Sunday, January 14, 2018

Still no luck on a new job. Keep the prayers coming. So horrible, but I place it all in God's hands.
January 14, 2015
Second Sunday after Epiphany
Baptism of our Lord
(1 John 5:1-9; Mark 1:7-11)
Feeling stressed? Congratulations. You are a typical American.

Over the last several decades, the United States has become the world champion in the stress category. According to the American Institute of Stress, stress-related illnesses cost the American economy $300 billion in medical bills and lost productivity every year. Forty-four percent of Americans feel more stress than they did five years ago, and one in five people experience "extreme stress," which includes symptoms like heart palpitations, shaking and depression. Three out of every four visits to the doctor are for stress-related ailments.

The numbers are shocking, especially given the fact that we live in a country that should have the least to be stressed about. We're relatively secure. We have a higher standard of living than most countries. We have better access to good medical care than the vast majority of other countries in the world. And yet many countries, places like Africa where basics like food, security and clean water are in short supply, report lower levels of stress than those of us who seem to have it all.

Theories abound as to why our stress is worse than so many others. Some say it's the economy and work-related stress. Others say our loss of community is to blame, as people spend more time with their eyes focused on screens rather than the faces of family and friends. Related to this is the mind-numbing amount of information we receive on a daily basis that causes us to fear threats that aren't even related to us. Put those together with the general American aversion to any negative feeling and you've got a stress-induced cocktail of anxiety.

So, how does one beat the specter of stress?

Well, the classic American answer is to buy your way out of it. In fact, there's now a whole industry that is focused on de-stressing your life while emptying your wallet.

Walk around the mall, for example, and you'll see opportunities:

- to purchase expensive massage chairs;

- to get a quick massage at a kiosk;

- to sign up for a yoga class at the local gym and contribute to what has become a $6-billion dollar industry while you strike a Child's Pose;

- to sip a relaxing drink. Instead of the amped-up stress jolt of a Red Bull or Monster energy drink, why not have a Just Chill or a Slow Cow (product of Canada) instead. (Yes, the last two are real drinks.)

Or, you can learn from Deepak Chopra, who is arguably the chief guru of stress management in American culture. Chopra, who claims he himself never has stress, sells millions of books and other devices -- all designed to help us relax. Take the Deepak Chopra Dream Weaver Light and Sound Mind Machine, for example. This $199 device is worn like a set of goggles, and uses a kaleidoscope of dream-like images and sounds to help you chill out. No wonder Chopra feels no stress. Sitting on a dreamy pile of easy money will do that to anyone.

The truth is, however, that, despite the billions of dollars we're spending on this stuff, you just can't buy peace. In a world that feels out of control, no amount of time spent tripping out in the Dream Weaver will ultimately make us feel better. Once the goggles come off, it's back to the reality that we live in a world that we can't conquer, no matter how much we spend.

The people to whom John was writing had every reason to be way more stressed than even we could imagine. While his audience isn't clearly identified at the beginning of the letter, the fledgling Christian churches of John's day were often harassed and persecuted. People were losing their livelihoods and their lives because of their association with the person and message of Jesus. At a minimum, they would have been ostracized by their pagan and Jewish neighbors for declaring a crucified Messiah as the Lord of the world.

But instead of rolling out the yoga mat, the early Christians actually thrived in the midst of stress and persecution. The first few centuries of Christianity saw it explode in numbers and influence to a point that, by the early fourth century, it was the dominant faith and worldview of the very Roman empire that had once sought the church's destruction.

How did Christians conquer the world, one might ask? The Apostle John gives us a clue, and he offers it free of charge!

John was no guru, but he was a witness to the life of Jesus. He shares how to live according to the pattern of Christ. For John, the way to peace didn't involve swiping a credit card to get what we need; rather, it involved remembering the gift that God has already given us.

