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Decide

Posted on 11 July 2016 by patmarrin

"Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt 10:38).

How many decisions have you made in your life? If we look back over the narrative of our lives, most of us will discover that we have only made a few decisions, and that the rest of our journey has been living out the implications of those decisions. We are born into a family and culture that carries us forward to early adulthood. Even the decisions we make -- like the friends we have and the school we attend -- are heavily influenced by family, location, the expectations of others. But real life-stage decisions await us as we separate from family, leave home, choose a career, a life partner, discern and internalize the basic principles and values we will live by.

In today's Gospel, we get a glimpse of the cost of discipleship as Jesus tells his followers that they must make him their highest priority. They must "lose" the familiar identity and lives assigned to them by all other forces that have shaped them. The root of the word "to decide" is to cut. A decisive person cuts away every other option from the one he or she will choose. All their energy and devotion is focused on what they have decided to do, and other possibilities are set aside for the sake of this path.

Crossing this threshold is the most important moment in our story. Blessed are those who hear the call deep from within to follow the will of God, who then make this their highest priority and arrange their priorities around this pursuit. This whole-hearted choice is the essence of discipleship.

Today we celebrate the life of St. Benedict. He abandoned everything to pursue a life focused on God. His decision cost him everything but also opened up a whole world not just for him but for the many who came after him and responded to the same call to a life of prayer and work for the sake of God and the church. Each of us has this same challenge before us. Whatever we decide and whatever the cost, it is the one thing necessary for a life of purposes and fulfillment.

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Who Is My Neighbor?

Posted on 09 July 2016 by patmarrin

“Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

The lawyer in today’s gospel is seeking to know the limits of his obligation to love when he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Is it my immediate family? My relatives? My race or tribe? Fellow Jews? When do I know that I have satisfied the law?

The story Jesus tells says in effect, “A neighbor is the one who responds to another in need, whoever they are or wherever this occurs. Love is a response without limits, defined by the need of the other.

But there is another twist to the story that shocks the lawyer and the audience, including us. Aren’t we thinking of ourselves as the benefactor? But what if you are the victim? Who will be neighbor to you in your hour of need? The priest and the Levite, your own kinsmen, pass you by. Imagine this: The one who stops to save your life is the last person on earth you would expect to show you compassion. The one person at the outermost reach of your obligation to love –your sworn enemy – is neighbor to you. The lawyer’s carefully defined world is turned inside out.

We all want eternal life. We want the holiness of God to save us. Jesus equates holiness with being merciful as God is merciful. The story of the Good Samaritan brings this lesson home in the simplest and most direct way. The one who acts out of compassion for the victim on the road fulfills the entire Law because he acts as God would act and as true neighbor to the other.

We would like to know in detail and in advance just what we must do to be “saved.” Then we can rest assured we are a good person and have fulfilled our obligations to God and others. But Jesus sends us into the world each day with the uncertainty of what love might do to us, either as victim or benefactor. Such a life filled with surprise can only be faced if we also trust that whatever grace we need will be provided in the moment we need it.

This is the meaning of Jesus’ invitation to live in and by the mercy of God. This is the adventure of discipleship. And if we have the courage to accept it, this is also the joy of the Gospel.

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The Testimony Inspired by the Spirit

Posted on 08 July 2016 by patmarrin

"Behold, I am sending you like sheep among wolves, so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Matt 10:16).

The advance of truth and justice is best accomplished by those who are just and truthful. The struggle for independence in India modeled this strategy under Gandhi, who knew well that violence begets violence, even justifies it, whether this comes in the form of official repression of protest or wars of revenge that spiral out of control.

But this approach is not without victims. Gandhi spoke the truth and refused to comply with unjust laws, and he was imprisoned for it. Other nonviolent protesters, like Steven Biko in South Africa and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr during the civil rights struggle in the United States, were murdered. Jesus, the great historical mentor of nonviolence, was excommunicated by the religious establishment and executed by the empire.

What must the disciples of Jesus have thought when he told them he was sending them out like "sheep among wolves”? They are told to take no resources, no means of personal defense – the purpose of a walking stick -- and not even sandals to protect their feet on the rough roads. Their vulnerability in a hostile world was a way to disarm opponents by showing they came in peace. In a similarly paradoxical instruction, he told them to turn the other cheek if struck, to walk an extra mile if forced to carry a pack for a Roman soldier. To affirm that this nonviolent approach was a conscious strategy and not foolish naivete, Jesus added, “Be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.”

