he had concluded his sermon and now was making an important announcement for the good of the parish.  Beginning with this Sunday, Communion from the Cup would no longer be offered to the Assembly.  It seems the number of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist that it took to facilitate Communion from the Cup overwhelmed the pastor.  His fear was that with all those ministers about, the people would lose sight of the priest.  Alas, I am not making this up, you know.

It is strange what happens when people in authority become jealous of that authority, frightened lest it wane and become ineffective.  You’ve heard of the Napoleon Complex, I’m sure.  Men of short stature are prone to it and give evidence of their neurosis the more they become the bully.  Little kings want their thrones elevated as if the trappings will mask their inadequacies.

The first reading and the gospel raise the issue for us this week, although in these readings the problem does not reside in the ones in authority, Moses and Jesus, but in those next in command, so to speak.  Moses has put the problem before the Lord and said that the job is too much for one person to carry out.  God’s solution is to take some of the spirit that is on Moses and share it with 70 others.  So, an assembly of the designated elders is called at the Meeting Tent and the spirit is diffused.  Immediately the elders began to prophesy.  It was truly an awesome moment.

Unbeknownst to the assembly, two men who had not come to the Meeting Tent but had remained in the camp experienced the same outpouring of the spirit and began to prophesy, too.  How dare they take upon themselves this role that had been reserved to Moses without his endorsement?  A young man is scandalized and runs to Joshua who, in turn, runs to Moses urging him to silence Eldad and Medad.  Joshua probably saw in these spontaneous prophets a diminishing of Moses’ authority.  After all, Moses hadn’t directed the spirit upon them.

Moses puts the whole situation in proper perspective.  He knew that others’ preaching did not slight him.  His insight was a longing for a prophetic people.  Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!  Would that the Lord would bestow his spirit on them all! Moses wasn’t in the least afraid of being lost in a plethora of prophets.  He was secure in his vocation and mission.

In the gospel, it is John who is scandalized by someone outside the official company of Jesus’ followers.  John had seen the stranger driving out demons in Jesus’ name.  How dare he?  By what authority?  Stop him!  Once again, it is the leader, Jesus, who puts the matter in perspective.  Someone outside the company doing mighty deeds in Jesus’ name does not threaten Jesus who, if the deeds are done in his name, remains the source of the deeds.  And, Jesus says, no matter how great the service or how small, if it is done in Jesus name, the doer will not lose the reward for his action.

Do we believe that the same reward will come to those heroes outside the fold as will come to those within?  Sometimes, on the other hand, the scandal ought to be that the more powerful witness comes from outside rather than from within.  Those outside the fold who work for justice and peace ought not outstrip Catholics in the pursuit of justice and peace.  Rather the fervor of Catholics ought to be stirred.  They ought to see in those outside the company potential comrades in arms.  Mightier in number, through that vast army the will of Christ for the little ones, the disempowered, the poor, will come to pass.

A brilliant turn in the narrative follows.  Jesus turns the tables on John.  You’re scandalized because someone is driving out demons in my name?  Take scandal from the truly scandalous, from the giving of scandal to little ones who believe in Jesus, from those whose words or actions that lead others into sin.  It would be better for them if great millstones were put around their necks and they were thrown into the sea!

Now, let’s go deeper.  What about you, John, gives scandal?  What measure are you willing to take to be rid of that source of scandal?  I remember a sad story from many years ago.  A University of Washington student was found on campus having cut off his right hand and gouged out his right eye.  He had wanted to follow the gospel directive literally.  I don’t think that Jesus is advocating self-mutilation in this dialog with John (and us).  But he is challenging us to go to whatever lengths necessary to divest ourselves of that which is scandalous.  Drug or alcohol or food addiction, sexual addiction, promiscuity, lust, envy or greed, none of these addictions is easily overcome.  Neither are lying or obscene speech.  But each person who claims to be a disciple must commit him or herself to doing what ever it takes to put the addiction into remission in order to walk in the freedom of the children of God and let the love of Christ shine forth.  And that decision can be as gut wrenching as the amputation of one’s own limbs.  The prospect of being thrown into Gehenna where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. Put in that perspective, it seems clear that Jesus doesn’t accept many excuses for indecisiveness.

Where do we find the strength?  It seems clear that the strength is found in union with Jesus and in union with the community, the church.  Prayer fosters our union with Jesus, allows him to have dominion in our lives.  Coming together in Eucharist forges the bonds of love that unite the believers with each other and with Christ.  Embracing the weak strengthens all.  The more members of the assembly committed to ministry the stronger the assembly’s witness to Christ and the more apparent it is that Christ is acting through them.

