Friday, December 10, 2010

Sunday Sermon

December 5, 2010

The Second Sunday in Advent
It starts with falling into water.

On December 10, the next film in the popular “Chronicles of Narnia” series will be released. Called The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the story, as I understand it, begins with two children, Lucy and Edmund, spending a dreary holiday with their cousin Eustace, a sour and unfriendly little boy. Lucy and Edmund have been to Narnia before, but Eustace hasn’t, and he mocks them for their belief in this magical land.

Suddenly, a painting of a ship on Lucy’s wall comes to life, and the three children are drawn into Narnia. They fall into the ocean and are rescued by the sailing ship called the Dawn Treader. You might say that the film begins with a splash.

Once safely on board, Lucy and Edmund are greeted by their old friend Caspian, who’s now a king. He has embarked on a quest to find the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia, as he had earlier promised the lion Aslan. Traveling from island to island on the Dawn Treader, Caspian and the children run into dragons, dwarves, storms, slave traders and even “mer-people” (I have no clue who they are, as I read all this on line). The three children, especially the nasty cousin Eustace, are transformed by the experience.

If you’re a fan of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” you know that powerful things happen in this magical land. Author C.S. Lewis created the fantasy world to teach lessons about the Christian faith, and Aslan, his divine lion, is one of the best fictional representations of Jesus Christ. Although Aslan is gentle and loving, Lewis says again and again that he’s “not a tame lion.”

The three children fall into the waters of Narnia and go on to encounter Aslan, the Christ. It’s a spiritual adventure, similar to those found in Matthew’s gospel.

As the third chapter St. Matthew opens, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. The kingdom might sound like a fantasy to some, as out-of-this-world as the land of Narnia. But John says it’s very close, and he prepares people to enter it by baptizing them in the river Jordan, made spiritually clean in dirty waters, somewhat of an oxy-moron.

An outlandish figure, John is wearing a cloak of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he munches on locusts and wild honey. He shouts that the “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals”. John is like the talking beavers in Narnia, who say Aslan the lion is good but not tame. That certainly describes Jesus, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. Good, but not tame.

So who responds to John’s call? The people of Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region along the Jordan, all the Lucys and Edmunds of the world, anxious to enter the kingdom of heaven. They have a deeply unsettled feeling about their lives and want to get turned around and head in a new direction. When John calls them to repent, he means for you to change your mind or purpose in life.

Mixed into the crowd are some sour and nasty Eustaces as well; the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to see what John’s doing. “You brood of vipers!” shouts John. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance”. He says their relation to their ancestor Abraham is going to do absolutely nothing for them when the kingdom of heaven arrives in all its glory. Every one of them unwilling to bear good fruit will be “cut down and thrown into the fire”.
Wow, tough to the ears! Repent, confess and fall into the water. Or keep sinning and be cut down and thrown into the fire. That’s the stark contrast John presents to the people, the life-changing choice he forces them to make. The result is that he baptizes a large crowd in the Jordan after they confess their sins. But do they come out … transformed? Only for those who truly repent and are baptized.

Unfortunately, many of us today don’t take this turning point seriously. We may feel deeply unsettled about our lives, but we’re reluctant to repent, change our mind, redefine our purpose, and shift our course. The status quo is oddly comforting to us, and we don’t want to rock the boat. But here’s the catch: Transformation doesn’t happen in the boat. It begins with falling into water.

As we prepare for the coming of Christ during Advent, let’s stop silencing John’s prophetic thunder and draining the water out of his baptismal bowl. In this case, a cold splash is required. Dry-cleaning simply won’t work!

If we’re going to count ourselves among the crowd that plunged into the Jordan, as opposed to the Pharisees and Sadducees, then we need to pass through the water and begin to bear good fruit. The stakes are high, for John tells us that the winnowing fork is now in Christ’s hand, “and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”.

Water or fire. Good fruits or bad. The contrast is still stark, and the choice is life-changing.