The toxic mix of social, racial and economic tension and easy access to weapons is carrying us as a nation into a season of growing violence. Fear of the foreigner, fear of one another, fear of those appointed to protect and serve our communities, is now being fueled by the extreme rhetoric of political campaigns and partisan media. Who will bring truth and fairness to this crisis before it engulfs all our institutions and mars our ability to address real issues in a civil way?

Jesus proposes the greatest power of all: Not more lethal force or threat of vengeance, but the integrity of goodness, honesty and the courage to address the causes of hurt and division. Crisis is forcing us to choose between chaos and community. Wise as serpents and gentle as doves, let us take up the challenge, for our survival depends on it.

Take the First Step

Posted on 07 July 2016 by patmarrin

“Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”

Jesus sends out his disciples ahead of him to proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. They are authorized with the same power he has demonstrated, to heal, drive out demons and, in Matthew’s account, to even raise the dead.

To make sure they understand that this amazing ability is not because of them, the disciples are sent with virtually no resources: no money, no provisions, no change of clothing, no walking stick to fend off dogs or robbers, not even sandals to protect their feet on the rough roads. We see them approaching a village, barefoot beggars by all appearance, strangers intruding among curious if not suspicious inhabitants, their children peering out of half-closed doorways.

The disciples have nothing to offer but a wild claim that some “kingdom of heaven is at hand.” There is no evidence of it, just these pairs of ragged strangers. We know nothing of how they engaged in conversation or who initiated the first welcome, but somehow a homeowner showed them hospitality and a sense of peace replaced the tension and pervaded the household. Then, with a cup of cold water or a simple meal, lives began to change. The sick and disturbed were lifted up and healed, hope and joy filled the emptiness and hopelessness of these small-town lives. Something utterly new and surprising took place.

And while there were some setbacks and rejections, towns that refused to open their doors, once the “good news” touched other places, word raced ahead of the disciples to the next town of the amazing things that were happening. And by the time they completed their assigned circuits, the disciples were overwhelmed with all that had happened as they represented Jesus and imitated his openness and confidence that God was giving away love in the world.

It has been said that the longest journey is not in miles but the crossing of a single threshold where uncertainty and anxiety must be overcome. We are afraid to initiate, hesitant to intrude, we excuse ourselves from acting or speaking because we might be misunderstood or even rejected. Great graces do not take hold because inspiration fails in the first moment.

We are all barefoot and empty-handed before the great challenge of sharing God with others. But if we trust the Spirit, move in the moment, risk losing our balance and pride in fear of making a mistake, good things, wonderful things, can happen. Today is another chance to discover just how much God is eager to do through anyone who is willing to be sent.

We Are Called, Named and Sent

Posted on 06 July 2016 by patmarrin

"As you go, make this proclamation: 'The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.'"

School reunions mean getting out the old yearbooks to find pictures of the people we are about to meet again, curious to see what time has done to all of us. Pages of photographs reveal hairstyles and clothing that were once in vogue, but also the timeless questions on the faces of the young: "Who am I?" "What will I become?"

In Luke's account of the sending out of the 72 disciples (read last Sunday), Jesus tells them to rejoice because "your names are written in heaven." In today's Gospel from Matthew, the actual names are recorded of the "Twelve," those special Apostles who represent the 12 tribes of Israel in the new covenant Jesus is establishing.

We might imagine their names and faces on a yearbook page, identified by nicknames, family connections, hometowns and particular actions. Simon, aka "Peter," is named first because of his preeminance in the apostolic tradition, but he is also the brother of Andrew. James and John are brothers, the sons of Zebedee. Matthew is known as the "tax collector," Simon is from Canaan, and Judas is the "betrayer." All are immortalized in the Gospels because Jesus summoned them, named them and sent them to proclaim the Kingdom.

Behind each name is a story of conversion, dramatic growth or dramatic failure, glory or tragedy, but each one is defined by his encounter with Jesus. Human life is short, often anonymous. We flare up briefly like a spark of light, then fall back into the mass of names and stories, our lives like hyphens between a birth announcement and an obituary.

Yet, in relationship with Jesus and as part of his company, we live forever because he called us, named us and sent us to find the "lost sheep" of our generation to help them find their way home to God. We rejoice to be part of the story, both in this world and in the next.