"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God," says John. If our ceaseless striving for security and solvency is the source of much of our stress, John reminds us that the one thing we really need is the one thing we can never buy or earn, and that's our status as children of God.

When we believe that Jesus is God's Son, it's that faith, and not our striving, that makes us part of his family. Every child of God who loves the parent, then, also loves the rest of his children. If isolation and overwork are the causes of much of our stress, John reminds us that God has brought us together by giving us the gift of Jesus Christ and offering us a whole new community in which we can both give and receive the love God has shared with us.

It's out of that love, then, that God gives us guidance about how to conquer the world and the stress that comes with it. "When we love God and obey his commandments," says John, it becomes the way in which we can love the other children of God. Obedience to God's commandments sounds, at first, like another burden about which to be stressed. Another rule to obey! Actually not, John, emphasizes that this obedience is what actually sets us free from worry and stress. By observing the two most important commandments as Jesus taught, will make our burdens lighter. For as Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:29)

In a world in which a fire hose of information bombards us constantly, obedience to God is the secret of a life of freedom. When we experience the gift of God's love and grace, it becomes the gift around which we orient our lives. We focus on what we have, rather than what we don't have. We focus on the present, rather than worrying about the future. We know that our future is secure in Christ.

John says, then, that the commandments of God are not "burdensome," but that it's through our obedience to God, in response to God's love, that God's children, in faith, "conquer the world." So, many of the de-stressing devices that people are buying today are all about escaping from the world. Take the Ostrich Pillow, for example. This is a pillow that fits over the head, leaving just a small opening for the mouth and nose, and puts the wearer into a head-in-the-sand kind of posture while a busy airport bustles around him. (You really should Google this. It's hilarious. Looks like some sort of martian head!)

The Bible, however, wants us to look up and see the world, not as a place from which to escape, but as a place to be claimed in victory. "Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?"

When we believe that Jesus has already conquered the world, we have nothing to fear from it! No one can sell you that kind of peace!

Paul echoes John when he reminds the Roman church that nothing, not even the stress-inducing specters of hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or the threat of violence, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul says, "we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Romans 8:37). Peace is possible because the battle's already been won. Jesus himself declares it: "I have said this to you, so that in me you will have peace. In the world, you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (John 16:33).

Each of us deals with stress, (I can raise my hand to that!) but it need not be debilitating. A massage is nice, yoga is good (though a bit painful for those who are less stretchy), and we need opportunities to be quiet and meditate.

Ultimately, however, real stress relief comes from knowing that God loves us with an everlasting love, and that God has already conquered the world.

We've already been given the gift of peace -- and it's free of charge!
Let us pray.
That God will bless the March for Life in Washington D.C., this Friday, and that all will be converted to the Gospel of Life. We pray to the Lord. (Lord hear our prayer.)
For blessings on this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; that all Christians may be one in faith, hope, and charity. We pray to the Lord.
That the Lord will raise up politicians capable of effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots of the evils in our world. We pray to the Lord.
For our country as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day; for an end to all racism, bigotry, and prejudice of any kind. We pray to the Lord.
That husbands and wives will be blessed with the grace to live their marriage with fidelity, holiness and joy. We pray to the Lord.
For those in our parish family and our personal families who are ill  or experiencing any form of struggle that they will feel the presence of the Lord. We pray to the Lord.
For all those who suffer from stress; that our Lord will take upon Himself their yoke and give His grace of comfort. We pray to the Lord.
For those who suffer from religious persecution; such as those members of the The Lampstand Church in china who this week their church demolished by the Chinese police. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to live with greater desire for Jesus Christ. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, sanctify us in Christ Jesus. You have called us to be holy. May we respond with all our heart and soul. We ask all these, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Sunday, January 7, 2018

