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God's Family

Posted on 22 September 2015 by patmarrin

“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it” (Luke 8:21).

One of the challenges for the global church is that it must represent the interests of all its members, not just one region or nation. Pope Francis will bring this perspective to his visit to the United States and, in particular, to his address at the United Nations.

He arrives today in Washington, D.C., perhaps the most powerful city in the world, but he is coming by way of Cuba, a tiny nation with equal claims to human worth and influence. Before that, Pope Francis was in the Middle East, the Philippines, Korea and Latin America, and in November he will visit Africa. As a holy "father," his concerns encompass the whole global family.

In today's Gospel, Jesus is told that his own family is trying to reach him through the crowds. Does not blood and tribe and village have a claim on his attention? He sends back word that there is now a new basis for family affiliation. "Who are my brothers and sisters? My mother? Those who hear the word of God and keep it."

For those who want to hear special praise from the pope or support for their particular agenda, his message will focus on this new family, the needs of all, especially the billions of people who have fallen outside the borders of affluence and privilege protected by U.S. political and economic interests. The pope will speak about immigrants and refugees, income disparity, the care of the earth, our common home, about dialogue and respect in our religious and cultural diversity.

And above all, the pope will call for action. It is not those who hear the truth, or talk about it, or issue papers and hold conferences, but those who act. His words will put the developed nations on notice that climate change demands action, economic injustice must stop if we want peace, enemies must talk instead of threaten one another. The whole human family must be at the table where the future is being decided, or there will be no future.

Who are my mother, brothers and sisters? Those who act on behalf of the common good of the entire family, the global community, the one planet we all call home.

Look At Me

Posted on 21 September 2015 by patmarrin

"As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post" (Matt 9:9).

The call of Matthew is simple and sudden. Jesus sees him at his custom post collecting taxes, he says to him, "Come, follow me," and Matthew immediately gets up and follows him, leaving behind his post, and his former life as a tax collector.

What was it about this encounter that was so compelling for Matthew? This, and other call and conversion stories, seem to indicate that when Jesus looked at someone, they knew that he was seeing them deeply, both as they were and as they might be or as God had destined them to be. To turn away from this look of love would be to miss the chance to become their true selves, a goal built into every human being, to be true to ourselves.

The call of Matthew, reflected upon and depicted in a famous painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio, played a decisive role in the vocation of Pope Francis as a young man. He says that he felt Jesus seeing him and calling him in a similar way. The motto Francis chose for his coat of arms is the Latin phrase Miserando atque eligendo, or “You saw me with mercy and chose me.”

Attempts to capture the moment when people fall in love include this experience of feeling we have been seen as we want to be and hope to be by someone who literally “beholds” us with love and understanding. Song lyrics like, “Turn around, look at me” or “I saw you standing there,” or “The first time ever I saw your face,” describe this moment when the invitation to love enters and changes our lives.

Jesus looks at each of us with such all-encompassing love. We exist because God sees us. We become our true selves because God is calling us forward into the light of love, our life’s purpose and destination. Matthew was hopelessly mired in sin and contradiction when Jesus saw him and called him. Feel the look of love, rise and up and follow him, and you will find life.

In Weakness, True Power

Posted on 19 September 2015 by patmarrin

“If anyone wishes to be first, they shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9:36).

We have entered the mean season of American politics. The road to the White House is crowded with candidates jostling for position, funding and media attention by attacking their opponents and touting their qualifications for high office.

For the disciples of Jesus, the road to Jerusalem was also a messianic march toward power. Behold the miracle worker, the chosen one sent by God to save Israel and restore the glory of David.

We can only imagine their shock when Jesus interrupted their reverie with the reality of his mission to usher in the Kingdom of God not by force but by his suffering and death. It did not make sense to them, especially Peter. Victory was within their grasp; why all this talk of failure and death?