We oughtn’t be angered or feel diminished by another’s effectiveness in prophesying.  Rather, their effectiveness ought to strengthen our own in whatever ministry to which we feel the Spirit’s call.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

Wisdom 2:12, 17-20

James 3:16-43

Mark 9:30-37

Sometimes we forget how counter-cultural the call to discipleship is.  This Sunday’s readings will confront us and give us an opportunity to examine our consciences, as it were, to see just how authentic our response to that call is.  The readings will also give those on their journey toward Baptism and their commitment to discipleship the chance to ask themselves if what Jesus holds up as the model of discipleship is a life that they want to embrace.

What is so counter-cultural about being Jesus’ disciple?  Think for a moment about what we put before children as an incentive to pursue excellence in their studies.  Aren’t they challenged to strive to be the best in their class so that they will be able to go to the best schools and upon graduation secure the best jobs in firms so that they can climb the corporate ladder and, arriving at the top, be Number One again?  Of course there will also be ample financial remunerations that will allow them to live in splendid mansions, to drive the finest cars, to have servants to tend to their every need, and on and on, to have the best that this world has to offer.  Why, they could even be president of the United States if they want it bad enough.  Don’t we call all that realizing the American Dream?

Bring those goals to Jesus.  Dare to ask what he would say about them.  You might be startled at what you find – especially if position, power, and pelf are motivating factors in your life.  Are those the carrots dangling before you as incentives in life?  It’s quite clear in this weeks readings that those are not what Jesus promises those who would be his disciples.  None of them was a goal he ever pursued.  Only the will of the Father urged him on.

The first reading from the Book of Wisdom is used in conjunction with the Passion Narrative during Holy Week.  It is easy for us to hear the reading and know that the Just One rejected by the wicked is Jesus.  He is rejected precisely because his values and what he preaches are a reproach to the evildoers.  Translate that as a confrontation of those who are in power.  They have heard that the Just One relies on God who is his vindicator.  They want to take him at his word and see whether or not that vindication will come about.  Will God take care of him even if they impose a terrible death on him?

It is reference to that terrible death that opens the gospel.  The Son of Man is to be handed over to people and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise. This is Jesus’ second prediction of his destruction.  Last week, Peter protested the Master’s impending doom.  And you remember Jesus’ response to Peter.  This week, the disciples hear the dire news and are shocked into silence.  They were afraid to question him about what they did not understand.  Bear in mind that there have been some rather extraordinary events to which the disciples have been witness.  It wasn’t that long ago that they marveled that even the wind and the waves obey him.  Remember the feeding of the five thousand?  That was impressive, too, and seemed to indicate that the long awaited Messiah was here.  They had a clear and vivid picture of what the Messiah would be like and what he would accomplish and, more importantly, where they would figure in his reign.

Have you ever noticed that when you don’t want to know something you avoid accessing the unwanted information?  We joke about putting our heads in the sand, imitating the ostrich.  I don’t know if the ostrich does that or not.  But we do when we flee from the truth.  The disciples were afraid to question Jesus not because he would be harsh in answering their question but because they did not want to know the veracity of what they suspected in their minds.  They did not want their dreams dashed on the shoals like the waves in a storm.

But what follows is curious.  It seems that while the disciples did not dare question Jesus about his being killed they were not reluctant to discuss his successor.  When Jesus is killed who will be the next to be in command?  That is the argument that occupies them on their way back home.  Good teacher that he is, when they arrive at the house in Capernaum, Jesus confronts the issue.  What were you arguing about on the way? This time they are not so much afraid but ashamed to answer.  Even they seem to be aware of how far such an argument takes them from the Master’s teaching.

Are you prepared to hear what Jesus says to the Twelve and through them to us?  Those who wish to be first shall be the last of all and the servant of all. Theoretically that is why the pope is called the servant of the servants of God. In other words, the higher one climbs in the hierarchy of the church the more obligations of service that one incurs.  And nothing is said about rewards.

Again, good teacher that he is, Jesus uses an example to flesh out his imagery.  We can get all dewy-eyed at the thought of the child placed in the midst of the Apostles.  We cherish children and see the hope for our future in them.  That was not so in Jesus’ time.  Children had no rights.  They had no legal status and could do little on their own.  They were the epitome of vulnerable.  Make no mistake about it.  If you are called to discipleship you are called to service, not position, not power, not wealth.  In fact each of the three will thwart effective discipleship.

