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Like Father, Like Son

Posted on 16 July 2014 by patmarrin

“No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (Matt 11:27).

I never met my Irish grandfather Martin, who died in 1921, but I knew him by the imprint he left on my own father, who was just 17 when his father passed away at age 66. My father was the youngest of 11, and his deep sense of responsibility for his mother and for the family carried forward during the rest of his life. Specially chosen to get two years of college, he managed the family business, a small gray iron castings foundry that helped support his sisters and brothers. Like his father, who was a stonecutter, my father worked hard, was as honest as the day was long and a great dreamer that his children would not suffer the privations his immigrant family had endured. My own brothers and sister bear the imprint of his outsized personality and influence.

Christian faith is all about relationships. Jesus was the icon of his Father, the face of God to the world. To know Jesus is to know the Father. The gift of their Spirit imprinted the mysterious inner life of the Trinity on the Christian community. Divinity indwells us and inspires the ever expanding web of relationships that is the church. Without having met most of our baptized brothers and sisters, living and dead, we still know them in the Holy Communion of the body of Christ, crucified and risen in the world today, God among us.

What we do with our belonging to such a big and talented family is our decision, but all the love and resources are there for us to live full and generous lives. As Jesus and the Father choose to reveal themselves to us, we can also share their love with others. So the web expands. This is true evangelization, the joy of the Gospel.

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The Scandal of the Gospel

Posted on 15 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Unless your faith is firm you shall not be firm” (Isa 7:9).

Early in his Gospel, Matthew (4:15) quotes Isaiah 9:1 describing the appearance of a great light for the gentiles in northern Galilee, people “who lived in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Jesus was that light appearing not just to the chosen people but also to gentiles and foreigners. Seven chapters later, in today’s Gospel (Matt11:20-24), Jesus reproaches the Jewish towns in that same region for not responding to the Good News he had announced.

What happens if we reject or ignore God’s invitation to “repent and hear the Good News”? Matthew follows his pattern of applying the words of the prophets to Jesus. As they preached conversion to ancient Judah and Israel but were rebuffed, the same thing happens to Jesus. The Gospel narrative has Jesus preach to deaf ears in Galilee, then travel south to Jerusalem to be crucified. But at this point the Gospel leaves behind the need to fulfill the old covenant prophecies. Something new is about to be revealed. For rather than end in defeat, the narrative holds a “messianic secret.” Jesus is revealed not as God’s conquering hero who saves the righteous, but as a suffering servant whose very rejection reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.

Therefore, the Good News is not a predictable story of God offering a second chance to a sinful world and then saving those who respond, but an even deeper and more mysterious story of God’s inexhaustible mercy for unrepentant sinners. God’s love is never withdrawn. The Good Shepherd never abandons even a single lost sheep. The Father never gives up on the prodigal son or his angry brother.

In the end, salvation is always free, always available, always leaving a light on for the last sinner to come home, even at the 11th hour. This is essence of God, to be merciful, and God never ceases to be God. The only variable left, therefore, is us, our freedom to say yes or no, to accept or reject God’s offer. The basis for the church of mercy Pope Francis preaches is that we must be merciful because God is merciful. We can never know what happens in the heart of another person, whether some final grace is at work in their journey. Therefore, we can never give up on anyone or close the door on another to satisfy our own sense of justice.

This is a scandal, but there is more. The final surprise and paradox of the Gospel is this. The one way we can exclude ourselves from God’s mercy is to exclude someone else. In doing that we extinguish the light we ourselves need to complete our own journey home to a loving God. The last step is to let go of all judgment, to be stripped of all pride and self-righteousness. Only then will we be ready to meet God.

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Continuity and Conversion

Posted on 14 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth” (Matt 10:34).

Jesus made clear to his disciples that following him would mean placing all other loyalties in second place. This included family and tribal loyalty, no small demand in a culture in which that fealty was near absolute. To be with Jesus was to make a fresh start, stepping apart from father and mother, religious and legal obedience and even Jewish blood, to become a new creation, a new family defined by God’s gracious invitation open to everyone.

This new order disrupted tradition and radically reinterpreted what it meant to please God. Jesus turned accepted social structures of power and privilege upside down, making the poor first in God’s eyes and care of the poor the highest expression of religion. Today’s Gospel reflects the divisions this created as young disciples walked away from family businesses and inheritances to join Jesus and his mendicant band on the hills and beaches of Galilee and the dusty roads south to Jerusalem.

What reward could possibly make up for this sudden downward mobility, this madcap surrender to the charismatic carpenter from Nazareth whose kingdom was more mystery than substance, whose movement was drawing outcasts and beggars, zealots and dreamers? Jesus promised that anyone willing to lose his or her life for his sake would find it. A cup of cold water to one of his followers would bring a blessing from him, and from the One who had sent him.

Saying yes to Jesus today, just for today, as a simple assent to the mystery he offers us at the most vulnerable edges of our lives, could be the start of a different kind of living. Without knowing the implications of such a decision, we might unmoor our world from the captivity of habit and attitude that makes every day just like every other, another spiral within our cautious quotidian smallness, the tight knot of loyalties that bind us to the past.

Today might be our exodus, the first step forward and outward in the company of a poet whose invitation is like nothing we have ever heard before. “Come, follow me, and I will show you new horizons, how to breathe again, how to be true to yourself at last. The first step is the hardest, because it feels like loss, but it is how we find life.

Turning Point

Posted on 12 July 2014 by patmarrin

“My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).

Good storytellers, in the ancient world and today, build anticipation with predictable patterns that set up an audience for the end of the story, either as confirmation of what they saw coming or as a surprise. The structure of the story is the key to its success as entertainment or instruction.

Jesus’s parable of the sower is a brilliant example. A sower goes out to sow, carrying precious seed held back from last year’s harvest, but also the hopes of the community for a bountiful crop. Success means feast, failure means famine. There is tension in the story, and it grows as three times the sower tosses seed onto the footpath, on rocky soil and among thorns. Half the seed has been lost.

But at the depth of this threefold failure there is a turning point; the seed finds fertile soil and springs up, a hundredfold, sixtyfold and thirtyfold. A sigh of relief passes over the crowd. The pattern builds tension, then relieves it. The community has been saved.

As God created the world with the divine Word, so that same Word is sent to salvage and redirect the story when it goes awry, turning hope into despair. Even when one failure after another spoils our human attempts to provide for ourselves, God’s turning point saves us. The prodigal son goes as far away as he can, but in his despair hears his Father’s love calling him home. Lazarus, three days dead in the tomb, hears the voice of Jesus and is restored to life. At the crossroads of our salvation, Jesus goes down into the ground like seed for the sowing, but springs forth green in the power of God’s reconciling love.

Wherever we are in life, on track or in the ditch, full of hope or paralyzed with doubt, the grace of the turning point is never far away. God’s word never fails.

Benedict the Revolutionary

Posted on 11 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Be wise as serpents and as simple as doves” (Matt 10:17).

Benedict of Nursia (480-547) might be today's college dropout pursuing an alternative lifestyle within a collapsing imperial culture. Rome was being swamped by immigrants from the once conquered Germanic and Asian tribes at the fringes of the empire. Benedict lived in a cave, but soon gathered a following of like-minded young people. The monastic life they fashioned became the cornerstone of an emerging Europe and centralized church. His order took the vow of stability and in effect helped stabilize Western Christendom until its next great transition in the 12th century from agriculture-based feudalism to the era of cities, universities and mobile mendicant reformers in the church.

When Jesus sent out the first apostles, he was sowing the seeds of an enormous axial shift from ancient regimes toward a more egalitarian world. It would take millennia and have to go through long periods of chaos and regression to produce the tenuous global order we know today. The vanguard of the revolution were pacifist communities of Christians promoting reconciliation, justice for the poor and greater equality among men and women, slaves and their owners. They went out like sheep among wolves, but, as Jesus had promised, became like leaven in the mass and over the centuries have shaped world culture and helped define the ethical and moral debates that will decide the future.

The Christian message has often been so successful in infiltrating the culture, we forget how subversive and radical it is in its pacifist and paradoxical way of upending conventional notions of power. Another revolution is underway to reveal what Pope Francis calls the “church of the poor.” Young radicals like Benedict of Nursia are needed and wanted.

Today You Will Be Sent

Posted on 10 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons” (Matt 10:8).

The word “apostle” means “one who is sent.” Being an apostle is inseparable from mission. In Jesus' mind, there were no ecclesiastical figureheads or princes of the church who just did ritual stuff. Today’s Gospel describes the terms of service. Go, preach, heal, raise, cleanse, expel. Go without shoes, money, a walking stick, even a change of clothes. Stay with people who welcome you; If they don’t, shake the dust from your bare feet and move on. There is urgency and electric possibility in the air. God’s reign is at hand, grace is being poured out.

St. Francis no doubt had this description in mind when he assembled his followers and sent them to preach and minister. Holy Poverty was their hallmark. The friars were without resources, exposed to the elements, to hostile rejection and abuse. Their very powerlessness made clear that what happened for those who opened their homes and their hearts to these mendicants was not their doing but the hand of God. It insured that all ministry would be collaborative, reciprocal and mutual, not hand outs or benefaction. People were invited to participate in the mission, become apostles themselves.

The hidden dynamic of ministry has not changed. Wounded, vulnerable people are sent to others just like themselves. Need encounters need, invitation elicits response. God’s healing and liberating love appears in between, in relationships, and everyone says, “Look what we have done together in God’s name.” Here is the joy of the Gospel in its simplest form, webs of care extending into the community that reveal God’s inexhaustible, patient, forgiving and healing love.

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Living Stones

Posted on 09 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Jesus sent out these Twelve after instructing them …” (Matt 10:5).

The “Twelve” were enshrined in the founding story of the church by the time "Matthew" composed a Gospel for his mostly Jewish community in Antioch around 80 CE, 50 years after the fact. These 12 men represent the 12 Tribes of Israel, an important fulfillment assertion for Matthew, who was intent on matching Jesus to the Hebrew founding stories. A seamless narrative emerges that will be extended in the claim to apostolic succession. Jesus is the cornerstone of salvation, the Twelve are the foundation stones on which the church is securely grounded. It is more meta-history than history, more myth than fact, but it serves the purpose of establishing the church firmly enough that it still holds authority two millennia later.

But the Twelve also reveal how tenuous all human foundations are. The church, like the creation of the human race itself from mud and breath, is clearly a work of grace. The so-called apostles represent the full range of human frailty. Peter is a braggart who turns coward under pressure. James and John, fractious and ambitious, call down lightning on towns that reject them. Philip cynically asks, “What good can come from Nazareth?” Thomas doubts the resurrection. Matthew was a greedy Roman collaborator, Judas was willing to sell Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. As a group, they ran away when they were most needed, mocked the women when they announced that Jesus had been raised, and they cowered behind locked doors in the upper room until the Spirit breathed fire into them.

The church is always in need of reform. It must change to be effective. Its leaders therefore must be open to continual conversion and have the courage to let go of the past to embrace the future. They must be willing to lose themselves in the creative breath of the Spirit. This, not stones or books or the stale breath of the past, is the real tradition of the church, waiting to be handed on to the next generation of Apostles.

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Harvest of Joy

Posted on 08 July 2014 by patmarrin

“When they sow the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:11).

Today’s first reading from the Prophet Hosea contains the phrase later used by Clarence Darrow in the famous 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee over a high school teacher’s freedom to teach evolution. Darrow raised the spectre of unleashing a whirlwind of ignorance and prejudice that would destroy communities and halt rational thought.

