Out to Sea

“Put out into deep water” (Luke 5:4).

Ishmael, Herman Melville’s protagonist in Moby Dick, begins the book by explaining his need to leave the predictable stability of dry land and to go to sea. The open water with its mysteries and risks is where he gets back in touch with himself and life’s horizonless adventure.

The water is where Jesus retreats when the crowds press in on him. He teaches from a boat. He crosses the lake again and again to teach the disciples about the mystery that will follow his earthly sojourn, when knowing the surface of reality will not be enough. Riding the waves and walking on water will reveal the depth of life, whose secrets they must know and and be able to navigate.

Peter, chosen to lead the disciples, must be the first to learn this need to trust the seeming fluidity and unpredictability of following Jesus from life through death into new, deeper life. The experience of being on the water with Jesus and, in today’s Gospel, the overwhelming catch of fish, fill Peter with awe and a sense of his own inadequacy. But it is his humility, not some heroic strength, that Jesus will call the foundation of the church, whose mission is mercy.

It is time to go to sea. Jesus says to each of us, “ Don’t be afraid. Don’t depart from me, but come with me into the adventure of grace.

Getting Away

“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:30).

Though Lady Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, doesn’t know what a “weekend” is or what it is for, most working people do, and they look forward to getting away from their jobs to rest and catch up on family and personal interests.

As the demands of ministry grew and, as Mark tells us, the disciples barely had time to eat because of the crowds, Jesus calls them away in the boat to find a deserted place where they all could rest. But as they arrive at another spot around the lake, the crowds have already come there, eager to hear and touch Jesus. He looks out at the throng and has compassion, “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus will be that good shepherd. The disciples are in training to be the church some day, and one lesson they are learning is that, while they need to balance work and rest, they will never get away from their basic identity as the continued presence of Jesus in the world.

What moves ministry, even when ministers are tired physically, is compassion. The wellspring of compassion need never run dry as long as we are in union with Jesus. Real ministry is not always a matter or reaching into ourselves to give others something, but the call to be with others, to suffer with them, and if we are surrender ourselves to it, this can be an experience that fills rather than empties us.

Heartfirst

“What shall I ask for?” (Mark 6:24).

One of the odd privileges of martyrdom is that the way a good person dies often points eloquently to the way they lived. For example, Oscar Romero was shot through the heart while standing at the altar. Martin Luther King Jr was killed by a bullet to the jaw that silenced one of the most eloquent voices of our time.

John the Baptist died struggling to understand if Jesus was the messiah. He had promised a figure who would bring God’s justice, and Jesus instead had proclaimed God’s unconditional mercy. What his head could not grasp, his heart understood. He entered the kingdom of God heartfirst, but headless.

Few of us will understand the mystery of either our life or our death. What is important is that we try to live consciously and deliberately in the will of God.

Jesus lived and died at the crossroads of sin and grace, human longing and divine promise. Faith is a free-fall surrender, head over heels into the mystery of God. However long it takes or however much we resist, love’s gravity will bring us down to the deepest desire of all, a return full circle to the source of our being, complete at last. How we arrive there will be God’s final gift to us.

Two by Two

“Jesus sent them out” (Mark 6:7).

Mark’s detailed account of the first preaching mission tells us a lot about how Jesus saw the reign of God entering the world. He sends the disciples out two by two. He could have reached twice as many towns if he sent them out singly, but companionship is essential to faith and real discernment. The faith the disciples preach to others is first built up within them as they walk along, sharing their doubts and concerns, encouraging one another. Jesus allows sandals and walking sticks. They are on mission, and so they have shoes to protect their feet from the rocky roads and a stick to aid them in walking up and down hills and to ward off dogs that might delay their progress.

Jesus sends them without money, provisions or even a change of clothes. They will enter each town dependent on the hospitality of its people. Those who open their homes to these strangers will perform the first sign that invites God into their lives. Those who refuse the disciples will show themselves not yet ready for the Gospel, and the disciples are told to move on to those who are.

