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The Rising

Posted on 28 July 2014 by patmarrin

Jesus spoke to them only parables” (Matt 13:34).

One common characteristic of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom is that in a process involving human doing (seeking, planting, finding, fishing), there is always a gift, an element beyond human control. A tiny mustard seed is planted in the soil, but the germination is the result of a mysterious potency in the seed itself. A woman mixes yeast into a batch of dough, but the enzyme then must take over.

This same characteristic is true of many of Jesus’ miracles. People must seek him out, cry out his name, reach through the bustling crowd to touch his cloak; a boy shares the five barely loaves and two fish that feed the five thousand; servants fill the jars with water at Cana.

The most effective help programs are self-help strategies; What can you bring to this solution? What is your investment here? Let’s do this together. Collaboration builds community, enables people to go beyond their own wants and needs to an awareness of the common good. Community is the real miracle that reveals God’s presence. We only know it after the fact. Something greater than the sum of the parts has occurred here. It began with us, needed our small efforts, but then the magic happened, the green shoot appeared, the dough rose in the pan, fragrant and alive, giving us bread but also the surpassing mystery of joy.

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July 27, 2014: Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Posted on 26 July 2014 by patmarrin

“The kingdom of heaven is like…” (Matt 13:44).

July has been a month for parables. Matthew, like the scribe at the end of today’s Gospel passage, has poured out his store of sayings from Jesus about the mysterious Kingdom of God. Seeds, pearls, treasures, yeast, fishing nets — they all offer glimpses into what God is offering and how important it is for us to respond and act. Each little story unfolds its secrets, confronts us with choices, calls us to come closer and go deeper than ever before. Those who have eyes to see, let them see; ears to hear, let them hear.

There is a treasure under your feet waiting to be uncovered. The pearl of your dreams waits in the market, ready to be purchased and possessed. But both will cost you everything. Cast your net into the sea and draw out both the good and the bad. Sort with wisdom, keep what is good, discard the rest.

How we apply these parables is a matter for each of us. The essence of our encounter with the Word is the way the images play upon our hearts and minds and memories. An old cigar box wrapped in rubber bands holds some clear blue marbles, a paint-chipped lead soldier, colorful stamps, a brass key, a thimble, a pink paper umbrella. Only the child knows the story for each, but even years later, they invoke wonder at life’s variety and mystery.

To enter that place, not a place but a special zone of comprehension just beyond sight, is to open ourselves to a presence nearby, with us, more real than the anytime that frames the encounter. The treasure is a person; the pearl is never being alone again. We are storerooms full of God, to be dispensed freely to anyone who asks.

Feast of St. James

Posted on 25 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom” (Matt 20:22).

There is an element of the comic opera in today’s Gospel scene. Two of the 12 disciples, brothers known as the “Sons of Thunder” for their brashness and ambition, get their mother to ask Jesus for top spots in his movement. The other disciples cry foul, but their indignation only reveals how ambitious they all are for the glory they imagine will greet them in Jerusalem. Jesus’ triumph will take place on a cross, and on his right and left will hang thieves and murderers. There has been some colossal misunderstanding. If only the mother of James and John knew what she was asking for.

Today is the feast of St. James the Apostle, and the church continues the parody of honoring one of the original “princes of the church” with a scriptural broadside on the perils of false expectation and self-delusion. Yet somewhere in Rome today, a prelate claiming direct lineage to the Twelve may be processing down the aisle of a huge basilica with 20 yards of scarlet silk trailing behind him representing his willingness to be martyred. Another may be waiting by the phone for word of a higher appointment, perhaps even a red hat.

The scriptures subvert all our ambitions, except the desire to seek the lowest place, the call to serve, the willingness to accompany those suffering at the borders and margins of all worldly advantage. St. James, the patron saint of pilgrims, directs us in this downward mobility to follow Jesus wherever he commands us to go and to be.

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Ears to Hear, Eyes to See

Posted on 24 July 2014 by patmarrin

“To anyone who has, more will be given” (Matt 13:12).

In any relationship, full revelation must be balanced with preserving the freedom of the other to approach or withdraw at his or her own pace. We remain hidden, inviting rather than pressing acceptance. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Little Prince” and the fox explore their friendship this way. In the tantalizing “Song of Songs,” lovers glimpse through lattice work, elusive as their ardor builds. Alfred Hitchcock appears furtively in all his films, the creator hidden in plain sight in his creation, but with the lightest touch.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 to explain why he speaks in parables. It is to filter out unbelief, to invite the seeker but exclude the skeptic. Without faith no one can “see” beneath the surface of the story to its deeper revelation. To encounter God we must meet him halfway, entrust ourselves to the mystery we cannot control.

The sower sows seed everywhere, but only fertile soil receives it and bears fruit. Parables are like a swimming pool with a shallow end and a deep end. We decide where we will commit ourselves; testing the water with a first cautious step or plunging in headlong. Jesus goes beyond Greek logic to Asian paradox: “To anyone who has, more will be given: from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Even the smallest amount of faith multiplies, while those who seek proof first go away blank-eyed and empty of insight.

