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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.

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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.

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The Tenth Leper

Posted on 12 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Go show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:13).

Healing a leper restored him or her to the community. Fear of contagion was as rife in ancient times as it is in ours. Only people then did not have the benefit of real science. Skin disorders were regarded as a public health menace and a sign the victim was being punished by God. Fear of contact was both physical and spiritual. Showing yourself to a priest was a way to verify that you were no longer a danger and could be welcomed back into society, your family and the worshiping community. Isolation was perhaps the greatest suffering so called lepers faced. They were seen and perhaps saw themselves as cursed until the offending condition cleared up.

Jesus must have had a reputation among the untouchables as someone who was not afraid to break the taboos regarding direct contact. He ate with social and moral outcasts. He touched and was touched by others freely, including those shunned as legally impure, at fault, deserving of their afflictions.

In today’s Gospel, 10 lepers — a small band of disfigured and shunned people – cry out to Jesus from a distance: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” Their approach and plea indicate that they believe he has the power to heal them. Jesus follows the law and sends them to be examined by the priests. On the way they experience wholeness again. One of them is a Samaritan, twice cursed as an outcast in the eyes of the Jews. It is this 10th leper who returns to thank Jesus, who praises him. He alone out of the rest grasps the full meaning of his healing. He is not only free of the disease, he has also encountered the very source of Life. He is both healed and “saved” – incorporated into the new creation through Jesus. He will live forever.

To touch or be touched by Jesus is the source of our own healing. We do it through our baptism and our daily communion with Christ in the sacraments and as members of his body, the church. This life-give encounter is already ours. We are all the 10th leper, and being grateful today will deepen our Life-giving relationship with Jesus and with our fellow lepers made clean by God's infinite mercy and love.

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St. Martin of Tours, Veteran

Posted on 11 November 2014 by patmarrin

“When you have done all you have been commanded, say ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do'” (Luke 17:10).

The Lectionary again delivers some irony this November 11 Veteran’s Day by honoring St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of pacifists. Martin (316-397) was a Roman solider when he converted to Christianity. The story survives that he once cut his cloak in half to share it with a beggar, only to realize later that the poor man was Christ. Martin left the military and later became a bishop in Gaul (France). Radical pacifism characterized the church until after Constantine made Christianity the official state religion and the “just war” theory gradually influenced church teaching.

Military service mirrors Christianity’s total devotion by asking its soldiers to give their lives to the national cause, whatever its merits, and it also models a hierarchy of command for bishops, who rule the church with absolute authority. Military protocols also reinforce symbols and structures in much the same way that the liturgy reflects church rank and ceremony.

Today’s Gospel has Jesus telling his Apostles that they are to do their duty without expecting any praise from their Master, since they are only servants (and unprofitable ones at that). This passage sounds a lot like Jesus is affirming the chain of command in the church, until we remember that Jesus actually turned everything upside down. The first will be last, the last first; leaders must be servants, as he himself was a servant, waiting on his Apostles at the Last Supper, even washing their feet.

We honor today all those who serve, whether their country or their religion, while at the same time praying for an end to all violence and war.

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Pope St. Leo the Great

Posted on 10 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the one through whom they occur” (Luke 17:1).

Today is the feast of St. Leo the Great, the Fifth Century pope best known for dissuading Attila the Hun from sacking Rome in 452. The historical basis for this event is sketchy, but the big picture indicates that the Roman empire, extended into the far reaches of the ancient world, was by this time contracting and attracting many of the formerly conquered peoples from the frontiers to invade. Leo’s persuasion was apparently only temporary; Attila returned in 455 and sacked the city.

St. Leo is a doctor of the church, and his teaching on the Eucharist is a powerful reminder to us that we become the body of Christ when we receive him in communion.
Today’s Gospel is about the scourge of scandal – anyone leading an innocent person astray. One of the harshest corrections in the New Testament is given by Jesus in this regard: “It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.“ Jesus surely witnessed the seduction and abuse of many defenseless victims – women, children and slaves – and he levels the threat of being cast into the abyss for those who do this.

