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Followers of the Lamb

Posted on 24 November 2014 by patmarrin

"These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been ransomed as the first fruits of the human race for God and the Lamb" (Rev 14:4).

The majestic vision of final triumph in the Book of Revelation shows a symbolic 144,000 faithful disciples representing the 12 tribes of the New Israel gathered with Jesus in the presence of God. Heaven roars like a rushing river with the sound of harps and the voices of the saints singing God’s praise. These followers have gone through the full mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection and, with him, are now the "first fruits" of the new creation, harvested from humanity and alive forever within the Trinity.

Who are these followers of Jesus and how did they come to such blessing?

Today's Gospel from Luke 21 tells us. Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem watching people approach the large receptacle for donations. Rich men announce their arrival with trumpets and make a show of their gifts, but Jesus observes as a poor widow puts in two small coins, not from her surplus wealth but from her very substance, "all that she had." She is one of God’s anawim, “little ones” who have no worldly power, only the force of their integrity and trust in God. They will be revealed on the last day as God’s saints, those people who imitated God’s seemingly powerless, patient fidelity and love.

Unless we lose ourselves in that same imitation, we will never find ourselves. The proud have their day in the spotlight, but have traded appearance for reality. They will lose themselves in the end for withholding the one thing God must have to welcome us into the company of saints — our true selves.


I Myself Will Shepherd Them

Posted on 22 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep” (Ezek 34:11).

We celebrate Christ the King this Sunday, a paradoxical king who turns upside down all our presumptions about privilege and power. Both the first reading from Ezekiel and the famous parable from Matthew 25 use the image of a shepherd to describe God’s love for his people, especially the poor and those in any kind of need. Jesus described himself as a good shepherd who was willing to lay down his life for his flock.

I write this reflection on Nov 22, 51 years to the day President John Kennedy, a leader who enjoyed both privilege and power, was murdered, sending shock waves around the world. Some still debate who killed Kennedy and why, but there is no question that his death changed the course of US history. By the end of the 1960s, other assassinations and social turmoil over race, war and poverty effected a major political shift that dashed the progressive hopes for change that began the decade.

We live in history, just Jesus did. He saw how power and privilege oppressed the poor. He told his disciples it must not be so among them, lording over and competing with one another. They (we) were to seek the last place and every chance to serve. He set an example by washing their feet on the night before he died on the cross, a final act of service that saved the world and defined forever what real power looks like.

We are part of history, both its problems and their solutions. We may feel small and powerless, but every act of tolerance. reconciliation and kindness has its own expanding influence on others. To remind us to care for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters — the hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, the alien resident and the persecuted — Jesus disappeared among them. “As long as you do it to one of these, the least of your brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” This is how we honor our king.

Presenting Mary

Posted on 21 November 2014 by patmarrin

“How sweet to my taste is your promise!” (Ps 119).

A birth to one of our staff members here at NCR renews us all. New life blesses a small company celebrating 50 years of delivering needed journalism to an aging audience living on promises. Hazel Mary gives us joy and hope for the next 50 years.

Isn’t this true of every birth, that most wonderful sign and urgent challenge -- that the world be transformed to welcome this child. Who knows what gifts she bears to our world?

We remember today the presentation of the infant Mary in the temple by her parents, whom tradition names Anna and Joachim, the grandparents of Jesus. He was the long awaited promise, and generations prepared the way and now carry the mission he began. We are daily presented in the House of God, an all-embracing love that is transforming us.

The first reading for today’s liturgy also reminds us that this will not be easy. The scroll handed to the prophet by the angel tastes sweet as honey in his mouth but turns sour in his stomach. There is suffering before there can be victory. Mary herself will present her own child in the temple and hear Simeon’s warning of heart-rending hurt before God’s will is accomplished in Jesus. A shadow falls over every parent’s joy to know that their child, too, will face struggle on the road ahead in an imperfect world. Jesus will give his life to usher in the reign of God, where at last joy will overcome sorrow and every tear will be wiped away as even death is vanquished.

For now we rejoice that God has such high hopes in us that another child is given. There is so much work to be done to make a path for her. We must share the determination every parent feels to make the world safe, just and peaceful for all our children.

Jesus Wept

Posted on 20 November 2014 by patmarrin

“If this day you only knew what makes for peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41).

There are two instances in the Gospel where Jesus weeps. One is at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and the other is in today’s Gospel. “As Jesus drew near Jerusalem, he saw the city and wept over it.”

His entire public ministry and preaching had been directed at averting disaster. Conversion of heart might have pulled Jerusalem back from the brink, but now it was too late. In rejecting him and his message of reconciliation, the nation had set a course toward confrontation and destruction. An intransigent temple priesthood and a growing movement of religious zealots had sealed the fate of Israel. Within a generation, a Jewish uprising and war with Rome brought the holy city to the ground and delivered death to over a million people.