January 7, 2018
Epiphany
(Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12)
Epiphany is that time of year when we get to say, “ah ha!” We say this, “ah ha”, maybe in a different manner than they did at Jesus’s birth, but, we still have an epiphany - and could have them almost every day of our lives – at least for those of us who stay open to Christ in our lives.
There are a few interesting points to our reading today. As we discussed for Christmas, the gifts the Magi brought to the Christ child, were and are unique. Those who offer gold, frankincense and myrrh show more in mystery then they offer in knowledge. Whether this visitation of the Magi took place or not, as some would argue, or whether it happened at some later time period as some others argue, I think misses the point. So, let us look at the passage merely as it is meant to be taken.
Gold proclaims Christ’ kingship and royal dignity. Gold is fitting for a king, a ruler, one with power and authority. Gold was also a symbol of divinity. This Child in the manger came to transform our perspective of wealth to treasure again the things of God. To treasure compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and peace; these are the coins of the realm of the newborn King.
Frankincense, of which its smoke represents divine majesty, is offered to adore the Christ child as our God. It comes from a small tree usually found in Arabia and parts of North Africa. Needless to say, somewhat hard to come by. It’s a hardened resin and the plant was used as medicine for many elements. Elements such as to stop bleeding and to heal wounds; it has been used as an antidote for poisons and a salve for bruises, ulcerations and even paralyzed limbs. And with this, the Christ child comes to restore and heal not just the physical ailments of those He will encounter in His Gospel journey, but to heal us of our fears and doubts; to bridge that which separates us from one another and from God.
Then we have myrrh which is an acknowledgment of His mortality as a human being; for God came to us in the Christ child as fully God and fully human. Myrrh was an expensive extract from the resin of a myrrh tree. It also was used as a medicine, but more prominently it was used in embalming the dead. During that period, only the royalty and the very wealthy were embalmed; myrrh, therefore, was a gift reserved for kings. The Christ child comes to re-create humanity in the life of God. Christ’s death will be the defeat of death; His cross will be His - and our – glory.
And so, the three gifts of the Magi are a gospel in themselves. They honored a child who is Himself a gift from God whose love is beyond our comprehension, whose goodness knows neither limit nor condition. Further still, the number of their offering bespeaks the Trinity, while there single devotion gives evidence of unity.
Something to consider here. The Magi, as best as we know, were most probably not Jews. They were Gentiles. Yet they come to worship Jesus. And because of this, it gives us a look into the future when Jesus tells His Apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19) All nations - most obviously - would include the Gentiles - or the non-Jews. And so we see these Gentile Magi coming to worship Jesus, indeed - before Jesus himself makes the command to make disciples of all peoples. And thus, all peoples are coheirs with the Jews of the promises of God. We cannot limit God’s mercy. It knows no bounds, and it includes all.
At the time of Jesus’s birth, exiled Jews had just recently returned to Jerusalem - a Jerusalem that was in ruins. Somehow, the words of the prophet didn’t quite match up with the realities on the ground. But that didn’t stop these believers from rolling up their sleeves and working to bring about the glory that had been promised to them.
Also, how did the Magi recognize an earthshaking event in the humble stable with Joseph and Mary? Even the religious and political leaders of Israel missed the birth of the Messiah. So how could these pagan foreigners fall to their knees so readily, and offer such valuable treasures to this seemingly lowly child? Again, their expectations didn’t match up with what they found when they first laid eyes on the Holy Family. And although what they found is not what they expected, they understood there was much mystery and significance to how the Messiah chose to enter the world.
Today’s feast tells us that the glory of God can be present in the most hidden and unlikely people and situations. It tells us that God is there in the everyday rhythms of our lives. We should pray that He would give us eyes of faith to see Him and trusting hearts to build the kingdom with Him. The results would be another spectacular epiphany!
There is something very important that we should take from all this. We need on this Epiphany Sunday to experience another epiphany. We need to experience the epiphany of not only the Christ child coming incarnate, but in so, notice that He set the world on its head.