Richard Helmer, an Episcopal priest here in California, is tired of all the attention given to church growth in recent years. “The subject is starting to wear quite thin on me,” he writes, “because it so often turns to matters of institutional preservation, which is not only deadly dull, but … deadly spiritually.”

He’s right. Can you imagine John the Baptist or Jesus or C.S. Lewis being concerned about institutional preservation? For these folks, life is a spiritual adventure. Just look at how Jesus treated the status quo of the Temple Priests of his time. You think he was worried about the institution as much as he was about the quality of the teaching?

Fr. Helmer is a child of the institutional church, and he wants to see it thrive and flourish. But he knows this won’t happen as a result of navel-gazing or hand-wringing or trying to rebuild the church of the 1950s. Church vitality will come from focusing on the language of the gospel, which is about “the mysterious transformation of the human heart and transformation of the human family by God’s loving grace and our active embrace of that through prayer and service to others.”

Notice the language about transformation of the human heart and the human family. It’s a change that happens by God’s loving grace and by our embrace of this grace through prayer and service. This is the “fruit worthy of repentance” that John challenges us to grow.

So how do we do it? Helmer suggests we begin by answering two questions:

First, are we striving to be faithful to the gospel and to our God? All our activities should be part of a concerted effort to grow closer to the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.
Second, we have to ask ourselves: Does our institution serve the mission of Jesus, or do we distort this mission to serve the institution? Helmer says this is the simple — but not easy — matter of correctly ordering the cart and the horse. The Pharisees put the cart before the horse, distorting God’s mission so it would serve the religious institution. Jesus later pounces on them, saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). He condemns the scribes and Pharisees for following the purity laws of the religious institution but failing to cleanse themselves of greed and self-indulgence. The mission of Jesus is to transform hearts and do God’s work in the world. This is the horse that should pull the institutional church.

In the Universal Catholic Church, we try to put the horse before the cart. Life is not always easy; trials and tribulations sometimes causes us to be caught between two evils and having to make a decision, neither of which is necessarily the one Christ wants us to make, but never deserting us all the same when we do. As Jesus also said, “It is not what goes into the body that makes one unclean; but what comes out of it.” It isn’t so much the rules we break, so much as to how and why we break them. If we keep the two greatest commandments, the rest will follow.

Life is a spiritual adventure, and it begins when we fall into water and then climb out transformed. Moving forward in faith, let’s serve the mission of Jesus and bear good fruit for the kingdom of heaven.

Nothing less will please John the Baptist, Jesus and the other lions of our faith. We are not perfect, but if we at least try, the one who is will help us get as close as humanly possible!
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sunday Sermon

November 7, 2010

All Saints Sunday/All Souls Sunday

Typos. When you run across them in your daily reading, they might catch your attention, but they are no big deal. But when the errors occur in Holy Scripture, then you have a problem of biblical proportions. Imagine if our now deceased loved ones or the Saints of the Church had lived by the typos?

“Thou shalt commit adultery” is what one Bible said. That mistake in the 20th chapter of Exodus could have started a sexual revolution. Of course, in some cases, people actually live as if the Bible does say that!

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God.” The unrighteousness lobby certainly liked the sound of that one. The cartel especially likes this typo!

“Go and sin on more,” said Jesus in John 8:11. Well, to be honest, Jesus said, “Go and sin no more,” but the printer was looking for a loophole.

“Let the children first be killed.” Must have been written by a frustrated parent. What Jesus really said in Mark 7:25 is “Let the children first be filled.”

And in Matthew 5:9, part of today’s passage of Scripture, we hear, “Blessed are the place-makers.” That’s almost as bad as the line that Monty Python misunderstood and mangled into “Blessed are the cheese-makers.” What Jesus actually said was “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but a proofreader failed to catch the typo. He did admit to wanting his place in heaven, however.

