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Why Forgive?

Posted on 14 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?”

Jesus compares God’s great forgiveness with human reluctance to forgive much smaller offenses. God’s mercy is the basis for all other forms of mercy. What God gives abundantly and unconditionally, we should share freely with one another.

By presenting this message in a story about debts, Jesus quantifies the issue. Owing money in student loans, car or mortgage payments or family borrowing is a common experience. To carry debt casts a shadow over our lives. To be debt free is a cause for celebration. Why total debt forgiveness does not fill the first servant with joy and inspire him to imitate his master is the heart of Jesus’ story.

The deeper challenge of mercy is not quantifiable. It is a quality of the heart that opens us to the mystery of God’s love in our lives, an inexhaustible gift of new life that never ceases as along as we allow it to flow through us. But if we limit its outflow we also slow it at the source. To stop loving is to block our ability to know love, to be loved. The divine economy of mercy must circulate.

The forgiven servant could not forgive because he still had a calculating heart, one familiar with keeping accounts, measuring debt and remembering what was owed him, but unable to let go of all that to enter God’s heart of mercy. Instead of joy and freedom, he went quickly back into debtor’s prison because his heart had not been transformed. It is this transformation we are to pray for and learn to practice.

The Power of Three

Posted on 13 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20).

An old Irish toast says “May the strength of three be in your journey.” It attests to the power of even a small community of purpose. One is inert. Two might agree on something, the first miracle of unity in diversity, but when a third voice is added, the circle is complete. In religion, literature, politics and science, the number three symbolizes a wholeness that gives structure and energy to nature and to human affairs. The three-legged stool, the three-act play, the third way or the third rail resolve uncertainty and empower the project.

Jesus promises a blessing when even two agree on a prayer, and his presence where two or three are gathered in his name. The power of prayer begins with this small miracle of community. How much listening and love does it take to get any two or three individuals to really agree on anything? How much work is needed to move two or three parties in a dispute to negotiate their differences? A lot. Consider the failure to agree on shared basic principles underlying so many deadly conflicts now raging in the world.

So many prayers are answered just by bringing people together. So many prayers are really about reconciling differences, moving forward together, sharing our separate views on a common problem and discovering the solution already there. It should not surprise us that Jesus promises that God is present when we reconcile, for God is already a Trinity, the power of three.

No Child Lost

Posted on 12 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:1).

The disciples must have had good reason to ask Jesus just who was the greatest in the kingdom he was preaching. They had seen again and again how he reversed the world’s idea of greatness, declaring that the first would be last and the last first, or that those ambitious to be leaders must be servants. They had even experienced it themselves as they jockeyed for position in following him, only to realize that he was serious when he said they were going to Jerusalem, where he would die.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus answers the question by placing a child in their midst. “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” He then warns them never to despise children, for they have a direct connection to God (“their angels in heaven always behold the face of my heavenly Father”). It is an awesome description, and it gives us insight into what Jesus asks of his disciples. You, too, must always behold the face of God. This is the kind of constant faith that brings heaven to earth even now, that you live always in the presence of God.

In the news each day we have seen so many children being terrorized and destroyed in situations of conflict, where power and fear overwhelm compassion; in Syria, in the Gaza Strip, at the borders. What are we to make of Jesus’ warning that God is intimately present to these little ones? Jesus concludes his instructions to his disciples with the parable of the lost sheep. “It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.”

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Clare of Assisi

Posted on 11 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Young men and maidens praise the name of the Lord” (Ps 148).

Today is the feast of St. Clare of Assisi. If she is known outside of official Catholic iconography, it is probably because of Franco Zefferelli’s charming 1972 biopic of St. Francis, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” Clare hears Francis preach, appeals to him to let her join his movement. He cuts her hair as a sign of her commitment and sets up a cloistered monastery for her and her companions.

The story has survived in the history of the Franciscans and the Poor Clares because of its simple appeal but also because it reflects a pattern repeated in the foundation of other movements, namely that men and women together helped form them from the outset.