As we know from the book of Genesis, Adam was created in the image of God. However, that image was shattered and an became irreparably distorted image. And since Adam was meant to be the beginning of all humankind, the image of God in all of us was shattered and distorted. Since mankind inherited the broken image from Adam, all humans are broken and prone to sin. They are not judged for Adam’s sin however, because of his sin, we, Adam’s progeny, have all been born broken. Because of his sin, we all sin.
In the infinite riches of God’s working with His creation of humankind, He went through various steps to attempt to reconcile us in His image. Many prophets, kings, salvations, and destructions all came to pass, but nothing seemed to correct the distorted image. His image kept walking away from God instead of toward Him.
And so God decided the best way to resolve this once and for all was to join us down here in and on His creation. And so we have the Epiphany - Christ is born. And like the Magi, we too want to see the Christ. We want an encounter with the living Christ; or at least we should want to.
Let’s explore a little bit more about this “Magi” that came. The term “Magi” is a designation for Persian priestly lineage. It has also come to be known as that of a king or astrologer. But most commonly at that time, they were thought to have more than just human knowledge. Thus, why we see in some interpretations as the Magi being referred to as the “wise men.” They must’ve been wise, for in that time it was believed that a new star appeared at the time of a ruler’s birth. They travel far from their home - said to be from the east, hence the Orient - to see this great star and whom the star announced. To be able to determine all this from the alignment of a star or stars and where to go to follow the star(s) is pretty remarkable! They were wise enough to know someone far more important than some insignificant ruler was being heralded.
We too are called to be wise, and follow what the star announced. Having made their visit to the Christ child and given gifts, the Magi began their long and arduous journey home. This time, however, they return a different way from once they came. And while they altered their route to avoid going through Jerusalem again, it certainly wasn’t the only thing about the Magi that had changed. Returning home by another route is a metaphor for living a changed life, and by their vulnerability and letting this holy moment speak to their hearts, the Magi could make a clean break with some past practices and habits and head home changed and chastened, molded to the shape of Christ’s own triumph. This is how new life is created from old.
In our lives we also may choose to take another route in light of our effectiveness as Christians in a fragile world. We can decide to resist Herod in all his guises and go back home another way. We can resist all that kills childlike wonder, optimism, hope, imagination, play, creativity and adventure. We can also decide to pay close attention to all of life, including the silences, and to live less hurriedly and more openly and imaginatively so that we might catch sight of the shimmering star. Nearly everyone who encounters Jesus goes home another way. After they have met this Jesus they seem incapable - or certainly unwilling - to go back the same way they came.
God had to find a new way to reach His people. He needed us to take a different direction. He needed us to stop being so selfish and cruel. He needed us to clear up our image so that it would best reflect that of God in each of us. And so He came in the second person, as Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ came and changed the rules. By the time Jesus had come as man, the Jewish religion had 613 various laws and commandments. When Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29), He was telling us that He understands that we could not live up to all these rules - especially if the teachers of the law made it more difficult than God may have intended. God gave us ten Commandments and man expanded them to 613.
There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake. That’s why Jesus fulfilled all for us - so that it no longer has jurisdiction over us. In the law that once contained impossible demands – “Thou shalt not [this]…Thou shalt not [that]” actually becomes a promise that Christ fulfills in each of us.
But we must keep in mind that if we live our lives alone and independently - meaning away from the church in particular and Christ specifically - the promise is empty. Jesus laid the demand of the law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both the promise and its fulfillment! Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control.
By keeping all the various laws, outside of the two that Jesus made clear we must follow, we are attempting to grant ourselves the power to judge others and to feel superior to them. We believe we are living to a higher standard than those we judge. Enforcing rules, especially in more subtle expressions like responsibility and expectation, is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. And contrary to what we might think, God sometimes wants us to have a bit of uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse. By being uncertain, we rely more on the power of God.
