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No Pencil Preaching Friday, October 23

Posted on 23 October 2015 by patmarrin

Say a prayer for the success of the 50th anniversary celebration for the National Catholic Reporter at Dominican University in River Forest, Il, this weekend. This blog will resume on Monday.

Here is a short reflection for Sunday, October 25, 2015: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

On the Road with Jesus

“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:50).

The story of Bartimaeus is filled with themes that touch on our own call to discipleship.

Like all of Luke’s wonderful stories, we are meant to enter the scene, make it real for ourselves and respond in a way that opens us to the same graces and insights being sought by the characters Luke is describing. The Living Word is calling us, here and now.

Bartimaeus is a blind beggar who has lived much of his life on the sidelines, dependent on the charity of others. Whenever a crowd forms, he tries to get their attention and to give him alms, his only source of support. He has already heard about this new prophet and wonder worker, Jesus of Nazareth, and he decides to call out to him when he passes by. He uses a messianic title, “Son of David,” to show that he understands that God promised to send a messiah from the line of King David to save his people.

The crowd tries to quiet him, but Bartimaeus is determined to get Jesus’ attention. Perhaps to his surprise and certainly that of the crowd, Jesus hears and summons him in the midst of noise and confusion. “Jesus is calling you,” they say to him (and to us). “Get up and go to him. This is your big chance.”

The moment is charged with serious consequences, for if he leaves his spot along the road, he might lose it to another beggar, and if nothing happens, what will become of him? But he decides to risk everything, even his cloak, his only possession and protection from the cold nights.

It is in this determination and risk that we see the cost of discipleship. How many people are satisfied to remain on the sidelines, blind and limited, dependent on others but never finding their true calling or taking any chances.

Like the rich young man in last Sunday’s Gospel, Bartimaeus wants more, and he senses that Jesus can help him come into the light and take the next step.

With a question that goes to the heart of the call to discipleship, Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” He can ask for anything, but he asks to see, for sight is the key to every other possibility. If he can see, he can begin to live productively and independently, go where he chooses, support himself, find his way.

But what he sees first when his eyes are opened is the face of Jesus, and this encounter changes him forever. The look of love he receives, then returns, thrills his heart and he knows that there can be no real life for him except to follow Jesus, which is what he does.

What must we do to be saved, to have a full life? Let Bartimaeus be our teacher today, for he has made the journey from the sidelines to the road that leads to Jerusalem in the blessed company of Jesus and the other disciples. It is the road to glory, and once called, we should jump up and follow, for this is what it means to have life.

St. John Paul II

Posted on 22 October 2015 by patmarrin

"There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anquish until it is accomplished" (Luke 12:50).

The phrase "baptism of fire" describes a decisive trial on whose outcome everything depends. Soldiers going into battle or an athlete attempting some difficult feat use the term to say that the challenge they face will make or break them. The metaphor is applied to pottery when a clay vessel is put in the kiln or metal is purified at high temperatures. The intense heat either transforms or destroys the material.

Jesus is describing his passion and death. His suffering will be the ultimate test of whether his mission is truly from God, who alone can save him from death. Out of the crucible of the cross he will either emerge victorious or be exposed as a deluded fool and false messiah. In his limited human understanding, Jesus must endure the test without knowing the outcome. He surrenders himself to his Abba and enters the fire.

The sacrament of baptism is a sign of both purification and our going down into the waters of death with Jesus. We emerge from this ritual reenactment of his death claimed by Christ, now members of his risen body, liberated from the power of sin and death. What is first a sign becomes a reality as we endure life's challenges and sufferings, the many baptisms of fire that burn away our self-centeredness to re-orient us as God-centered and able to give ourselves to the community that is Christ's body. This lifelong process is the paschal mystery, what St. Paul experienced and described as our transformation by accepting the pattern of the death and resurrection of Jesus in our own lives.

