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Wanted: Servant Leaders

Posted on 04 November 2014 by patmarrin

"Come, everything is now ready" (Luke 14:17).

Today’s U.S. elections invite us to reflect on those who compete for power. Public service can be heroic or a path to self-aggrandizement. Politics is a brutal contact sport, and those who enter it know there are winners and losers, careers made and destroyed, lives enhanced by opportunity or ruined by corruption.

The famous hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 celebrates the self-emptying of Jesus on a path toward total service and surrender to the will of God. To liberate us from sin he becomes a slave, obedient unto death, death on a cross. He models leadership in humble service and self-sacrifice. He is the hero who lays down his life for his friends, the master who washes the feet of his disciples. He practices the politics of downward mobility and nonviolent persuasion. His campaign favors the poor and the outcast, turning upside down the hierarchies of status and privilege.

Jesus presses his upside down vision in today’ Gospel parable of the man who gave a banquet that none of the invited guests attended. So the man opened his feast to street beggars, the poor, blind and lame. It is an outrageous and unlikely scene, why no politician has ever come to power by literally imitating Jesus. But some have grasped the principle of the common good and understood that a society is measured not by how it protects the rich but by how it cares for the poor. No system survives for long if it fails to build a foundation on the common good. What Jesus proposed was counterintuitive but also deeply wise and true because it is based on justice.

We pray for our presumptive leaders today, both in civil society and in the church. May they be servant leaders, inspired to empty themselves for the sake of the community. God approves such candidates and so should we.

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Brother Martin de Porres

Posted on 03 November 2014 by patmarrin

"You will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous" (Luke 14:14).

Pope Francis' challenge to the church to become a "church of the poor for the poor" follows directly from his challenge to become a "church of mercy." A transformation within will lead to a revolution in the church's relationship to the world. Alignment with the struggling majority at the bottom of the global pyramid of economic wealth and privilege will challenge every diocese and parish to ask how its decisions affect the poor. Every bishop will have to reassess his role not just as a benefactor but as a brother to the poor.

In today's Gospel, Jesus tells about a host throwing a banquet. In the ancient world, social advancement required an elaborate exchange of hospitality among those hoping to make connections and climb the social ladder to the top. Jesus turns the model upside down. Don't invite those who can repay you; instead open your doors and your table to the social outcasts: the poor, crippled, blind beggars from the streets. Why invest in the small gains this world promises when you can pay it forward in the kingdom of God?

No downward mobility was required of today’s St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639). The son of Spanish knight and a freed black slave, Martin entered the Dominican Order as a brother. His low status immersed him in companionship and service to the poor and the outcast of Lima, Peru. He is a model for the church of the poor and an important saint for the global South.

Jesus calls us all into solidarity with those in most need. It takes a continual conversion of mind and heart to let go of the advantages and status afforded many of us because of race, income and education. But those who accompany the poor discover a lifeline to God, who dwells with the poor. There is no other way to climb the ladder of holiness than to descend the ladder of success to take our place with Jesus among the poor, within the poor, calling us to be poor for the sake of the kingdom.

The Rising

Posted on 02 November 2014 by patmarrin

“This in the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day” (John 6:39).

In 2002, the year after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Bruce Springsteen released an album he called “The Rising.” The title song tells the thoughts of a fireman ascending a stairwell in the doomed inferno of the World Trade Towers in search of trapped victims. The chorus captures both the grief and determination the nation was struggling through in the dark days and months following the attacks. The fact of death was never so palpable. Where can we turn to except some message of restoration, even resurgence, after the worst thing that can happen to any human community? We reach forward out of the darkness to “The Rising.”

Jackie Kennedy was once quoted as saying that the Catholic church really knew about death, what to do to after a terrible loss. The church’s rituals and symbols, so ancient and reassuring, are there at the time of death, and the message is clear and poignant. Love is stronger than death. Community is the fulfillment of life, all of us together in the everlasting embrace of God, who is all powerful, all merciful.

Today we celebrate our beloved dead. As we gather at Mass, they are like a cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Though gone from sight, absent physically from the world and from our lives, we believe that they have gone before us in faith. They are still present in some mysterious way, cheering us on to the same goal they now possess fully and joyfully. God keeps every promise, and God’s mercy receives us even in our sins and failures, including us in the “communion of saints,” both famous and ordinary. everyone is there, welcomed and restored as a new creation.

