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Turn, Turn, Turn

Posted on 26 September 2014 by patmarrin

“God has put the timeless into their hearts” (Eccl 3:11).

Today’s first reading is the powerful poetry of Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for every thing under heaven,” which became the folk song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” composed and first performed by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s. The song became the anthem for a whole generation of social activists longing for a new world salvaged from the violence and injustice of an older world seemingly trapped in patterns of endless conflict and repression.

The ancient author of Ecclesiastes was also observing the wisdom of the ages – that human life moves through seasons as inevitable as nature itself, from weeping to laughter, killing to healing, grieving to dancing, birth to death. Every generation is caught up in the sweep of these broad patterns. Wisdom lies in seeing beyond this world to the timeless longing God has placed in every human heart.

The Gospel’s universal appeal lies in its capacity to hold both the experience of life’s real hardships and losses and the irrepressible dream of something better, more complete and fulfilling. If this is all there is, life is only pathos and tragedy. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate pattern that underlies all the seasons of human experience. And it promises an ultimate triumph of love over hate, life over death.

It is easy to dismiss this faith as only a dream, and many hard realists in the 1960s saw those advocating peace and love as flower children and hopeless idealists. But, the music of that era, including Seeger’s many songs for justice, have survived their critics and continue to inspire people to work for a better world. Wisdom has children, and their voices will never cease singing.

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Bored

Posted on 25 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90).

The juxtaposition of today’s two readings, the famous “vanity of vanities” lament from Ecclesiastes and Luke’s account of Herod’s interest in meeting Jesus, invites us to reflect on one of the great challenges of modern life: Boredom.

In past ages, when life was relatively short and taken up with survival, boredom was hardly an issue for most human beings. But people of leisure — the wealthy classes of Greek and Roman society in Jesus’ time and many people in developed nations today—have been confronted with idle time to fill up with diversions and entertainment. When this proves less than satisfying, people explore their curiosities and need for stimulation in increasingly creative ways to stave off indolence and boredom.

Ecclesiastes was among the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible. The author voices the ennui of an intelligent seeker of the meaning of life who realizes that once you have identified the endless cycles of natural and human existence and accepted that death erases all ambition and importance, there is little left to celebrate in life. Wisdom lies in a disciplined commitment to ordinary life and enjoying the simple pleasures that come our way. All else is vanity.

Herod is described in the New Testament as a monstrous example of vanity, boredom and dissipated living. He is an adulterer whose lust for his stepdaughter pushed him to behead John the Baptist in prison. He is paranoid about Jesus as possibly the ghost of John come back to haunt him, but eager to witness one of Jesus’s reported miracles. In the 1970 rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Herod taunts Jesus, sent to him by Pilate, with the challenge, “Prove to me that you're no fool; walk across my swimming pool.”

Real purpose in life is the organizing principle around which time and energy come into focus. Even a short life filled with purpose is preferable to longevity without meaning. Jesus promises abundant life and fulfillment to all those who step into the yoke of discipleship with him. Vocation is by definition our response to a call, either from within or through the people and circumstances in need of our gifts. Each day has its own graces, prompting us to get up, show up, do our best. Small things done well lead to larger tasks, longtime responsibilities, being needed and loved. This is wisdom, pure and simple.

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Send Me

Posted on 24 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Jesus sent them to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2).

If you have ever spent a long time composing an important e-mail, you know the experience of pausing after you have read it over carefully with the cursor poised over the “Send” button. Unless you actually send the message, nothing will happen.

The word “apostle” means “one who is sent.” Jesus selected a large group of followers called disciples, which means “those who are learning,” and from them chose the Twelve Apostles. In today’s gospel reading, he sends them on ahead of him with the same authority he has demonstrated over demons and disease, and with the same message he had been preaching: “Repent, believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

We might ask ourselves where we stand in relationship to Jesus. Are we still in the crowd, stopping to listen to his word, to consider his invitation to deepen our encounter with God? Are we followers, in name or in fact? Are we disciples, actively learning about Jesus and his mission. Or are we ready to step forward when called and eager to be sent as apostles. Every prophet, disciple and apostle in the Bible was someone called from ordinary circumstances and who somehow witnessed to God’s purpose in this world in their own way, great or small.

The small c “church” consists of all of us. God has composed a unique message in each of our lives. We have the final say, but our joy is to know each day that our message has been sent.

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Becoming Nobodies

Posted on 23 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Your mother and your brothers are standing outside” (Luke 8:20).

Today’s short gospel account is long on implications for anyone considering discipleship. Jesus is surrounded by a crowd eager to hear his message and witness his miracles. Luke tells us that his family -- "his mother and his brothers” -- had come and wanted to see him. In the ancient world, blood relations and tribal loyalty defined a person. To dismiss this claim was tantamount to stepping outside the one reality that told you who you were, in name, inheritance and social acceptance. Apart from that you were a nobody.

