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Entering the Paradox

Posted on 04 August 2016 by patmarrin

"Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father" (Matt 16:16).

Jesus chooses Peter to lead the Apostles because he sees that his Abba has already chosen to reveal to him what no human insight could grasp. Peter somehow perceives that this man Jesus standing in front of him is in fact the promised messiah, the anointed one and, even more, the "Son of the living God."

At this crucial turning point in his ministry, by all accounts at the peak of his power and popularity, Jesus knows that his messianic call will be fulfilled not in some imagined victory over his enemies and against all resistance, but in submitting to apparent defeat, rejection and death. His quizzing of his disciples is crucial before they all turn south to Jerusalem.

Peter gets half the message. He affirms that Jesus is the one they have been waiting for, but he rejects the path of suffering and death Jesus reveals. He does not understand the paradox of a messiah who completes his mission by becoming the suffering servant. Jesus' praise turns to a sharp rebuke. All of the disciples have yet to learn that they, too, will have to go through a transformation to share in the paschal mystery of glory through suffering.

We want to be successful, to fulfill our lives and accomplish God's will. God gives us insight and courage each step of the way. But if we are serious about following Jesus and imitating the pattern of his downward path through compassion and self-sacrifice, we must pray for the call within the call, the grace within the grace, that will lead us through the difficult losses every vocation faces. We pray to find the fullness that can only happen if we are willing to come in on empty -- of ourselves and our own agendas.

A New World Coming

Posted on 03 August 2016 by patmarrin

“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matt 15:28).

The story of the Canaanite woman who won healing for her daughter in a contest of wit and compassion on the northern border of Israel is remarkable for the challenge it posed to both nationalism and patriarchy in that historical context. Jesus expands his mission beyond the Chosen People to a pagan woman whose faith reveals that the Holy Spirit had already crossed the border and shattered old attitudes about privilege and exclusivity.

In the news, Pope Francis has kept his word to appoint a mixed commission of experts to explore the historical basis for women as part of the diaconate. It may seem to some like table scraps in the long struggle by women for a place at the table of priestly ordination, but it will open the conversation to a deeper level about gender equality and the primacy of service over clerical or ritual status.

For anyone trying to read the mind of Pope Francis, his reluctance to take up the battle for women’s ordination should not be equated with opposition to full equality in the administration and decision-making structures of the institutional church. He has already stated his desire to expand the role of women within the traditional clerical leadership dominated by men. What he does not seem to want to do is expand the clergy or challenge the model of the Twelve Apostles as the scriptural basis for the episcopacy, or the symbolic value of a male presider at the Eucharist representing the historical Jesus.

What this strategy leaves open is the path to ordained status for women as deaconesses, the core expression of pastoral service in the church and the direct expression of the church’s mission to proclaim God’s mercy and justice to the world. This recognizes the crucial role of women at the heart of church as among its preeminent evangelists and most effective ministers of the gospel.

If this all seems too political, we can only return to the story in today’s gospel, so rich in political maneuvering and theological discernment to bring the early church from its closed position as an exclusively Jewish community with a traditional male priesthood to a recognition that the Holy Spirit had already left the building and was moving freely into the larger world of ideas and diverse cultures.

Something new is happening in our world. It is creating confusion and anxiety for those who seek the comfort of traditional structures. But it is also new wine, expanding minds and hearts to feel the Spirit alive within a fast-changing world toward greater equality and participation by all in the fate of the planet and the promise of the common good. We rejoice to be part of this process when all of us, women and men, insiders and outsiders, gifted and needy, will hear Jesus’ own joyful cry: “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish”

Take Courage!

Posted on 02 August 2016 by patmarrin

"Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water" (Matt 14:30).

The dramatic story of Peter being invited by Jesus to walk on water is clearly about more than a single miracle. When Matthew composed his gospel for a largely Jewish-Christian audience in Antioch of Syria toward the end of the first century, the church was experiencing both pressure from without and dissension from within. Its survival was a test of faith in God and in the presence of the risen Christ with the community.

