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Greatness Through Service

Posted on 25 July 2016 by patmarrin

"The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve" (Matt 20:28).

We should be grateful for the audacity of the "Sons of Thunder" and their mother for pressing the issue of greatness among the disciples of Jesus. His response to the attempt by James and John to jockey themselves into privileged status occasioned Jesus' clear instruction to all his disciples on the nature of leadership through service: "You know that worldly leaders lord it over others and their great ones make their authority over others felt. But it shall not be so among you."

As we witness the two national conventions in the race for the U.S. presidency, we have a chance to compare many approaches to the pursuit of public office. As we listen to speeches and compare records, we must discern the extent to which any candidate is in it for themselves or for public service. We, as electors and voters, must decide which contender is more likely to use power to promote the common good, advance the welfare of all citizens, especially minority groups and the more vulnerable members of society.

St. James the Apostle had the instincts of a self-serving politician when he and his brother tried to maneuver themselves into positions of power. But he hardly understood what he was saying when he asked for a special portion of the fate of Jesus, who was already determined to go to Jerusalem to lay down his life for others. James would need the same audacity to engage the challenges ahead as a witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He would indeed drink the cup that Jesus drank, and so we honor him today on his feast.

Jesus has given us the measure by which to examine the motives and performance of all our leaders, whether they are candidates for office or bishops and pastors. Those who serve and are willing to sacrifice their own interests for others are the ones worthy of our support.

Prayer and Hospitality

Posted on 23 July 2016 by patmarrin

“Knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:10).

In his teaching on effective prayer, Jesus makes clear that forgiveness of one another is how we open our hearts to God’s forgiveness. A closed fist cannot easily receive a gift. The human heart has one door, and if it is closed to others it is also closed to God, who so often comes to us in the guise of our neighbor.

But there is another dimension to prayer called hospitality. After teaching his disciples how to pray the “Our Father,” Jesus tells them a parable about a person who has unexpected guests at his door at midnight and runs to his neighbor to beg for bread to feed them. The story is about someone who needs hospitality to show hospitality, and it reveals the basic network of generosity on which every community depends, that those with resources be willing to share with those in need because they might be in need themselves the next time.

The host of one house encounters the reluctance of the host at another house to get up to help him. The chain of kindness is threatened, one neighbor’s “no” will send “sorry” down the line to the arriving guests, whose hungry children will remember never to depend on others but to provide only for themselves. The social compact is diminished, neighborliness is strained, reciprocity breaks down, the covenant is ignored and the poor go hungry. But the story does not end that way. The sleepy neighbor in the end realizes that his persistent neighbor must be served to restore peace to everyone. The circle is unbroken.

Jesus teaches us that prayer is less about quid pro quo than about interdependence and relationships that, if honored, build up community and ensure that every need is met, every door opens when someone knocks, every question or problem is resolved with generous love. God, the source of all blessings, guarantees it.

But a single selfish neighbor, a neighborhood that loses this spirit, a city that grows cold with fear and distrust, a nation in which competition insures scarcity and disparity among its citizens, will not know how to pray when they need God the most. A nation that ignores the knock at midnight because it fears the stranger or because its conscience has fallen asleep, will miss the joy of the Gospel.

Because everyone depends on this chain of hospitality, let us pray with all our hearts: “Lord, teach us how to pray.”

Woman, Why Are You Weeping?

Posted on 22 July 2016 by patmarrin

“They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him” (John 21:13).

There are several instances in the gospels where it is recorded that someone weeps. These scenes depict a person on the threshold of intense suffering that is also a kind of baptism toward deeper awareness and transformation. Peter’s bitter tears after his betrayal of Jesus reduce him to helpless emptiness in preparation for the gift of mercy he will later receive from Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias.

Jesus himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus, a gut-wrenching grief at the death of his friend that defines biblical hesed, God’s overwhelming compassion. From a human standpoint, his grief pushes him to the place in the human heart where the deepest prayer is possible, and from that place he asks for the reversal of death and the restoration of life for his beloved friend.