The followers of Jesus had to step outside of their primary loyalties and become nobodies in a culture where connections and status were everything. The kingdom of God Jesus preached invited people to shed their cultural status to become “children of God,” a radically new way to defining how to live in right relationship with God and with all other people. Their new life was best described by the Beatitudes. Disciples became God’s anawim –- “little ones” -- the poor, the meek, the dreamers of peace and justice in a violent and unjust world, those who grieved, who saw clearly the world that was and the world that was to come, persecuted for their prophetic vision because it disturbed others.

If anyone was perceived to be insane, beside themselves or out of their minds, it was up to the family to come and take them home, reorient them to who they really were. At this stage in his ministry, Jesus’ family had come to fetch him and restore him to the only world that mattered. It was too late. Jesus was already lost to that world and living in a new one in which anyone who could hear the word of God and live it would be like a mother and a brother to him, able to “see” –- believe -- the new reality God was offering.

For the sake of the kingdom, are we ready to be nobodies, free of the need for approval from a world that rewards insiders and punishes outsiders? It is the biggest decision we will ever make and the longest step we will ever take, because it will determine who we really in this world and for all eternity.

The Truth Will Set You Free

Posted on 22 September 2014 by patmarrin

“There is nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be made known” (Luke 8:17).

“Things are seldom what they appear to be.” That old saying covers much of life and certainly human interactions. People are opaque and hide their motives and intentions. Most of us have little insight into our own inner workings. But there is another saying: “In the end the truth will come out.” It may take time, but the outcome exposes everything.

Jesus tells the crowds that living transparently – with nothing to hide — is like lighting a lamp and putting it on the lampstand, not just for yourself but so that everyone can see clearly. Jesus is quoted in John 8:32, saying, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Transparency equips the disciple to live freely, travel light and tell the truth. We think of the importance and influence of even a single individual in an organization, in political life, in the church community, who can always be counted on to be sincere, candid and plain spoken. How much time and energy is expended on being silent and secretive to serve some hidden agenda rather than open to advance the process of seeking the common good?

Everything will come out in the end, Jesus says, so why not increase the chances for good by speaking the truth from the start. Save time, save your own integrity, serve the common cause, multiply the benefits to all rather than serve the interests of the few.

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It's Not Fair!

Posted on 20 September 2014 by patmarrin

“You too go into my vineyard” (Matt 20:7).

Who could be against mercy? Who would resist Pope Francis’ call for the church of mercy, whose face is that of a compassionate and understanding mother instead of a stern judge?

The answer is to that question is the reason Jesus told today’s parable, perhaps the most provocative story in the entire New Testament. He wanted to address the complaints of the one group most opposed to a God who loved everyone. The parable of the vineyard workers was directed to the Good People of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees, who were teachers of the Law and models of public virtue. It is remarkable in that Jesus actually creates a scenario that on the surface supports their claim that such a God would not be fair. In economic terms, the story begs the question -- is it fair to treat the latecomers who work only an hour the same as those who have been on the job all day? Jesus makes the case for his critics.

But only after he has roused their full sense of outrage at such a God who would treat everyone equally can Jesus position the Good People to understand God’s invitation to them to be merciful as God is merciful, or to grasp why he eats with sinners, seeks out the lost sheep, tells his disciples to love their enemies. Jesus wants the Pharisees to rejoice with him that God is so generous that he pours out his love on anyone who seeks him, whatever their merits or however late in the day they come.

This is how God is, Jesus pleads with these learned teachers of the Law, and this loving Abba cannot act differently, for this is what it means to be God, the source of all life and the giver of every gift. Their god is too small, and their devotion to a calculating judge has turned them into miserable moralists, always worried about their own perfection and that of others as the only measure they have of whether they are earning God’s love. Because God’s love cannot be earned; it is a total gift. A virtuous life is its own reward and a sinful life brings its own punishment. Salvation so far exceeds human morality because it is in essence not some quid pro quo but the awesome gift of friendship with God, who has no enemies. Mercy is God’s name, and those who know God become like God.

The central drama of today’s Gospel is not how God loves the workers who come late, but how much God loves everyone and wants everyone to enter his vineyard. The parable is Jesus’ appeal to the Good People not to absent themselves because they cannot love others who do not measure up to their high standards. God has only one standard — to love everyone unconditionally. Fairness cannot describe or encompass the gift of God's mercy to each person according to their need, nor can we be arbiters of anyone else's journey home to God.

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The Women Disciples

Posted on 19 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women …” (Luke 8:2).

Luke states for the record that it wasn’t just the 12 apostles who gave up everything to follow Jesus. There was also a group of women that included “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.” As we add all of these to our mental picture of the followers of Jesus, we see a kind of movement making its way from Galilee south toward Jerusalem. Jesus has formed a community of believers who are the first to hear his preaching and witness his miracles. It is this community that will form the post-Resurrection church.

Luke tells us at the end of Chapter 23 that, while the other disciples fled, the women who accompanied Jesus from Galilee were still with him when he was crucified and buried. They were the first witnesses to the Resurrection, but the Apostles did not believe them.