Science knows the fact of death. Our culture explores it in movies about zombies, the living dead, and in inspiring stories about heroes who overcome tragedy. We search for answers, a glimpse through the veil of loss to find a connection to those who are gone. All the answers take us into the realm of faith, and what reassurance we find is a matter of belief, not certainty. The human mind and heart seem wired to the question: “What happens next? Will we ever see you again?”

Our Eucharist is “The Thanksgiving” we celebrate that Jesus, our Lord and brother, has gone before us through death to new life. We follow him by emptying our lives into the community, by serving one another, by giving ourselves away long before the day we utter our last word and breathe our final breath. We believe that God has entrusted us to Jesus, and because he has given his life for us, even though we die, we will be with him forever.

True Fulfillment

Posted on 31 October 2014 by patmarrin

“The people were observing him carefully” (Luke 14:1).

The confrontation in today’s Gospel passage between Jesus and the scholars of the Law over what was allowable activity on the Sabbath is a familiar “fulfillment” theme in the Christian scriptures.

Jesus was a Jew among his brother Jews, and we should assume that everyone present at the dinner in the home of one of the leading Pharisees knew the nuances of the law. So we should also suspect that there is some deliberate theater injected into Luke’s account, probably written in the 80s, when accusations that Jesus was a lawbreaker were being thrown at the still mostly Jewish converts to Christianity.

Jewish law restricts 39 types of activity on the Sabbath, the day of rest to honor the Creator, who rested on the seventh day. Most of these activities relate to farm work, food, fabric and animal production. The Sabbath was a boon to workers, restricted from labor and free to perform spiritual duties one day a week.

In Luke, a man suffering from dropsy—the swelling of the body from fluid accumulation—is oddly present at the dinner party, positioned right in front of Jesus. It is a test. Will Jesus cure the man on the Sabbath? He does heal the man, and justifies it based on the exception to Sabbath law that permitted a farmer to rescue an animal or child from a cistern.

It is a common-sense action and, in fact, the Sabbath law says: “In the event that a human life is in danger, a Jew is not only allowed, but required, to violate any Shabbat law that stands in the way of saving that person. The concept of life being in danger is interpreted broadly: for example, it is mandated that one violate Shabbat to take a woman in active labor to a hospital” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activities_prohibited_on_Shabbat#Saving_of_...).

So what is going on here? The scribes and Pharisees are being depicted by the evangelists as ignorant of the law and malicious in their intent to trap Jesus, who, in contrast to their narrow literalism, actually fulfills the spirit of the law, which is to always show compassion.

The Gospels were written for Christians, and how thrilled we are to see Jesus triumph over his enemies. Yet, a discerning reader of even our own New Testament must be wary of the often less than subtle biases against Judaism that have fueled such a long and tragic history of anti-Semitism. Jesus was a Jew and loved both the law and his brother and sister Jews. The only fulfillment that really matters is the fulfillment of the law of love, then and now.

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Principalities and Powers

Posted on 30 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12).

It is hard to identify the underlying forces in a culture or within large, complex social systems because they are actually ideas. The clash of basic ideas over the direction a society will take is what politics is about. When politics fails, conflicts can become wars. It is said that Charles de Gaulle, the great French leader, saw World War II as a struggle between enormous “angels” representing liberty and national socialism (Nazism).

The author of the Letter to the Ephesians describes a decisive spiritual battle going on between God and Evil being played out in the persecution of the young church within a corrupt Greco-Roman culture intent on expanding and absorbing the Mediterranean world militarily and culturally. The ancient world was in transition, one civilization showing signs of collapse as new ideas appeared and took hold, among them the revolutionary spirit of the Gospel with its message of freedom and joy won for all people by Jesus Christ, a victim of Roman crucifixion who rose from the dead to proclaim victory over the world.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is not afraid of King Herod (“that fox”) because nothing will keep him from fulfilling his mission to go to Jerusalem to die like all the other prophets before him. Jesus then issues a final warning to the city: “How many times I yearned to gather your children together as hen gathers her brood under wings, but you were unwilling” (Luke 13:34). The powers of darkness will fill the vacuum of their refusal to grasp God’s invitation to find peace. But he will overcome the darkness. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

We also live in decisive times. Faith seeks to understand the powerful ideas that drive our personal and communal lives — media saturation promoting consumption, mindless entertainment, exaggerated individualism, political and social polarization, xenophobia, racial paranoia, the use of force to solve all our problems. The Gospel invites us to enter the same revolution of mind and heart that propelled the early church to challenge the dominant culture and offer alternatives to its values. One thing is sure: Who we become will be determined by which angel we listen to and follow.