Peter has emerged in the gospels as the leader of the church, so his hesitancy and courage in demonstrating his faith by stepping out of the boat to walk to Jesus was an important model for all believers. By their baptisms they had already experienced this walk with Jesus through death to new life, the Christian exodus from sin to freedom. Peter's characteristic mix of doubt and faith fit the community at Antioch a generation later. Every believer had to take this next, difficult step, trusting that Jesus would be there to grasp and save them if they faltered.

We admire those in the past who have faced crisis and been faithful. Yet our own immediate crises can seem so different, so insurmountable because now it is happening to us. It is our turn to show that we trust God to help us face the storm and come through with courage. A cloud of witnesses surrounds us now, repeating the words of Jesus: "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid."

Always Enough

Posted on 01 August 2016 by patmarrin

“This is a deserted place and it is already late” (Matt 14:15).

Today’s story of the multiplication of loaves and fishes begins with an ominous mention of the fact that Jesus has just received word of the beheading of John the Baptist by King Herod. He and the disciples have withdrawn in their boat to absorb this shocking news. But when they arrive on the far shore, crowds had already heard that Jesus was there and they massed in the wilderness to hear him preach.

If there is a moment in his public ministry when Jesus might have felt overwhelmed and even discouraged, it could be this scene. Yet, when he sees the crowds, Jesus is moved to the depths with pity for them in their distress. Many have brought sick family and friends, and he reaches out to cure them. His heart of mercy is already moving to respond to their needs, even in what is shaping up to be an impossible situation.

The disciples grow anxious as the day wears on and it becomes late, knowing there is no plan to provide for so many. Scarcity creates fear and competition, desperation can lead to conflict. Things could get out of hand. The most practical thing is to have Jesus send them to the nearby villages to buy food. But he startles them with the suggestion, “Give them some food yourselves.”

We know how the story ends. The food they need is already there, first in the five loaves and two fish, then in the miraculous sharing that unfolds in waves of generosity and openness inspired by Jesus’ confidence in Providence and in his disciples to solve the crisis.

When we feel overwhelmed by the needs we see all around us, or even in our own personal lives, Jesus tells us not to be afraid, but to let compassion be the source of inspiration as we do what we can with what we have. Our small gift of self will be multiplied if we believe. There is always enough where compassion wins out over fear and distrust.

Vanity of Vanities

Posted on 30 July 2016 by patmarrin

“Be rich in what matters to God” (Luke12:21).

Historian and philosopher Tony Judt, in his 2010 book Ill Fares the Land, lamented the dismantling of social democracy in Europe and the United States as one of the causes of the 2008 global economic meltdown. A long held emphasis on economic models that protected social welfare and the common good had given way to unregulated capitalism, the monetizing of wealth controlled by banks, currency traders and fund managers. Ethical restraint and government regulations had been lifted to allow maximum profits for corporations and investors in a globalized and computerized system blind to its impact on the general good.

Pope Francis’ critique of the resulting state of income disparity, the exploitation of cheap labor and the environment raised howls from those who still stand by deregulated capitalism as the best possible system for generating wealth, creating jobs and rewarding innovation in competitive markets. The debates have continued into the current political contests worldwide between different views of how the human community can achieve a balance between ethical rules and practical realism.

In today’s gospel, Jesus refuses to arbitrate between two brothers over their inheritance, but he does not hesitate to critique anyone who would put material wealth as their highest priority. The rich farmer who measures his success in the size of his barns is portrayed as a fool for not devoting the same attention to building up true wealth in his spiritual and social investments. His preoccupation with wealth has deprived him of cultivating the other values that show us how to use our gifts and advantages to benefit others. Pride in his own supposed accomplishments has displaced humility and gratitude for the blessings of birth and privilege, the role of workers and others in enabling him to be successful.

The wealthy farmer goes to bed that night dreaming of the life of luxury, pleasure and ease he can now enjoy, not realizing that death is about to claim him, and he will stand before g\God unprepared to give an accounting not of what he gained for himself but what he shared with others. He will enter eternity filled with himself rather than with concern for the needy and a passion for justice.