So Jesus wept, tears of anguish and frustration, then proceeded into the city to make his final offering as prophet and servant, trusting that God would bring new life out of his death. He spent his final days preaching in the temple, then enacting a symbolic cleansing of the money changers and animal stalls in the outer courts. This precipitated his arrest and execution. Jesus disappears into the doomed history of Judaism like a seed buried in the ground holding the promise of a new creation and a renewed covenant for all of humanity.

The morning paper is enough to make us weep. Fill in the blanks for yourself of stories of official intransigence and partisan zealotry eager to take the nation into the ashes. How much suffering and injustice will it take to awaken us to the need to change the course of history set by greed and ignorance, selfishness and indifference? Jesus leads us toward a baptism of tears, for our own sake and the sake of our children. Who knows if it is still not too late? A different world is possible. A different world is necessary.

Time to Play Your Cards

Posted on 19 November 2014 by patmarrin

"You have been faithful in small matters; I will give you greater responsibilities" (Matt 25:21).

Today’s Gospel is Matthew’s version of the same parable from Luke 19 heard last Sunday. Matthew emphasizes that the context of this parable is Jesus’ imminent arrival in Jerusalem, where his ministry will culminate in his arrest and execution. Urgency is the message of the parable. Disciples must us the gifts God has given them to the fullest. Matthew also conflates Jesus’ story with the future fate of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, about 10 years before his gospel was composed.

The parable calls us as it called its original audiences to use our God-given gifts. Like the sower in another parable, we are to invest freely and even take risks to help God’s kingdom on earth grow. If we sow sparingly, the harvest will be small, but if sow generously, te harvest will be great. If we give ourselves away in love, the return will be abundant – for us personally and for the whole community.

St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians (2:6), captures this theme when he quotes a hymn sung in the early Christian communities about the self-emptying of Jesus: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave ..." When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he risked everything to gain everything. His death on the cross won redemption for us all.

As children we played a card game whose goal was to get rid of all your cards. We win the game of life if we come in on empty. This is the investment that brings the greatest return. Risk all for love, and you will reap heaven.


Come Down Quickly

Posted on 18 November 2014 by patmarrin

“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner” (Luke 19:5).

Randy Newman, the incomparable singer/songwriter, has a song called “Lonely at the Top,” about a man who has succeeded at everything except human maturity. The first verse says it all: “I've been around the world / Had my pick of any girl / You'd think I'd be happy / But I'm not / Ev'rybody knows my name / But it's just a crazy game / Oh, it's lonely at the top.” Wealth and fame have brought him all the pleasures easy virtue has to offer, but his conscience is numb and his soul is dying of loneliness “at the top.”

Salvation comes to another empty success story the day a lonely tax collector hears Jesus call to him: “Come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

Zacchaeus, “short in stature,” is perched in a tree to catch a glimpse of a preacher everyone said could work miracles. The miracle he needs most is to be rescued from the compromised, self-destructive existence he chose when he signed on as a collaborator with the Roman occupation to gouge taxes from his neighbors. He has every material comfort and the company of other tax collectors and their partying friends, but Zacchaeus is miserable and lost.

Another song, the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” by Joseph Bracket, tells a different story: “Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free / Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, / And when we find ourselves in the place just right, / Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”

The saving of Zacchaeus repeats the theme of the parable of the Lost Sheep. The context of the three parables of mercy in Luke 15 was Jesus' message to the righteous people who were criticizing him for pursuing sinners like Zacchaeus. It is these good people who are the intended audience for what Jesus does in Jericho. We are that audience today. Can we let God be God? To refuse to accept God’s mercy for sinners is to isolate ourselves in our own self-assigned superiority. Then we, too, will need to "come down where we ought to be" in order to find true joy.


Be Careful What You Pray For

Posted on 17 November 2014 by patmarrin

"What do you want me to do for you?" (Luke 18:37).

There is wisdom in the familiar saying “Be careful what you pray for; you just might get it.” The trick is in knowing what to pray for. In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks the blind beggar, “What do you want me to do for you?” The man could have asked for anything, but he goes to the heart of his need: “Lord, let me see.” With sight, he is instantly freed from a life of begging on the side of the road. He rises up and follows Jesus. All his prayers are answered with the gift of sight.

We recall another story about King Solomon, who was also asked by God to request whatever he wanted. King Solomon asked for wisdom, and God affirmed him by giving him everything else as well. Wisdom enabled him to see as God sees, and with such broad vision he could be a good ruler.

The famous Serenity Prayer from AA sorts out the things we need to accept from the things we should change by asking God for the wisdom to tell the difference.