This same wholeness and stability based on male-female friendship and partnering is evident in other religious establishments: Benedict and his sister Scholastica as cofounders of Western monasticism; Francis de Sales and Jane De Chantal as spiritual collaborators; Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac as servants of the poor. Each of these movements and many others draw from the original model of Christian community and ministry initiated by Jesus himself. Before the church became patriarchal, clerical and male, it was a band of men and women following Jesus.

In Psalm 148, the responsorial for today’s liturgy, heaven is a mixed choir of men and women praising God. As difficult as history has made the cause of equality for women, it is the end of the story. Only male and female together can represent the complete image and likeness of God.

By choosing the name Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio signaled his desire that the church recover the evangelical poverty embraced by St. Francis of Assisi. The pope’s openness to the Franciscan charism of simplicity and the joy of the Gospel also suggests the question: Where is Clare in this picture? There can hardly be a “church of the poor” without the “church of women,” who clearly perform the greater proportion of all ministry on behalf of the poor. How far will Pope Francis go in restoring the balance of men and women in the life and ministry of the Catholic church?

Today is a good day to ask St. Clare’s influence on Pope Francis.

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All Hands on Deck

Posted on 09 August 2014 by patmarrin

Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid” (Matt 14:28).

Matthew is writing his Gospel for a mixed community of Jews and gentiles in Antioch around 80 CE. We read today’s account of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee toward the boat full of terrified disciples with the needs of Matthew’s church in mind. Like other theophanies, (e.g., the transfiguration), is this story in fact a post-resurrection Jesus being placed in the narrative of his ministry for theological reasons? The early church, like a boat tossed on the stormy seas of persecution and uncertainty, desperately needs reassurance from its Risen Lord, who comes to them, not as a ghost, but as their Savior.

The role that Peter plays in the story is also important for the early church, still sorting out its loyalties and leadership questions. Matthew’s particular Jewish bent favors Peter as representing the church as the new Israel. Peter daringly voices the faith of the vulnerable little community when he steps out of the boat onto the waves to connect with Jesus. Even his moment of faltering is a realistic expression of the struggle the church is going through just 50 years after the events that inspired the new vision of God’s plan of salvation.

Matthew’s dramatic story has also served as personal reassurance for individual believers going through their own dark and stormy nights of doubt and confusion. When all seemed lost, the hand of Jesus reaches out to pull us up out of the churning waters of death. The storm passes and the sea is calm again, and we emerge from crisis knowing that we will survive, even if it means walking on water.

Faith that begins and is sustained in the imagination must be confirmed in our experience. Crisis actually strengthens us over the years with the conviction that, yes, we keep surviving as we go forward, despite our doubts, even because of adversity. The Word we share in prayer and worship says: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The risen Christ, present in us as members of his body, supports us.
Our crossing is assured within the boat of the church and, when necessary, even if we step out onto the waves to find Jesus ourselves. His love will never fail us.

St. Dominic

Posted on 08 August 2014 by patmarrin

“What profit would there be for one to gain the whole word and forfeit his life?” (Matt 16:26).

Next to survival, the human ambition to be somebody, to gain status and influence, is the next most basic instinct. Jesus addresses this in his challenge to disciples to lose themselves by following (imitating) him. Paradoxically, those who live in the pattern of Jesus’ self-emptying love will find their true selves. Following a false ideal of amassing wealth and power for oneself, Jesus warns, is the path to self-destruction.

It is a lesson learned over a lifetime. Who among us does not want comfort and security, self-sufficiency and some level of importance? The message seems to be that pursuit of these things must not override the deeper purpose of using whatever we have and whoever we are to build up the community. Engagement in the common effort and availability to others are the paths to human satisfaction and maturity. We recognize it when we see it in generous people. They possess a wholeness we admire and want for ourselves.

Today is the Feast of St. Dominic (1170-1221), whose simplicity of life and commitment to the truth was rooted in the Incarnation—Jesus as the image and likeness of God revealed in human maturity. To know Jesus intimately is to know ourselves as God intended us to be. It is the path to holiness. All other paths fall short of fulfillment.

Soft Rock

Posted on 07 August 2014 by patmarrin

“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:15).

The leadership of Peter is affirmed in this famous passage from Matthew’s Gospel. Having your name changed in the Bible was an important sign of a special call. Simon, a wavering reed, becomes Peter, the stable rock. We know Jesus was a good storyteller, but he could also come up with great puns. The foundation of the Catholic church, it turns out, is a bit of wordplay.

We should miss the irony in the story. Peter is often called Simon Peter, indicating that sometimes he wavered and sometimes he stood firm. The kind of leader he was called to be by Jesus was better served by Peter’s failures, which required forgiveness, which prepared Peter to preach forgiveness and lead from mercy.
Another important rock story comes to mind. Moses, a man with many flaws, struck the rock in the desert that provided water for the people. Peter is the rock broken by failure from which flowed a great baptism of tears.

We are all both reeds and rocks. We waver and stand firm. The church seems better served by broken people than by pastors filled with righteousness and certitude. Effective ministry is often bringing vulnerability to hurt, not power to weakness. Our own wounds and tears are sources of strength when approaching others who are suffering or who have failed. Are we all not pilgrims on the same road?

Transfigured

Posted on 06 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Rise and do not be afraid” (Matt 17:8).

The Feast of the Transfiguration is like one of those textbook transparencies that show something in multiple layers. We see Jesus with three of his disciples on a mountain. A brilliant light suffuses Jesus, then Moses and Elijah appear conversing with him. A cloud overshadows them and a voice calls Jesus “my beloved Son.”

In an instant, Jesus is revealed as the Son of God, the Savior, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the firstborn of the new creation, the divine future of humanity. The Transfiguration recalls Jesus’ baptism and points to his crucifixion and resurrection as witnessed and preached by his disciples. The story and the meaning of the story are packed into a single scene that is profoundly doctrinal, the whole mystery presented all at once. An entire lifetime of prayer and study could be spent unpacking this passage of scripture.

The coincidence of the annual date of this feast and the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug 6, 1945, created another densely packed moment in our history that also requires profound meditation. That event, because of its awesome scientific significance, borrowed theological language to view itself. The “Trinity” Project produced the bombs, named “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” and the official account of the explosion was eerily similar to the story of the transfiguration. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the project that produced the bombs, turned to the Bhagavad Gita to describe the unleashing of nuclear power: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

One moment revealed God’s plan of salvation; the other revealed the human capacity for postponing and resisting that plan. The gap between these two visions is the challenge facing all of us, to choose life rather than death.

Hope to Healing

Posted on 05 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Incurable is your wound” (Jer 30:2).

Jeremiah is called the reluctant prophet because the news he had to deliver to Israel was so often bad news. There was no way to put a happy face on the verdict already cast—that Jerusalem would be lost and the people exiled for 50 years for failing to keep God’s covenant. Jeremiah uses an image that still brings despair to anyone hearing it: “incurable is your wound.”

Yet Jeremiah would accompany the nation into exile and announce God’s intentions to restore them after a time of purification: “With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you. Again I will restore you, and you shall be rebuilt” (Jer 31:3-4). No verdict is final or without appeal when dealing with a God whose very name is Mercy.

So many of our wounds are self-inflicted. Unresolved conflict and refusal to forgive are the source of so much suffering in families and in society and between nations. The cure is there but withheld. The Covenant is about right relationships. Where justice is restored, people are at peace. God’s mercy underwrites our small, hesitant outreach to others. Grace multiplies grace to restore what was lost, heal even what seemed incurable.

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Fourth Watch Faith

Posted on 04 August 2014 by patmarrin

“During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea” (Matt 14:25).

There are some great cinematic moments in the Gospels, and the scene in which Jesus comes walking across the waves toward the boat filled with terrified disciples is one of them. Choose your camera angle and position: from the prow of the boat tracking the figure of Jesus appearing at the crest of the next big wave and then disappearing into the trough; or from Jesus’ perspective seeing the boat go up and down in the howling wind against a sky riven by lightning.

The fourth watch was the final one, between 3 A.M. and dawn. The disciples have been in a storm that started the following evening just a few miles offshore from where they had witnessed the miracle of the loaves. They are soaking wet, exhausted with fear and without their captain, Jesus, who had sent them on ahead and gone up the mountain to pray.

Whether a spiritual moment in the dark night of an individual soul or a crisis for the whole church tossed in turbulent seas, this story is meant to encourage: “Don’t be afraid. It is I.”

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