Who has primacy in terms of importance in the community?  The child.  After all, if you receive one child such as this in my name, you receive me; and if you receive me, you receive not me but the One who sent me.   Be careful who dazzles you.  Be careful over whom you fawn.  That may be the biggest indicator of how far you are from being the disciple Jesus has in mind – or how close.  The same can be said for what you aspire to and why.

All of this says a lot about what our parishes should be like and what people, especially the least significant people, should experience as they enter there.  First of all, the parishioners’ experience ought to be one of having their priesthood as the baptized empowered.  Each of the baptized, from the youngest to the eldest, from the strongest to the most infirm, from the wealthiest to the poorest has a capacity for ministry.  That doesn’t mean all have the same ministry.  It means each has a ministry in keeping with the God-given gifts and talents that one has for ministering.  Not all should be lectors.  Not all should be singers.  Not all should be greeters or ushers or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.  But in every parish there are enough with those various talents to fill those various ministries so that all who come among them can be ministered to.

In the midst of the assembly there ought to be seating to accommodate the specific needs of the disabled so that they can be seated in the midst of the assembly, in the midst of their families.  None ought to be made to feel embarrassed by his/her disability.  Even someone with Tourette’s syndrome or any other embarrassing disorder ought to feel loved and welcomed in the assembly.  And there ought to be a ministry for him or her to carry out.  Praying for the needs of the assembly is a ministry.

Years ago, Jean Vanier commented in effect that until our parishes evidenced all these types of people, the able and the disabled, the young and the old and the multi ethnic groups that make up society, until then the parish would not be reflective of the Body of Christ.  Our parishes out to welcome that diversity and recognize it as the blessing that it is.

That is a lot to digest, isn’t it?  If you ask who can do this, who can aspire to be nothing more than a foot-washer, the servant of all, I hope you realize that on one’s own, no one can.  But remember that this is a graced calling, something that begins with God and is empowered by the Spirit.  As you make your way in the Communion Procession toward the altar, keep reminding yourself that you can do all things in Christ who strengthens you.  And eating his Body and drinking his Blood will be all the food you need to strengthen you for the rest of the journey.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B


Isaiah 50:4c-9a

James 2:14-18

Mark 8:27-35

I don’t often listen, but when I do I am amazed by the televangelists’ message regarding letting Jesus be the Lord of your life and what will follow from that.  Your life, which to this point may not have been going that well, will have a dramatic upswing and you will be living in clover from here on out.  Search as I might, I have never been able to find the basis for that kind of promise in the Gospel.  Those who preach that message successfully are often found in mega-churches.  The crowds seem to love hearing the message and feel good about it.  God bless them, but I wonder.

The readings for this weekend ought to give such preachers pause.  Even Isaiah’s Suffering Servant stands in opposition to such lavish promises following from responding to God’s call.  The prophet suffers as a resulting of his prophesying.  Notice that in the midst of his suffering the Servant remains confident of God’s fidelity.  Still, there is pain when they beat your back and pluck your beard.  Where is the joy in bearing your face to buffets and spitting?  But notice also that the prophet’s faith is not broken by his defeat.  He remains confident that God will be his vindicator.

Once I was invited to a Four Square Gospel Businessmen’s lunch.  A lovely meal was served.  Testimony was part of the session.  I listened as one after another stepped to the podium and witnessed to how the cash registers really started ringing once the businessman turned his life and business over to Christ.  Before Christ the business struggled.  After Christ, everything came up roses.  As each one finished his presentation I knew my turn was coming closer.  There was no way that I would be able to speak of those kinds of triumphs.  Maybe I should just pass.  But that wouldn’t do, so there I was standing on the dais, gazing out at the other attendees, conscious of the microphone before me.  All eyes were on me.  Expectant smiles wreathed most of the faces.

“I want to thank all of you for the testimonies you have shared today.  Your joy is obvious.  My own experience has been quite different from yours, however.  I certainly do not want to put a damper of the enthusiasm spilling over in this luncheon.  Maybe my faith-walk has also been different from yours.  But I remember that when I first knew that I believed and wanted to follow Jesus that his words kept ringing in my ears and lodging in my heart: If you would follow me, take up your cross everyday and follow me. That’s what I heard him say and that’s what I have tried to do everyday.  Some days the cross is heavier than on others.  But it is always there.  And my hope is in the Resurrection when my dying is over.”  The applause was polite though far from deafening.