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Inherit the Wind

Posted on 05 July 2016 by patmarrin

"At the sight of the crowds, Jesus' heart was moved with pity" (Matt 9:37).

Ill Fares the Land, the last book by historian Tony Judt, published in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown, lamented the breakdown of the politics of the common good and the rise of the culture and politics of money in Europe and the United States. All the ethical values that had built up the social compact after World War II were being replaced by the principles of competitive capitalism. Judt might have been Hosea, prophesying in ancient Israel: "Those who sow the wind shall inherit the whirlwind) (Hos 8:11).

Prophets do not predict the future; they proclaim the self-evident wisdom of keeping the covenant. Without an ethical foundation and a structural commitment to the common good, no society can survive for long. The Kingdom of God Jesus preached was not just about heaven but about the beloved community of justice and love that celebrates the presence of God in the midst of human life. When Jesus saw the crowds, his heart was moved at their suffering because "they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd."

What is our role and mission as disciples of Jesus? It seems inescapable that we are to share in the work of preaching and living the reign of God. Our part may be small, like the Jewish idea that every believer carries a needle and thread to stitch up the tears in the social fabric they encounter in their daily lives. Or we may have a larger mission, as teachers and leaders who help others articulate and observe the need for the ethical life. But we are all called to sow justice and love in whatever way we can.

Silence, like passivity, insures that other principles, like the greed Judt lamented, will enter the vacuum of social discourse or what passes for it in the noisy, unbridled and commercially driven media. Only a chorus of reason and compassion, fairness and truth will hold back the whirlwind.

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Keeping Faith

Posted on 04 July 2016 by patmarrin

"Courage, daughter, your faith has saved you" (Matt 9:23).

A central theme of the Bible is how God's designs meet human freedom. Human weakness and infidelity can divert, distort and postpone God's purposes but never ultimately frustrate the creative influence of grace in history. God works through sinful situations to even more effectively reveal the power of mercy.

The promises made to Abraham wind their way through the twisted and knotted lifeline of the patriarchal, Davidic and prophetic history of Israel. Jerusalem, the "daughter of Zion," rises and falls, serves idols and repents, suffers exile and is restored. God's covenant with the chosen people survives to reveal the ultimate sign of mercy in the person of Jesus. Today's beautiful Gospel story of the healing and restoration of two "daughters" who touch and are touched by Jesus reminds us of the life made visible in Jesus.

While no earthly nation is ever guaranteed survival in history, the pattern of God's love for the world is firmly established, and the promise of life is clear for those who keep the covenant of justice and peace.

On this day when the United States celebrates its unique history of unity in diversity and "liberty and justice for all," and as it enters the challenging season of leadership transition, we are given this biblical backdrop to reflect on who we are and what what kind of history we want for ourselves and our children.

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Two by Two

Posted on 02 July 2016 by patmarrin

“He sent them ahead in pairs” (Luke 10:1).

There is something of the military campaign in Luke’s description of Jesus sending out his disciples in advance of his own arrival in the towns of Galilee. The Kingdom of God is pushing back the kingdom of Satan, a bombardment of exorcisms accompanies miracles of healing, the disciples are sent in teams to offer peace to any village or house that receives them. Jesus, like a commanding general, stays back in strategic prayer, seeing the entire battlefield in his prayer: ”I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.”

To demonstrate that the power of the 72 disciples is not their own but God’s, Jesus sends them forth without money, supplies, even barefoot. They are as vulnerable as “lambs among wolves.” The one important concession Jesus makes to their hesitation and anxiety about such an ambitions assault on the forces of evil is that he sends them out two by two, as teams.

While he might have doubled his reach to more towns had he sent them out singly, it seems essential that these first disciples go forth in pairs. For Luke, the power of prayer is assured wherever there are “two or three gathered in my name.” But from a purely human standpoint, the success of the mission seems to derive from the sense of community they themselves experience as they preach God’s love to others.

By the time the two disciples arrive at their first town, they have already experienced the grace of unity in their efforts. They have discussed and resolved their doubts, encouraged each other, built up each other’s confidence that what might seem an impossible task will succeed. And even if they encounter resistance, they are prepared to move forward to the next house, the next town. The “peace” they offer to others has already had its effect in them.