Why did Jesus want to put away the rules and the laws you might ask? Let me put it to you this way. When we ask our children to do something like clean their room, what do you think would make us happier: if they cleaned the room because they loved us, or if they cleaned the room because they were afraid that we would punish them? Of course we want our children to do it because they love us, not out of some threat of punishment. Obedience under the shadow of threat is hardly obedience at all, but merely a compulsion. Christian obedience is devoid of threat and rooted in love, because this is what God truly wants.
How does God want us to live? Does He want us to live focusing on love or focusing on law? And this is the great message of Jesus Christ. This should be an epiphany for you on this Epiphany Sunday.
We are a different form of Catholic Church, to be sure. But, as I’ve said multiple times, we are merely Catholic without all the guilt. We teach a God who loves us. We teach of a God that is full of mercy and compassion. We teach of a God who is focused on us as His creation; as His image of Himself. And if we are to live up to that image without it being distorted, we must learn to love. When we have that epiphany of loving one another, we will fulfill all the laws - Jesus made that very clear.
And so this Sunday, I want everyone to leave here with an additional epiphany. The epiphany that there are so few rules, but so much opportunity. We come here today to worship God. We come here today to feel the Holy Spirit move through us - and I hope you actually try to open yourself to this happening to you. We come here today to take Christ within our self in the holy Eucharist.
When people ask me questions about coming to communion at our church, my usual response is that there are very few reasons I would ever deny anyone communion at our church. Why is that? First, because we minister in the example of Jesus Christ - we minister in mercy and love. Secondly, sometimes no matter how grievous of a sin you have, all the words of some lowly insignificant priest such as myself, will not change your attitude toward what you are doing, but Christ can change your attitude! We believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the holy Eucharist. And as such, when you come to communion, you take Christ within yourself. And by so doing, you are opening yourself up to a plethora of possibilities and even miracles. Even if you live in a sinful life, there is the Confiteor during mass with absolution the priest gives which will dissolve you of such. And if there remains still some inclination toward whatever attachment you may have to some sort of sin, by taking Christ within yourself, you are giving yourself a great and potent medicine.
So do not be afraid this Epiphany. Tell your friends and your relatives that Christ is born. Tell them there is a gift greater than gold, frankincense and myrrh to behold. And if they can’t find a church that will accept them and/or allow them to communion, you tell them about us. And they can come here and know Christ freely and receive Him where they may not feel comfortable receiving Him elsewhere. So tell your friends; tell your relatives; Christ is born and He will live in our sanctuary and the hearts of our members. You will find it amazing how often you can have some “ah ha” moments when you seek out the new born King!
Let us pray.
That the Church will be like the star of Epiphany, drawing the world to worship Jesus Christ. We pray to the Lord. (Lord hear our prayer.)
That those who hold public office will imitate the goodness of God, who secures justice and the rights of all the oppressed. We pray to the Lord.
For the strength of mind and heart to defend our freedoms when they are threatened. We pray to the Lord.
That the observance of National Migration Week will move many to help the migrants of the world in their need. We pray to the Lord.
For those who face the hardships of life without the benefit of faith; that Christians will offer them compassion by helping and showing them the mercy and love of God in His son Jesus Christ. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to surrender all selfish ways and follow the Way who is Christ. We pray to the Lord.
That those who struggle with the many perceived restrictions and laws listed in our Scriptures, and thus cause undue criticism, discrimination, and judgment toward others, may come to the realization of why God came amongst us so that we might learn to love instead of condemn. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, may every nation on earth adore You. We thank You for Your faithfulness and steadfast love since the moment You created the universe. Thank You for the many ways You draw all of creation closer to You. Reveal to us how we might serve You, love You, and truly be Your hands and feet in our world. Forgive us for the many moments that we choose comfort over speaking against what is popular. Forgive us for the times when we let our need to be right supersede Your prophetic calling for us. Hear our petitions and, united with our Lady Mary, draw us close to Your Son, who is our Lord now and forever. Amen.
God Love You +++
 + The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor –St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA