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Leap of Faith

Posted on 20 July 2015 by patmarrin

“Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you” (Matt 12:38).

We have the adage: "He who hesitates is lost." As anyone riding a bicycle knows, once we are in motion, only going forward keeps us upright. More profoundly, when the Buddha says, "Leap and the bridge will appear," he means that if we leap but doubt, the bridge will not be there.

Every decision has its dark interval, the moment between the thought and the action. If we hesitate, we fail, and for the timid of heart, this is interpreted as a sign they should not have risked the decision in the first place. They will never know if had they followed through they might have succeeded.

In Exodus 14, the Hebrews are paralyzed with fear when they see the Egyptian army pursuing them. They cry out to God and to Moses, "Why did you bring us into this desert to perish?" Moses tells them to stop complaining and to move forward.

In Matthew 12, the scribes and Pharisees understand clearly that true conversion will cost them everything, so they hedge their bets and demand a sign from Jesus. The only sign they get is the sign of Jonah. When given the chance to go forward, others leaped and were saved. He who hesitates is lost.

What graces will be given us today--those moments of insight that invite us to seize an opportunity to do good, dash through a doorway of grace when it opens before us? Whether our decisions are about taking the next step or leaping into the unknown, to grow in love is always about going forward.

The sign of Jonah was confirmed in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In every instant that we can die to ourselves for others, we will rise with Christ. God is in the moment, but always moving forward to the next moment. Don't be afraid. Go with God, give yourself to the grace that will open the path before you like a lamp at your feet.

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Like Sheep without a Shepherd

Posted on 18 July 2015 by patmarrin

“His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34).

Today’s Gospel is about Jesus and his disciples trying to get away to rest, but being confronted by a throng of 5,000 people when they arrive by boat at the other side of the lake. Jesus is moved with pity, and the scene is set for the miraculous feeding of the crowd, hungry for both food and leadership.

We might wonder if Jesus could have foreseen the arrival of Pope Francis in the Philippines, where an estimated 6 million people converged on the final Mass in that island nation, eager for the pope’s message and blessing. The scale of need has multiplied exponentially since the time of Jesus, and the pope surely understands the challenge the church is facing to shepherd such a vast flock.

Jesus provided the miracle of bread and fish, Mark tells us, but his real gift to the crowd was himself. He was the Bread of Life they hungered for — the revelation of God’s infinite mercy poured out on his people. Jesus shared that revelation in a series of parables that continue to captivate and challenge us today — stories of forgiveness and compassion we share again and again because they engage us in the mission of the church to bring good news to the poor. The Prodigal Son, the Unjust Steward, the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, the Widow and the Unjust Judge, the Final Judgment, Lazarus and Dives — these compelling stories give us the shape of Jesus’revelation of God and his challenge to us to be like our Heavenly Father.

Pope Francis has also been feeding the flock with himself, his words of reassurance to the poor, his challenge to the rich and those in power. His parables are hard bread and strong food that nourishes some and confronts others, that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. This is true evangelization, for it leads to conversion.

Today’s story ought to overwhelm us with the task God is asking of us, for it is impossible for us to feed the hungry of today’s world or bring justice to the millions of victims of exploitation. Yet, if we are willing to enter the story, we discover that a child’s offering of five loaves and two fish became the basis for a miracle. If we are ministers already exhausted and trying to escape the demands of service, we learn that the disciples overcame their skepticism and weariness by doing what Jesus told them to do, then getting out of the way.

God hears the cry of the poor. God equips disciples to share in the divine response. This story is for us. We are in the story. This is the joy of the Gospel.

On the Move

Posted on 17 July 2015 by patmarrin

“You shall eat like those in flight. This is the Passover of the Lord” (Exod 12:11).

We are a pilgrim church. The People of God are on the move. Pope Francis has reminded us of this. The church loses its sense of mission when it settles in, stops moving forward and all its energies go to maintaining institutional concerns rather than the mission.

The upcoming Synod on the Family, the pope has said, is not about consolidating doctrinal positions, but it is a conversation about the needs of God's people while walking together, the meaning of the Greek word synod.

Today’s readings from Exodus and Matthew show us God’s pilgrim people on the move. The Hebrews eat while standing, their belts fastened, sandals on their feet, staffs in hand. They are about to make passage from slavery to freedom. The Exodus, commemorated at Passover, defines their covenant with God. In Matthew, Jesus and his disciples are on the road, walking through a field of grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, who represent established religion, accuse the disciples of “work” on the official day of rest for pulling heads of grain to eat.