Fortunately for us today, the Peachtree Editorial and Proofreading Service is working hard to catch and correct such biblical blunders. According to the Associated Press, this company is dedicated to proofreading Bibles and making sure that such misprints never make it into a Sunday Scripture reading. You might say that typos are this company’s daily bread.

With an ordinary book, you can put up with more mistakes “because it’s not something you’re basing your whole life on,” says June Gunden, who founded the company along with her husband Doug. “It’s information, but it’s not really life-changing information.” With the Bible, however, people expect perfection.

Just think of the problems that would have arisen if several errors in the most recent edition of the Bible were not caught. The phrase “our ancestors” would have been “sour ancestors;” although that may be true for some people. Instead of condemning “factions,” the Bible would have called for an end to “fractions;” not that America’s young math students would have minded that one.

What’s so shocking about today’s passage from Matthew is that it sounds like it is full of typos even though it is completely accurate. When you read this stuff, it is so counter-intuitive that you figure that there must be a misprint here. In our current confirmation class, the question of what do these Beatitudes mean came up; and rightly so.

“Blessed are the meek”? The meek? How can the meek be blessed some might ask. What is blessed about being in last place? The Saints could certainly tell us I am sure.

The only way to see these words clearly is through the lens of the kingdom of God. A proofreader’s magnifying glass cannot help us to spot the truth here. We need to be looking through the divine optics of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus Christ. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” ... “Blessed are those who mourn” ... “Blessed are the peacemakers” ... these are not prescriptions from the self-help section of your local Borders bookstore. Instead, they are statements of what is true about the new reality that the Lord is inscribing on the world. There are no typos here. Only the God’s-honest truth.

So what can we learn from these counterintuitive realities? For starters, we need to realize that these blessings, known as the Beatitudes, are not descriptions of human feelings. When Jesus says that we are “blessed,” he is not saying that we are necessarily “happy.” To be reviled and persecuted because you follow the Lord might turn out to be a blessing, but it is not going to make you feel particularly cheerful. The nine Beatitudes which Jesus proclaims in this passage are so much more than nine “be-happy-attitudes.”

To be blessed, in this case, is to be made privileged or fortunate by the action of Almighty God. It carries with it a sense of salvation and peace and well-being. You might say that the opposite of blessed is not “unhappy.” Rather, the opposite of blessed is “cursed.” To be blessed is to be given the gift of divine favor, a gift that we all have a deep human hunger to receive.

Stated this way, it’s clear that the blessing of the Beatitudes is not about us, and it’s not about how we feel. Instead, it’s all about what God has done for us.

With this perspective in mind, we can get a clearer sense of what Jesus is talking about when he describes his disciples as “blessed.” What he is saying is that these former fishermen are blessed because they are experiencing the coming of God’s kingdom, and they are in the process of discovering that their lives are being reshaped by this new reality. No longer will the meaning of life be defined by the culture of the town of Capernaum, or the expectations of their extended families, or the size of the fish being pulled out of the Sea of Galilee. From now on, the dominant reality in their existence will be the kingdom of God, and the blessing of God will come to all who make a place for this kingdom in their lives.

When you think about it, there was some truth in the typo that read “Blessed are the place-makers.” Although, not a real Beatitude, blessed are those who make a place for the kingdom of God. That is what we feel on this day. All Saints and All Souls Sunday is the day we remember not only those men and women whom we feel led a holy and exemplar life, but those loved ones of our own who are now experiencing the Kingdom of God as God so wanted us to do; simply by observing the Beatitudes.

So, what does it mean for us to make a place for the kingdom in our lives today? What kind of blessing will we experience if we allow ourselves to be transformed by the radical new reality that Jesus offers us? What kind of renewal will come our way if we take seriously the invitation to open our hearts and minds to the arrival of God’s kingdom? Why should we make the Beatitudes a bigger part of our lives?

Nothing seems to shock us anymore. So much has changed in America over the past generation. The culture is so debased; many of us really are not surprised at the latest scandal. As Catholics, we tend to look upon the Beatitudes a little heavier than other Christians do. However, they seem to be looked upon as nothing more than some “nice” sayings from Jesus.

