February 5, 2017
The Fifth Sunday after The Epiphany
As I sat down this week to write today’s sermon, I had many thoughts going through my mind. Some good thoughts; and some not so good thoughts. It seemed like anything that could possibly attempt to make me feel sad would happen and actually come to mind. And surely due to my mood this sermon has come of it, so I apologize in advance.
In my email, I get what is called Weekly Reports from Rome. In it are usually stories about different things going on at the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church, but predominantly what is going on with and being said by the Pope. And I happened to notice that it had on there the Pope’s prayer intention for February 2017. I read it and I was actually quite moved. And while reading it, it brought to mind something that has been bothering me for well over a week and a half or so.
As most of you know President Trump has signed many executive orders eliminating certain provisions in laws and enacting others. While, without going into great detail some of the things, the church and the Pope find them a bit disturbing, though neither is mentioning anything specifically by name.
However, after reading about the Pope’s prayer intention for the month, I then moved on to researching the readings that were set for today’s Mass.
And after reading the epistle and the gospel for today, I could not help but think about the Pope’s prayer intention. All at once many thoughts and emotions flowed into my thinking processes. It had already been a relatively tough week for me, because I allowed myself to ponder on my own personal situation. I thought of it as God’s way of helping me heal - everyone has to heal - even bishops have to heal. So, I was hoping that by these emotions finally taking hold, I was healing. I think it is still ongoing.
However, I digress. Let me give you a little bit of the background and the story behind the Pope’s prayer intention. Incidentally I would recommend anyone who is able to access YouTube, to go on there and search for the Pope’s February 2017 prayer intention and watch the very brief video. Yes, you can tell that they are actors, but it still will touch your heart.
When Pope Francis celebrated the way of the cross during world youth day last summer in Kraków, he asked questions that naturally arise when we encounter human suffering. And he asked these questions: “Where is God, if evil is present in our world, if there are men and women who are hungry and thirsty, homeless, exiles and refugees? Where is God, when innocent persons died as a result of violence, terrorism and war? Where is God, when cruel diseases break the bonds of life and affection? Or when children are exploited and demeaned, they too suffer from grave illness? Where is God, amid the anguish of those who doubt and are troubled in spirit?”
And the Pope answered his own questions: “God is in them. Jesus is in them; He suffers in them and deeply identifies with each of them. He is so closely united to them as to form with them, as it were, one body. Jesus himself chose to identify with these our brothers and sisters enduring pain and anguish by agreeing to tread the way of sorrows that led to Calvary. By embracing the wood of the cross, Jesus embraced the nakedness, the hunger and thirst, loneliness, pain and death of men and women of all times.”
“We are called to serve the crucified Jesus and all those who are marginalized, to touch his sacred flesh and those who are disadvantaged, and those who hunger and thirst, in the naked, the imprisoned, the sick and the unemployed, and those who are persecuted, refugees and migrants. There we find our God; there we touch the Lord. Jesus himself told us this when he explained the criterion on which we will be judged: whenever we do these things to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do them to him.”
“In the face of evil, suffering and sin, the only response possible for a disciple of Jesus is the gift of self, even of one’s own life, in imitation of Christ; it is the attitude of service. Unless those who call themselves Christians live to serve, their lives serve no good purpose. By their lives, they deny Jesus Christ.”
When it comes to helping the poor, the marginalized and refugees, Pope Francis urged Catholics not to mimic “Mannequin Challenge” by just looking on, frozen and immobile. The video version of his prayer intention for February begins with a street scene of people doing a “Mannequin Challenge.” (The Mannequin Challenge is a viral Internet video trend where people remain frozen in action like mannequins while a moving camera films them, usually with the song "Black Beatles" by Rae Sremmurd playing in the background. The hashtag #MannequinChallenge was used for popular social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. It is believed that the phenomenon was started by students in Jacksonville, Florida, on October 12, 2016. The initial posting has inspired works by other groups, especially professional athletes and sports teams, who have posted increasingly complex and elaborate videos.)
The prayer intention and what has started to be called, “The Pope Video” is being distributed by the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, formally known as the Apostleship of Prayer.
The intention the Pope chose for February is this: “That all those who are afflicted, especially the poor, refugees and marginalized, may find welcoming comfort in our communities.”
The Pope goes on to say in the video; “We live in cities that throw up skyscrapers and shopping centers and strike big real estate deals, but they abandon a part of themselves to marginal settlements on the periphery. The result of this situation is that great sections of the population are excluded and marginalized: without a job, without options, without a way out.”