Jesus defends his companions. They are not at rest but in motion. The Sabbath observance is less important than the mission. Human hunger supersedes legal ritual. Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to remind the Pharisees of the heart of the covenant: “If only you know what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned these innocent people" (Matt 12:8).

Imagine these words inscribed on the walls of the hall where the bishops will meet for the Synod on the Family in October.

Let My People Go

Posted on 16 July 2015 by patmarrin

“I know that the king will not allow you to go unless he is forced” (Exod 3:19).

History is the record of change. Major changes occur either by evolution or revolution. When needed changes are blocked or postponed, the outcome is often violent overthrow or war. When dialogue occurs, tensions are resolved and societies move forward by law and persuasion.

The Bible story of Exodus is a paradigm for liberation from intolerable suffering and injustice. Moses is sent by I AM to negotiate with pharaoh for the release of the Hebrew slaves. When negotiations fail, the Hebrews flee. Pharaoh’s armies pursue them and, by God’s miraculous intervention, are destroyed in the Red Sea. The epitaph of the story is that what might have happened voluntarily happens by force. History will repeat this lesson again and again.

If war is the destructive price of failure to change, the work of change by negotiation is also a costly, exhausting process. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States is a casebook in both violence and persuasion. Along with demonstrations and marches, the Movement pressed its cause in the courts, forcing the Government to accept that the failure to protect voting rights and equal treatment under the law was a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Jesus invites anyone who has taken up the labor, burdens and weariness of the struggle for justice to come to him and find rest. Paradoxically, the yoke of slavery is replaced by another yoke, an intimate relationship with Jesus. The yoke he took upon his shoulders and invites every disciple to join him in is the labor of love and justice within history. As many heroes of many movements can testify, strength flows into those who collaborate for change: the peacemaker, the compassionate advocate, the protector of the poor, the mender of breaches, the patient negotiator and reconciler.

Never weary of doing good, speaking the truth and caring about others. With companions like Moses, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Caesar Chavez and Oscar Romero, the yoke is easy and the burden is light.

I Long to See Your Face

Posted on 15 July 2015 by patmarrin

“What you have hidden from the wise and clever you have revealed to mere children” (Matt 11:25).

Our neighbors returned from their vacation last week, and one of their first tasks was to retrieve their dog, Buddy, from a friend who had agreed to keep it while they were gone.

Buddy, a big Labrador, was ecstatic to see, smell, lick and jump on his long lost family. It was as though they had been gone forever, or stopped existing, which I suppose is what we would experience ourselves if we always lived in the present moment, as most animals do.

Children, early on at least, seem to react the same way. Peek-a-boo is their favorite game because they are just learning about time, memory, appearance and disappearance and what is real and what comes next.

When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he was entering the same timeless mystery. God reveals the divine name as “I AM,” or “Being Itself” outside of time entering time. The bush manifested this presence as a fire that does not destroy the bush because it is a transcendent fire, a sign of something ineffable. The Bible story conveys what philosophers and theologians have tried to name and analyze, but it remains a mystery.

Yet, Jesus says it is a mystery revealed to the childlike, for it is utterly simple as they are, living fully in the moment, capturing reality not in concepts and theories, as the wise and clever do, but in pure apprehension, intimate presence.
I do not suggest that learned thinkers know less than a Labrador named Buddy, or a baby, or a senior watching the birds from their window in a nursing home, but perhaps this is so.

Jesus seemed to think so, and he rejoiced to know that God loves to reveal everything in timeless time to mere children.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Posted on 14 July 2015 by patmarrin

"Jesus began to reproach the towns where most of his mighty deeds had been done, since they had not repented" (Matt 11:20).

Today’s feast day offers us a provocative reflection on Christian evangelization as part of the larger historical expansion of European cultures to colonize the developing world.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), was a Mohawk-Algonquin woman who converted to Catholicism and lived near Montreal. She was canonized by Pope Benedict in 2012. She is one of the few indigenous people to be canonized who represents the many native populations impacted by the many missionaries (including Junipero Serra and the Jesuit martyrs Isaac Jogues and companions) who came to the “New World” during the 1600s and 1700s. She is prized as a receptive bridge between native religions and European Christianity.

Like Serra, controversy surrounds the life of St. Kateri, whose conversion cut her off from her tribal associations. She survived childhood small pox, a European-borne disease that swept through the indigenous populations and wiped out her family. Her name Tekakwitha means “One who bumps into things,” a reference to her failed eyesight and facial disfigurement due to the small pox. She is known for many miracles and is honored in both Canada and United States.

Today’s Gospel reminds us of the scriptural adage, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Jesus castigates the towns of Galilee for failing to respond to the revelations and signs given to them by his presence and preaching. He warns that the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon would fare better at the judgment. Even ancient Sodom, destroyed by fire and brimstone, would get off easier that these Jewish enclaves because of the graces poured out on them.

When Pope Francis comes to the United States in September, he will come as an evangelist but also as a prophet. His words to a nation that has touted itself as a “shining city on a hill” may be difficult to hear. For those who believe that the United States is exceptionally blessed for sharing its “gospel” of democratic free market capitalism with the rest of the world, Francis may offer a more critical global perspective.

Evangelization includes conversion, even for the church. Francis has already apologized to the native peoples of Latin America for the destruction brought by colonists and missionaries. The same complex questions and the challenge to acknowledge history and move forward to a create a more just world will be a great blessing to us, but only if we can hear it and act on it.

Covenant or Pyramid?

Posted on 13 July 2015 by patmarrin

"Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt 10:39).

The founding story of Israel is the Exodus. God hears the cry of his people in Egypt and empowers Moses to lead them out of slavery into freedom. The dramatic story of liberation is also, according to Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann, about God's rejection of the brutal economy of Egypt under pharaoh and the establishment of a very different economy based on the Covenant God forms with Israel in the Promised Land (see Deut 6).

Brueggemann's brilliant exegesis of the Exodus story casts a hard light on all of history's pyramid systems that extract labor and resources from the bottom to concentrate wealth at the top. Whether the model involves slavery or just low-wage, high-profit market economies. the suffering is the same. God hears the cry of the poor and intervenes to create social structures that respect human dignity and meet the essential human needs of all.

It is not hard to hear this message of liberation in Pope Francis' recent talks in Latin America and in his encyclical on the environment. One sign that the pope is hitting a nerve in the global economy is the increasing pushback from politicians and economists who have always assumed that the “gospel” of democratic market capitalism was the best system ever devised and that it was saving the world. Not so fast, the pope is saying repeatedly. Too many people — the majority, in fact — are being left behind.

Jesus emphasizes in today’s Gospel that disciples must make a radical break from family ties to enter the new covenant of the kingdom of God. Jesus clearly understood that social transformation from poverty to freedom inevitably challenges the long history of institutionalized wealth that families and other entities have amassed and protect through financial manipulation and their influence over tax laws. The rich get richer and the poor remain poor in a pyramid economy, which needs high unemployment to keep wages low, scarcity to drive up prices, with profit guaranteed by debt that generates interest.

What does this have to do with religion, the Bible and theology? Everything if we believe that God still hears the cry of the poor.

Welcome the Stranger

Posted on 11 July 2015 by patmarrin

"Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two" (Mark 6:7).

The doorbell rings, you look out to find two nicely dressed people, so you open up. They are missionaries from some church you have never heard about. After several minutes of polite conversation, you take their pamphlets and they leave, promising to pray for you.

They are strangers, and what they have proposed to you would require you to change most of your beliefs and then your priorities and your current church affiliation and all the relationships you have formed there. As impressive and compelling as these strangers might seem, you are not prepared to change your life to trust them or become one of them.

While this example may not be totally appropriate to our situations, it nonetheless helps us to imagine the scene presented in today’s Gospel. Jesus has sent his missionaries out two by two to the surrounding towns he plans to visit. They come as strangers full of promises, offering to heal the sick drive out evil spirits. They have no backpacks or money or water bottles, no place to sleep that night, only their message that God is in the world in a new and joyful way. Neighbors who invite them in experience wonderful things and the missionaries stay for supper and then over night. Many do not welcome them, and when this happens, the strangers move on quickly.

How does change occur in a society? How do new things happen, attitudes shift, old patterns give way to new patterns? How long does it take? Perhaps a whole generation, or only when some crisis forces people to abandon old habits and accept new ways of seeing and doing. What seems strange, even threatening, becomes ordinary, or better than before.

Television documentaries show the slow, difficult advance of the Civil Rights movement across the South, then in Northern cities during the 1960s. Young people come as strangers to communities that do not want to change, resist it in every way possible, even by killing these messengers. It takes decades and remains an unfinished process, as layer up layer of racial fear and hatred is peeled back and new victims open our eyes to reveal how much work is yet to be done in a nation that professes equality but has yet to deliver it.

Jesus is the ultimate stranger. He knocks at the door of our hearts, asks to enter our lives. He inhabits our dreams, alters our relationships, opens up our perception and sensitivities to issues we have avoided before or been blind to. We think and feel differently, and the transformation we experience is open-ended, never complete, and we are often not sure where he is leading us. Yet even in the stresses and uncertainties of this new way of being, we feel strangely alive, at peace, joyful and eager for each new surprise.