In Luke 18:8, Jesus confronts us with the same challenge he set before the city of Jerusalem. “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” We must be ready to give an answer to that question, then be ready to live it with courage and commitment, as though our lives depended on it.

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Enter Now! Today!

Posted on 29 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate” (Luke 13:23).

Many of the Gospel passages we will hear as we approach the end of the church year will begin with this reminder: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. In the light of this, his instructions to his disciples and his encounters with his critics take on a special urgency. Time is running out. Conversion must be decisive and total. If you expect to enter the Kingdom of God, there are no half measures. Enter the grace of the moment, no matter the risk or the cost. Do it now.

In today’s passage from Luke 13, Jesus uses two images about gaining entrance; a narrow gate and a closing door. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate” recalls his teaching about the impossibility of getting a camel through the eye of a needle. Some scholars think this was a reference to a narrow passage into the city after the main gates had been closed for the night. A fully laden camel could not pass unless it was stripped of all of its goods. So also, a disciple must leave behind all of his advantage and status to follow Jesus.

The other image is of a householder who has closed and locked his door for the night. Latecomers plead with him to be allowed in, claiming, “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” But the master of the house tells them this is not enough. Ritual or social connections do not compare with the deeper response of hearing and carrying out his message. He does not recognize them.

This message is repeated throughout the Gospels: Only those who actually follow Jesus, i.e., imitate him, will be recognized. Matthew’s famous Chapter 25, the parable of the last judgment, says it all. Those who served the poor, the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick and outcast, will be counted among the saved. Even those who did these things without knowing it was Christ they were serving will be welcomed into God’s embrace.

What is the narrow gate for each of us? What attachment or prejudice prevents us from slipping freely through the passage to greater intimacy with God? What door stands open to us now but will be closed if we do not believe, choose, act quickly and decisively to align our lives with Jesus in solidarity with the many people our world deems invisible, last in line, unworthy of concern? Jesus makes clear that it is these victims of our failure to create the common good, equal opportunity and a place at the table for all, who will be first in the Kingdom of God.

Enter by the narrow gate. Come now -- today -- and enter the house of God’s mercy before it is too late.

A Few Good Apostles

Posted on 28 October 2014 by patmarrin

“You are no longer strangers and sojouners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones” (Eph 2:19).

Jesus prays all night on the mountain, communing with his Abba, then in the morning gathers around him his disciples, and from them chooses the Twelve. He is the new Moses;they are the new representatives of the 12 tribes of Israel, the starter leaven for the transformation of the entire human family. Everything Jesus does is about fulfillment. The Law and the Prophets converge on him and on the mystery of his death and resurrection.

Among the Apostles are Simon and Jude, whose feast we celebrate today. Also chosen is Judas, who will betray Jesus. The perfect formula for completing Jesus’ redemptive work includes his betrayal, abandonment by nearly all of these chosen followers, a public and brutal death by Roman crucifixion before a jeering crowd. The Savior rejected will reject rejection and turn to embrace a sinful world with unconditional love. You can show no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend. But how about an enemy? Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, making the unloved lovable, the enemy into an intimate friend. There is no tragic hero quite like this, but Jesus is no ordinary hero. He completes his sojourn and is revealed as the divine Liberator, the new Adam, the incarnate Mercy of God.

Catholic theology tells us that the Apostles are the foundation of the church and that today’s bishops are their successors. How can we know this is true? Where we find a bishop ready to lay down his life for his people, we will find a true Apostle. So we pray for our bishops, that they will live up to their calling.

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Stand up for Justice

Posted on 27 October 2014 by patmarrin

"Woman, you are set free of your infirmity" (Luke 13:11).

I will take wild guess in attributing the following story, which I cannot find on Google but which is firmly etched in my memory. I think it was Dr. Tom Dooley, the young doctor who went to Southeast Asia in the late 1950s. He noted that the streets were swept by older women with short-handled brooms, which caused them to be permanently stooped over. He, or someone, introduced long-handled brooms, which allowed the women to work upright but also affected their sense of dignity and lifted their status as important workers.

Today’s Gospel story about Jesus healing the woman in the synagogue has similar multi-layered implications. The woman had been bent over for 18 years. Jesus raises her up on the Sabbath, only to be criticized by the leader of the synagogue for “working” on the day set aside for rest to imitate God, who rested on the seventh day after creating the world. The symbolism of the story is evident in the situation of a daughter of Israel bent over under the burden of the law. Jesus liberates her and restores her to uprightness. Jesus completes the creation story and fulfills the Sabbath. An unfinished world distorted and limited by sin is made whole by the gift of love, which replaces the law, whose purpose was only to guide people to love.

The story has special significance today because it is also clearly about the situation of women who carry so many burdens in male-dominated societies and even in the church. Restoring them to full dignity always has wide-reaching implications in any institution that has thrived on patterns of gender discrimination and the exclusion of women from the councils of power and decision making.

So the Word of God comes to every level of the church, from the Vatican to diocesan offices and parish ministries to church organization serving the needs of society. It is not enough to praise women for their service or speak of their feminine gifts. It is all the more incumbent on any community that claims Jesus as teacher and leader to challenge gatekeepers and rulemakers who insist that rules and rituals are more important that the welfare of people.

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A Whole New World

Posted on 25 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt 22:36).

If we look at the larger context of today’s Gospel about the Great Commandment in Matthew, we find it positioned right before Jesus launches into his devastating indictment of the religious leaders of his time. Jesus has been in a series of confrontations with his critics, who want to test and trap him into saying something they can use against him.

Jesus’ response to their obtuseness and insincerity is a series of parables about God’s offer of deeper life. God is like the owner of a vineyard who sends messengers and even his own son to ask for a share of the produce. The vineyard tenants abuse and kill the servants and the son. God is a king who hosts a wedding feast for his son. The invited guests refuse to come to the feast.

The Sadducees try to trip Jesus up over the question of resurrection, and in today’s short Gospel the Pharisees quiz Jesus about the most important commandment in the Torah. He responds by reciting the sh’ma, the central prayer of Jewish life: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is God alone; you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” He then makes this inseparable to the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The leaders see their role as guardians of the Law. Jesus reduces the entire law and the message of the prophets to love, about which the rule keepers seem to know very little. The Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees have made careers of constructing a complicated and often self-empowering system of tithing, animal sacrifice and detailed rules that have more to do with money and control than love. It is no wonder they resist Jesus’ liberating message of mercy and grace. If people really believed that God is this accessible, the clergy as gatekeepers to God would be out of a job.

The Word of God comes to us in our own time. Religion itself is undergoing a revolution from power to service, legal control to listening and dialogue. A new world of greater participation, an outpouring of the Spirit, an ever widening circle of inclusion and compassion will be the result. It is time, it is absolutely necessary for the human family to move forward toward the wholeness God wants for us.

Parables in the Skies

Posted on 24 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Judge for yourselves what is right” (Luke 12:56).

Jesus uses nature’s patterns and the signs of coming weather to illustrate the obvious lessons we ought to apply to the rest of our lives. If we can predict rain by a cloud rising in the west, or a hot day tomorrow by the wind coming up from the south, why not grasp the inevitable implications of our actions. The failure to reconcile with an opponent when the problem is small can lead to much deeper divisions, hardened positions and major consequences.

As we approach the end of the church year, more and more scriptural passages will speak of reading the signs of the times to track the trajectories of what we are doing or not doing now. If we know that failure to act now will result in later crisis, we should act now, decisively and effectively, to stem the tide of complications from an unchecked problem we should have addressed when it was first presented to us.

Whether we are talking about the national crises of racial inequities in our cities and suburbs, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, global migration, climate change, or a myriad of violent international conflicts, if we do not act now the wisdom Jesus says is obvious will come back to judge us severely.

The natural world speaks to us all the time. We will reap what we sow, so sow generously to harvest a bounty of goodness. What goes around comes around, so send out compassion, justice and peace to receive it back in full measure. Conflict and competition are inevitable in life, but bitterness and failure to seek reconciliation are choices we make. Learn from the sky, the birds of the air, the lilies of the field. They teach us wisdom and patience, acceptance and prudence. Judge for yourself what is right, and then do it.

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