So Jesus, whose parables and gestures were always rich in paradox, stopped along the way, called a child, knelt and put his arms around her. Looking up at his disciples, Jesus said, “You see this child? This is how God is coming to you. Whoever welcomes a single child such as this in my name, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes God.”

For the disciples, this, too, made little sense. How could God achieve victory against Rome, against Herod and the corrupt temple establishment in Jerusalem, if all Jesus had was the innocence and vulnerability of a child? Children had no influence, no power or wealth, they did not vote or lobby, they only slowed you down with their helplessness and need.

Yet it is with this image that Jesus invites us into the hidden strategy of God to save the world, not by earthly power but with love. Here is the foolish wisdom of the poet who proclaims that in the end, beauty will conquer the world, the dreamer who knows that the greatest act of power is not to win over others but to lose yourself in the service of others.

We gather at the eucharistic table, the feast of fools, our affirmation that life awaits us through our willingness to die for one another. This is the sign of the breaking of the bread, the death of the Lord, by which God saves the world. We rejoice to grow backwards from adult pride to childlike wisdom, from the illusion of power to the mystery of love only the heart can enter.

The Nuns on the Bus

Posted on 18 September 2015 by patmarrin

"Jesus journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women..." (Luke 8:1).

Because the institutional church is to be an extension of the ministry of Jesus, it is instructive to look at the original group of disciples gathered around him. What did the "church" actually look like in the beginning?

Luke tells us in today's Gospel that Jesus and his closest disciples were on the move, a pilgrimage from town to town, preaching the Good News and demonstrating the power of God's grace in the world. The group was made up of men and women: the 12 Apostles and some women identified by name, beginning with Mary of Magdala. In another passage, Luke tells us the women provided for the needs of the ministry out of their means, and that some of them were connected to prominent officials.

Today's description also says that some of the women had been healed of infirmities and had evil spirits expelled from them. This may suggest Luke's need to explain how these women came to be in the apostolic company, though their personal afflictions were not much different than the flaws and weaknesses of the men disciples.

How this primitive church became today's global institution, all male, celibate, hierarchical and even monarchical, is the long, tangled history of the church. But it has to contend with the earliest version it is supposed to emulate.

While some people are critical of Pope Francis for his slowness at integrating women into leadership in the church, there is no mistaking his desire to do so. By calling for "a church of the poor and for the poor," he is de facto acknowledging that such a church can only happen with women, since most of the ministry to the poor is being carried out by women.

One striking example of this is the amazing touring bus making its way across the country to Washington, DC, to meet the pope when he arrives there on Sept. 22. The “Nuns on the Bus” represent the church of the poor the pope envisions. They are the church at the margins of power and wealth, among the poor and dispossessed, the very people Jesus came to serve.

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Mercy Sets Us Free

Posted on 17 September 2015 by patmarrin

"The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (Luke 7:48).

Pope Francis has proposed that the church make a year-long retreat on the theme of mercy. Like love, the aspect of mercy is a many-splendored thing, and only by exploring together the deeper dynamics of this mysterious gift from God will we know our need for it and the blessing that flows from giving it.

Luke is called the Gospel of both women and mercy. Today's moving story of the woman who crashes the party at the house of Simon the Pharisee lays bare the heart of mercy in Jesus and the lack of it in his host.

Simon is a model of legal purity and righteousness, but he withholds the customary courtesy for Jesus. The dinner party is a set-up so that Simon and his fellow Pharisees can probe the orthodoxy of this Galilean upstart. Upon arriving, Jesus does not receive the normal foot washing, anointing and kiss.

When the notorious woman arrives and lavishes all of these on Jesus, Simon is caught in the contradiction of his public virtue and private disdain for those he considers tainted and unworthy of his respect. The little parable Jesus proposes about debt forgiveness exposes the truth that "the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Simon has no need of God's mercy; therefore he does not know how to give mercy to others. He is pure in a sinful world, but devoid of compassion for human weakness in ordinary people. He will never experience the intimacy of love between Jesus and others, and he will never know such human tenderness if he remains in the prison of his pride.