“Yes” opens the door when the lover knocks. “Maybe” dismisses the dream and seals us out. Hear the parables, approach, open your heart. God will enter in.

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The Secret Garden

Posted on 23 July 2014 by patmarrin

“The word of God came to me” (Jer 1:1).

The daily Lectionary again serves up the familiar parable of the sower who went out to sow (Matt 13:1-9). The seed as an image of how God’s word enters our lives reveals Jesus’ own experience in a long line of prophets. In today’s first reading, Jeremiah begins his own story with the simple words, “The word of God came to me.” Like a seed, God germinates in our imaginations, sending down roots into our unconscious thoughts, tapping the very substance of our personalities and shaping our experiences to nourish the emerging message planted in us. We cannot contain it, though Jeremiah tried (20:7), for God’s word must be expressed, like the plant appearing above ground to face the the world, its blazing sun, wind and rain, surrounded by brambles and devouring birds. Jeremiah was sent first to prepare the nation for destruction and exile, then as the voice of God's promise of consolation and return.

In the same way, Jesus was the sower who went out to sow, becoming himself the seed that fell to the ground and died in order to initiate the bounteous harvest of salvation.

In this summer season of gardens, anyone who plants and waters, weeds and prunes, bringing flowers to full beauty and fruits and vegetables to the table, knows the mysterious gift of seeds. Blessed are those who see in nature the even deeper mystery of God’s word that comes to all of us.

Mary Magdalene

Posted on 22 July 2014 by patmarrin

“I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).

The post resurrection appearance stories in John’s Gospel are both beautiful and theological. Moving from the first recorded accounts in Mark, which originally ended with the women saying nothing after meeting an angel, to John’s detailed encounters between Mary and Jesus in the garden and Peter and Jesus by the Sea of Tiberias, we glimpse the developing faith of the community over a period of perhaps 40 years or more.

In John, Mary Magdalene has emerged as the pre-eminent witness to the Risen Christ. In today’s Gospel, she witnesses what seems to be Jesus’ transition from raised, mysterious body to full status at the right hand of God. He tells her not to hold him because he has not yet “ascended to the Father.” He is not yet in full glory. Mary does not recognize him at first, but “sees” when he calls her by name. Her baptism of tears brings her to full faith. He tells her to go tell “my brothers” that he is going to “my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We are left in these few lines of the Gospel with enough theology to fill a library and enough mystery to fill a lifetime of prayer as we seek our own encounters with Jesus.

This story begins with other important details. Mary first runs to tell Simon Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved” that the tomb was open and empty. There is protocol here, Mary ceded authority to Peter. His own encounter with Jesus at Tiberias, an even later addition to the fourth Gospel that seems intended to establish Peter’s leadership, has parallels to Mary’s story. Both take place early in the morning after a night of struggle. Jesus is not recognized at first. The encounter is about healing and sending. Mary is the Apostle to the Apostles; Peter is told to “feed my lambs, feed my sheep.”

We are invited to be more than just scripture scholars and theologians. John invites us to be believers, motivated by love for Jesus as our beloved brother whose death and resurrection have opened the way to God for us. Celebrating today’s Feast of Mary Magdalene will occasion much spirited discussion about authority and leadership in the church, the role of women as preachers, the pre-eminence of love as what enables us to believe. We welcome together the richness of our evolving faith in the risen Christ.

The Sign of Jonah

Posted on 21 July 2014 by patmarrin

“There is something greater than Jonah here” (Matt 12:40).

The story of Jonah was a fantastic, popular story (think Pinocchio) with a powerful religious message. It was addressed to Jews confident of their exclusive status as God’s chosen people and eager to see their enemies punished. Jonah is a reluctant prophet sent to Nineveh (Assyria) to preach repentance. He does not want to go, does not want to make this offer to Israel's worst enemy, fearful they might accept it and be saved.

So Jonah runs away, but he is shipwrecked, swallowed by a sea monster and delivered to his assigned destination. He walks to the center of the huge foreign capital, tells the Ninevites to repent and retreats to see God’s wrath fall on them. But, they repent and, after a parable within the tale about a broom plant given to shade Jonah, then taken away, the story of Jonah concludes with the message: God freely shows mercy on anyone he chooses.

There were two signs of Jonah applied to Jesus by the early Christians. First, Jesus was a prophet sent to preach to a reluctant people. The self-righteous rejected him, but sinners responded. Second, as Jonah was swallowed up by the sea monster (death) and then restored, so Jesus fulfilled this image in his death and resurrection. Matthew, eager to apply every prophecy to Jesus, sees in the figure of Jonah a foreshadowing of the Messianic secret and paschal mystery of his death and resurrection.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah. This message is for us as well. We have been given a clear call and every chance to turn our hearts to God, whose mercy is being freely offered to everyone, even those outside the institutional and religious circles we belong to and take comfort in as Christians and Catholics. Reluctance is costly and postponement is folly. Now is the day of salvation. Don’t be afraid. Enter the sea of God’s mercy, the flow of grace, the falling and rising rhythm of life in Christ. Let him take you wherever your life can be a sign of love to others, even your enemies. This is the sign of Jonah.

