Sunday, March 18, 2018

March 18, 2018
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
(Formerly known as: Passion Sunday)
(Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33)
Some famous people have made famous exits. Elvis left the building. Lou Gehrig said he was the luckiest man on Earth and quit baseball. Jesus had more than one exit. He died, rose again and then ascended to heaven.

What is the best exit and/or exit line of all time?

To draw on recent history (and by recent, I mean the last 50 to 75 years), you'd have might mention Richard M. Nixon's exit address. On November 7, 1962, Richard M. Nixon conceded defeat to the successful candidate for the California governorship, Pat Brown. Addressing a crowd of reporters at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Nixon gave vent to the bitterness of that campaign. He castigated the media, saying, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference." (Seems US Presidents and media have animosity going back further than the current administration I’d say!)

Although Nixon -- and much of America -- thought it was his last exit line, it was not. In a remarkable comeback, Nixon returned to politics and in 1968 was elected president.

On August 8, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, then-President Nixon resigned from that office. The final words of his speech on that occasion were: "To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American. In leaving it, I do so with this prayer: May God's grace be with you in all the days ahead." Unlike Nixon's 1962 exit line, that one stuck, and it was certainly more positive than his previous exit lines.

Or, think of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's retirement from public life with his observation to Congress that "old soldiers never die; they just fade away." That one seems to have been remembered a bit more.

Then there's baseball player Lou Gehrig's farewell speech. On July 4, 1939, Gehrig stood in front of the podium, speaking to the Yankee faithful, proclaiming despite his recent health issues that he considered himself to be "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth." That was the last day Gehrig would ever wear a baseball uniform again as what is known today as Lou Gehrig's disease claimed his life two years later.

Finally, let's mention Randy Pausch, professor of computer science, human–computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. Pausch did not know he had pancreatic cancer until September 2006 and less than two years later he was passed on.
About a year before he died, he delivered an upbeat lecture called The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. It became a popular YouTube video, and later a best-selling book, The Last Lecture. Among the many lines that emerged from this lecture is Pausch's comment that if he only had three words of advice, "I'd say, 'Tell the truth.' If I had three more words, I'd add 'All the time.'"

His last lecture was an amazing exit and an equally inspiring exit "line" or lines. It is a touching nook that I highly recommend. I have the book here with me today in case anyone might want to glance at it.

In the religious category, one source says that three leaders are tied for the best exit of all time: Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha. You have to give them credit for the religions they founded, especially since more than 4 billion people combined now count themselves as followers.

It's hard to argue that Jesus' exit wasn't the most dramatic. And you might say that he had more than one. Jesus made a habit of leaving during his short ministry of three years. He makes an astonishing appearance at the Jordan River where his cousin John is baptizing people. After John baptizes Jesus, he disappears for 40 days into the wilderness.

He often made a quick exit from crowds to get away on a retreat.

He left the Last Supper to go to Gethsemane to pray.

And then the big exit. He died. On a cross. A few sympathizers got his body and put it in a tomb. He was dead and entombed. A final exit?

Noooooo, he reappears and spends some time with his disciples and then exits again. See Acts 1. Into the clouds. Poof. Gone. And the Bible says he now sits at the right hand of the Father.

As for exit lines, Jesus had a few of those, too. Of course, you might refer to the so-named "seven last words" of Christ on the cross, though they were more light seven last statements, but let’s not quibble.

You might refer to his post-resurrection exit line recorded as the last words of Matthew's gospel, "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).

So Jesus not only had a fabulous exit or exits, he had a few good lines, too.

One of these lines, spoken only days before his death, is in today's text. "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

Soon after Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover festival, some Greeks approach the disciple Philip and say to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Philip relays their words to Andrew, and then the two of them take the request to Jesus. He tells them -- in so many words -- that he will die soon, and then he compares himself to a seed. "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

These Greeks have grown up with Aesop's fables, so they know the power of a simple story to teach a moral lesson. But in case they do not get his point, Jesus goes on to say, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

In other words, although death is very close for Jesus, he tells the disciples that his own literal death is a metaphor for understanding how his followers must live every day: they must live by dying. When they do, like a seed in the ground, they will grow and bear fruit.