The source of all wisdom is the Holy Spirit. Jesus says that anyone who prays for the Spirit will receive this divine GPS within the limits of our human understanding. It does not guarantee that our journey will never include side trips and the need to explore to find our way, but the destination is assured.

The blind man receives the sight of faith, and his next move is to hit the Jericho road with Jesus, who will soon be on his way to Jerusalem and the mystery of the cross. No doubt the blind man had to pass through the cross to know the glory of the resurrection. We are wise to pray as he did and to make the same journey.


Use It or Lose It

Posted on 15 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Well done, good and faithful servant. Come share your master’s joy” (Matt 25:20).

The Parable of the Talents continues the theme of accountability prominent in the Lectionary as the liturgy approaches the end of the church year. Three servants are given sums of money to invest. Two of them multiply their master’s money and trust. One buries his portion rather than risk losing it. He earns only a reprimand. We receive a life lesson: Use it or lose it.

Jesus uses money to talk about deeper questions. We all receive some measure of time and talent. God expects us to develop and multiply our potential in actual ways. Grace transforms relationships. The greater and more diverse our network of friendships and human connections, the richer we become. Jesus builds simply on the laws of life known to everyone: You reap what you sow; what goes around comes around; do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Life is complicated, wisdom often comes from taking risks and even making mistakes. We must live without fear or exaggerated caution. The lesson of the parable is to live life as fully as you can and entrust the results to God. Only God, who sees our hearts, can judge us, so we are in good hands.

The greatest offense of the servant who failed to invest his talents was his refusal to imitate his master. Jesus challenged his disciples to be like their heavenly Father, who shows mercy to everyone and lavishes love on the worthy and unworthy alike. In the end, this is what a full life looks like. And when life is not long enough to hold all the love we have amassed in our relationships, it will overflow into eternity, where all investments reveal their true value. This is the Gospel of joy.

Two-Minute Warning

Posted on 14 November 2014 by patmarrin

"Where the body is, there also the vultures will gather" (Luke 17:37).

With a gruesome image, Jesus indicates the death of one world and the start of another. His disciples must be alert, so that when the time comes they can make the leap of faith that will preserve their lives for what will happen next.

Circling vultures are a sign that something has died. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and weeps over the city because he knows that no conversion is going to happen. What Jonah saw in Nineveh, a wicked city brought to its knees by his warning, will not happen here. The evangelist, writing 50 years later, places the prediction of the destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 CE into the mouth of Jesus. Luke adds two biblical precedents to emphasize the apocalyptic drama: the great flood in the time of Noah and the destruction of Sodom in the time of Abraham.

Once set in motion, judgment comes swiftly and without warning. Don't stop to pack your suitcase. Two people will be side by side in bed; one will be taken and the other spared. Two women will be together at the mill; one will be taken and the other spared. Remember the wife of Lot: don't look back. "Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it."

We are used to finding comfort in the scriptures. But as the church year comes to an end, the Lectionary pulls out all the stops to pile on the urgent call to decide what we believe and to act accordingly. Fear is a motivator, but it should not be without hope. Something new is on the horizon. In its darkest hour, God enters our world to save us. In just weeks we will enter the season of Advent, new beginnings, another chance. If we feel a sense of urgency, then the readings will have done their job. Something wonderful is about to happen. Breakdown is also breakthrough. Pay attention and be ready to say yes to God.


Welcome the Seasons

Posted on 13 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Behold, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:22)

The polar breath has arrived. catching the city still in autumn, its trees in full but fading colors.

My morning commute takes me up Oak Street, a vaulted corridor of orange and yellow pastels in the morning sun. Tails of steam and exhaust follow each car as we climb the hill past the museum into Midtown. Children scramble onto school buses; adults on foot hunch down into their jackets and hurry into buildings. The seasons rule our lives and remind us how little we control. I am in the autumn of my life, and it all seems both surprising and inevitable. Where did the years go?

Jesus addresses his generation in the broad wisdom of apocalyptic warning. Make up your minds, act, do it now. The time is short. The Son of Man -- God’s accountant -- will arrive like lighting flashing horizon to horizon. The mindless hedonist and the austere monk will face the same judge; it is harvest time, what do you have to show for yourself? Autumn is tinged with regret. Row upon row of headstones mark the graves of saints and sinners, now indistinguishable before God’s mercy.

Life is in the living, Jesus says. Don’t look here or there for a messiah, for the answers. The reign of God is among you, in the relationships you form, your surrenders and refusal to surrender to compassion for fellow pilgrims just like you, everyone trying to get home. Be like the trees in autumn; let go of everything. Give yourself to the wind that takes from one generation to give to the next. You are the harvest that will feed the future. Welcome it with gratitude and joy.