A Work in Progress

Posted on 19 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Let them grow together until harvest” (Matt 13:30).

The phrase “work in progress” is crucial for anyone who works in and with communities or with people who are struggling to learn and grow. Teachers, organizers and pastors know that any long-term goal requires great patience and a tolerance for ambiguity. Perfectionists need not apply. The arc of human development reveals that we all learn from our mistakes and that at the end of the process, maturity comes to those who risk, restart, repent and renew themselves along the way. Those who lack resilience often avoid life’s complex challenges and the hard work of making choices. Stage development experts say that a child who does not push back at age two postpones that natural rebellion until adolescence, and that repression at that age erupts in midlife crisis or, much later, in senior years marked by resentment, regret and a panicked sense of having never really lived.

The parable of the wheat and weeds takes on universal significance as a lesson in mercy, tolerance and patience. All our communities are works in progress, and we all live more freely and with less rancor and judgmentalism by adopting a spirit of letting go and entrusting everything to God.

The owner of the wheat fields infiltrated by weeds takes this approach despite his workers eagerness to root up the invading plants. He knows that any attempt to selectively purge one from the other will likely destroy the harvest. The parable served to instruct Matthew’s community of mixed Jewish and gentile converts from going after one another in the quest for pure orthodoxy. The message of the Gospel was that mercy was more important than perfection, if this was even possible. The process of mutual forgiveness and negotiated coexistence was the real life and witness of the church, not some future harvest only God can supervise.

Today’s parishes mirror the same tension between progressives and traditionalists, political partisanship, pro and con positions on a wide range of social and economic issues. Yet everyone comes to the table, everyone makes up the communion that is the clear sign of God’s mercy and power to heal a complicated, diverse world.

We rejoice to be works in progress, and we pray for the courage and freedom to grow together in a spirit of tolerance and humility.

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Mercy First

Posted on 18 July 2014 by patmarrin

“The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt 12:8).

The distinction between clergy and laity is as old as religion. It may have started to designate function, but seems to have evolved to assign special status and authority to those who saw themselves as controlling access to God. High priests wore sacred clothing and used special symbols to go before God on behalf of ordinary people. They burned incense and offered sacrifices to please or placate God in order to insure a desired outcome; the birth of a child, a bountiful harvest, victory over an enemy. The exalted and necessary role of the clergy was job protection and warranted them honor and privilege, which distinguished them from ordinary people, whose need for mediation increased their feelings of distance from God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus erases the distinctions. The freedom of hungry disciples to glean as they walked alongside the fields ripe with grain raises the question. Jesus affirms the natural authority of the “Son of Man” over religious rules and rituals. Common men – ordinary people—come first, and necessity trumps rules with common sense and compassion for those in need. “God desires mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus argues, echoing the prophets who placed social justice and the care of widows, orphans and aliens above temple rituals and laws for their own sake.

The principle Jesus asserts that people come first should illumine many contemporary issues: the humane care of vulnerable mothers and children at the border; a living wage for workers; protecting civilians in a war zone; addressing economic rules that allow glaring disparities; religious privilege that insulates doctrine from lived reality. Add your own controversies. Complexity clouds policy debates, but the failure to respond to suffering shames us all.

In the evening of life we will be judged on one thing only, whether we showed mercy to someone in need. It is a basic measure that touches us all, high and low, important and ordinary.

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Just for Today

Posted on 17 July 2014 by patmarrin

“My yoke is easy, my burden light” (Matt 11:30).

Parables await me on my morning drive into work. The city is awake. Delivery trucks rumble past, cars, busses and bicycles deliver people to their respective jobs. Street crews take advantage of the morning cool, surrounded by orange cones and signs that slow and divert traffic. Dog walkers and joggers are out in the leafy neighborhoods, and in Midtown a man sits on the front steps of an apartment building smoking a cigarette.

A line in the first reading from Isaiah has posed a question about the pervasive anxiety that keeps us alert to life’s uncertainties: “My soul yearns for you in the night, yes, my spirit within me keeps vigil for you” (26:9). Even our dreams are on edge, unfinished memories and familiar strangers who mumble secrets. The morning paper spills out images of a world coming apart with cruelty that, even far away, intrudes on our busy, insulated lives.

Where does peace come from, and how do we find just enough of it to give us a small space to meet the day with confidence?

One block to go, and my parable is there, a woman carrying her child. She is smiling and saying something to the thick curls tucked in close against her chest. Everything is going to be OK. This will be a good day within this small circle of love. It is someone else’s dream, but for a moment I share in it and open my own heart to life’s simple goodness. Even the distant shadow of death is held off. If love is the beginning and the end of the story, the days in between, one moment at a time, are still gifts to be lived fully and with gratitude. Just for today, my yoke is easy, my burden light.

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