What is our experience of mercy? Have you been forgiven for wounding another or the rupture of an important relationship? Have you ever been brought to tears by the gift of unconditional love you did not deserve? Do you know the joy of being set free of the burden of shame and guilt or of giving that gift to another? If the answer is yes, you are a missionary of mercy to others, for there is no greater joy than the gift of mercy, given and received.

Open Minds, Bigger Hearts

Posted on 16 September 2015 by patmarrin

"We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep" (Luke 7:33).

Reality is complicated and many-sided. One sure sign that dialogue is impossible is when people can only think and speak in simple, black-and-white terms. Something is either right or wrong, good or bad. Truth is more often the balance between extremes. Intelligence, it has been said, is the ability to hold two contrary ideas in your mind at the same time while you sort and distinguish the many nuances that alone convey actual experience.

Jesus addresses his critics as children who reject both happy and sad games. The scribes and Pharisees reject Jesus because he eats and drinks, but they also rejected John the Baptist because he fasted. They are both closed-minded and small-minded. They don't want dialogue because they don't want the truth.

We see this paralysis in our political debates, reduced to shouting and simplistic sound bites. Real problems require adult discussion, distinctions and nuance, not childish pouting. Wherever there is controversy, whether in the church or in society, genuine dialogue is needed to move forward, and this takes patience, intelligence and discernment.

Lord, give us leaders whose values are deep and whose minds and hearts are open to the process of listening and sharing with others, especially those who disagree. The solutions that emerge from community discernment are always stronger than demagoguery or dogmatic absolutes.

Dialogue is another name for hospitality — the capacity to welcome the stranger, explore differences and find unity. We all emerge from such a process enlarged and generous, less fearful and more open. This is the joy of the Gospel.

From Sorrow to Joy

Posted on 15 September 2015 by patmarrin

Kansas City is getting a new bishop. You do not have to be from here to know that this diocese has been in the news a lot over the past few years for the failure of the preceding bishop to abide by the guidelines for the protection of children. But that is old news now.

The assigned readings for today, the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, are quite to the point. The Letter to Timothy offers this window into the early church’s criteria for a bishop:

“Whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Therefore, a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the Church of God?” (1 Tim 3:1-3).

What we see in this profile is the early church’s recognition that the leader of the household has to have the skills and experience to govern wisely and compassionately. While today’s bishops are unmarried, they are expected to show the qualities ordinarily displayed by a good husband and father. Some say that lack of perspective from little experience in parenting has played a role in some bishop’s inattention in the area of the protection of children. It seems clear that no husband or father of children would have failed to put this safeguard ahead of all other considerations when faced with abusive priests.

Every Feast of Mary is a reminder that the church herself is first a mother. Today we reflect on Mary -- and the church -- as sorrowful mothers. We pray that this local church, after much sorrow, may prove to be a joyful mother with a wonderful leader keeping watch over all our concerns and needs.

To Glory through the Cross

Posted on 14 September 2015 by patmarrin

"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15).

Besides inflicting a slow and painful death, crucifixion was designed to humiliate its victims. Reserved for those who opposed the empire, it stripped and nailed any would-be challenger to the power of Rome on a wooden pole in full view to the ridicule of the crowds.

First century preachers must have faced incredulous audiences when they revealed that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified. It would be centuries before the image of a crucified man would be fashionable to wear as Christian ornament. Such a death was ignominious and a curse.

Today's feast of the Exaltation of the Cross therefore represents a profound theological paradox. The cross of Jesus is now central to our faith, the sign of passage we all must make by virtue of our baptism. Every disciple of Jesus must suffer in order to enter the glory of the resurrection.

John's Gospel uses the image of the bronze snake Moses held up over the people as the cure for the snakebites they suffered in the desert (Num 21). In the same way, the "Son of Man was lifted up so that everyone who believes in him might be saved." The hymn quoted in Philippians 4 says that Jesus' death on the cross was his self-emptying act of humility that we might be exalted.