The choice we face today is not between wealth and virtue, but between wisdom and shortsightedness. Jesus does not arbitrate between different economic systems, but he does make clear the values that create a sustainable world and promote community as the genuine fulfillment of every individual. If we ignore this, we will create a world bound to fail the poor but also the rich and everyone in between.

Be rich in mercy and compassion, wise in creating just structures, equal opportunity and care for the weak. Then we will rise together as children of God, inheritors of life here on earth and in the world to come.

Through Death to New Life

Posted on 29 July 2016 by patmarrin

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:20).

Martha, whose feast we commemorate today, is like Thomas the doubter and Philip the pragmatist in that she confronted Jesus with the hardest question of all: If God loves us so much, why do suffer and die?

Her question, part of the scene in the story of the death of Lazarus, her brother, is the underlying challenge of every funeral, when this same reading is often proclaimed and preached on. Survivors have prayed fervently and with faith for a beloved friend or family member who nonetheless has died. "Lord, why didn’t you save him?" "Where were you when we begged that she be spared?"

Martha exemplifies the five stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in her book, Death and Dying: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Grief is not a moment but a process, a stage-by-stage struggle that either breaks us or brings us deeper into the mystery of our human fragility before the ultimate mercy of God, who did not spare Jesus from experiencing death as a necessary part of the full journey through time into eternity.

In the fourth Gospel, Jesus seemingly delays going to his sick friend, Lazarus. When he does go, Lazarus is already in the tomb. Martha goes out to meet Jesus, an initiative that reflects her prayer as bold confrontation: “Why didn’t you come?” Jesus reassures her that the death of her brother is part of something much greater and more astonishing than any human loss.

The story occasions one of the final “signs” that form the structure of the fourth Gospel, each one culminating in an I AM declaration by Jesus that reveals his divine identity. I AM, the name given to Moses at the burning bush, is who Jesus is –I AM the living water, the light of the world, the Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life, the way the truth and the life, and now “the Resurrection and the Life. Each sign prepares believers for the final sign of his death on the cross, the “lifting up of the son of man,” and his resurrection as the Lord of Glory.

St. Martha accompanies us through the stages of grief to an encounter with the One who has power over life and life. Faith is what brings us through the dark night to the sunrise of new life, the new creation that will someday bring each of us face to face with God.

Earthen Vessels

Posted on 28 July 2016 by patmarrin

"Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand" (Jer 18:6).

If Jesus told parables it was because he came from a deep tradition of storytellers and poets. The image of the potter and vessels of clay in today’s first reading was part of that rich memory from the Prophet Jeremiah. St. Paul would take up the image to describe the mystery of Christ we carry in our human frailty like “earthen vessels.” This message inspired Jesuit John Foley to write the moving hymn of the same title based on Paul’s words (2 Cor 4:7). Listen to the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAZhIw49ULc\\2

The Incarnation is the central doctrine of our Christian faith. That God lived among us as a human being, sharing fully in our frailty, even to the point of death, is the source of our hope that we, too, will share the treasure of divine life. Baptized into Christ, we bring our human weakness to the lifelong process of transformation. The simple “clay” of our human experience is perfected by grace.

The parable of the net cast into the sea (Matt 13:47) offers this same message. The net catches all sorts of things, some worthless, others valuable. So our daily experience is a catch-all of many distractions and opportunities, failures and successes. Not to worry, for the proof of our life in Christ is not that we never experience anything bad, but that at the end of the day we can sort through the day’s catch, keeping what is good and discarding what is not. This is what real human life is like – discernment and choices.

We rejoice to be earthen vessels, not made of gold or silver, yet still entrusted with the treasure of Christ, who is saving us one day at a time. Our human journey is the path to eternity, and every human experience, even those that are hurtful and discouraging, can be useful in our encounter with God’s mercy.

Feel the loving hands of God surrounding you and shaping you today. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Buried Treasure

Posted on 27 July 2016 by patmarrin

The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, like a merchant searching for fine pearls” (Matt 13:44-46).

Hidden treasures and fine pearls! Who can resist? Wouldn’t sudden wealth solve all our problems, open the door to a different future, without anxiety or effort?