Today is the first annual commemoration of St John Paul II, canonized together with St. John XXIII last year by Pope Francis. In both these heroic lives we see the pattern of self-surrender. During his long reign as pope, we particularly see the descent of Pope John Paul II from great power and worldwide acclaim to the debilitating weakness of paralysis and suffering as age and Parkinson's disease claimed his vital energy and physical capacities. He endured a long public baptism of fire visible to the world.

Transformation is meant for all of us, whether we are great public figures or anonymous saints in the making. Each of us is invited to accomplish our baptismal identity in the way we live and how we die each day for others. Heaven only knows the truly great saints among us, those whose surrender and suffering are fulfilling what is lacking to the suffering of Christ to complete his crucified and risen body for the redemption of the world. What we do in our own ordinary way will be revealed as part of something much larger, with eternal implications.

Courage and faith and the grace of God keep us going forward through the baptism of fire that comes to all of us. Suffering is part of life, but suffering without meaning is terrible indeed. But in union with Jesus, it is both possible and a source of joy. Thanks be to God.


Posted on 21 October 2015 by patmarrin

"Be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Luke 12:40).

Pope Francis has been challenging his fellow bishops to be open to God’s surprises. This is no small adjustment for men trained to guard against novelty and to always have the answers. The very notion of being formed in “systematic theology” is that it provides basic principles that can be applied to any situation in predictable and comprehensive fashion. No surprises.

But what if God comes when we least expect, like a thief in the night? New questions and unexpected crises force leaders to be creative, adaptive and discerning. Learned men have to become learners again, even beginners. It take humility to risk being wrong, no longer in control, to have to listen to others, seek counsel, set the books aside in favor of collective experience and common sense.

Luke offers the early community leaders a collection of servant parables and instructions remembered from Jesus to guide them in applying the Gospel to new circumstances. The church is extending its identity from its Jewish roots, entering the pagan world of Greece and Rome, facing persecution from without and doctrinal quarrels within. The original generation is passing away and new believers are entering the church who have not known Peter and Paul or the historical Jesus.

Today’s passage shows that some pastors were growing lax in their faith, abusing people, getting drunk, failing to be vigilant for the return of Jesus. This bridge generation is crucial to holding the Gospel tradition together and passing it forward from the first preachers to later believers. Without their steadfast faith and discipline, the Jesus movement will be just like many other novel religions sprouting up and fading in the converging cultures of the empire.

The Holy Spirit is the guarantor of the continuation of the authentic Gospel and the community of faith. But, unlike the Law and all its theological interpretations, the Spirit is always greater than the institution. The Spirit of Jesus moves out ahead of the church, like the wind that blows where it wills, inspiring people inside and outside the lines drawn by orthodox teaching. The Spirit is the God of constant surprises, and only those who are attuned to the Living Voice will recognize the way God’s Holy People are being called into the future.

As the Synod on the Family concludes in Rome this week, we pray for church leaders who must step beyond familiar patterns and comfort zones to find and serve God’s people. The Spirit has already gone before them into the world, and if the institution is to survive, it must dare to go there too.

Our Vigil of Faith

Posted on 20 October 2015 by patmarrin

"Be like servants who await their master's return from a wedding" (Luke 12:35).

Today's Gospel about servants awaiting their master's return from a wedding shows how much Luke was concerned that the church toward the end of the first century not lose faith in the ultimate return of Jesus.

Composed at least 50 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Luke is encouraging the leaders of the young church, all second and third generation believers, to keep alert, even as the watches of the night come and go.

Just as Paul had addressed the question of an imminent parousia (Second Coming) in his letters to the Thessalonians some 30 years earlier, Luke reminds his Jewish and gentile converts that Jesus has already accomplished the great nuptial restoration of the covenant between God and the world by overcoming sin and death on the cross.

The return of the risen Christ from the wedding of divine-human reconciliation is always imminent. We await something that is already here because we are united to Christ in baptism. Every Eucharist is a nuptial celebration of atonement and an outpouring of grace. We welcome Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Bridegroom, the Son of God. Just as his Incarnation revealed God in the world, so those united to Jesus already possess eternal life.

