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March 9, 2014, First Sunday of Lent

Posted on 08 March 2014 by patmarrin

"… lest you dash your foot against a stone” (Matt 4:5).

Matthew’s account of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness draws on the stories in Exodus of the 40-year formation of Israel as a people before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. In their challenge to trust Yahweh, they encounter hunger, are tempted to idolatry and the vision of worldly wealth and power.

Jesus, after his baptism, recapitulates the history of Israel and in each instance where they failed because of disobedience he advances God’s will through his obedience. He will fulfill the Covenant, the Law and Prophets as God’s servant. The devil’s temptations are all directed to a worldly messiah, not the servant, whose suffering and self-sacrifice will reveal God’s unconditional, reconciling love. This paradoxical way to salvation subverted all human expectations and was so difficult to grasp, the Gospel writers called it the “messianic secret.” Only after his death and resurrection would the followers of Jesus begin to understand how apparent defeat and failure was in fact the history-bending path to glory.

What is remarkable in the encounter between Jesus and the devil is that it is a duel of scripture quotes and actions that on their own merits might even seem positive. Feed the hungry, trust God, use earthly power and resources to accomplish good. What better way is there to usher in the kingdom of God? Church history shows how real these temptations have been and continue to be. In his public ministry, Jesus will multiply loaves, work miracles and exercise power to advance the kingdom. What he will never cede to Satan is his total dependence on God, who is his center of balance, the source of his every discernment and action.

Pope Francis will preach on this Gospel this weekend. Approaching the first anniversary of his election, the pope has had lots of experience in trying to balance the church’s approach on many controversial issues, between doctrine and pastoral need, justice and mercy, clear teaching and and open-ended dialogue. There are those who would like to see the pope falter from his high profile, high-wire balancing act as he proceeds to the core issues of global poverty and religious freedom in a world seemingly locked in economic exploitation and ideological conflict.

We are entering a crucial and, some say, dangerous time. As we embrace the journey of Lent together, there is much for all of us, as members of the church and followers of Jesus, to pray for and about.

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An Acceptable Fast

Posted on 07 March 2014 by patmarrin

“You shall cry for help, and the Lord will say: Here I am” (Isa 58:9).

I don’t know many adults who don’t want to be lean and trim, svelte and buff. Even our language conspires to promote physical symmetry and proportion and to punish the shapeless and dumpy, flabby and fat.

Lent comes along just in time to remind those of us who are form challenged what we resolved on New Year’s day. A good Lenten fast can have us into that one-size-smaller dress or blue suit by Easter.

But the scriptures remind us that physical fasting, whether its purpose is weight loss or spiritual improvement, is secondary and surface to the leanness God wants in our lives. Injustice and indifference to the poor, deceit in business practices, quarreling and competition in our personal relationships – these are the habits that makes us unhealthy and burdened in God’s sight. Using Lent to resolve anything that affects right relationship with God, our neighbor and the good earth is the fast God blesses.

And like any program to improve, getting in spiritual trim is often a gradual step-by-step process that begins with awareness and humility. The same circular logic and self-deception that can torpedo a diet can also keep us from changing old habits. We begin by acknowledging our need and our desire to do better. But then, goals require action, movement, discipline.

The church supports us with ritual and community. We are truly in this together. Everyone is in need of renewal, and if we set a course together, sharing the struggle and marking our successes and failures, we will more easily get there. If Lent is a walk, Jesus sets the pace. Just going forward and keeping up is the secret of following him. And in the process we may even drop a few pounds.

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Losing Yourself

Posted on 06 March 2014 by patmarrin

“What profit is there for someone to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?" (Luke 9:25).

My late father was at the top of his game in the era of Fulton J. Sheen and “Fr. Smith Instructs Jackson,” a 1950s compendium of Catholic answers to questions posed by straw man Protestants, agnostics and atheists. A good Catholic was to be ready to respond to attacks on the faith or to turn a wavering soul into a convert. A man across the alley was Dad’s chance at a jewel in his heavenly crown. So Felix was invited over for coffee, a game of chess and the “speech.” We listened from the other room and could tell at the rising timbre of his voice that my father was about to spring it on him once Felix was rendered helpless by cordiality. It was apologetics at its best, mixed with my father’s natural gifts as salesman and story teller, and it always ended with the quote from today’s Gospel: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his immortal soul?”