It will happen differently for each of us, but once we open the door to God, everything changes, and keeps changing until we become like God. For Catholics, Eucharist is our moment to say yes to this, commit ourselves to live the sign we profess each time we break the bread and share the cup. It is the most important decision we will make this side of heaven. The sooner the better, so let it begin now.

Sheep Among Wolves

Posted on 10 July 2015 by patmarrin

“Be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Matt 10:16).

Jesus uses popular imagery to contrast the innocence of his disciples to the treachery they will face in the world.

Similar to the parables of Aesop, Jesus also personified animals to describe human characteristics. Herod is a “fox,” the disciples are “sheep,” the enemies of the Gospel are “wolves.” This creative shorthand to convey ideas has given us the well-known phrase: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” translated in today’s Gospel as “shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.”

Critics have used variations on the phrase to skewer the soft-head, bleeding-heart naivete of many Christian activists, including Pope Francis (see yesterday’s Pencil Preaching), in contrast to their own hard-headed realism. This caricature counters the liberal caricature of conservatives as hard-hearted. Note the rhetoric swirling around every controversial issue.

Jesus’ less than comforting description of his disciples as sheep may have been intentional, to push them out of mindless passivity into greater participation in their faith journey. Matthew’s church was facing real infiltration and betrayal as imperial fears of terrorism spurred an exaggerated patriotism throughout the Roman world. Fringe groups were put on alert that they were being watched, their loyalty questioned. Christian historians report that ritual burning incense to the gods was used as a test of civic compliance, and some Christians were punished for refusing to do so.

So Matthew’s words of advice and encouragement to his beleaguered faith community in Antioch were serious business. Expect some resistance, but stand strong, trust in the Spirit. Exercise caution, but do not let fear cause you to betray your identity as a disciple. God will never abandon you, so be “shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.”

Are we all that distant from this atmosphere of heightened scrutiny in our 21st century world? National security has been used to justify inhumane treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, extrajudicial execution by drone of hundreds of suspected enemies, secret detention and rendering of even American citizens to offshore locations for torture. Nightly news reveals that surveillance penetrates privacy and suspends civil liberties regularly to identify and detain potential threats by anyone guilty of offensive internet postings. The American values we tout as worth defending are violated to defend us. Fastforward history back to the Imperial tactics Rome used to protect its interests from radical fringe groups like the Jesus People.

Paranoia generates more fog than direct challenge, so a discerning faith is needed to sort out the many influences our hypertense culture exercises over us. We live inside our media, entertained and distracted from anything that might keep us from surfing and shopping. Still remarkably free to think and act and organize, we are encouraged by Jesus to be vigilant, compassionate, joyful and wise.

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God's Household Economy

Posted on 09 July 2015 by patmarrin

"Without cost you have received, without cost you are to give" (Matt 10:9).

Pope Francis has been told by so-called experts and political candidates to stick to religion and stay out of economics. The pope continues to offer a message so integral that it has implications for every aspect of social reality. How can he speak about morality without addressing financial systems that have created enormous income disparity?

But Francis is doing more than this. He is introducing those who think exclusively in economic terms to a different kind of economy -- God's economy. The "Kingdom of God," Jesus proclaims, defines human life not as quid pro quo dealing or free market competition but as the household budget of the human family, administered by the generous exchange of essentials among people who pool their needs and resources to insure that everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, has enough to live a dignified life.

Jesus offers his disciples this amazing instruction: "What you have received without cost, give without cost." Life is not based on a set of laws in which supply and demand determines price to create profit, but is the free flow of life's abundant gifts through us to one another. Whatever inherited advantage you have because of family, education or talent, give it away to others so that in turn they can pass it on, pay it forward. What you give will come back to you a hundredfold, Jesus says.

Those who learn to live like this end each day not by calculating their personal gain, but filled with gratitude for the joy of living abundantly and the chance to enrich all their relationships. They travel light through this world, without the anxiety that pervades those who measure success among only winners and losers, traders and hoarders, consumed with protecting their assets and cutting their losses.

New York Times columnist David Brooks called Pope Francis "naïve" for his views on how the world might achieve greater fairness. Francis' only defense is to point to what works when people give their hearts to God and surrender their personal good to the common good. Community is created, conflict is lessened, interdependence replaces cold competition and distrust.

Each of us can judge for ourselves what is real and what works best. But the message Jesus gives is that when we share, the "Kingdom of God is at hand.”