Jesus uses common and universal imagery to capture our attention about the greatest hidden treasure of all, the finest pearl imaginable -- an intimate relationship with the living God. In two one-sentence parables, Jesus stirs up the desire and drama he described earlier in his teaching on prayer: "Seek and you shall find; ask and you will be answered, knock and the door will be opened."

The indirect nature of the parable invites us to seek, ask and knock, for the story both hides and reveals the truth. A treasure is there, but buried. Only the one who digs finds it. To possess it, the finder must go and sell everything in order to own it. A fine pearl is out there, but the merchant must search for it, then sell everything he or she owns to claim it.

Today is our treasure hunt. Somewhere in the events of this day a treasure and a pearl of great price wait to be discovered. They may be hidden in the layers and folds of a complicated relationship in need of healing. They may be buried below the surface of an ordinary act of service that turns into a moment of life-changing compassion. A small act of courage may open the door to some greater challenge that reveals our own potential in some new way.

Parables are everywhere, each one containing an encounter with God, an intimate breakthrough, a glimpse into the face of Mercy, the heart of Love. What greater treasure is there than to know the living God?

Buried Treasure

Posted on 27 July 2016 by patmarrin

The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, like a merchant searching for fine pearls” (Matt 13:44-46).

Hidden treasures and fine pearls! Who can resist? Wouldn’t sudden wealth solve all our problems, open the door to a different future, without anxiety or effort?

Jesus uses common and universal imagery to capture our attention about the greatest hidden treasure of all, the finest pearl imaginable -- an intimate relationship with the living God. In two one-sentence parables, Jesus stirs up the desire and drama he described earlier in his teaching on prayer: "Seek and you shall find; ask and you will be answered, knock and the door will be opened."

The indirect nature of the parable invites us to seek, ask and knock, for the story both hides and reveals the truth. A treasure is there, but buried. Only the one who digs finds it. To possess it, the finder must go and sell everything in order to own it. A fine pearl is out there, but the merchant must search for it, then sell everything he or she owns to claim it.

Today is our treasure hunt. Somewhere in the events of this day a treasure and a pearl of great price wait to be discovered. They may be hidden in the layers and folds of a complicated relationship in need of healing. They may be buried below the surface of an ordinary act of service that turns into a moment of life-changing compassion. A small act of courage my open the door to some greater challenge that reveals our own potential in some new way.

Parables are everywhere, each one containing an encounter with God, an intimate breakthrough, a glimpse into the face of Mercy, the power of Love. What greater treasure is there than to know the living God?

Sowing Stories in Our Hearts

Posted on 26 July 2016 by patmarrin

“Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matt 13:43).

Today’s readings pair Jeremiah 14, the lament over the destruction of Jerusalem, with Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the sower to his inner circle of followers in Matthew 13. In both instances, the word of God is proclaimed by the prophet, and the response determines the fate of those who receive or reject it.

Jeremiah, the reluctant 6th century prophet who was dubbed “a man of constant sorrow” is given the difficult charge of warning Jerusalem of the coming destruction of the holy city by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the long exile that followed. The land itself is wracked by drought, and under siege the city will experience the horrors of a war in which starvation will claim as many lives as the sword.

In Jesus’ own weeping over the city and warnings of coming disaster, the evangelists will turn to Jeremiah’s imagery to describe the destruction of Jerusalem again in the year 70 CE during the Jewish-Roman wars, when over a million victims died and the survivors fled the region in the great diaspora.

Preachers and prophets need not always be doomsayers, but their role in and out of season is to call believers to live according to the covenant God has revealed. Matthew summarizes the purpose of all of Jesus’ parables by beginning with the parable of the sower.

Jesus tells stories the way a sower sows seeds, each one a compact invitation to open our hearts to God’s good news of mercy and justice. If we are good soil, receptive and nurturing of the gift, conversion will bring abundant life. If we ignore or reject the gift, our lives will shrivel or be choked off and devoured by distractions and misdirection.

Those who have ears, let them hear, then respond. Each parable contains the same message: Choose life