The passage in the context of that childhood memory still sends chills down my spine. I imagine life’s pleasures, power and riches (all that candy) piled up before me, reaching out to possess me, only to find myself hurtling into the pit of hell, my immortal soul lost forever.

I begin the season Lent with less theater and perhaps a more nuanced understanding of the “fundamental option” we gradually choose by seeking or ignoring a relationship with God and a conscious focus on what will take up our time, attention and energy. Human maturity and spiritual growth require the same sincerity and effort and, in a real sense, all paths lead to the ultimate reality. Being a serious agnostic takes a lot of work, but it is a choice. The greater danger for most people is to simply drift in a half life of reacting rather than choosing, never getting around to setting goals or taking themselves seriously as seekers.

Jesus was also a good story teller and a bit of a salesman, and he sets us up to decide in our hearts if we will follow him. Talk of the cross can be unsettling, but I think what he meant was, “Get under your own life and see how deep it is.” Anyone who knows how to play chess is already doing this. I picture my Irish father and Felix having coffee over a hot match and congratulating each other on getting into heaven.

Lent

Posted on 05 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” (Matt 6:18).

Lent comes for some of us like an oasis in a desert of overactivity, distraction and dissonance. The ancient practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving encouraged by every religion offer us the chance to catch up with ourselves, calm down, reassert priorities. Just to know who we really are is to rediscover God, our source and destination. Though we have completely ignored this inner Abba, as Jesus named God, the divine presence surrounds us, has never left us. Jesus urged his disciples to reclaim the hidden recesses of the self, where the Father knows us, sees us constantly, loves us. Clear the lifelines of whatever blocks or slows the steady flow of grace that is our most important relationship.

Fasting makes space in the soul by challenging our addictions, which clamor constantly to be fed, a surfeit of self-satisfaction that only increases the craving but leads to stupor. Fasting is about clarity, simplicity, traveling light, purification. It is its own reward, but also overflows into an awareness of others. Giving away our surplus to those in need rebalances everyone.

Still, Lent is less self-help than journey. Every disciple sets out on the road to Jerusalem because Jesus wants us to be with him when he accomplishes his mission. He will fulfill the Law and the Prophets by emptying himself, accepting the full burden of human failure and its consequences in order to lift up the world in glory. Lent is the school of love that enables us to follow him, imitate him, share this mission.

So we are signed with ashes, the sign of the cross that says to the world we are signed up for the journey. For some it is a continuation, others a crash course. Blessed are those who begin, and even more blessed those who complete this journey to Easter.

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Where's Mine?

Posted on 04 March 2014 by patmarrin

“We have given up everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28).

Mike Royko, longtime Chicago humor columnist (d. 1997), devoted much of his work to the antics of Chicago politics, which was then riddled with nepotism, cronyism, patronage, voter fraud and under the table deal making. This was his artist’s canvas for the study of human nature, both noble and despicable, in the universal game of survival. Royko once suggested the Latin saying Ubi est mea? (Where’s mine?”) as the official motto on the city seal.

Peter asks Jesus the same basic question in today’s Gospel. He enumerates all the things he and the other disciples have given up to follow Jesus, then wants to know what they will get in return. In what may be one of the few overt “jokes” recorded in the New Testament, Jesus tells Peter that for sacrificing house, family and property they will get back 100 times in kind, “with persecution,” and eternal life in the age to come. Jesus was describing the enormous responsibility his disciples would have to carry in serving the faith community. Their lives would be crowded with dependents, duties and anxieties. Most pastors get the joke. Some laugh, some do not. The reality of church life is service.