Mary’s tears at the tomb show her in grief and utter loss of the one person she had entrusted her heart and all her hopes. Her words indicate that at this early stage in the dawning of Easter faith she had yet to understand the meaning of the empty tomb. She thinks that the body has been removed, either stolen or taken to another burial place. Her desire is to complete the ritual of anointing the body of her beloved master and “Lord,” an early indication that she has already intuited that Jesus is more than just an ordinary man, but somehow from God.

Mary peers into the empty tomb and sees two mysterious messengers who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She then encounters Jesus, who asks the same question, adding, “Whom are you looking for?” She thinks he is the gardener until he says her name, “Mary.” At the sound of his voice, she sees with intimate recognition, another name for faith. She crosses the threshold from despair to hope, from grief to joy. As the sun breaks the horizon, dispelling the dark night of suffering and loss, Jesus, her Lord and Teacher, is before her. But she cannot hold him yet, for he is still in transformation to full glory, from history to eternity, out of time to perpetual presence in the world as the sign of God’s mercy for sinners and as the model for our holiness.

This garden encounter heals creation of original sin and opens the way to restored intimacy with God for everyone who can see, hear and respond to the invitation to new life. The larger story contains the fulfillment of the law and prophets and the journey of salvation from the beginning of the world. Yet, for Mary, it is also a personal love story that will ordain her as the very first evangelist of the risen Christ, preacher to the preachers. Jesus sends her to tell the brothers, who have fled in fear and still cower in the darkness of the locked upper room.

With an irony that seems lost on so many in the official church, women will gather to celebrate this feast day of Mary of Magdala, forbidden to preach formally the Good News their sister inaugurated at the tomb, still weeping for the Lord who has been taken away from them. Their loss is more poignant than any sermon delivered from pulpits today. We, as believers, are still on our way to full sight, still unable to touch the beloved body of Christ, which only the women witnessed on the cross and then at the tomb and on the road. For one day, at least, they teach us our need for another baptism of tears before we can all grasp the full meaning of our faith.

Hear the Parable, See the Invitation

Posted on 21 July 2016 by patmarrin

“This is why I speak to them in parables …” (Matt 13:14).

Jesus, like his prophet predecessors, offered images and parables, little stories that the listener had to compare to their own situations to get the message. A sower goes out to sow. How does this apply to me? A woman takes yeast and makes bread. How does this apply to me?

Unlike direct instructions or commands, parables invite people to enter the imagery and respond to the depth of their understanding and need. Some will stay on the surface, hearing only an interesting story, while others will grasp the deeper challenge and make a life-changing decision. As a teaching method, parables capture our imaginations, then confront us with personal choices we might avoid had we not been drawn emotionally into a compelling story before we realized its hidden challenge or question.

In today’s gospel, Jesus reveals how paradoxical parables are. Isaiah the prophet, addressing Israel six centuries earlier, knew well that people hear only what they want to hear, see only what they want to see. Confronted with the truth, they refuse to hear it because they don’t want to change their ways. The parables of Jesus do not force the question, but invite listeners to open their minds and hearts freely to God’s truth. Parables hide the truth from those who reject it, but reveal the truth to those who are ready to hear it and act on it.

Jesus is himself the parable of God’s presence in our world. To see him and to know him is to enter a lifelong process of being transformed in his likeness, which is our own identity revealed. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, God’s purposes unfold before us, guiding our thoughts and actions. May this day be an adventure in self-discovery and intimate encounter with God, who is the meaning of the story we have been invited to live.

Listen Up!

Posted on 19 July 2016 by patmarrin

“Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear” (Matt 13:9).

Anyone who is following the campaigns and conventions leading up to the 2016 presidential election will know the power of storytelling. This month and in the months to come until November, we will be inundated with images, words, analysis and commentary designed to persuade us that this or that story, personified in this or that candidate, best fits the reality of our nation, our society and ourselves.

The biblical story holds that the universe itself is the result of the story God is telling with words so powerful that they create worlds, shape the primal forces of our physical existence as the context for both God’s design and our freedom to either follow or frustrate the unfolding history of the earth and its inhabitants. Each generation is but a fleeting moment in the long continuum of space the time, but empowered to influence the trajectory of a small but significant player in the universal plan.