We look back and shake our heads at the mindset that would stop scientific exploration. Yet how many issues today are caught in the same crossfire of public fear and ignorance stoked by shock radio and the politics of paranoia over gun control, immigration policy, climate change and public health? How will history judge us and our watch?

Jesus preached “right relationships” as the basic realignment of human beings with God and neighbor. This revolution of the heart was meant to transform social structures, promote economic justice and pacify a corrupt and violent culture. One sign of the arrival of the reign of God was Jesus’ power to drive out demons, those insidious spiritual forces that protected the status quo. Liberation meant the end of their control as people experienced a new birth of freedom and took up responsibility for their own lives.

Jesus spoke of his vision of an abundant harvest lacking only laborers to reap the outpouring of grace in the world. This vision became the mission of the church then and, for us now, it continues to define the challenge of evangelization. It is a program not of indoctrination but of liberation. People will know that they are hearing the Gospel when then experience greater freedom and hope in all areas of their lives. The seeds of fear and ignorance produce a whirlwind of self-destruction. The seeds of love produce a harvest of joy.

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The Power of Touch

Posted on 07 July 2014 by patmarrin

“He took her by the hand, and the little girl arose” (Matt 9:25).

Today’s Gospel story is about faith and touch. As Jesus moves through the surging crowd, a woman suffering from a hemorrhage for 12 years touches the edge of Jesus’ cloak and is healed. A little girl, also just 12, has died, and Jesus pushes his way through a crowd of hired mourners, takes the little girl by the hand, raises her up and restores her to her parents.

The instinct to be in touch is natural to human beings. Newborns crave touch and need to be held. Crowds at sporting events come alive in the electric atmosphere of shared loyalty to the team. The deepest suffering we know is to be isolated, untouchable and estranged from others.

But not all touch gives life. The Gospel scene depicts two crowds, one packed around Jesus because he is a celebrity, the other meeting him with ridicule because he claimed the girl was not dead at all, but only asleep. Only where faith reaches out to him and believes in him does power flow through touch to heal and restore, first to the woman and then to the girl because her parents trusted that Jesus could give her life.

Our communion in Christ animates us as one body flowing with the power of the Holy Spirit. When we pray for one another, embrace and touch one another with faith, life quickens and grace has its intended effect, both in the sacraments and in the ordinary channels of love we always have available to us. Let no one be excluded from the web of relationships we are together today. May there be no untouchables, no neglected, excluded or ridiculed members among us. For when we let God work through us, everyone is blessed.

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Get in the Harness with Me

Posted on 05 July 2014 by patmarrin

“For my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matt 11:30).

In his elegaic prose masterpiece, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, author James Agee sets the scene and atmosphere in rural Alabama in 1936 with a description of an encounter with a young Negro (sic) couple walking down a country road after church on a Sunday morning. He approaches them from behind as they walk hand in hand with a graceful beauty that astonishes him. But as he overtakes them, they break stride and stumble to the side at the sudden approach of a white stranger. In one painful snapshot, Agee captures the jarring dissonance between the races in the American South as his presence intrudes on and spoils the unveiled innocence of these two young people.

The natural grace of God’s little ones is praised by Jesus in today’s Gospel. The simplicity of children, the meek and the poor endows them with direct access to God. This is visible in the dignity and motion of their bodies, even under the burdens of life. He tells his followers to get in the harness with him, for his own dignity is in perfect obedience to God’s love. Move with the grace of the moment, and even life’s injustices and necessities will seem lighter and easier. Intimacy with God makes this possible, even under the weight of the cross.

We come to the Eucharist to find this grace flowing into us within the unity of the body of Christ. Our own awkward, inner discords are resolved in realigning our minds and bodies with the will of God. There is no suffering or challenge so great to throw off the rhythm of our inner life in Christ. We are brought back into communion with everyone who shares this holy pilgrimage toward the Beloved Community, where there is no division of race, gender, class or caste. One in Christ, we move with the beauty of God on earth, reclaiming whatever is lost or broken.