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Going Deep, Going Long

Posted on 13 June 2016 by patmarrin

Offer no resistance to one who is evil" (Matt 5:39).

The Sermon on the Mount contains Jesus' core teachings for his disciples. The Beatitudes reveal a mysterious and deeply paradoxical invitation to live in between present reality and future ideals. A disciple is to be simple, pure, compassionate, committed to peace and justice, ready to suffer rejection from a world that is none of these visionary values.

It is a radical course, one likely to make disciples both impressive for their idealism but also strange, even pitiable, for their stubborn impracticality. Think of Amish communities, or Quaker pacifists, anti-war activists, even artists who refuse to go commercial in a culture that rewards conformity and praises those who model success and competition.

Even more inexplicable and offensive to modern sensibilities is Jesus' teaching on violence. "Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give anyone who asks the shirt off your back" are laughable in a society built on self reliance and stand your ground, my rights and assured retaliation as the best defense. We are bathed in the rhetoric of pushback and get there first. Who could ever get elected to any office based on the Sermon on the Mount? We honor spiritual and religious values, but reserve them to pious sermons.

The teachings of Jesus might have never survived if they had not been lived by Jesus, who suffered the consequences of his idealism to the point of excommunication as a heretic and execution as a criminal. Yet, he also survives in the collective imagination as the one person who exhibited the fullness of everything we say is most human and most praiseworthy. He is also the only person believed to have been raised from he dead as confirmation by God that he had gotten it right.

What are we to do with such a challenge? This is the personal paradox Jesus left us. What might we do today to test the validity of his message in our own way and in our own lives?

Love Cancels Out Sin

Posted on 11 June 2016 by patmarrin

“Her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love” (Luke 7:46).

We have the adage: “Love covers over a multitude of sins.” That love and sinfulness can come together in some lives is the story of many noteworthy people, and this apparent anomaly confounds those who are quick to judge.

When Pope Francis cited Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as models of Catholic faith during his address to Congress last year, he surely knew that both had lived complicated, controversial lives of personal failure and redemption. He also cited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, vilified by some for his extramarital affairs, yet someone who sacrificed everything to advance the cause of justice.

“Who am I to judge?” Pope Francis famously said when asked about God’s love for LGBT people, adding in another interview that he himself was a sinner who had been shown mercy and been chosen by God.

Today’s Gospel story about the “sinful woman” who came to the house of Simon the Pharisee to thank Jesus is another of Luke’s Gospels in miniature. The God of mercy revealed in Jesus came to find and forgive sinners. Where mercy finds those who are damaged and lost, it embraces them and awakens love. This unconditional and undeserved love invites sinners into an exchange of mutual love that transforms even an enemy into a friend of God.

Only those who refuse that mercy -- because they see no need for it in their own lives -- postpone this transformation. This is the case with Simon, whose show of hospitality is only the veneer of a hidden disrespect for Jesus, who has been invited to dinner to be interrogated in order to expose his errors. Simon has set a formal trap for his guest, but because there is no love in his heart, he cannot bring himself to show even ordinary courtesy of greeting him with water to wash his feet, a kiss and oil for his head. The sinful woman, however, comes uninvited to weep over Jesus’ feet, to pour priceless perfume on them and wipe them with her hair while lavishing kisses on him.

We hear echoes in this story of the hated Samaritan who likewise lavished love on the victim left on the side of the road to Jericho (Luke 10), while the priest and Levite, perfect in the Law, ignored him. The sinful woman, like the Samaritan, is praised for her love, which fulfills the Law better than any act of ritual purity or temple sacrifice.

The Year of Mercy invites each of us to break the seal on our alabaster hearts and to pour out our love on the person in our lives who deserves it least. Then we will know just how much God loves us with an outpouring of love from the beginning that called us into existence, named and cherished us even when we were sinners, and is every day leading us home to God.

When we attend Mass, we gather with other sinners, called in baptism, washed, anointed and kissed as God’s beloved children, formed by the Word and fed at the Table of the Lord. This is how we become ministers of mercy to others. How can we say no to such love?

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The Sound of Silence

Posted on 10 June 2016 by patmarrin

“After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound” (1 Kgs 19:13).

Many years ago, during a short visit to El Paso, Texas, I had the chance to spend a few hours in the White Sands National Park just across the state line in New Mexico. I will forever remember the intense silence, which seemed to pull the noise out of me. The constant rush of words that normally flows in my head, the sound of my pulse in my ears and, it seemed, my very identity, were swallowed up by that immense space. I was in the presence of something so much larger and older than I could imagine, and it made me feel utterly small and insignificant.

Later, reading a biography of St. Catherine of Siena, I recognized a similar feeling in her description of her encounter with God, that she was “ one who is not in the presence of the One Who Is.” Her nothingness was lost in God’s Absolute Being. This also echoes Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush and the divine name revealed to him: “Tell them I AM sent you.”

In today’s first reading, Elijah’s mystical encounter with God conveys a glimpse of this same absolute reality. Standing in a cave on Mount Horeb, Elijah experiences three tremendous displays of power, a rock-rending storm, an earthquake and a blazing fire. But God is not revealed in the so-called “shock and awe” of natural or man-made power. Instead, God comes to Elijah in a "tiny whispering sound." Think of Paul Simon's song, “The Sound of Silence.” Elijah is so finely attuned to recognize God’s voice that in the silence he hears his final instructions to anoint the next king of Israel and to select his successor, Elisha.

If this is how God was revealed to the prophets, what must it have been like to encounter Jesus, the divine mystery hidden in a human being? We think of Jesus as a powerful figure, but perhaps we might also think of him as possessing a quality of such deep silence that everyone who encountered him felt that he was listening and seeing them to the core, drawing them to himself so gently that their very existence was being exposed to his love.

Isn’t this the gift of friendship, to be listened to with such understanding that all our defenses go down as we are received in love and truth? Such encounters tell us who we really are and what we are meant to become as we surrender ourselves to the One who knows us intimately. And it is not God’s awesome power that attracts us, but God’s utter littleness, the greatest paradox we will ever know.

The Word invites each of us to seek the sound of silence, a refuge from the noise and hyper activity generated by the world around us and by our own anxious egos craving attention and affirmation. God waits for us in the still point and center of our hearts. "Come and rest. Seek the divine face, which alone can whisper the truth of who you really are."

Let Go, Let God

Posted on 09 June 2016 by patmarrin

“Settle with your opponent quickly while on your way to court” (Matt 5:24).

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes up the challenge of deep virtue — habits of goodness that define our very being. In his confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus warns his disciples that external observance of the commandments is not enough; it must be accompanied by an internal transformation. A hypocrite is one who appears to be something he or she is not.

In today’s Gospel, the focus is on anger. The fifth commandment forbids murder, but what about the simmering anger and resentment that can consume the one who holds it and destroy any chance of reconciliation with the one it targets? A “righteous” person who is irritated all the time neither pleases God nor are they very effective at helping others overcome their faults.

Ironically, idealistic people and those who are determined to be virtuous are often the ones who have the greatest struggle with anger at others who do not share their zeal. Jesus describes the struggle perfectly. Unresolved conflict is like going to court against an opponent. If we let it go too long, all our energy is focused on rehearsing our case against someone, reviewing the evidence, justifying our own behavior and detailing the offenses of the other. Even our ability to pray is crowded out by this default setting that is stirred up when we try to open our minds to God.

If not resolved, self-righteousness hardens our hearts, and no apology is enough to heal the hurt. Family feuds spread to other members and divide everyone around perceived offenses no one can precisely recall, while years go by and siblings refuse to speak to another or attend gatherings together. Everyone is in “prison” until some crisis forces an honest reconciliation. What might have happened had we followed the adage “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” becomes an extended trauma that wastes energy and destroys everyone's peace of mind.

Another simple adage, “Let go and let God,” is the answer. Life is a mystery we engage imperfectly and gradually. Conflict is inevitable and even necessary if we are to grow in love with others. Letting God help us manage our daily dealings is a path that teaches patience and humility. Love means having to say you are sorry often, but it sets everyone free and keeps us moving forward. Deep virtue belongs to the whole community, which is why the sacrament of reconciliation is a communal celebration that restores everyone. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Love Fulfills the Law

Posted on 08 June 2016 by patmarrin

“How long will you straddle the issue?” (1 Kgs 18:21).

The thrilling account of the Prophet Elijah’s face-off with the 450 prophets of Baal shows how important biblical literature is to all of literature, including Shakespeare and all of what passes for contemporary hero stories, especially in film. Where can we find a superhero like this “Man of God” who challenges the people of Israel to stop straddling the question of their loyalty to God. He sets up the contest of the two sacrifices, giving the followers of Baal every advantage, then showing them once and for all that “the God who answers with fire is God!”

Jesus is in a similar face-off with fierce critics who reject his presentation of God as false and heretical. The establishment, represented by the high priests, the scribes and Pharisees, has reduced the Covenant to the letter of the Law. Their adherence to the rules has replaced the central commandment of love, and in their self-righteousness they have dismissed the poor and the outcasts as incapable of observing the rituals and rules they keep as the measure of purity and obedience. Jesus’ readiness to associate with sinners is regarded as contamination and clear evidence that he cannot be from God.

For Matthew, composing his Gospel for a primarily Jewish church in Antioch after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, answering the charge that Jesus was a law breaker was critical. By fulfilling the first commandment of love, Matthew affirms, Jesus fulfilled the entire Law and the prophets. Disciples who do the same are also keeping the law down to its smallest parts and teaching others to do the same.

In this season of Ordinary Time, we renew our own discipleship by listening to the Holy Spirit, poured out on the church to help us discern how to apply the law of love in our lives. This fulfills the basic commandment to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is no other God and there is no other reality.

Super heroes walk among us, not in capes, costumes and out-sized bodies, but in those who can call down the "fire of love" where it is most needed, to light the way for those in darkness and to warm the hearts of those who feel abandoned and forgotten by a world gone cold with fear. Let us be women and men of God, the face of mercy and the voice of truth in our own time, so in need right now of models of courage and compassion.

Salt and Light

Posted on 07 June 2016 by patmarrin

"Lord, let the light of your countenance shine upon us!" (Psalm 4).

How much we depend upon light. The early riser lights the first lamp. A light is left on for the late arrival. A light in the distance guides the weary traveler home.

Jesus uses the image of light to describe those who place their lives in the sight of God, whose face shines on them and fills them with light-- filling their minds and giving lightness to their hearts. How can they help then being that same light to others? The gift of a single smile starts the day as one person's light is passed along to others. The famous Christopher motto, "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness," is the Gospel in miniature for our times, when so many have given up hope or retreated into the shadows of cynicism and fear.

Jesus also tells his follower to be salt. The art of conversation is the ability to add just the right amount of seasoning -- neither too much nor too little -- to the daily exchanges that set the mood and direction of our own thinking and the reactions of others. How easily a quick judgment or casual prejudice can set the day on edge for others, when we might have been light and flavor to their hearts.

The Good News is so much more than positive thinking. It begins with an encounter with God, the source of reality itself, inviting us to be co-creators of the world that unfolds anew as we step into each day. Our gladness rests on the confidence that God is always there.

Elijah meets the widow of Zarephath, who is in despair over her dwindling jar of flour and jug of oil. How easily fear of scarcity can set people against one another, hardening their hearts and closing their minds to others in desperate need. There will not be enough for us, so do not expect us to be generous with the stranger, the refugee, the newcomer. Elijah asks the widow to trust God's word that there is always enough -- and more -- where God is welcome.

Jesus calls his disciples to be filled to overflowing with God. If we entrust ourselves to this Word, not only will we dwell in peace, everyone we meet today will encounter this same gladness.

As God Sees

Posted on 06 June 2016 by patmarrin

"I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence shall help come to me" (Psalm 121).

Mountaintop experiences renew us because they enlarge our viewpoint, give us a bigger picture of life and our place in it. What we have lost sight of in our daily immersion in routine becomes clearer. Like the helpful locator map in a large mall, we reorient ourselves with "You are here" as a starting point.

In today's Gospel, when Jesus sees the gathering crowds, he goes up the mountain, sits down and begins to teach. From this higher vantage point, the people can see him and he can see them. In Matthew's very Jewish imagery, Jesus is the new Moses, and the sermon he preaches is the fulfillment of what Moses received in his encounter with Yahweh and brought down the mountain to people. The Ten Commandments are now the mysterious and paradoxical Beatitudes.

Wisdom is to see everything as God sees it. God's view is both the big picture and the long view of unfolding time. So what Jesus gives his disciples is the wisdom to find their lives within God's plan. Jesus sees history as driven not by human ambition, the quest for power and status, which over time are like dust in the wind, but by the steady pilgrimage of simple, ordinary, faithful people who understand the will of God. The anawim, God's little ones, despite the difficulties and suffering brought on them by history's charlatans and violent despots, will emerge as the Beloved Community, those who by their fidelity and integrity, revealed God's redemptive plan for the world.