“Don’t abandon them,” the Pope pleads. The video image then shows the previously mannequin like actors reaching out to help a young man who was shivering against the building. And then the Pope goes on to say: “Pray with me, for all those who are afflicted, especially the poor, refugees, and marginalized, may find welcoming comfort in our communities.”
Now after watching this and listening to it I could not help but think of what the current administration is doing in so many ways, not only to the people that are banned from coming into the United States, but even to those here in our own nation already feeling ostracized in some way. I could not help but think that the Pope was thinking of the USA when he said these words: “We live in cities that throw up skyscrapers and shopping centers and strike big real estate deals, but they abandon a part of themselves to marginal settlements on the periphery.”
Now, most of you know that I have not been a fan of our new president. Admittedly one wonders if there was even a candidate out there that would’ve been good during this past election. So I suppose in Trump’s own mind he’s doing what he feels is best for the country. I will at least give him credit for that - even if he is delusional about facts. However, I cannot help but feel that what he’s done in just these short few days is anything but good for our country; especially the ostracized and marginalized. His aides and cabinet are left to pick up the pieces.
Many of you heard me say many times, and will many more times, that this is a melting pot country. We have been a melting pot country since its inception. We have welcomed those who have needed a new home long before the Statue of Liberty was on its little island in New York City. With Trump’s blessing, it would seem that we are going backwards.
Not long after listening to the Pope, I also had an email feed that was sent to me of a video of a Muslim family that is stranded in Jordan because of the latest law that was signed. This family was granted access to the United States through negotiations with United Nations and now they are stuck in Jordan.
The video goes on to talk about how much this family wanted to come to America and the many good words they had about the loving and open armed view that they had of the United States until this law. It goes on to show one of the young boys crying on his mother’s shoulder. It continues with something that many people have said but somehow doesn’t seem to resonate with the rest of the country, and that is that not all Muslims are terrorists.
When we go back and look in history we can find that we as United States citizens - and we as Christians - have not always been perfect as we sometimes imply by our actions and words against Muslims by labeling them as terrorists, when it is only a small portion of the population of the Muslims who actually are terrorists. We must never forget that we as Christians - we as United States citizens - can be labeled as such anywhere in the world at any given time. We are not exempt. We are not perfect.
I stand with the rest of the United States Catholic bishops in agreeing that this law is not right for our nation. Building a wall to keep our ally and neighbor Mexico out of our country is wrong. Keeping Muslims and refugees out of our country is wrong. I do not deny the fact that some people feel these people take our jobs or use our welfare system and what have you for their livelihood; I certainly understand that; but denying them access to this country and possible access to a better life is not the answer either. Some leave their home country because they feel their lives are in danger. Should we turn our backs on these people?
We as a nation have always prided ourselves on being a loving nation where freedom reigns. We should be looking for ways to help these people not ostracizing them.
To slightly get off my tangent for a moment, let us not forget that we have many people in our own nation who are already citizens who are very concerned about the steps this country might be taking in the next four years. There are many who may lose insurance if the Republicans follow through with what they want to do and if they do not enact some new form of insurance for these people. There are many homeless who are American citizens on our streets. Admittedly for a percentage of these people it’s because of life choices they’ve made. But in most instances that is a small percentage. These people are on the streets for different societal reasons including sometimes medical and psychological. We have people who feel the advancement of the LGBT community will somehow go backwards now. And I could go on with this list, but I am sure you get the point.
Suffice to say that we have a little bit of soul-searching to do as Americans. Let me relate a short story in which, when you think about it, it can be very apropos to what I’m talking about today. You may have heard a variation of it before.
“A young lady was waiting for her flight in the boarding room of the big airport. As she would need to wait many hours, she decided to buy a book to spend her time. She also bought a packet of cookies. She sat down in an armchair, in the VIP room of the airport, to rest and read in peace. Beside the armchair where a packet of cookies lay, a man sat down in the next seat, opened his magazine and started reading. When she took out the first cookie, the man took one also. She felt irritated but said nothing. She just thought: ‘What a nerve! If I was in the mood I would punch him for daring!’ For each cookie she took, the man took one too. This was infuriating her but she didn’t want to cause a scene. When one cookie remained she thought: ‘Ah … What will this abusive man do now?’ Then, the man, taking the last cookie, divided in half, giving her one half. She said to herself: ‘Ah! That is too much! I am much too angry now!’ And in a huff, she took a book, her things and stormed to the boarding area. Later, when she sat down in her seat, inside the plane, she looked into her purse to take her eyeglasses out, and, to her surprise, her packet of cookies was there, untouched, unopened! She felt so ashamed! She realized that she was wrong. She had forgotten that her cookies were kept in her purse. The man had divided his cookies with her, without feeling angered or bitter. While she had been very angry, thinking that she was dividing her cookies with him, he was actually dividing them with her. And now there was no chance to explain yourself, nor to apologize.