Each time we make the sign of the cross we affirm our union with Jesus in his suffering. We are first people of paradox, then people of praise as God welcomes us through the cross into glory.


The Only Glory That Counts

Posted on 12 September 2015 by patmarrin

“Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mark 8:33).

If we tried to understand Jesus’ ministry as if it were a political campaign, the story might look something like this: A popular candidate for office is gaining attention and a huge following. Wherever he goes, crowds cheer his charisma and message of hope. He and his staff are swamped with requests for interviews and even his opponents acknowledge his appeal by attacking him.

At the height of his success he takes his staff aside and tells them that his goal is to win by losing, to embrace a paradoxical path of rejection, even assassination, in order to reveal an even deeper victory God will guarantee after his death. They must be prepared to go through this time of suffering and contradiction with him. His staff is shocked; some leave to work for other candidates; his closest advisers try to talk him out of this crazy prediction of failure, for all the polls show him on the verge of winning.

Mark’s Gospel reaches precisely this turning point in Chapter 8, when Jesus tells his disciples that despite all their apparent success, his mission is to go to Jerusalem, where all the prophets die, and there face humiliation and death.

Jesus has known this since his time in the desert after his baptism, when Satan promised him success, but on his terms, and Jesus instead accepted the fate of God’s “Suffering Servant.” Jesus will reveal God’s unconditional love for the world not by overwhelming power but by sacrificing himself on the cross of unrequited love and absolute mercy. Only after his crucifixion and resurrection will his disciples begin to understand how love triumphs over sin and death. When Jesus rebukes Peter for trying to dissuade him from this path, he is actually addressing Satan, who is speaking through Peter.

The mysterious path to glory through suffering, even apparent failure, is the sign of the cross that marked each of us when we were baptized. The death of ego and all our human agendas must occur before we can truly hear God’s way of mercy for a sinful world. Discipleship is our time to understand this paradox and accept it in our own lives. It does not make sense by human logic, but if we choose to follow Jesus, it is the only path there is to glory.

We go together, as the community of love that stands at the altar and accepts the sign of the breaking of the bread and the pouring out of the cup. For this were we chosen, and to this purpose we are called and dedicated as the Body of Christ in the world. This is the joy of the Gospel.


Remember and See Clearly

Posted on 11 September 2015 by patmarrin

“Every disciple will be like his teacher" (Luke 6:40).

The many metaphors and parables Jesus used to proclaim God’s Kingdom reveal him as a careful observer of ordinary life. God’s Word is like a sower going out to sow, or a woman baking bread, or a shepherd in search of a lost sheep.

Some images seem to come from Jesus’ own experience. Today’s Gospel includes the teaching on those who see the faults of others but not their own. To bring the lesson home, Jesus describes a man with a beam in his own eye who judges his brother for having a splinter in his eye. We can see Jesus during his time with Joseph in Nazareth, sawdust and shop talk in the air as he learned the skills and wisdom of a small town carpenter.

On this 14th anniversary of the terrible destruction and loss of life on September 11, 2001, we might consider the simple image Jesus used to describe blindness and judgment. In the days following the bombings, the air was filled with both sorrow and anger that made it all but impossible to ask deeper questions about why this act of terrorism had happened. What role had the United States, the most powerful nation on earth, played in spreading violence and discord in other parts of the world? Had we turned a blind eye to the destruction our geopolitical policies and military interventions had caused others?

Political pressures and what turned out to be false information in a well-coordinated campaign to invade the Middle East led to two costly and brutal wars that helped destabilize the entire region. The blind were leading the blind, while accusations against others blocked and continue to block out any ability to see clearly our own role in creating international tensions.

Today’s anniversary ceremonies will remember the tragic loss of life in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania. They might also invoke Jesus’ words about being slow to judge, seeing clearly and acting fairly if we want peace and genuine reconciliation in our troubled world, still roiling with the deep problems that played so large a role in the disastrous events of 2001.