For those who are called to it, the saving grace is to share the burden and the joy of community life in which the many needs are matched with the abundant talents and resources there for the asking. “To each according to their need; from each according to their ability” is the description of the early church in Acts 2:44. It may be an idealized picture, but the principle is found in the famous words from Vatican II that the renewal of the church rested on fully conscious and active participation by all [the baptized] as their right and duty and the indispensable source of the true Christian spirit. (CSL, 14).

Whatever we have given to God will be multiplied 100 times, “with persecution,” and given back to us. It is the only game in town.

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Traveling Light

Posted on 03 March 2014 by patmarrin

"Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven" (Mark 10:21).

When Pope Francis said he envisioned a "church of the poor, for the poor," he was quoting his predecessor, Pope John XXIII, who expressed the same thought in 1959 before the second Vatican Council. Perhaps the goal John had in calling Vatican II was to recover the authentic church of Jesus and the first Christian communities from centuries of historical accretion and complexity that had produced an institution so wealthy and powerful that it was hampered from preaching the Gospel. Over 50 years later, Pope Francis, in word and gesture and, now, in actual structural reforms, is trying to do the same thing.

It will not be easy. The story of the rich man who approaches Jesus to ask how he could inherit eternal life illustrates the challenge of any conversion that involves letting go of wealth and the security and status it bring in order to find God. The man is eager to keep the commandments -- refraining from obvious violations of piety and social harm, but once Jesus tells him to give up his money, he withdraws. It is simply too much to ask; it would change everything. Even after seeing the look of love in Jesus' eyes, he turns away in sadness.

In the United States in the 1880s, strong beliefs in rugged individualism coupled with unregulated Darwinian capitalism created huge fortunes for industrialists and bankers. Katherine Drexel, the scion of a wealthy Philadelphia banking family, used her inheritance to found a community of sisters devoted to serving African and Native Americans. She had heard Jesus' invitation to the rich man, but rather than turning away, she gave her fortune and the rest of her life to serve the poor. She was canonized in 2000. Her order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, continues her vision and service.

Each of us has a chance to enter today’s Gospel account with the same desire to find and follow Jesus. While our stories may be less dramatic than Katherine’s and our “fortunes” less obvious, we all have a chance to travel lighter and do what we can to help others. In return, Jesus promises us greater freedom and the joy of belonging to the church of the poor.

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A Little Bird Told Me

Posted on 01 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Look at the birds of the air…” (Matt 6:27).

A study was done on what most people worry about, and in general the results revealed that the vast majority of concerns people fret about they also have no control over. We worry about future unknowns, past mistakes, the safety of our families, possible health crises, natural disasters. While it is clear that people need to plan, take reasonable steps to avoid problems, stay safe, monitor their health, etc., too much energy devoted to worry keeps us from welcoming each day as it comes and using its opportunities and gifts fully and with joy.

Jesus must have looked out at the crowds he was preaching to and realized how anxiety was robbing them of simple joy and gratitude. Competition was keeping them from a sense of community; concern for money and the false security it promises was keeping them from being generous and hospitable. In another setting, he taught them with the miraculous multiplication of bread and fish as a kind of exercise in showing people what openness and sharing could create to make 5,000 strangers into neighbors.

Jesus also turned to nature to show people how the rhythms and cycles of life were played out in the existence of the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air. These creatures witnessed in their short lives the beauty and balance of God’s gifts to all. An ecology of both nature and grace is the face of God’s care for the world, and even in cycles of loss and restoration, full and fallow, life and death, it reveals a wholeness that serves the needs of everyone and everything.

What most of creation does naturally, human beings must do freely and consciously. When people grow anxious or selfish, they can upset the balance of nature and cause untold damage to the ecology of life that everyone depends on. Rachel Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring, warned that the overuse of pesticides could destroy songbirds. The damage to the natural world would also sever our deepest link to spiritual values that teach us so much about how to live.

If we need a good homily today, a single songbird could provide it eloquently and poignantly to anyone able to listen.

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Protect Ideals, Acknowledge Reality

Posted on 28 February 2014 by patmarrin

“The Lord is kind and merciful” (Psalm 103).