Luke tells his contemporaries that they live in the gradual transition of the coming of God's kingdom that is both here and in the future, already available but not yet fully revealed. Their faith is the paschal candle that enables them to see this mystery through the long night as the church keeps vigil. The darkness they endure is not God's absence but their own journey to greater awareness of what is already present. This in-between time – Jesus already here but not yet fully revealed – is the story of the church down though the ages.

We are part of that story. We live in the Age of faith, sharing in the transformation of our bodies because we are certain that God is here, God is coming, God is alive in our hearts and in our lives.

Fool's Gold

Posted on 19 October 2015 by patmarrin

"One's life does not consist of possessions" (Luke 12:15).

People approaching retirement age either have or hire a financial planner to help them sort out what funds they have set aside for when they stop working. Anxiety over money can easily overshadow other goals and concerns as people face diminishing circumstances, loss of income and predictable healthcare costs. Even if people have prudently prepared for this stage of life, once someone starts worrying about money, no amount of savings is ever enough.

In today's Gospel, a man in the crowd asks Jesus to be both his advocate and financial planner. He wants Jesus to intervene in a common family dilemma for younger siblings when a father dies and the estate goes to the oldest brother. "Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me."

The cultural practice of primogeniture--the oldest male gets everything-- is a factor in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the highly unusual situation in which a younger brother asks for his "share" of the inheritance from his father, who is still alive, and actually gets it!

But in Luke's account, Jesus refuses to arbitrate the claim and turns the moment into a lesson about not allowing anxiety over riches to distract us from the more important questions about being rich in the eyes of God. A truly wealthy person in Jesus' eyes is someone rich in relationships -- a deep trust in God's providential care and a full network of friends and family built up over the years by generosity and mutual love. These are values money can't buy.

Jesus tells another parable about a wealthy man who is preoccupied with his possessions, but then dies suddenly. He is a "fool," Jesus says, for not attending to life's real values. The paradox of the parable is not just the cliche, "You can' take it with you," but that giving ourselves away and coming in on empty is the secret of a good life. But this is only possible if we really trust that God is our ultimate financial planner and advocate.

Jesus, who lived his missionary years as a transient, homeless preacher with only the clothes on his back and totally dependent on the hospitality of others, was rich in relationships and a source of love for others. If we want to be his disciples, he will teach us how to live this freely and simply, eager but not anxious to store up life's real necessities.


Drink Up

Posted on 17 October 2015 by patmarrin

“The cup that I drink, you will drink …” (Mark 10:40).

James and John, dubbed the “sons of thunder” by Jesus for their brashness, gave up their fishing boats because they saw the chance for even greater glory by following Jesus, the miracle worker and messianic contender. They wanted to be winners so much they even got their mother to intercede for them with Jesus, to grant them key roles in his campaign, one on his right and the other on his left.

Jesus confronts their ambition: “You do not know what you are asking for.” He has already told the Twelve that when they get to Jerusalem, he will be handed over to his enemies to be crucified. No one is listening, and his closest companions are jockeying to be close to Jesus in his hour of triumph. It has not penetrated their minds that his triumph will be the moment he lays down his life. On his right and his left will be two thieves. His ignominious death will be the culmination of his “downward mobility,” the core teaching to the disciples that true greatness lies in humble service that that if they want to be first they should compete for the last and lowest places.

The disciples, and this includes us, learn this paradox after the fact. Only when we have faced some challenge and suffered some loss do we begin to grasp the truth that real power is revealed in love and self-sacrifice. They all drank from this cup, and so will we, not as a special invitation reserved for saints, but because this is inherent in every human life. Suffering and loss will come to everyone, by illness or aging, in our relationships and our struggles to accomplish anything in this world. We are all destined to experience diminishment and death.