Today’s readings tells us about God’s call of the Prophet Jeremiah, whose words will confront and challenge the direction the nation and its leaders are choosing. The words God places in Jeremiah’s mouth will have the force of reality: “Too root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.” In Matthew’s gospel, we will hear the many parables of Jesus, powerful stories that invite us to hear and respond to God’s word. Jesus is like the sower who goes out to sow, encountering many levels of readiness and attentiveness. Where the seed finds receptive ground, it will multiply its effects.

The crowds are eager to hear Jesus speak. His stories open their imaginations to a world of fresh possibilities. The joy of the Gospel touches those with ears to hear. God wants to give us abundant life, shared life, an overwhelming harvest of goodness and love. Listen to the story, then become the story, for it is the underlying presence of God at work in history, pouring out gifts that multiply to create new communities of hope, compassion and courage.

We are called upon to choose the story that best describes our vision of the world. Some stories are driven by fear and, telling us to defend ourselves from others, from scarcity and threat in a world of strangers and enemies. Other stories promise success without struggle, safety without sharing, predictability without risk.

Into this maelstrom of storytelling comes a different kind of storyteller and a new story. Let those who have ears to hear listen.

The Sign of Jonah

Posted on 18 July 2016 by patmarrin

“An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet" (Matt 12:39).

Today's readings continue the theme that God sends prophets to us to call us to observe the commandments and to live the Covenant of justice and love. Micah was such a prophet in ancient Israel. Jesus, the greatest of the prophets, invites us to united our lives to the mystery of his self-sacrificing death and life-giving resurrection as the central sign of our Christian discipleship. This is the meaning of our baptism and the mission given to all those in the community of his body in the world.

The story of Jonah was applied to Jesus. Jonah preached to the Ninivites, Israel's worst enemy and the epitome of evil, yet they repented. Jonah is swallowed up by the great fish (death), but then is delivered after three days, so Jesus goes down in death but is raised up as a sign of God's mercy for a sinful world. What greater sign can we received that God wants us to choose life, to turn away from violence and evil to lives of justice, peace and mercy?

World events have a way of getting our attention, reminding us that there are consequences for our actions. Where violence and hatred are sown, a harvest of hurt and fear is the result. Where peace and justice are promoted, people come together in civility to solve their problems. We all have a responsibility to be agents and sources of compassion and fairness, reason and courtesy, to acknowledge our failures, seek reconciliation and try harder to create community.

Now is our time to pray for peace and to work for justice. There is no other way to reap a harvest of love than to sow seeds of love in every word we speak and every action we take. God will bless our offerings, so let us be part of the solution and not the problem.

Entertaining Angels

Posted on 16 July 2016 by patmarrin

“You are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing” (Luke 10:42).

Hospitality is the “one thing necessary." If Jesus is God’s gift to us, then to receive him as fully as possible is the necessary response that opens us to every other grace. Today’s Gospel story is about two different levels of hospitality. Jesus does not reject Martha’s practical service, but he does praise Mary for welcoming him first and foremost into her heart.

The Bible has many stories of hospitality at many levels. The famous account of Abraham and Sarah’s welcome of the three strangers (Gen 18:1-10) shows total openness. The result is the promise of a child who will fulfill God’s promise to extend the couple's living memory forever, a covenant that millennia later will include Jesus, Messiah, son of Abraham, Son of God.

This story introduces a theme into the biblical value system that makes hospitality a gateway to God’s blessings. By welcoming the “stranger” we welcome God, or, as Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, put it: “In welcoming the stranger we end up entertaining angels.”

In another Gospel story, Jesus is invited to dinner by Simon the Pharisee, but then given no ordinary signs of welcome – water to wash his feet, a kiss or an anointing with oil. In contrast, a woman intrudes on the gathering and lavishes her attention, tears and perfume on Jesus (Luke 7:36-50). Mary is like this woman, focusing all her attention on Jesus by boldly sitting in the circle of men disciples to listen to him and to engage him heart to heart.

To listen to another is to welcome them personally in a way no formal or practical amenities can match. Martha dutifully and generously provides the setting for this welcome, while remaining in her "place” as a female hostess. But Jesus cannot but praise Mary for daring to break convention to go to the deeper level of hospitality that establishes an intimate relationship with him. She has become a disciple.