There are many thoughts that came to mind when I read this little story. How often we can take this story and turn it around upon ourselves. How often we can blame others for actions of our own. How often we can point out the errors of others, when those same errors are sometimes our own.
There are things that you just cannot recover. The stone after it’s been thrown. The word after it’s been said. The occasion after the loss. The time after it’s gone. And the ability to help someone after they are gone.
Jesus healed those who were ostracized in society. He reached out to certain social classes as well, especially those who were rejected.
When Jesus was dying on the cross we can read in the Scriptures his words, “My God my God why have you abandoned me?”
I have wondered over these words for many years and I’ve come to this conclusion. Jesus knew very well that God had not abandoned him. It was not God that he was speaking about when he said these words. It was about his people. He was asking God why his people had abandoned him. And I wonder at times if he still does not exclaim the same thing - especially lately.
Now we are a small church and in theory we can’t do much. But we indeed can. "Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst." (Matt. 18:19-20)
So, let me leave you with something to think about. And I know this sermon is long but please bear with me.
“Silence is not always golden!” Edmund Burke once observed, “The only thing needed for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.” Some years ago an allegedly Christian minister in Florida, publicly burned a copy of the Quran on a Friday, the Muslim holy day. In protest the Middle East erupted in the violent riots resulting in the mutilation and decapitation of several Christians and Jews. There was no shortage of expressions of outrage. Christians and Jews were outraged against this minister’s bigoted and ignorant act, but there was a deafening silence from the Muslim world in response to the senseless violence and murder in the name of God by Muslim mobs. Where was the voice of civilization against this barbarism?
The only thing needed for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.
There is little question that fanatic hate filled Muslim extremists represent only a small portion of the world’s Muslims. They are the ones who are constantly seen and heard as that is what the media focuses on, however, so they paint the whole of Islam with their twisted image of a cruel, irrational and hateful God.
We Christians also have our own fringe lunatics, such as the Christian minister I mentioned earlier, and the such as Westborough Baptist Church. (Keep in mind, according to this particular church, every time a service man dies in our military it’s because we have gays in our country.) When they spew forth their revolting heresy, however, Christians immediately cry out that they do not represent us, and that their teaching is repulsive to most Christians.
Fanatics, extremists, and lunatics are easy to recognize and deal with because their words and acts are so outrageous. But there is a far more insidious evil lurking in the shadows. That is a slow erosion of Christian principles that has brought about the demise of Christian influence and authority in the world. Not so long ago to call a man a “good Christian” was to complement his integrity, compassion and generosity.
Today it has become almost derogatory to label anyone “Christian,” implying that he is a narrow-minded extremist. It is true that the term has become co-opted by the very conservative and often close minded group of Christians, though it is not fair to call them extremist or fanatic. Moderate and Liberal Christians have no right to complain, however, because they too have stood by and allowed this to happen.
The only thing needed for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.
The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller said, “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t in a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
The only thing needed for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.
And so I ask you today, will we speak out for Christ? Will we speak out for the afflicted, the poor, the refugees, disadvantaged, and those who hunger and thirst, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick and the unemployed, and those were are persecuted and the marginalized? It can be risky to do so. I know it will be risky to post this sermon on my Facebook page on the Internet. (There is still a law, after all, that prohibits ministers from speaking some forms of politics at the pulpit.) If we speak out for Christ and the afflicted and the poor the refugees and the marginalized, it could very well bring scorn, humiliation, and in some places even death. But if we don’t, evil will indeed prosper.
Let us pray.
Father God, we beseech Thee by the Precious Body and Blood of Thy Divine Son Jesus, which He Himself on the night before His Passion gave as meat and drink to His beloved Apostles and bequeathed to His Holy Church to be the perpetual Sacrifice and life-giving nourishment of His faithful people, deliver the souls who have gone before us, but most of all, that soul which was most devoted to this Mystery of infinite love, that soul who is in need of a home, that soul who marginalized and ostracized, that soul who is hungry and in need of medical attention, that soul being forced from their home country, that soul in unemployment – all the souls of Your people in order that they may praise You together with Thy Divine Son and the Holy Spirit in Thy glory forever. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.