The Good News is not that we will somehow be spared life’s troubles, but that we will find meaning for what is normal by applying our suffering to the good of others, to community purposes larger than ourselves, by letting go of our egos and personal ambitions, by using our gifts for others. What greater glory is there than to have the chance to lay down your life out of love for others? The real winner is the one who crosses the finish line on empty.

James and John do us a great service by failing to understand this paradox so we could learn it. All the apostles, and their successors among our bishops and pastors today, have had to learn the way of the cross again and again to complete their journey to Jerusalem. Blessed are we if we grasp the same secret early, pray to have the courage and insight all through our lives to know that the cup of suffering we must drink is also the cup of salvation.

Isn’t this what we celebrate at every Mass when we break the bread and share the cup? This is truly the sign of our communion with Christ and with one another.


Meritocracy vs. Mercy

Posted on 16 October 2015 by patmarrin

"Beware of the leaven -- that is, hypocrisy -- of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:2).

The metaphor of leaven, an enzyme used in baking to cause the other ingredients in the bread dough to interact chemically and expand, is applied in the scriptures both positively and negatively to human attitudes.

Jesus uses it in the parable of the woman making bread to describe the mysterious coming of the Kingdom, and Paul uses it to describe risen life in Christ as revealed in the "leaven of sincerity of truth" (1 Cor 5:8). But Jesus also uses it to warn his disciples of the influence of the Pharisees. Just as leaven disappears as an odorless, tasteless and invisible factor in bread, so the narrow-minded legalism of the Pharisees permeated their thinking about God and religion.

If the life-giving leaven of God's kingdom gives freedom and joy, the leaven of the Pharisees fills people with hesitation and fear about trusting God's gift of love. The Pharisees saw religion as a meritocracy. God loves you only if you earn approval by obeying the rules and doing all the rituals as they did. Then you were righteous before God. And if you did not do these things, God did not love you.

Paul's Letter to the Romans argues that if we are saved by believing in Jesus, then we can do nothing to earn salvation, because it is a free gift. We cannot deserve it by our good deeds, which may help us live better lives here on earth but can’t buy a ticket to heaven. If we could save ourselves, then we would not need Christ. Paul says that even Abraham, the father of the Chosen People, was blessed not because of his good works but because of his faith in God's promise.

What can seem like complicated theological ideas become quite visible in people who claim to speak for God about who will be saved and who will not be saved. Jesus criticized the Pharisees and warned his disciples not to let the logic of their self-serving meritocracy seep into their own thinking. God is always bigger and more generous than our human ways of judging other people. Jesus died for sinners, befriended his enemies, went searching for the lost sheep, became an outcast himself to save outcasts.

If we believe in the God that Jesus revealed, then we will be blessed in the same way, not for our virtues or accomplishments, but because God loves us unconditionally at every step and through every stage of our life’s journey. No matter what happens, even how many mistakes we make or sins we commit, God never stops loving us and helping us find the path to peace and goodness. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Human Gatekeepers to God's Mercy

Posted on 15 October 2015 by patmarrin

"You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter" (Luke 11:53).

Religious leaders serve their people by facilitating and encouraging them to grow. Good preaching helps make God accessible to people. Good liturgy comforts the soul and welcomes the wounded. Leaders who only act as gatekeepers eager to set up obstacles to finding God -- whether these are difficult theological terms or ethical preconditions -- fail to represent God's unconditional love.

Jesus' frustration with the religious leaders of his time overflowed into indignation when he saw them blocking the way to God by making themselves into bureaucratic intermediaries who enforced rules, charged fees and demanded sacrifices in the name of God. Religion for them was less about God and more about their own power and status.

Jesus' direct knowledge of God as a loving Father who was always welcoming all his children home, especially those wounded by sin, made these institutional tactics intolerable. The behavior and attitudes of the scribes and Pharisees showed that they did not know God themselves and were preventing others from finding what God was offering for free.