You can certainly understand the confusion of the Greeks. They know that the dead tend to stay dead. But Jesus is telling them that fruitfulness comes from going into the ground, and a loss of life leads to eternal life. And then he drops this exit line: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” When he is lifted up on the cross, he will not repel people. Instead, he will draw people. Fruitfulness and eternal life. Both are connected to the power of the cross, a cross that Jesus elsewhere says we must embrace as an instrument of our own metaphorical death. And when we do, we will bear fruit and live.

So the cross, in a sense, is not an exit but an entrance -- an entrance to a new level or plane of living.

For some, however, the cross is both metaphorical and literal.

For an example, we need only turn to events that happened 50 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee. On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. On the night before his death, he gave a speech in which he said, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life -- longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land."

This was King's "mountaintop" speech, and it contained some powerful truths about his life and about the Civil Rights movement. He was right to say that "longevity has its place," and it would have been marvelous if he had been able to live out his life and die peacefully. But at the same time, he delivered a vision of the Promised Land that continues to inspire people today.

We are still on the path to that Promised Land, as we work for racial reconciliation and try to fight racism wherever we see it, in ourselves and in our communities. King's death did not kill his efforts for justice, but instead it gave life to a movement that is bigger now than it has ever been.

"I've seen the Promised Land," said King. "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land." He was right. He went into the earth like a grain of wheat, and his efforts have borne much fruit, even though hatred seems to still be very much alive, ever so unfortunately.

And how about eternal life? Jesus says that "those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Those who love life are those who are attached to the things of this world, and who want to become rich and famous and powerful. Jesus knows that you cannot take material goods and worldly achievements into the grave, so in the end these kinds of lives are lost. As the country song says, "I ain't never seen a hearse with a luggage rack."

Here's another example: This time it's an example of a metaphorical death, not a literal one. In this death, a baseball player "dies" to the temptation to put the god of money and financial reward ahead of his core values.

A couple of years ago, baseball player Adam LaRoche walked away from a $13 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. He did this because he wanted his son to spend a lot of time with him and the team, and the team's management did not agree. He announced his retirement on Twitter, thanking God for the game of baseball and ending with the hashtag “Family First.”

Fellow players responded by commending LaRoche for "standing up for his beliefs." One said, "Nothing like father and son in the clubhouse. It's a family game."

LaRoche is a Christian who once asked himself the question: "What do you want written on your tombstone? Do you want 'Adam LaRoche: Gold Glove, batting average, hit so many homers, and has a million dollars in his bank account,' or do you want 'Adam LaRoche: Man of God, integrity, raised a great family, loving.' Let's be honest: I don't know anybody who wants their [job] stats."

LaRoche is living -- by dying. He "puts to death" his natural desire for fame and money. What he gets is richly rewarding: fruitfulness and a life of meaning and significance.

You might say that it was easy for him to do this because perhaps he already had earned millions and stashed it away. Maybe. But how much money you have doesn't deliver you from the demon of greed and avarice. Sadly, some of us have had to learn that in hard ways.

Fruitfulness and eternal life are both found in the cross, the daily cross we bear. The Greeks who came to see Jesus were probably mystified by his exit line: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” They saw the cross as a scandalous death and a humiliating defeat. As the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, "Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).

We Christians proclaim Christ crucified because we know that the cross is the clearest sign of just how far Jesus will go to show us the love of God. Jesus died so that we could receive forgiveness and new life. He gave himself for us to demonstrate the value of a life of self-denial. Such a life is powerfully attractive, and people continue to be drawn by the power of the cross.
I want to end this with a true story.
“One day a Nazi called on a Jewish man, who along with his wife had become Christians. The man asks the Nazi, ‘How many Jews have you killed this week?’ The Nazi answered, ‘Oh about 25,000.’ The man continued and asked, ‘In this particular village, how many did you kill?’ The Nazi answered, ‘Oh, I killed everyone in that town.’ The man asked another question, ‘do you ever ask God for forgiveness?’ And the Nazi responds, ‘God doesn’t exist! There is any such thing as forgiveness!’The man continues and says, ‘Alright, my wife is upstairs asleep. She has not heard this conversation. And I’m going to ask her to come down.’ When the wife appeared before them, the husband said to his wife, ‘Levena, this is the man who killed your father, your mother, your three brothers, and your two sisters.’ The wife looked at the Nazi for a moment, and then threw her arms around him, kissed him, and said, ‘As God forgives you, I forgive you!’”

Let's follow where the Cross leads us, toward fruitful service and eternal life. Let us each find our cross and deny some natural desire in our lives and live for what we can take with us when we too make our exit. Let us follow Christ by offering forgiveness not only to those who may have hurts, by especially to ourselves. Let us walk with our cross with open abandonment and patience, because when we exit, we too will have an exit line. We know not when the Lord will take us, but we must always be ready. And with that, let me leave one last thing for you to ponder.
A man approaches the gates of heaven and asks to be allowed to enter. “Tell me one good thing you did in your life,” asks St. Peter. “Well,” says the man, “I saw a group of punks harassing an elderly lady, so I ran up and kicked their leader in the shins.” St. Peter’s impressed. “When did this happen?” “About 40 seconds ago.”
Let us pray.
That those in civil governance will dedicate themselves to justice, peace, authentic freedom, and the generous defense of the poor. We pray to the Lord.
That our parish will grow in holiness so that we will always love one another with perfect charity. We pray to the Lord.
That God will cleanse the world of all errors, banish disease, comfort those who mourn, grant safety to travelers, love for those who differ from us, health to the sick, and salvation to the dying. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to be ambassadors of Christ in the world. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week as we follow Lent toward Holy Week that begins this coming Sunday known as Palm Sunday, to live in greater faithfulness and love for Christ our Lord. We pray to the Lord.
We especially pray for those of our parish and their personal needs that they may be granted assistance and hope. And for those in our parish who are suffering from illness that they may be granted healing. We pray to the Lord.
We continue to pray for an end to violence and that within this country that allows the bearing of arms, that those who do bear these arms may not use them against fellow human beings. We pray to the Lord.
Most merciful Father, forgive our evildoing and remember our sin no more. Let us always be prepared for our inevitable exit of this world, by being Your faithful children throughout our lives. Help us to prepare our hearts for the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Your Son. Help us to find greater peace and tranquility with a humble heart, as we continue the final weeks of Lent in preparation for the great solemnity of Christ’s resurrection. We ask all this, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Monday, March 5, 2018

March 4, 2018
The Third Sunday in Lent
(1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25)
Today, we hear of Jesus’ chasing out the money changers vendors from the Temple. I want to twist this a little and place out reading as an inspiration for our inner temples. By encountering Christ, we too can chase out the troublesome areas out of ourselves and become more fully aware of Christ this Lent. I want to talk about five ways to encounter Christ. With hearts full of devotion, humility and love, these encounters, which are part of the teachings of the Church and supported by sacred Scripture, connect us logically as well as emotionally. As we continue our journey through Lent, sometimes it helps us to find new ways to encounter Christ during this time of preparation.
If you were brought up as an evangelical Christian you would constantly be made aware of the need to develop a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” I think being a Catholic we too can come to be aware of the true potential of such an idea. It may not be a common theme, but it certainly is subtly taught in ongoing ways.
In the evangelical world, the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” sometimes seems as transient as a butterfly. It is difficult to catch and keep alive. Usually, the personal encounter with Christ is expected to begin when a person “got saved” or “accepted Jesus into his heart as his personal Lord and Savior.”
While such personal experiences are valuable, they can be difficult to pin down. This is because the personal experience encouraged by evangelicals is subjective and very often highly emotional. A typical way that an evangelical might “get saved” is to hear the Gospel preached at church or at a “revival” or at a “crusade.” Having heard the Gospel and felt the need to accept Christ, the person walks down the aisle and prays with another Christian — repenting of sins and praying to “accept Jesus Christ.” They are then considered saved and a Christian. For Catholics, it is a bit more intellectual, mystical and involved.
The problem is that many of these events are highly managed. The preachers have a formula for inducing feelings of guilt and shame. More psychological than intellectual. These feelings are often combined with warnings about hell and the promise of heaven. Before the preaching, there is emotional hymn singing that helps the person suspend doubts and get into a “group mentality.” If you think my sermons are long, the sermons of evangelicals tend to be very long and meant to be very persuasive, and they are followed with more music designed to tug at a person’s emotions. It is very likely, therefore, that emotionally vulnerable people will indeed feel sorry for their sins and go forward to tearfully accept Jesus.
They are told that they are now “saved,” bound for heaven, and nothing they can do could ever destroy the decision they have made. But, is this sufficient for them to enter eternal life when they die?
No doubt such decisions are helpful and are often a good first step toward a Christian commitment. I have known many people who point to such experiences as the true moment of their conversions to Christ. Therefore, I would not want to discount such religious experiences. They are very real and meaningful, and surely the Holy Spirit is present at such moments.
However, it is necessary to be honestly critical. The emotional conversion experience might be genuine, but, then again, it might simply be an artificially manufactured emotional moment induced by a well-meaning preacher in the lives of emotionally vulnerable listeners. It might be a genuine conversion experience, or it might be no more than a momentary emotional rush. Catholics who are not properly formed may also have a religious experience that is just as transient.
This is why the Catholic Church teaches that there are five objective means through which we can have an encounter with Christ.
Various catechisms teach in some fashion that Christ Jesus, who died and who was raised from the dead and who is at the right hand of God, is the one who intercedes for us and is present in many ways to His Church; in His word; in His Church’s prayer, “where two or three are gathered in my name”; in the poor, the sick and the imprisoned; in the person of the minister or priest; and in the Sacraments, of which He is the author, and in the sacrifice of the Mass. But, we believe that He is most especially present in the Holy Eucharist.
The Catholic encounter with Christ is, therefore, not a vague, personal, emotional experience. It is a concrete, real and objective experience. The experience is objective because it is rooted in the historical events of the Gospel and the sacred history of the Church and her Saints. It is an experience that can be guaranteed no matter what our emotions might tell us. Regardless of our emotional state before or after receiving the Blessed Eucharist, Christ is truly present in the Miracle of the changed host.
As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Therefore, we encounter Christ in the sacred Scriptures. Reading the Scripture lessons of the day before we go to Mass, studying the Bible and reading the Bible on our own will bring us face-to-face with Jesus. Before we read the lessons, we should ask the Holy Spirit to enable this encounter. Study what Lectio Divina means and develop a practice of this form Biblical reading and prayer.
We encounter Christ in the assembly of the faithful. “Where two or three are gathered,” Jesus says, “there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). The Church is not only where we meet our Catholic friends and family. It is where we meet Christ the Lord.
The Church as the Body of Christ and the Body of Believers is a historical and current reality. It is not something we made up or something we wish existed. Whether we feel emotional about it or not, Christ is present there to meet us. The fact that the Church is often frail, wounded and flawed in her humanity is one of the marks of her authenticity. Someone once said, “If the Church was completely perfect all the time, wouldn’t you be suspicious that it was not real?” Not to mention, as I frequently say, if we were perfect, there would be no need for a church and on the opposing side, if the Church were perfect, none of us would be allowed in it because of our imperfection. Many who have stopped attending churches as a whole have forgotten this. We should not blame the church for an individual’s failings, because it is in the very church we criticize that Christ is truly present!