Finally, the disciples are carrying oil to anoint those who are sick or possessed. What Jesus himself received from the Spirit is to be shared freely. What a beautiful description of our own daily calling, to go forth together, traveling light, moving quickly, stopping wherever we are welcomed, announcing good news and offering comfort and healing to anyone in need.

Church

“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place” (Mark 6: 5).

The martyrdom of 26 Catholic missionaries in Japan is part of a complex story of East meeting West in a shrinking globe. Paul Miki and his companions were crucified and impaled in Nagasaki on Feb 6, 1597, by Japanese officials who feared that missionary activity would be followed by colonial intrusion and control. The executions marked the beginning of the closed-door policy that isolated the remaining members of an underground church for 250 years, without clergy or any sacraments except baptism. Remarkably, when Japan again opened itself to outside contact, the church had survived.

Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann once marveled at the resiliency of the faith exhibited by the Japanese church, and he found hope in its example for the vitality of the larger church today in which priestless parishes are more and more common. The faithful have within their baptismal identity the charisms to be the church, even without bishops and clergy. A Catholic bishop was once quoted as saying that if Catholic families did not give their sons as priests, there would be no Eucharist, and without Eucharist there would be no church.

The Japanese church, with only the primary sacrament of baptism, did not have bishops, priests, Mass or Eucharist. But the laity survived for 250 years because they were the Body of Christ.

The Secret

“Who touched me?” (Mark 5:32).

The two miracles in this Gospel passage are so tightly woven together, we might think of them as a single miracle that leaps from the woman to the little girl through Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel, thought to be the earliest written, offers us a curious look at Jesus, who seems to learn as he goes what it means for him to be God's messenger, a process Mark calls his “messianic secret.” One way to describe this has been to say that Jesus was a different kind of messiah—a suffering servant—rather than a warrior king, and so to avoid misunderstanding, Jesus tells people not to reveal his identity. But another way to understand this is to say that the secret lies in Jesus’ own unfolding grasp of how God is revealing the kingdom through him. In Mark, Jesus deflects credit for miracles, telling people that it is their faith that has healed them. Mark even records that where faith was lacking, Jesus was unable to perform miracles. Today’s reading from Mark 5 illustrates some of these themes.

The woman with the hemorrhage draws power from Jesus by touching his cloak in the crowd. Jesus is unaware until the healing occurs. He stops to ask, “Who touched me?” and the woman comes forward to reveal her healing. Jesus is on his way to the house of Jairus, whose daughter is dying. The woman’s faith instills the moment with profound promise. Jesus pushes forward, telling Jairus not to lose faith, even as messengers arrive to say that his daughter is dead. The professional mourners ridicule Jesus, but he puts them out, taking his disciples and the girl’s parents into the room where her body is lying. Jesus takes her by the hand, tells her to rise, and the girl is alive again. Faith has done this, a continuous flow of faith from the woman in the crowd to the parents and, so it seems, to Jesus himself. The kingdom is at hand where faith draws it forth.

For us, perhaps the real messianic secret is that this same power is always available to us if we believe in it. Where fear and doubt overwhelm us, faith withers and nothing can happen. But where faith flows and grows and is passed along, miracles happen. Could it be that the real messianic secret is about us?

Possessed

“What have you to do with us?” (Mark 5:7).

Forty-five years ago, in October of 1967, several hundred peace activists performed an exorcism on the Pentagon. The public ritual had its most visible effect within the growing consciousness that U.S. foreign policy was, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr the previous April, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” in its pursuit of the war in Vietnam. The exorcism was also recognition that the root of the violence was so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that only a spiritual remedy could counter it. The idea of spiritual force was not alien to military conflicts. It is said that Charles De Gaulle saw the conflict between France and Germany during World War II as struggle between the “angels” of Liberty and National Socialism, an ideological conflict with profound spiritual implications.

The exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac shows Jesus’ authority over demons, but also alludes to the general overcoming of the spirit of the age. Mark has the demon even explicitly name itself “legion,” a reference to the Roman occupation that imposed an alien culture on conquered peoples. The “unclean” spirit is driven into the unclean herd of swine, which, over 2,000 strong, rushes into the sea, a scene evoking the death of Pharaoh’s army at the time of the Exodus. Exorcism is an act of liberation.

Collective obsession and addiction are matters for prayer and fasting, Jesus will later tell his disciples. How many cultural attitudes and behaviors in our own age could be named as a kind of possession? We are forewarned that uprooting them is a long and difficult process. But we are also assured that no alien spirit is more powerful than the Holy Spirit, who brings liberty and healing wherever the kingdom of God is welcomed and lived.

On Edge

“In your justice rescue me” (Ps 71).

We are reminded that Nazareth was in the hill country of Galilee when Jesus’ neighbors, after his spectacular performance in the synagogue, move to throw him over the edge of a hill on which the town was built. Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to offend them by not working any miracles there after delivering his inaugural sermon about how the Spirit of the Lord had been given him to preach, heal and liberate. “A prophet is accepted everywhere but in his own hometown,” Jesus tells them. He has no plans to stay there to make Nazareth into a shrine for pilgrims seeking its favorite son. As Elijah and Elisha worked miracles outside of Israel, so Jesus would take his message afar, beyond local expectations and claims.

It is a strange scene both for Jesus’ provocation and the violent response from his closest friends and neighbors, who were impressed by his gracious words but openly skeptical how this simple carpenter had come by his remarkable reputation. They wanted a show, proof, and he wasn’t about to surrender his freedom or larger mission to perform for them. Thus, from the start, Jesus would fulfill Simeon’s prediction in the Temple 30 years earlier, that he was to be a sign of contradiction, destined for the rise and fall of many. By challenging convention and reversing expectations, Jesus would turn the world upside down. For this offense he would live his life on the edge, always in danger of rejection and misunderstanding. For every healing and exorcism he performed, he would take upon himself the sins of the world, ending up on a cross, reviled and abandoned, even by his disciples and closest friends.

We enter the paradox of the Gospel by walking the edge with Jesus, accepting the ambiguities and risks that call us from our secure certainties and logical expectations into the margins, where miracles and suffering are everyday events. This is why we must say yes each day to his invitation, not knowing what lies ahead, over the edge and beyond the next hill.

The Dream

“My eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:39).

The prophet Joel wrote that “the young see visions and the old dream dreams” (2:28 ). Today’s feast of the Presentation (also Candlemas) depicts Simeon and Anna encountering the child Jesus in the temple. He is the dream they had been pondering most of their lives, the desire of the everlasting hills and the hope of Israel. To hold this child was to experience the fulfillment of God’s promise to save his people. One generation of believers — senior citizens — rejoices to see that God is faithful and that their role to wait and witness this truth is now complete.

The link between the elderly and children is especially cherished. One group, coming full circle to know again the fragility and dependencies of old age, beholds the newest arrivals filled with energy and promise. So it goes, past and future in one seamless story. Simeon also knows that life is not without suffering, that the child will be a sign of contradiction and that a sword of sorrow lies ahead for his parents.

We present our lives to God and for all that has been, we say “Thank you,” and for all that is to come, “Yes.”

Mustard Seed

“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God” (Mark 4:26).

The parable of the mustard seed is about great results coming from something small, a theme found throughout the Gospels: If we offer our small part, God will multiply it. But there is also something wonderfully subversive about Jesus’ choice of the mustard seed. It could be sown by the wind and often found itself in gardens and near fields where it invaded valuable space, grew uncontrolled like the famous kudzu that could take over highways across the American South. And when it became a large bush, it attracted birds, no friendly presence to a farmer when the crop came up.

So what was Jesus saying? The Kingdom of God might invade your life if you accept even the smallest invitation. How many people have started small, volunteering somewhere one day a week, or offering to assist a neighbor? A year later they find the joy and challenge of seeing their time, treasure and talent woven into the fabric of other people’s lives. The Kingdom of God is like this. Love is in the wind. Expect the birds to arrive any day.

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