In this week’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him, what conclusions are they drawing.  We saw last week that the crowds were in absolute amazement about Jesus and concluded that he did all things well.  It seems that Jesus wants a digest of what the people are saying.  The disciples relate that people are very impressed with his preaching.  Some liken him to the recently beheaded John the Baptist, even wondering if he is the Baptist back from the grave.  Others, knowing that Elijah must return from heaven before the Messiah comes, wonder if Jesus is Elijah.  Certainly he is one of the great prophets.  Not bad reviews over all.

Then Jesus zeros in on those who have made the decision to be his followers.  It’s fine to know what others think but who do you say that I am? Who is it you are following?  Peter steps forward and speaks for the rest: You are the Christ! Don’t miss the fact that Jesus neither affirms nor denies Peter’s statement.  What he does do, however, is forbid them to tell anyone about their conclusion.  That’s odd, isn’t it?  Odd until you remember that at other major moments of revelation along the way he has silenced them in the same way.  And he will do it again on the way down the mountain following the Transfiguration.  They are silenced because they do not understand yet what they have witnessed.

When Peter said, You are the Christ, which translated means, you are the Messiah, he had a specific idea of messiah in mind and what the messiah would accomplish.  Actually, his hopes for the messianic age were not far from those realized by the Gospel Businessmen.  Peter thought the Messiah would usher in a new age of prosperity lifting up the poor.  The Messiah would drive foreign rule, the Romans, from Israel.  The Messiah would set up his reign and people to manage it.  Surely those closest to him would have favored places in that cabinet.

Nothing could be farther from Jesus’ messiahship.  The disciples have seen the powerful Jesus.  He walked on water.  Even the wind and the waves obey him! Then how can it follow that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed, and rise after three days? Partly out of affection for Jesus and partly because Peter did not want to let go of his dream, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him. That’s a pretty strong word and usually implies a rather thorough dressing down.

In the vernacular, Jesus loses his cool and shouts back at Peter with the same vitriol.  Get behind me Satan! It isn’t that Jesus is saying that Peter is the epitome of evil.  But Peter is acting as a tempter.  And if Jesus senses the temptation that means there is something attractive about it.  Things that repulse us do not tempt us.  But Jesus is faithful to the Father’s will and casts off the temptation and commands Peter to walk in his footsteps, watch over his shoulder, and acquire a new understanding of Messiah as he witnesses Jesus the servant.  And more, accept what following the Messiah will mean for the disciples who must imitate him.

Bounty?  Power?  Position?  Imagine how stunned the crowd and the disciples were at the message Jesus had for them.  He spoke clearly.  Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow me.  Those who wish to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake and that of the gospel will save them. It seems crystal clear that discipleship will always involve suffering, the plucking of beards and buffeting of which Isaiah spoke.  Jesus follows in that tradition of the Suffering Servant even to death on a cross and so, too, must his disciples.

At this point in the Church’s Year, we are confronted with the same question Jesus asked Peter.  Each of us must answer it in the silence of our hearts.  Who do you say that I am? And the answer will depend on what kind of Messiah we think Jesus is.  There is a profound reason why our faith-lives center about Sunday Eucharist.  We come together worn by the week’s labor to be refreshed and renewed.  We are nourished by the word and strengthened by it.  We enter into the Eucharist that is always giving thanks to God in the dying and rising of Jesus.  We enter into the dying and die there, too.  We enter into the rising and rise there to new life.  Refreshed, strengthened and renewed, we are sent to continue on The Way with Jesus for another week, to continue taking up the cross everyday, to continue believing that if we lose our lives in this service of the gospel we will save it.  That’s what Jesus promised.  And that’s what we believe.

A final point.  Why do you think the early church paid such homage to martyrs?  Why was it that in the days of the catacombs, Eucharist was celebrated on the graves of the martyrs?  To this day, bones of martyrs are entombed in the altars at which the Eucharist is celebrated.  These are the ones who heard Jesus’ challenge to take up their cross every day.  These are the ones who gave their backs to be beaten and their beards to be plucked and their faces to be buffeted.  These are the ones who were ground in the lions’ jaws like wheat in the mill.  These are the ones who died for the sake of the gospel.  And these are the first to experience the fulfillment of the promise that if the lost their lives for Jesus’ sake they would save them.  These are the Church’s first victors.  And to the victors belong the spoils.

Sincerely,

Didymus