Fear is the first weapon evil spreads among people to discourage and undermine their confidence that love can overcome the forces of disunity. Before any great work, prayer and community are the essential preparation. We face profound challenges as a nation and a church in the coming months. Now is the time to pray together for the strength to go forth, even if we feel like lambs among wolves, knowing we have been equipped with all gifts we need to announce and demonstrate the Beloved Community Jesus is proclaiming.

The Power of Mercy

Posted on 01 July 2016 by patmarrin

“Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt9:11).

The call of Matthew has special meaning for Pope Francis. In the interview in which he identified himself as a “sinner,” the pope recalls seeing the painting by Carravagio of the call of Matthew by Jesus, who sees Matthew in a tavern drinking with his fellow tax collectors. He points at him and in a moment of grace Matthew responds to his gaze and rises to follow him. Francis chose as his papal motto the phrase from a meditation on this scene by Bede the Venerable: Miserando atque eligendo (“Mercying him and choosing him”).

We witness this same “look of love” from Jesus in the call of other disciples, especially Peter. It is as though Jesus sees through the sinfulness and contradictions to the genuine desire in the person to be good, to find God in their lives. How else to explain Jesus inviting one of the most reviled people in his world to accompany him? A tax collector got rich by collecting taxes from his own people for the Roman occupation. Shunned by righteous Jews, tax collectors enjoyed their wealth with other outcasts. Calling such a person into his inner circle must have been a shock to the other disciples and was certainly a scandal to the general public.

But this is why Jesus came, to offer God’s mercy to sinners, to salvage from human selfishness and fear the person God sees underneath the damage. For Francis, the mission to show mercy is the mystery of Jesus and the reason the church exists. But searching out those most in need of God’s unconditional love involves scandal and ambiguity, going forth from the purity and safety of virtue (or the appearance of it) to reclaim the lost sheep.

The implications for this are challenging, to say the least. One clue we have from Francis is this: We cannot judge or label others. Who is to say that another person is not a saint hiding in a sinner, waiting for a nod of acceptance and love to begin their journey back from the edge? Grace is loose in the world in many strange and paradoxical ways. God invites us to enter the mystery, for our own sake and for the good of others.

Rise and Walk

Posted on 30 June 2016 by patmarrin

"The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" (Matt 9:7).

on June 26, Bishop James Johnston of Kansas City, Mo. held a "Service of Lament" for the priests of the diocese for the failure of the church to promptly and adequately address the crisis of clergy sexual abuse. It was not the first and will not be the last such public ritual to be held as the Catholic church struggles to deal with a problem that has devastated thousands of lives and families and damaged the ability of church ministers to carry out their pastoral work.

The criminal behavior of some members of the clergy was compounded by institutional denial and cover up by bishops that prolonged the crisis and destroyed trust that will take generations to rebuild. How will Catholic communities ever move forward again?

Today's Gospel story of the paralyzed man Jesus both forgives and heals offers us a chance to reflect on the relationship between sin and paralysis. Matthew's shorter version of the full account in Luke 5:17-26 begins by saying that Jesus has just "crossed over," a reference to the story of the storm on the lake, when he shows his mastery over the fear that paralyzes the church in times of crisis.

The miracle is initiated by a group of people who carry the paralyzed man to Jesus with the faith that healing would occur. The religious scribes find fault with Jesus' words of forgiveness. They say, in effect, that no human authority can forgive sins, only God's. Jesus' response is that the "Son of Man," which can refer to a messianic title but is also a designation for a human representative before God -- a human being -- has this power. In fact, without human forgiveness and reconciliation, which address the human causes of hurt within the community, divine forgiveness remains an abstraction.

As long as bishops mediated reconciliation through lawyers instead of meeting personally with victims, or offered rituals and prayers for healing that generalized responsibility ("Mistakes were made") but did not specifically acknowledge the profound sense of betrayal this perpetuated, the paralysis only deepened into cynicism. Human beings not only can, but must, forgive and seek forgiveness for the paralysis to be lifted. Only by this heart-wrenching experience of human accountability will people experience a divine blessing on their repentance.

Jesus both forgives and heals, and the paralyzed man rises and walks. The church will not rise and go forward unless the community brings this kind of faith to the difficult, face-to face process of acknowledging real sin and asking for forgiveness. This is a community challenge, and only by bearing one another through the door of mercy will we pass through this storm together to new life.