But the reading is also about repentance and forgiveness. The Christian community is a refuge for sinners, and mercy is a powerful source of healing for those who seek it. The Eucharist is the medicine of mercy. But such forgiveness is so counterintuitive that only with great faith can any community absorb difficult cases of sin. Yet, Jesus concludes with the image of “faith the size of a mustard seed” being able to “uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea.” No evil, however deeply rooted, can withstand the power of faith. This is good news, for all of us.

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Cleaning House

Posted on 08 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (John 2:16).

It was not without irony that someone chose for today’s Commemoration of the Lateran Basilica the Gospel from John 2 about Jesus cleansing the temple. The fourth-century gift of a huge palace by one of Rome’s wealthiest families to be used as a church recalls the magnificent temple in Jerusalem constructed by King Herod in his bid for acceptance by the Jewish establishment during the time of Jesus.

Resistance to Herod’s patronage as a corrupting influence on Jewish worship was a major tension at the time. A temple reform movement may have been the context for Jesus’ symbolic “cleansing” of the temple area, which struck a public blow to the nerve of complicity between Herod, the High Priest and the Romans, who shared the revenues from animal sacrifice and money changing. Placing this scene at the start of his Gospel was John’s way of defining Jesus’ ministry as about purifying and restoring authentic worship. Jesus offers his own body as the perfect sacrifice that saves Israel. He is the new temple that replaces the old, which had become a “den of thieves.” All four Gospels record this bold action, and historically it could easily have led to Jesus’ arrest and execution.

Money seems to be the root of many of the crises that have confronted the institutional church over the centuries. Luther’s disgust at the selling of church offices and indulgences to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica led to the Reformation. Wealthy donors have financed the papal court and the church's charitable works, but how often as a reward for keeping silent about matters of economic justice that cause the poverty the church then addresses in its ministries?

Pope Francis’ renewed call for a “church of the poor for the poor” has so far been more rhetorical than the de facto cleaning up the secret accounts of the Vatican Bank reportedly used for tax evasion and money laundering. Some billionaire benefactors courted by bishops to help pay for their church renovations have voiced concern over the pope’s criticism of global market capitalism and gross income inequality. The age-old question is whether the vision of Jesus is possible for a world-wide institution with over a billion members.

For us as members of local parishes, the challenge is more about cleansing our own temples of greed and compromise. Can our faith communities be true houses of the kind of worship Jesus said God wanted — a commitment to justice, care for the poor and mercy for sinners? Are we field hospitals for the wounded, places where outcasts are welcome and the table has room for everyone in search of God, or have be become comfort zones for zip code homogeneity and social denial?

While money can buy most anything else in this world, only God can give true peace of mind. Don’t be surprised to find Jesus in your church (and in your heart) this morning, tidying things up so real worship can begin.

Giving Away the Store

Posted on 07 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Prepare a full account of your stewardship” (Luke 16:2).

The parable in today’s Gospel continues Jesus’ theme of mercy. In an odd twist, the story echoes the criticism Jesus was facing from the scribes and Pharisees, who were accusing him of being too lax with sinners. Jesus is himself the steward who is letting debtors off the hook by reducing their debts to his Master. His motives are broad — to help them but also to prepare for his dismissal (death?) by befriending the poor debtors — but in the end, the Master actually commends that “dishonest” steward for his prudence.

Jesus was guilty of giving away the store to sinners. He sought them out, ate with them, opened their hearts to God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. As in the cases of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, heaven rejoiced in their repentance. This extravagant outpouring of love on tax collectors and prostitutes did not sit well with the scholars of the law or the temple priests, who saw themselves as the gatekeepers to God. Jesus has gone too far and, like the bad steward, he had to be denounced and dismissed (eliminated). The thought that God actually approved of his generosity only enraged the leaders all the more.