However, as Catholics we need our sense of shock, our sense of outrage. We need to reclaim innocence and purity, for our own individual souls. We need to start that by realizing that many things should still shock us and rightly so. It is not just the past Saints that sought a life with God and sensed the mis-placed focus of those of the world. It is easier to build up a wall of defense and say that we cannot be shocked, when in truth if we are attempting to live the Beatitudes, we should very well be shocked every day.

We might discover, for example, that we are “poor in spirit.” A term that describes people who find their true identity and security in the One Lord God. There is nothing weak or pathetic or shameful about being poor in spirit, but instead it means that we are not deluded enough to think that we are masters of the universe and in complete control of our lives. This spiritual poverty is really an excellent quality to have in this post-9/11 world of terrorist threats, international tension and economic uncertainty. It means that we are dependent on God, first and foremost, and that the Lord will reward us with the gift of his kingdom. That is the example the Saints led for us to follow.

We might also find that we are among “those who mourn”. People who feel grief as we look around and see pain and crying, suffering and dying. We mourn because there is evil in us and around us, erupting in bedrooms and boardrooms, back alleys and battlefields. There are temptations all around us, and weaknesses deep within us, that make it an everyday struggle to follow the Lord in faith. But the promise of today’s passage is that this grim and often grotesque reality is not the final chapter of human history; there is going to be an unexpected twist in the tale with a turn toward love and peace and justice. God is writing a surprise ending to this story, and he invites each of us to play a part by doing what we can to live by the values of Christ’s kingdom. If we do, we’ll be given a sense of comfort we never dreamed possible. We’ll find ourselves blessed, not cursed.

Perhaps we are also what Jesus calls “the meek”. Gentle people who are trying to reject the power-hungry and violent ways of the world we live in. Sounds a lot like St. Francis.

Or are we men and women who hunger and thirst for righteousness by actively doing the will of God. Such as this past week identified, we might use our democratic methods to fight for our rights. St. Paul reminds us long ago that “…our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against Principalities and Powers, against rulers of the world of darkness.” Our work must have a spiritual foundation. Prayer, Sacraments, fasting, sacrifices, and the liturgy are effective in helping us to live a life worthy of the kingdom of God.

Maybe we are “pure in heart”, willing to show the world in word and deed that there is nothing more life-changing than single-minded devotion to God.

Or we are “merciful”, showing others the very gift that we are so anxious to receive for ourselves. Forgiveness takes a big space in this one. Have you forgiven others? Have you forgiven yourself?

These are not mistakes or misspellings, as strange as they look to us. Instead, they are kingdom-based qualities that can open the door to inner peace and everlasting salvation. The challenge for us is to open ourselves to God’s kingdom, and receive this radical new reality that Jesus is inscribing on our hearts and thus making a place for the Beatitudes. A person’s life must be consistent to have peace of soul. Catholic spirituality is a way of life, not simply a practice on Sunday mornings. A car only goes so far before it runs out of gas. You can only go so far in a cultural war before refueling on what really matters; Heaven. Church is your gas station on the road to Heaven.

Blessed are those who open the door to the kingdom of God, says Jesus — blessed are the placemakers.

That’s no typo.
God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sunday Sermon

October 24, 2010

The Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity

A few years ago, one of the most popular movies was Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. Based on Nicholas Evans' wildly popular, but critically panned novel by the same name, the movie is a blueprint for healing. The patients in this case are Annie, an editor of a fashion magazine and the mother of an early-adolescent girl, Grace, who lost her leg in a horrific horse accident. The horse involved in the accident, Pilgrim, provides the overarching metaphor for the movie as the patient on whom the "horse whisperer" works his skill.