The third way we encounter Christ is in the person of the poor, the imprisoned, the sick and dying (Matthew 25). Whenever we are involved in working with the poor, visiting people in hospice care or in the hospital, or being involved in prison work and other charitable endeavors, we have a direct encounter with Christ. Saints like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Vincent de Paul affirm these truths. When we work with the needy, we have a chance to see Jesus in them, and this encounter with Christ is real, powerful and concrete. St. Mother Teresa might ask, “Do you want to encounter Christ? Work with the poor.”
The fourth way we encounter Christ is in the person of the priest. This is not simply that we see Jesus when the priest is celebrating Mass. We also meet Christ in a profound way as we get to know and love our priests. Jesus is hidden there not only in their gifts of love, mercy and administration of the Sacraments. Jesus is also hidden there in their human frailties and weakness. If we have eyes to see, then we will love and treasure our priests, because even in their humanity they are revealing Jesus to us.
We become emotionally angry when our priests don’t quite live up to the standard or pedestal that some put them on. No priest is a perfect Christ, because they too, like you, are human and imperfect. They represent Christ; they are not Christ. Though the Holy Spirit does work through these individuals, they do make mistakes, they do sin and sometimes they commit grave crimes. Fortunately, those who commit grave crimes, however, are very few, but so many will lose their faith over that one priest or bishop that somehow failed them. Studies show that those priests amount to a single digit percentage of the whole, however. Those few have made it hard for the rest of us, just as bad politicians ruin it for those who truly serve their constituents. Priests need our prayers to be faithful and remain fast in their own struggles.
Finally, we encounter Christ in the Sacraments of the Church. The seven Sacraments are not mere religious rituals. They are the objective, physical and historical means through which Jesus comes to meet us. They are physical signs of invisible grace. No emotional tugs, merely actual physicality’s of Christ’s presence in His Church. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and it is through these Sacramental signs that our covenant with Christ is solemnly sealed.
These five ways are real encounters with Christ, which do not depend on the fickleness of our emotions. Nevertheless, when we approach these five examples with hearts full of devotion, humility and love, these encounters will also be deeply emotional. As we read the Scriptures, pray with Christ’s Church, minister to those in need, learn to love our priests and treasure the Sacraments, with our hearts open to the mysteries of God’s love, we encounter in a real, powerful and personal way Jesus Christ the Lord.
So, even though we may not have revivals or crusades, we have physical reminders or spiritual powers that Christ bestowed on His Apostles that has been carried down through the ages and used to physically give grace without emotional feelings being induced. There is so much more than coming forward to be prayed over and waiting for the Holy Spirit to push you over. Here, we experience Christ ministering through His ministers in very real physical ways.
We do indeed have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but in different, subtle and physical ways through rituals long introduced by God Himself to the Israelites many millennia ago and handed down through the ages to now. God wanted us to worship Him in ritual and liturgy, made obvious by His command to the High Priest’s in ancient Judacia. Jesus respected and participated in these rituals that were handed down, and commanded the Apostles to do the same, and so here we are.
Being a Catholic is more than just a religion; we are encouraged to make it a way of life and in so doing, we have a personal relationship with Christ as well. It is more than Mass on Sundays. We should take use of the many mini rituals, prayers and practices that come to Catholics. Lectio Divina, the Rosary, the Way of the Cross, Novenas, daily structured prayer, little statues and icons in our homes, holy cards/prayer cards, and so much more than what other churches have or teach. When we do all this, we have a relationship with Christ; we have a way of life.
Let us pray.
That we may obey the Ten Commandments as God’s gift pointing us toward a life truly free and fulfilling. We pray to the Lord.
For an end to terrorism and religious persecution, and that God’s peace will reign through the world. We pray to the Lord.
That our political leaders will stop the constant disagreements and to start to truly work for the safety of the people. That these same politicians will not side with a particular industry simply because they supply various financial assistance and finally, once and for all, commit to legislation that will make it harder for weapons such as combat guns and accessories from being allowed into the hands of those who commit heinous crimes such as we have been seeing ever increasingly, especially this year. We pray to the Lord.
That those suffering from mental illness, anger misplacement, inappropriate social behavior or other causes that create an environment for violence, will seek and/or be taken to the help they need to better manage their emotions without resorting to violence and that they will be lifted up through the power of Christ. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to renew and deepen our efforts at genuine Lenten observance and deepen our desire for an encounter with Our Lord Christ. We pray to the Lord.
Most merciful Father, You have proved Your love for us through Christ who died for us. Let us always remain faithful to that love. Help us all to work together in love for our fellow human beings. Merciful God, You invite us to repentance so that we can find the happiness we are seeking. Help us to trust more deeply in the Good News of salvation so that we can turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. This Lent, as we pray more devoutly and listen to Your Word more attentively, may we encounter You in ways we have discerned today and thus may our hearts be transformed by the saving love of the Cross. We ask all these things, as we ask all things, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA