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St. Martin of Tours, Veteran

Posted on 11 November 2014 by patmarrin

“When you have done all you have been commanded, say ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do'” (Luke 17:10).

The Lectionary again delivers some irony this November 11 Veteran’s Day by honoring St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of pacifists. Martin (316-397) was a Roman solider when he converted to Christianity. The story survives that he once cut his cloak in half to share it with a beggar, only to realize later that the poor man was Christ. Martin left the military and later became a bishop in Gaul (France). Radical pacifism characterized the church until after Constantine made Christianity the official state religion and the “just war” theory gradually influenced church teaching.

Military service mirrors Christianity’s total devotion by asking its soldiers to give their lives to the national cause, whatever its merits, and it also models a hierarchy of command for bishops, who rule the church with absolute authority. Military protocols also reinforce symbols and structures in much the same way that the liturgy reflects church rank and ceremony.

Today’s Gospel has Jesus telling his Apostles that they are to do their duty without expecting any praise from their Master, since they are only servants (and unprofitable ones at that). This passage sounds a lot like Jesus is affirming the chain of command in the church, until we remember that Jesus actually turned everything upside down. The first will be last, the last first; leaders must be servants, as he himself was a servant, waiting on his Apostles at the Last Supper, even washing their feet.

We honor today all those who serve, whether their country or their religion, while at the same time praying for an end to all violence and war.

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Pope St. Leo the Great

Posted on 10 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the one through whom they occur” (Luke 17:1).

Today is the feast of St. Leo the Great, the Fifth Century pope best known for dissuading Attila the Hun from sacking Rome in 452. The historical basis for this event is sketchy, but the big picture indicates that the Roman empire, extended into the far reaches of the ancient world, was by this time contracting and attracting many of the formerly conquered peoples from the frontiers to invade. Leo’s persuasion was apparently only temporary; Attila returned in 455 and sacked the city.

St. Leo is a doctor of the church, and his teaching on the Eucharist is a powerful reminder to us that we become the body of Christ when we receive him in communion.
Today’s Gospel is about the scourge of scandal – anyone leading an innocent person astray. One of the harshest corrections in the New Testament is given by Jesus in this regard: “It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.“ Jesus surely witnessed the seduction and abuse of many defenseless victims – women, children and slaves – and he levels the threat of being cast into the abyss for those who do this.

But the reading is also about repentance and forgiveness. The Christian community is a refuge for sinners, and mercy is a powerful source of healing for those who seek it. The Eucharist is the medicine of mercy. But such forgiveness is so counterintuitive that only with great faith can any community absorb difficult cases of sin. Yet, Jesus concludes with the image of “faith the size of a mustard seed” being able to “uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea.” No evil, however deeply rooted, can withstand the power of faith. This is good news, for all of us.

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Cleaning House

Posted on 08 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (John 2:16).

It was not without irony that someone chose for today’s Commemoration of the Lateran Basilica the Gospel from John 2 about Jesus cleansing the temple. The fourth-century gift of a huge palace by one of Rome’s wealthiest families to be used as a church recalls the magnificent temple in Jerusalem constructed by King Herod in his bid for acceptance by the Jewish establishment during the time of Jesus.

Resistance to Herod’s patronage as a corrupting influence on Jewish worship was a major tension at the time. A temple reform movement may have been the context for Jesus’ symbolic “cleansing” of the temple area, which struck a public blow to the nerve of complicity between Herod, the High Priest and the Romans, who shared the revenues from animal sacrifice and money changing. Placing this scene at the start of his Gospel was John’s way of defining Jesus’ ministry as about purifying and restoring authentic worship. Jesus offers his own body as the perfect sacrifice that saves Israel. He is the new temple that replaces the old, which had become a “den of thieves.” All four Gospels record this bold action, and historically it could easily have led to Jesus’ arrest and execution.

Money seems to be the root of many of the crises that have confronted the institutional church over the centuries. Luther’s disgust at the selling of church offices and indulgences to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica led to the Reformation. Wealthy donors have financed the papal court and the church's charitable works, but how often as a reward for keeping silent about matters of economic justice that cause the poverty the church then addresses in its ministries?

Pope Francis’ renewed call for a “church of the poor for the poor” has so far been more rhetorical than the de facto cleaning up the secret accounts of the Vatican Bank reportedly used for tax evasion and money laundering. Some billionaire benefactors courted by bishops to help pay for their church renovations have voiced concern over the pope’s criticism of global market capitalism and gross income inequality. The age-old question is whether the vision of Jesus is possible for a world-wide institution with over a billion members.

For us as members of local parishes, the challenge is more about cleansing our own temples of greed and compromise. Can our faith communities be true houses of the kind of worship Jesus said God wanted — a commitment to justice, care for the poor and mercy for sinners? Are we field hospitals for the wounded, places where outcasts are welcome and the table has room for everyone in search of God, or have be become comfort zones for zip code homogeneity and social denial?

While money can buy most anything else in this world, only God can give true peace of mind. Don’t be surprised to find Jesus in your church (and in your heart) this morning, tidying things up so real worship can begin.

Giving Away the Store

Posted on 07 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Prepare a full account of your stewardship” (Luke 16:2).

The parable in today’s Gospel continues Jesus’ theme of mercy. In an odd twist, the story echoes the criticism Jesus was facing from the scribes and Pharisees, who were accusing him of being too lax with sinners. Jesus is himself the steward who is letting debtors off the hook by reducing their debts to his Master. His motives are broad — to help them but also to prepare for his dismissal (death?) by befriending the poor debtors — but in the end, the Master actually commends that “dishonest” steward for his prudence.

Jesus was guilty of giving away the store to sinners. He sought them out, ate with them, opened their hearts to God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. As in the cases of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, heaven rejoiced in their repentance. This extravagant outpouring of love on tax collectors and prostitutes did not sit well with the scholars of the law or the temple priests, who saw themselves as the gatekeepers to God. Jesus has gone too far and, like the bad steward, he had to be denounced and dismissed (eliminated). The thought that God actually approved of his generosity only enraged the leaders all the more.

We will also have to give a full account of our stewardship. There is apparent security in always following the rules, emphasizing strict justice in our treatment of others. But have we also at times erred on the side of mercy, been too generous and forgiving when we might have been more severe? Have you ever been criticized for being too easy on someone? Have you ever given away the store? Jesus moves our hearts from clear choices into the holy ambiguity of unconditional love. Being generous to a fault or too forgiving might not reflect worldly wisdom, but it imitates God and follows the example of Jesus.

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Go Out and Find Them!

Posted on 06 November 2014 by patmarrin

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1).

Jesus lavishes three famous parables on the question of why he seeks out those religion calls “sinners.”

The parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Boy are his appeals to religious people to understand the Gospel of Mercy. God is constantly seeking out those who are lost, wounded and confused. God pursues even the recalcitrant sinner, the one who is in deliberate rebellion. In the imagery of the parables, he will leave the 99 in the wilderness to search for the one lost sheep; she will spend the whole day sweeping out the house to find the one lost coin out of 10; he will send his heart out to the edges of the horizon to scan for the lost child, praying him home no matter what he has done.

This is what God is like, Jesus tells those who criticize him for welcoming and eating with sinners. This scripture is the basis for challenging the common church practice of shunning sinners and denying them communion until they accept the judgment of an official minister of the church and do penance. The Eucharist — both the welcoming Table and the body and blood of Jesus in Communion — are meant for the sick, those who are hungry and thirsty, those who need the "medicine of mercy."

Jesus turns no one away. He dines with the scribes and Pharisees; he shares the common dish with tax collectors and prostitutes. He does this whether they are repentant or not. In Paul’s startling words, “Yet while we were still sinners, Christ gave himself up for us” (Rom 5:8).

Pope Francis' challenge to his fellow bishops to be shepherds of mercy is more than rhetoric. In his closing remarks to them at the Synod on the Family, he said, “The first duty [of shepherds] is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: rather, go out and find them.”

The Word of God invites all of us to consider our own role as shepherds of mercy — in our families, our workplaces, and most importantly, in our attitudes and behaviors. It is not enough to feel merciful or withhold judgment of others. We are to go out and find the lost, welcome them to our table, eat with them, give them our time and attention. This requires a revolution of the heart, but one that will come full circle to save us when we ourselves are lost, wounded and far from home.

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Can You Finish What You Start?

Posted on 05 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).

Jesus tells two parables to illustrate the need to plan ahead. The tower builder and the king commanding an army in the field must have the wisdom to know the cost of their actions. Otherwise they are seen as foolish. So is the case with discipleship. Discern first if you are ready to pay the cost of following Jesus, of bearing the burden of your particular life situation to completion. Only then are you ready to commit.

Yet, the irony of this teaching is that virtually all of the original disciples called by Jesus did not have the will or the resources to complete what they began when invited to follow him. From Peter to Judas, the Apostles fail miserably in the moment of truth when Jesus is arrested and executed. Only John, the “beloved disciple,” is loyal to the end. The rest flee the scene in a shameful display of cowardice, denial and betrayal.

The only lesson we can take from their example is that discipleship is not a straight-line march to glory, but a lifelong process of trial and error, rising and falling, stopping and starting again. The apostles emerge from profound failure to be welcomed again into the forgiveness and peace of the Risen Christ. This experience is, paradoxically, what prepares them to preach the Gospel of mercy. What they themselves received they are able to share with others.

Carrying our unique personal crosses—our faults and failures—is a daily affair. Following Jesus is a long process of listening and learning, continual conversation and slow transformation. Saints are really sinners carried by grace, forgiven again and again, pointed in the right direction when they are lost.

What God begins in us, God will bring to completion, leading and guiding us with love and patience. So begin again each day. This is the Good News.

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Wanted: Servant Leaders

Posted on 04 November 2014 by patmarrin

"Come, everything is now ready" (Luke 14:17).

Today’s U.S. elections invite us to reflect on those who compete for power. Public service can be heroic or a path to self-aggrandizement. Politics is a brutal contact sport, and those who enter it know there are winners and losers, careers made and destroyed, lives enhanced by opportunity or ruined by corruption.

The famous hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 celebrates the self-emptying of Jesus on a path toward total service and surrender to the will of God. To liberate us from sin he becomes a slave, obedient unto death, death on a cross. He models leadership in humble service and self-sacrifice. He is the hero who lays down his life for his friends, the master who washes the feet of his disciples. He practices the politics of downward mobility and nonviolent persuasion. His campaign favors the poor and the outcast, turning upside down the hierarchies of status and privilege.

Jesus presses his upside down vision in today’ Gospel parable of the man who gave a banquet that none of the invited guests attended. So the man opened his feast to street beggars, the poor, blind and lame. It is an outrageous and unlikely scene, why no politician has ever come to power by literally imitating Jesus. But some have grasped the principle of the common good and understood that a society is measured not by how it protects the rich but by how it cares for the poor. No system survives for long if it fails to build a foundation on the common good. What Jesus proposed was counterintuitive but also deeply wise and true because it is based on justice.

We pray for our presumptive leaders today, both in civil society and in the church. May they be servant leaders, inspired to empty themselves for the sake of the community. God approves such candidates and so should we.

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Brother Martin de Porres

Posted on 03 November 2014 by patmarrin

"You will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous" (Luke 14:14).

Pope Francis' challenge to the church to become a "church of the poor for the poor" follows directly from his challenge to become a "church of mercy." A transformation within will lead to a revolution in the church's relationship to the world. Alignment with the struggling majority at the bottom of the global pyramid of economic wealth and privilege will challenge every diocese and parish to ask how its decisions affect the poor. Every bishop will have to reassess his role not just as a benefactor but as a brother to the poor.

In today's Gospel, Jesus tells about a host throwing a banquet. In the ancient world, social advancement required an elaborate exchange of hospitality among those hoping to make connections and climb the social ladder to the top. Jesus turns the model upside down. Don't invite those who can repay you; instead open your doors and your table to the social outcasts: the poor, crippled, blind beggars from the streets. Why invest in the small gains this world promises when you can pay it forward in the kingdom of God?

No downward mobility was required of today’s St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639). The son of Spanish knight and a freed black slave, Martin entered the Dominican Order as a brother. His low status immersed him in companionship and service to the poor and the outcast of Lima, Peru. He is a model for the church of the poor and an important saint for the global South.

Jesus calls us all into solidarity with those in most need. It takes a continual conversion of mind and heart to let go of the advantages and status afforded many of us because of race, income and education. But those who accompany the poor discover a lifeline to God, who dwells with the poor. There is no other way to climb the ladder of holiness than to descend the ladder of success to take our place with Jesus among the poor, within the poor, calling us to be poor for the sake of the kingdom.

The Rising

Posted on 02 November 2014 by patmarrin

“This in the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day” (John 6:39).

In 2002, the year after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Bruce Springsteen released an album he called “The Rising.” The title song tells the thoughts of a fireman ascending a stairwell in the doomed inferno of the World Trade Towers in search of trapped victims. The chorus captures both the grief and determination the nation was struggling through in the dark days and months following the attacks. The fact of death was never so palpable. Where can we turn to except some message of restoration, even resurgence, after the worst thing that can happen to any human community? We reach forward out of the darkness to “The Rising.”

Jackie Kennedy was once quoted as saying that the Catholic church really knew about death, what to do to after a terrible loss. The church’s rituals and symbols, so ancient and reassuring, are there at the time of death, and the message is clear and poignant. Love is stronger than death. Community is the fulfillment of life, all of us together in the everlasting embrace of God, who is all powerful, all merciful.

Today we celebrate our beloved dead. As we gather at Mass, they are like a cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Though gone from sight, absent physically from the world and from our lives, we believe that they have gone before us in faith. They are still present in some mysterious way, cheering us on to the same goal they now possess fully and joyfully. God keeps every promise, and God’s mercy receives us even in our sins and failures, including us in the “communion of saints,” both famous and ordinary. everyone is there, welcomed and restored as a new creation.

Science knows the fact of death. Our culture explores it in movies about zombies, the living dead, and in inspiring stories about heroes who overcome tragedy. We search for answers, a glimpse through the veil of loss to find a connection to those who are gone. All the answers take us into the realm of faith, and what reassurance we find is a matter of belief, not certainty. The human mind and heart seem wired to the question: “What happens next? Will we ever see you again?”

Our Eucharist is “The Thanksgiving” we celebrate that Jesus, our Lord and brother, has gone before us through death to new life. We follow him by emptying our lives into the community, by serving one another, by giving ourselves away long before the day we utter our last word and breathe our final breath. We believe that God has entrusted us to Jesus, and because he has given his life for us, even though we die, we will be with him forever.

True Fulfillment

Posted on 31 October 2014 by patmarrin

“The people were observing him carefully” (Luke 14:1).

The confrontation in today’s Gospel passage between Jesus and the scholars of the Law over what was allowable activity on the Sabbath is a familiar “fulfillment” theme in the Christian scriptures.

Jesus was a Jew among his brother Jews, and we should assume that everyone present at the dinner in the home of one of the leading Pharisees knew the nuances of the law. So we should also suspect that there is some deliberate theater injected into Luke’s account, probably written in the 80s, when accusations that Jesus was a lawbreaker were being thrown at the still mostly Jewish converts to Christianity.

Jewish law restricts 39 types of activity on the Sabbath, the day of rest to honor the Creator, who rested on the seventh day. Most of these activities relate to farm work, food, fabric and animal production. The Sabbath was a boon to workers, restricted from labor and free to perform spiritual duties one day a week.

In Luke, a man suffering from dropsy—the swelling of the body from fluid accumulation—is oddly present at the dinner party, positioned right in front of Jesus. It is a test. Will Jesus cure the man on the Sabbath? He does heal the man, and justifies it based on the exception to Sabbath law that permitted a farmer to rescue an animal or child from a cistern.

It is a common-sense action and, in fact, the Sabbath law says: “In the event that a human life is in danger, a Jew is not only allowed, but required, to violate any Shabbat law that stands in the way of saving that person. The concept of life being in danger is interpreted broadly: for example, it is mandated that one violate Shabbat to take a woman in active labor to a hospital” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activities_prohibited_on_Shabbat#Saving_of_...).

So what is going on here? The scribes and Pharisees are being depicted by the evangelists as ignorant of the law and malicious in their intent to trap Jesus, who, in contrast to their narrow literalism, actually fulfills the spirit of the law, which is to always show compassion.

The Gospels were written for Christians, and how thrilled we are to see Jesus triumph over his enemies. Yet, a discerning reader of even our own New Testament must be wary of the often less than subtle biases against Judaism that have fueled such a long and tragic history of anti-Semitism. Jesus was a Jew and loved both the law and his brother and sister Jews. The only fulfillment that really matters is the fulfillment of the law of love, then and now.

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