Official leadership of any church that focuses only on making itself indispensable is a scandal. God's grace cannot be bought, contained, dispensed or withheld by human agents, no matter how solemn and authoritative they make themselves out to be. It is no wonder the temple establishment sought to kill Jesus for throwing open the gates of heaven to everyone. It threatened their self-appointed role as final arbiters of God's freedom to be merciful and generous. Their claim that they alone represented God was blasphemous and just a form of job protection. They were leaders who did not lead and refused to get out of the way so others could.

The Word of God is alive and active, knows our secret thoughts and comes to all of us as both encouragement and corrective. The message of today’s Gospel is clear: The church exists only to proclaim the Good News. Not to do so is a sin against the Holy Spirit.

Woe to You Who Misrepresent God

Posted on 14 October 2015 by patmarrin

Woe to your legalists! You put heavy burdens on people's shoulders, but will not lift a finger to help them" (Luke 11:46).

How often in both politics and religion we see leaders who have simply lost touch with ordinary life. They make the rules for others, but remain aloof in a world of privilege.

Members of Congress who have full health coverage vote to deny affordable insurance to working people; politicians whose parents or grandparents came to this country as immigrants promise to build walls to keep out newcomers; bishops in flowing robes who live in mansions isolate themselves from the poor all around them.

Jesus spent his life in ordinary circumstances and much of his public ministry among the poor, the sick and the outcasts. When he arrived in Jerusalem, the center of power and cause of so much suffering, he exposed the hypocrisy of the religious establishment. Leaders were focused on ritual purity and legal perfection, but they ignored the poverty and misery of people who had to struggle every day just to survive.

Jesus' criticism seems harsh, but he did not hesitate to challenge teachers and priests who were supposed to represent God, using their high calling to lord it over others and to turn a loving God into a mean-spirited judge like themselves, while blocking access to the real God's infinite mercy for those who needed it the most.

We do not have to look very far to see this hypocrisy or how those who have little experience of life's complex dilemmas then turn and judge others as losers and sinners. If fathers of families only functioned as disciplinarians or unyielding rule-givers who sent their children from the table or out of the house for every offense, would any family survive? Can any church survive if it is only for the perfect? Will the Gospel itself survive in an institution that preaches mercy but does not practice it?


Do the Dishes

Posted on 13 October 2015 by patmarrin

"Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside?" (Luke 11:40).

Human beings are made opaque for a reason. The calm exterior of a person often hides inner turmoil, suppressed emotions, fantasies and the ongoing conversation about best intentions vs. raw impulses. Thanks be to God that other people cannot see what we are really thinking!

But God can. We are wonderfully made by the One whose love holds us in existence as we progress each day from immaturity to maturity. God sees everything and loves us unconditionally toward the holiness ordained for us before we were conceived.

Jesus also saw people for what they really were. He saw the innocence of children and the longing for integrity in sinners. He also had a low tolerance for hypocrisy, the smiling, sanctimonious masks of religious figures who inside were filled with pride and lust and avarice.

In the Gospels, the Pharisees of his time -- public models of righteousness -- criticized Jesus for not observing their intricate protocols for hand washing and cup cleansing. The confrontation occasioned Jesus' rebuke of their preoccupation with ritual purification of externals while ignoring the need for interior purity and sincerity of heart.

The evangelists, writing a generation after the events and in the post-apocalyptic time after Jerusalem has been destroyed and both Christian and Jewish diasporas, turned the Pharisees into stock villains of legalism and hypocrisy for opposing Jesus. But we miss the point of the Gospel if we don’t see ourselves in Jesus’ challenge to focus on our interior lives. This is where the real work of spiritual progress (and mental health and self-awareness) takes place.

As we honestly assess the mess inside, we might despair if it were not for the patient, loving presence of the Holy Spirit. Like a parent teaching a child to straighten up the playroom, God is constantly encouraging us to be the same person inside and outside, an alignment that brings profound freedom and peace. What seems impossible for us is God’s gift to those who open themselves totally to God’s loving gaze and try each day to be the person God already sees them to be in the future.