Pilgrim, so seriously injured in the accident that his trainer and other family members counseled "putting him down," is driven from New York City to Montana horse country for a consultation with the horse whisperer. Pilgrim's retraining must begin from square one. Rather than break the horse in a traditional sense, the horse whisperer is willing to let a horse be a horse. When Annie calls Tom Booker and identifies herself as a "person with horse problems," Booker says that he usually works with "horses who have people problems." The key is patience and an ability to get inside the horse's head. Healing takes time.

The horse whisperer is not only a channel of healing for Pilgrim, but spurs Annie to re-evaluate her own loss of soul. And Grace, too, is nurtured back to a place of healthy self-esteem and, even without the use of a leg, is able to again ride her beloved horse, Pilgrim.

In our text for today, we encounter a sage old horse whisperer near the end of his life. The apostle Paul has endured all manner of challenges and crises in his life, both external and internal. He worked with all sorts of people with varying levels of commitment and character. Some rewarded his patience, others sadly disappointed him: "Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me," he writes. Alexander the coppersmith "did me great harm", and, at first defense, he notes, "all deserted me".

But Paul didn't work with horses, bringing healing and training, but he did work with habits. Without a doubt, Paul was one of the most dynamic, successful "habit whisperers" this world has ever known. Through the power of his faith and the forcefulness of his personality, this apostle brought the gospel to the Gentiles and established the new face of the first-century church. But throughout Paul's ministry he constantly faced the challenge of keeping in touch with the ever more widely scattered new churches and keeping in line the diverse and sometimes downright ornery congregations that were now a part of Christ's body.

Part of Paul's problem was that he kept ending up in prison, cut off from both his coworkers and his enemies. Dealing with these difficulties forced Paul to develop some very good habits, behaviors and attitudes that enabled him to lead the church and guide its development no matter where he was or in what circumstances he found himself.

Unfortunately, bad habits are big business. Every day the makers of diet pills and nicotine patches, those who run state-of-the-art detox centers and rehab programs, divorce lawyers and plastic surgeons make a tidy profit out of bad habits. Because of the perversity of human nature, bad habits are easy to cultivate and good habits are hard to establish.

--Why is it that habitually not flossing your teeth is so much easier than habitually flossing them?

--Why is it that habitually staying up too late is so much easier than habitually rising with the sun?

--Why is it that habitually clicking on the TV is so much easier than reading a book?

--And why is it that habitually reaching for the ice cream in the freezer is so much easier than habitually reaching for an apple in the fruit bowl?

When you were a kid, did you ever notice how it's much easier to remember what your mom told you NOT to do than what it was she told you she wanted you to do? It seems we just naturally gravitate toward the negative.

Still need convincing? Try this: Think of the Ten Commandments, God's great list of "good habits." Now which commandments come first to mind? Is it those that begin with "Thou shalt" or those that sternly warn "Thou shalt NOT!" Isn't it much easier to recall the negative warnings, the bad habits God declares off-limits, than it is to remember those things God specifically wants us to do?

Intending to do something about all our bad habits "some day" is one of the commonest bad habits of all. And not only that, but over time, our moral hearing ability sometimes falls victim to petrifaction; our capacity to hear the normal voice of virtue diminishes. In such circumstances, it often takes a change of volume -- as from a shout to a whisper -- for us to really hear.

So today let's look at a list of bad habits that Paul, the "habit whisperer," would like to break us of.

1. Cowardice
When the going gets tough, get going. Get out of there. Obviously, Paul never picked up this habit, for he is writing from prison. His catalog of catastrophes included "afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonment's, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger" and much more. But Demas was apparently afflicted with this habit. Faced with the choice between the hard road of the gospel and the easy enticements of this "present world," when Demas got bugged, he bugged out, bailed out, wimped out and copped out. He was "out of it."

2. Independence
Today's epistle reading reveals poignantly how Paul always worked as part of a team. He didn't always try to do everything himself. He listened to others. As he sits in his prison cell, growing ever more convinced that this incarceration will end only with his death, Paul's greatest sadness is that all his co-workers and companions except for Luke have left. Paul's ministry is one of the greatest models of team leadership we have apart from Jesus and the disciples.