The community celebration of the Eucharist is our invitation to listen deeply and personally to the real presence of Jesus, to commit to him as disciples. It is also an opportunity for us as believers to welcome the stranger, whether this is someone we do not know or who is different from us. Angels may visit our churches regularly in the poor and the outcast, and if we welcome them we are welcoming new life, embracing Jesus himself.

Mercy and the Rules

Posted on 15 July 2016 by patmarrin

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt12:8).

Pope Francis’ summary letter after the two synods on the family in Rome emphasized the need for church rules to meet the reality of married couples’ actual experience, especially for those in second unions. The focus was on the reception of Communion, which the pope has repeatedly said was “the medicine of mercy and not a reward for the righteous.”

Critics, including many other church leaders, have continued to question the pope’s approach, claiming that to allow anyone who is not keeping the rules to receive the Eucharist undermines the rules by removing a public penalty. The pope’s approach has been to redefine the role of the Eucharist as a quid pro quo in that enhances the power of church officials over people. The pope wants a relationship to the church marked by mercy.

Jesus was criticized over the Sabbath laws, whether healing was “work” and in today’s Gospel, whether his hungry disciples could “harvest” grain to eat as they walked through a field. The example Matthew has Jesus appealing to is from 1 Samuel 21, when David and his soldiers, fleeing King Saul, were right to eat the bread in the temple reserved for priests. The incident preserves the drama of David’s often “illegal” behavior out of necessity and his stature as the model for God’s indulgent, merciful love.

Jesus answers his critics by saying that necessity knows no law and that the Sabbath is for people, not the other way around. Legalism for its own sake or to preserve the power of a rule maker misses the point of God’s care for his people, who often struggle through life’s dilemmas doing their best. Those who would pile up burdens on other people’s backs that drive them to their knees are hardly good representatives for a loving, merciful God.

We all move through life’s ambiguities as sinners and saints. The point of mercy is that God’s love for us never wavers. Sin has its own penalties and virtue its own rewards. We do not need additional reminders or burdens to complicate our journey, especially from those who say they represent God. Controversy will always be with us. The Good News is that Jesus walks with us in our struggles to do what is right and best.

Being Fully Human

Posted on 14 July 2016 by patmarrin

"My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt 11:30).

In this famous and encouraging passage from Matthew's Gospel (11:28-30), Jesus first praises the little ones who grasp the revelation of God's kingdom. They see and accept what the "clever and learned" people miss. God is present to the poor in their ordinary struggles, hopes, fears and joys.

Jesus then invites everyone to step into the yoke of the human condition as the best way to live. Do not resist or try to escape life's ordinary adversities and opportunities. You will only make your lives more complicated and increase your frustrations. No, go with the flow, share the common challenges of life and you will find the ordinary graces of community, humor, the lightness of being that is God's gift.

Jesus is describing and modeling for us the mystery of the Incarnation. God is with us, waiting to be found in ordinary experience, not in grand schemes or strategies for transcending life to avoid suffering or the common lot. Jesus is himself the model for accepting the struggle and grace of each day as the place to find God.

He invites us today to go with the flow, for this is how we go with God.

Being Fully Human

Posted on 14 July 2016 by patmarrin

"My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt 11:30).

Jesus first praises the simple and humble for recognizing the presence of God in their lives. He then invites everyone to step into the human condition, its ordinary challenges and burdens, a the most natural way to live.

In both counsels, Jesus is talking about the Incarnation, the mystery of God among us. Jesus is himself the model for joining divine life with human life a the full experience of the image and likeness of God. He does not try to avoid the human condition but goes with the flow, accepting that each day will bring its share of joy and sorrow, weakness and strength, adversity and opportunity.

Those who try to escape life's difficulties by imagining that they are above it all or in control of their circumstances will only complicate their lives. They are the clever and learned people who think that they can transcend normal existence because they are better or smarter than others or have grand ideas about escaping life's burdens and sufferings.

Those who take up the common struggle each day, getting in the harness with others, will not only enjoy the benefit and humor of everyday experience, they will also find Jesus, perfect human and the full revelation of our divine destiny. "Go with the flow," Jesus says, "and you will be going with God." This is the secret of joy and the best way to live.