When the Gospel writers say that some women provided for Jesus from their resources, it is a profound truth that they were more than just financial backers. They provided the foundation for the faith of the early church. They were there, they believed, they witnessed, and despite the resistance and rejection of Jesus’ male followers, they brought the church through the dark night of the crucifixion to the bright dawn of the resurrection. Without their faithful presence, we might ask if there would be any church today.

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Jesus Dined with Everyone

Posted on 18 September 2014 by patmarrin

"The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:49).

The greatest hurdle to offering religious people a church based on mercy is that many don't really think they need it.

Pope Francis' vision of such a church as the key to evangelization has been met with criticism that it will only soften the church's moral authority, create confusion and resentment among faithful Catholics if everyone is welcome, especially to Communion. The pope's insistence that the Eucharist is the "medicine of mercy" and not a reward for righteousness, is running into resistance from centuries of regarding holy Communion as a litmus test for loyalty to church rules.

Jesus dined with everyone. In today's Gospel, he comes to table with a Pharisee named Simon, whose feeble welcome (no kiss, no oil, no foot washing) suggests that he only wanted to interrogate Jesus to find fault. But the dinner becomes a teachable moment Simon will never forget. A woman with a questionable reputation crashes the party, pours out her tears and aromatic perfume on Jesus' feet. Simon is blind to the heart-rending drama before him and sees only proof that Jesus is a poor prophet not to know "what sort of woman is touching him, that she is a sinner."

Jesus offers Simon a simple parable about two debtors, one who owed a large amount and the other only a small sum, and asks who will love the benefactor more. The answer is obvious: the one who was forgiven more. The lesson reveals Simon's thoughts. He is the one who has little need of forgiveness. He does not need love and he is incapable of feeling it or giving it. He stands sufficient unto himself as someone with good reputation because he has kept the rules. But he is unmasked as insincere and incapable of feeling the anguish and joy of another. He is independent of the God he serves but does not really love, since his worthiness is his own accomplishment.

Every church signboard should reserve a Sunday to post the message: "Jesus eats with sinners. All are welcome." What a powerful invitation that would be for all of us, including those who have left the church in discouragement and hurt. But like the Gospel today, the challenge will fall most directly not on those who know they are sinners, but on those who do not. There will be no church of mercy until we all can accept mercy and show mercy to one another.

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Come and Play

Posted on 17 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35).

In today’s Gospel from Luke 7, Jesus tells the crowds how petulant and fickle they are for rejecting both the fasting of John the Baptist and the feasting of Jesus. They are like children who reject whatever game, happy or sad, is proposed to them in the marketplace. They will not commit to anything.

Commitment is the first step. The inability to choose leads to paralysis. Keeping our options open becomes a way of life, a self-defeating and often self-justifying rejection of any path forward. Square One is a staging area, not a permanent waiting room where people spend their lives, in the words of children’s author Dr. Seuss, saying “Oh, the places we’ll go!”

Jesus was constantly on the lookout for people who were ready to go, willing to commit, even to risk a safe life for the adventure of love. Many in the crowds became disciples. Many others listened for a while, felt moved to respond but did not, letting the grace of the moment pass them by. Discipleship begins when our simple yes meets a new day and we open our hearts to whatever unfolds. Come follow me, Jesus says, and I will show you how to play the game of life.

A Love Greater Than Death

Posted on 16 September 2014 by patmarrin

“When he saw her, he was moved with pity” (Luke 7:13).

We follow yesterday's feast of the "Sorrowful Mother" with today's Gospel account of another grieving woman.

In the scene from Luke of the raising of the dead man in the city of Nain -- and in a number of other healing stories in the Gospels -- the Greek word splanchnizesthai is used to describe the pity that moved Jesus to act. It means, literally, a "visceral" response. Jesus experiences this same emotion as he stands before the tomb of Lazarus. It recalls the verse from Isaiah 49:15 in which God asks, “Can a mother forget the child at her breast?” It describes the strongest love possible.

The scene also recalls the raising of the widow’s son in 1 Kings 17. Jesus is even greater than Elijah the Prophet. The compassion of God flows from him as he encounters the damage inflicted by death and disease among God’s people.

What Luke is also foreshadowing in this passage is the mystery of Jesus’ own death. He will take the place of the dead man, the only son of a widow, when he dies on the cross. The source of his healing power is that Jesus has already surrendered his life to reverse the results of human separation from God in sin. All of the miracles he works on his way to Jerusalem involve this act of substituting himself for each victim: the dead man; the leper; the blind man; the sinner; the outcast. He becomes all of them on the cross, accepting the full fury of sin and death so that we might go free. Overcoming the ancient enemies of God’s love, Jesus will then offer the fullness of life to all those who believe in him.

Each story is the Gospel in miniature. Every healing is a glimpse of the final victory of love over death. How can it be otherwise? God’s compassion is unconditional, inexhaustible and, our faith affirms, inevitable. Whatever suffering we encounter, this is the last word, the end of the story, the culmination of the great pilgrimage of God's people into eternity.

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