We will also have to give a full account of our stewardship. There is apparent security in always following the rules, emphasizing strict justice in our treatment of others. But have we also at times erred on the side of mercy, been too generous and forgiving when we might have been more severe? Have you ever been criticized for being too easy on someone? Have you ever given away the store? Jesus moves our hearts from clear choices into the holy ambiguity of unconditional love. Being generous to a fault or too forgiving might not reflect worldly wisdom, but it imitates God and follows the example of Jesus.

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Go Out and Find Them!

Posted on 06 November 2014 by patmarrin

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1).

Jesus lavishes three famous parables on the question of why he seeks out those religion calls “sinners.”

The parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Boy are his appeals to religious people to understand the Gospel of Mercy. God is constantly seeking out those who are lost, wounded and confused. God pursues even the recalcitrant sinner, the one who is in deliberate rebellion. In the imagery of the parables, he will leave the 99 in the wilderness to search for the one lost sheep; she will spend the whole day sweeping out the house to find the one lost coin out of 10; he will send his heart out to the edges of the horizon to scan for the lost child, praying him home no matter what he has done.

This is what God is like, Jesus tells those who criticize him for welcoming and eating with sinners. This scripture is the basis for challenging the common church practice of shunning sinners and denying them communion until they accept the judgment of an official minister of the church and do penance. The Eucharist — both the welcoming Table and the body and blood of Jesus in Communion — are meant for the sick, those who are hungry and thirsty, those who need the "medicine of mercy."

Jesus turns no one away. He dines with the scribes and Pharisees; he shares the common dish with tax collectors and prostitutes. He does this whether they are repentant or not. In Paul’s startling words, “Yet while we were still sinners, Christ gave himself up for us” (Rom 5:8).

Pope Francis' challenge to his fellow bishops to be shepherds of mercy is more than rhetoric. In his closing remarks to them at the Synod on the Family, he said, “The first duty [of shepherds] is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: rather, go out and find them.”

The Word of God invites all of us to consider our own role as shepherds of mercy — in our families, our workplaces, and most importantly, in our attitudes and behaviors. It is not enough to feel merciful or withhold judgment of others. We are to go out and find the lost, welcome them to our table, eat with them, give them our time and attention. This requires a revolution of the heart, but one that will come full circle to save us when we ourselves are lost, wounded and far from home.

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Can You Finish What You Start?

Posted on 05 November 2014 by patmarrin

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).

Jesus tells two parables to illustrate the need to plan ahead. The tower builder and the king commanding an army in the field must have the wisdom to know the cost of their actions. Otherwise they are seen as foolish. So is the case with discipleship. Discern first if you are ready to pay the cost of following Jesus, of bearing the burden of your particular life situation to completion. Only then are you ready to commit.

Yet, the irony of this teaching is that virtually all of the original disciples called by Jesus did not have the will or the resources to complete what they began when invited to follow him. From Peter to Judas, the Apostles fail miserably in the moment of truth when Jesus is arrested and executed. Only John, the “beloved disciple,” is loyal to the end. The rest flee the scene in a shameful display of cowardice, denial and betrayal.

The only lesson we can take from their example is that discipleship is not a straight-line march to glory, but a lifelong process of trial and error, rising and falling, stopping and starting again. The apostles emerge from profound failure to be welcomed again into the forgiveness and peace of the Risen Christ. This experience is, paradoxically, what prepares them to preach the Gospel of mercy. What they themselves received they are able to share with others.

Carrying our unique personal crosses—our faults and failures—is a daily affair. Following Jesus is a long process of listening and learning, continual conversation and slow transformation. Saints are really sinners carried by grace, forgiven again and again, pointed in the right direction when they are lost.

What God begins in us, God will bring to completion, leading and guiding us with love and patience. So begin again each day. This is the Good News.

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