As the long summer months begin for us in ordinary time, Jesus invites us to retreat with him to the mountain. He shows us the long view and larger vantage point that allows us to see as God sees. We recommit ourselves to our work in the world that will yield blessings for ourselves and others in the days to come. We remember our Muslim brothers and sisters as they begin the monthlong fast of Ramadan, which deepens their solidarity with the poor. We unite ourselves with our fellow citizens in the turbulent months of the national campaign that is calling us to examine our deepest values and to choose leaders who will humbly serve the common good, protect the spirit of openness an generosity that is the ideal of of our cherished democracy.

We are called to be wise and courageous in knowing and doing God's will to the best of our understanding. Blessed are all those who look to the mountains, from whence our help comes.

On the Road

Posted on 03 June 2016 by patmarrin

Dear Celebration and Pencil Preaching readers.

I will be traveling this weekend, so Pencil Preaching will not be posted. But look for it on Monday morning. While I am retiring as editor of Celebration, I have been asked to continue this little morning starter, my own encounter with the Word of God each day with my morning coffee. Thanks to all who have shared this way of listening to the Spirit as she speaks to the churches through the liturgy and the Lectionary. The key to understanding Pope Francis is surely to follow the daily readings he reflects on and preaches each day. Blessings to all. Pat Marrin

The Heart of the Matter

Posted on 02 June 2016 by patmarrin

"No one dared to ask him any more questions" (Mark 12:34).

Today's Gospel holds a small drama with large implications, especially for the scribe who was perhaps sent by the skeptical and increasingly hostile opponents of Jesus to test his orthodoxy. The scribe poses to Jesus the one question that would determine if his provocative teachings and radical approach to ministry are from God or not: "Which is the first of all the commandments?"

By reciting the Sh'ma, the one prayer said first each day by every faithful Jew, Jesus shows that he is radically orthodox, grounded in the revelation of God and in the covenant between God and Israel, from Abraham to Moses to David and echoed in all the prophets. The very words of the prayer resonate with such joy in the ears of the scribe, he repeats them after Jesus. "Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

The question and Jesus' reply affirm the absolute organizing principle and center of our relationship with God, as source and destiny, and with one another, as how we show that we understand God's initiating love in our lives. To "listen" with all our being to the truth of our existence, to live this gift in a continual exchange of love flowing back and forth with God to us and through us to our neighbor is to choose holiness within the only reality there is. Any other starting point and purpose is an illusion, and to put ourselves or any idol in the place of God is to choose instead to ride an illusion in a downward spiral to spiritual estrangement and existential death.

The scribe, who has devoted his life to plumbing the depths of God's Word, realizes that he is in the presence of that Word. Jesus looks at him with the gaze of total love that forever changed the disciples he has already called, and he issues this invitation: "You are not far from the Kingdom of God." In other words, " You are on the threshold. Take the next step."

The story ends here, so we do not know what the scribe said or did next, but it is clear that his life has been changed by this encounter with Jesus. He is experiencing, perhaps for the first time, the meaning of the words he has been reciting all his life. His conversion is almost complete. One thing more is needed, his personal surrender to the grace that is flowing to him from Jesus. "Come follow me."

We are that scribe today. Jesus is looking at each one of us with love. Let the one who has ears to hear, "listen!" God is calling you to become your true self, in union with God, with others, with reality, freely chosen and fully lived.

Forever and Ever

Posted on 01 June 2016 by patmarrin

"God is the God of the living" (Mark 12:27).

The early church's proclamation that Jesus had risen from the dead ran into the conservative core of Jewish teaching held by the upper-class Sadducees, who rejected resurrection because it was not found in the Torah, or first five books of the Bible. Rejecting any afterlife meant that wealth and privilege in this life must be a sign of virtue, and this assumption justified ignoring the poor, who, it was assumed, were being punished for their lack of virtue. (The parable of Lazarus and Dives challenged this mentality regarding social responsibility.)

The Sadducees' argument that a woman married to seven brothers would not know who was her husband in the afterlife was a patently thin excuse for their insular attitudes regarding the less fortunate, and, Jesus argued, a misreading of the very Books of Moses. His encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob proved that they were alive and that God is the God of living, not the dead. Resurrection not only affirms that God loves his friends eternally, but it extends our responsibility for one another beyond this life. The poor of this world will stand in judgment over those who neglected them. God waits among the poor and suffering to see who is prepared to claim an eternity of love.

The joy of the Gospel is that the mystery of God is so great it takes an eternity to share in it. This means that every relationship we have is an eternal gift and an etermal responsibility.