As a pastoral issue, divorce is one of the most complex and anguished challenges that will face the Synod on the Family in Rome next October. Catholics who divorce, then remarry without having their first marriage annulled, are excluded from full communion with the church. Today’s Gospel expresses the ideal for covenantal marriage supported by Jesus in a Jewish culture that allowed men to dismiss their wives with a simple bill of divorce. Jesus goes back to the Genesis account of the unity of husband and wife as an inseparable bond blessed by God. On this ideal rested the stability of family, the survival of the tribe and the witness of fidelity in God’s relationship to Israel.

Like all ideals in the long biblical narrative, which includes patriarchal polygamy, royal promiscuity, deception and adultery, the theme of God’s mercy and forgiveness also flows freely like a river in the desert of human failure. In the long history of church practice, annulments acknowledged the reality that not all marriages were valid for lack of essential freedom, understanding and maturity, and that people needed to get on with their lives for their own sake and the sake of their children. The ideal is preached, the pastoral reality is addressed, and the requirements of both justice and mercy are met.

A broken love relationship and a failed attempt at marriage are cause for deep human suffering, but life is not ended. Where sincere people are doing the best they can, the support of the community is essential. Truth and reconciliation have healed the aftermath of wars and violent social injustice. Can the church, reflecting the full teaching of Jesus, find a way to do the same with the intimate suffering of divorce and remarriage?

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Salted with Fire

Posted on 27 February 2014 by patmarrin

“Keep salt in yourselves and you will be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).

Anyone with children or who cares for children knows how vulnerable they are because they are innocent. They were given special regard by Jesus as belonging among God’s anawim —little ones. With the beatitudes and other teachings, Jesus was convening a community of anawim, disciples whose innocence and powerlessness made them vulnerable to those with worldly power. In giving preference to them, Jesus sided with the poor, the outcasts, with widows and orphans, the sick and even sinners – anyone who was thrust to the margins of social status and influence. They were to be the ones who would in a special way carry the Good News of God’s love to the world.

Today’s Gospel passage promises a blessing on those who care for the anawim and warns anyone who would harm them that it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their necks and be cast into the sea. This is graphic hyperbole, like Jesus’ suggestion that it is better to cut off your hand and foot or pluck out your eye than to let these lead you into sin, but he makes his point in the strongest possible terms.

We wonder how to apply these words to our contemporary setting. The emphasis is on striving to be one of God’s anawim, disciples who guard their innocence and integrity as the most important gift they have. In another passage, Jesus says, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world but forfeit their soul?” Jesus also says that his followers must be “salted with fire,” a powerful, even painful, image of purification. In the light of current crises facing the church, Jesus has clearly stated the priorities that must inform the reform and renewal so critically needed to get us back on track. What we hope to preserve must first be purified.

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Collaboration

Posted on 26 February 2014 by patmarrin

"Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40).

In a few sentences, Jesus lays down the basis for collaboration that might have prevented a long, violent history of religious wars, sectarian squabbling and inter-communion competition. "Anyone one who is not against you is for you." Anyone who is working to achieve the same goals you have is your ally, not your enemy. Find common ground. Work together.

The disciple John, of the famous brothers, James and John, “sons of thunder," who wanted to call down fire on a town that refused to accept them, proudly tells Jesus that they tried to stop someone from performing exorcisms in his name. Someone not of their group, unauthorized, unofficial, an upstart free-lancer. Jesus rebukes them for their narrowness and presumed control of the power Jesus himself saw as freely given by God to anyone with faith.

Theologian Fr. Peter Phan has challenged traditional notions of the church’s missionary efforts to establish Catholic churches in pluralistic settings by seeking converts, building churches, competing with other religions. He suggested a more upside down approach of starting with dialogue, sharing efforts to do works of justice, address basic human needs. All faith organizations can join together with other humanist or non-religious groups toward such common ground goals. Then, when relationships have formed, groups can talk about their theologies.

How quickly and credibly religions help create a better world if they took this approach instead of denigrating one another as inferior and ignorant of God and the right path to God. And how happy God must be when such unified efforts are tried.