3. Selfishness
Not Paul. Rather than reserve his energies and protect his resources, he was willing for his life to be "poured out as a libation." He was willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of his mission. He puts himself on the line -- all the time.

4. Arrogance
The gospel text for today gives a great example of alienating arrogance. The proud and preening Pharisee boasts of his obedience and righteousness even in his prayers. Paul, though often bold and boastful about what God could do, was not boastful of his own abilities. He is able to say he fought, finished and kept the faith, but it was "the Lord [who] stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed".

Although he might have been tempted to be a "know-it-all" -- for, more than any person of his age, this profoundly brilliant intellect no doubt did, in fact, know it all -- Paul's experience of God was of a God that does not fit into our two-pound box of brains. In fact, Luther's concept of the "hiddenness of God" was lifted right out of Pauline theology. God always confounds our categories. A God who is understandable and predictable is a God of our own creation. There is a valued saying in the Talmud that suggests: "Teach thy tongue to say, 'I don't know.'"

Paul admitted his mistakes. He took to heart Jesus' "sacrament of failure" -- if someone refuses to receive you, or shuts the door in your face, shake the dust off your feet and move on.

Meet another "habit whisperer." This elderly woman of faith lives alone and is blind. She lost her husband early in their marriage, went to work, raised two daughters, and maintained her home. John Buchanan fills in the details: "Over the years, she supplemented her income by baking wonderful, melt-in-your-mouth sourdough bread. When her daughters left home, she kept baking bread but now gives it away to her friends.

"And then she began to lose her sight. Macular degeneration was the diagnosis, a particularly severe case that progressed from partial sight to almost total blindness quickly. How to live? How to carry on? How to bake bread? Who would blame her if she at least stopped baking her bread?

"But instead of submitting to the darkness, she made an important decision. Baking bread enabled her to express her love, express the best of who she was, and she wasn't going to stop doing that even if she couldn't see. So she mixes from memory. And she finds the dials on her stove and bakes in the dark.

"It's risky. She's never quite sure of herself ... but she has decided to bake in the dark, to be without sight, to see without sight" (see John M. Buchanan, "Seeing Without Sight,").

Here was a woman who modeled the opposite of these defective habits. Here was a woman who, when the going got tough, and the heat got turned on, stayed in the kitchen.

She replaced cowardice with courage.

She rejected independence in favor of ministry to others.

She refused to be selfish by baking only for herself, and instead continued to give.

She renounced arrogance in favor of being faithful to her small gift -- baking bread, which, in God's hands, became a large blessing.

If we listen carefully, we can hear the voice of not only the sage "habit whisperer" of our text, but the Wise Whisperer who knows us better than we know ourselves, and who calls on us to transcend the defective habits that render us ineffective and be more like the woman baking in the dark: filled with courage, ministry, giving and faithfulness.

Such are the habits that will enable us, like Paul, to fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith!

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Sunday Sermon

October 17, 2010

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Fruit flies and sea slugs. There’s a chance these creatures may improve your own cerebral output. Research on these organisms promises to provide us with a number of innovative medicines to enhance the memory, including what some are calling “Viagra for the brain.” Although, not a very church polite term it would seem.

Two renowned scientists, and the biotech companies they founded, are planning on it. Dr. Eric Kandal, Professor of Columbia University and the 2000 Nobel Prize winner for his study of cellular mechanisms of learning and memory, first started his research on sea slugs in the 1950s, when many people discounted any practical results. The founder of Memory Pharmaceuticals, Kandal firmly believes that within a few years there will be a pill that will dramatically improve one’s memory and lead to other medications that significantly alter the brain chemistry.

Tim Tully and Jerry Yin in Cold Springs Harbor laboratory in New York have demonstrated that fruit flies injected with a protein called CREB (c-AMP Response Element Binding protein) have shown a remarkable ability to retain memory. In the early 90’s Tully, who is a genetic scientist and the founder of Helicon Therapeutics, teamed up with his colleague Yin, to produce fruit flies with photographic memories. Since that time they have produced similar results in mice. Tully’s Helicon and Kandal’s Memory Pharmaceuticals are engaging in scientific competition to discover those genetic breakthroughs that will lead to improvements far beyond memory.

This is the advent of what others have called smart pills, or brain boosters. Biotech firms are racing to have smart pills on the market, and not only for persons suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The real target is middle-aged folks, the boomers who are always looking for an edge to keep the process of aging at arm’s length, particularly the normal forgetfulness that comes as one gets older.

Some are skeptical. Writing in Forbes, Robert Langreth cautions, “But a pill popped by millions of healthy people looking for a mental edge could pose serious risks. Forgetfulness is an important part of proper mental function.” It’s like, what is life without the ritual of hunting for lost car keys? Or, as in my case, walking from one room to the other and forgetting what you were to walking to the room for in the first place.

Notice the nomenclature. These new drugs are called “smart pills,” not “wise pills.” Perhaps there is a drug in development that will enhance the memory. But there’s no correlation between upping your dosage of brain boosters and suddenly gaining wisdom.

The apostle Paul understands the nature of wisdom. In his pastoral letter to Timothy, he advises his young pastoral colleague that there will be times when people will not “put up with sound doctrine” but reject the foundations of the Christian faith, grabbing anything that satisfies their particular curiosities. It would cause them to wander away from the foundational teachings of Scripture and tradition, the teachings considered to be reliable guides to knowing the God of Jesus Christ; they will latch on to teachers who give them what they want or cause to wander toward myths that satisfy their curiosity.

This is a startling indictment of the anti-intellectual setting that has emerged in the early 1980s and continues today in American culture, beginning with New Age tomfoolery including harmonic convergence, crystals, pyramid power, The Celestine Prophecy, Ram Dass, Marianne Williamson, The Course in Miracles, to the Left Behind series, and even The Da Vinci Code.

What are we to make of a culture where millions of people, including Christians, embrace a well-written mystery novel that weaves history and fantasy without any regard for the question: Is this stuff true? No, any first — year church history student in seminary can spot the errors just flipping pages. It is a novel, after all; it isn’t meant to be true, though the author claims that some of it is. The DaVinci Code makes the wildly outlandish suggestion that leaders in the Roman Catholic Church have conspired for centuries to keep secret the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the child born of their sexual alliance. This would be fine, as long as it was made clear that there is not a shred of historical evidence to substantiate this claim. This book is a novel! Well written and filled with tantalizing riddles woven around fiction written as history, the book is a great read. But that’s all. The less discerning, however, are seduced by it.

Those who are led astray by books like The DaVinci Code or The Celestine Prophecy and other quasi-Christian proclamations are the ones who either have no serious knowledge of Scripture or the historic teachings of the church, or who have simply decided that the facts in the Scriptures have been contorted and thus they want the truth. It doesn’t matter that the scriptures have remain virtually the same since they were written a little under 2,000 years ago and survived test after test, and church council after church council. This is precisely the reason that the apostle Paul encourages us to be proficient in the knowledge of Scripture, so that we have minds and hearts that are capable of recognizing those teachings that sound vaguely Christian or spiritual, that titillate our imagination, but do not make us wise persons in the ways of God, because they are not really biblically or theologically true.

Paul seemed to recognize that we have an infinite capacity to believe speculative ideas that will satisfy our personal whims. This may be why he cautioned us to stay grounded in the Scripture that contains what is necessary for righteousness or what we might call wise living. Reading novels (thought to be a scandalous and idle entertainment in the 18th century, incidentally) can be a profitable escape from the day to day. I like a good novel myself. Novels are good entertainment. But for wise living, we turn to Scripture. Today’s text states, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”.

This is not to suggest that simply knowing Scripture by memory is the point or that we shouldn’t read anything other than Scripture or refuse to address questions that challenge the faith. That kind of anti-intellectualism disguised as Christian piety leads to a rigidity that is unable to engage anyone who thinks differently. We have to have enough exposure to many trains of thought, to remain able to think for ourselves. All roads lead Rome, some say, though we know it not to be literally true. The same applies to heaven; all roads lead to heaven is also not true. As Jesus stated, we are to follow the road less traveled. All this said, we need to be open to various thoughts on God, but not all of them will lead you to heaven.

What Paul had in mind was the ability to live so well in the narratives of the Bible that one comes to know intimately the living God. With the mind shaped by Scripture through a living relationship with God, one can confidently address challenges to the teaching of Scripture with discerning intelligence that would actually persuade people of an excellent way of life, grounded in wisdom and prepared for good works.

Paul’s advice to Timothy is embodied in the five imperatives, or five smart pills if you will: Proclaim the Word, Be persistent, Convince, Reprimand, and Encourage.

We come to know Scripture not to be mindless religious robots but to be lovers of Jesus Christ, faithful disciples in a culture that offers up one remedy after another, each promising a better life, holding out the prospect of satisfying the deeper hunger of our hearts for God with a new religion or a new drug.

An English preacher of the 19th century describes studying a beech tree one afternoon. As a skilled naturalist he noted the color of the leaves, the texture of the bark and the intricacy of the branches. Such study was, for him, a form of grateful prayer to God as rich as any study in the library. On this particular day, he noticed a squirrel running up the branches, leaping from one to the other, playing in every nook of the great tree. The squirrel moved among the branches as if the trunk were Main Street and the smaller branches country lanes or alleys; somewhere among the branches was his house and daily food.

As he reflected imaginatively on this inquisitive, frolicking squirrel, so wonderfully at home in the beech tree, he draws this analogy to our relationship with Scripture. “The way to deal with God’s word is not merely to contemplate it, or study it, as a student does; but to live on it, as that squirrel lives on his beech tree. Let it be to you, spiritually, your house, your home, your food, your medicine, your clothing, the one essential element of your soul’s life and growth.”

This being “at home” in Scripture is certainly an alternative to the seemingly endless quest for novel pill or new philosophy that is going to fulfill one’s every desire. Jerome described the Bible as a lake, where one may stay on the surface or choose to explore the infinite depths of truth contained within it.

A daily smart pill might increase your memory, but a day spent studying Scripture with an open heart and a searching mind will increase your love for God, make you a wise person, and enable you to discern false teaching the next time it comes to the box office or the bookstore.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Sunday Sermon

October 10, 2010

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
In September I started a little series on why we should attend church. We took a brief hiatus, so today we will visit this again. This time, we shall bounce around many examples, as opposed to the one or two that I did in the previous two sermons on the topic. As I mentioned before, this is as much for our people here today as it is for those who read my sermons online.
In March of this year, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York gave a similar sermon that had some interesting points. As an example, he stated that “Anybody 50 or older can remember when faithful attendance at Sunday Mass was the norm for all Catholics. To miss Sunday Eucharist, unless you were sick, was simply unheard of. To be a "practicing Catholic" meant you were at Mass every Sunday. Over 75 percent of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday.”
This is a very true statement. There was a time when if you missed Mass, or going to church in general, it was considered a grave sin. Society today does not view it this way today. The “rules” haven’t changed; just people’s views of them. Sunday was developed as the Christian answer to the Holy Sabbath. As most of us here know, God gave a commandment to keep the Sabbath holy and to do nothing work related on those days. Sad to say, that we have let this fall by the way side. Many people not only work on this day, but ignore God’s desire for us to spend it with him.
The fourth commandment of the law that God gave Moses, was to set aside the seventh day of the week, which happens to be Saturday on our calendars, as a holy day to the Lord. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy", as it states in the book of Exodus. This was, and will always remain, the official Sabbath. However, after Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, Sunday, the early Christians began meeting together on this day as well as with the Jewish community in the synagogues on the Sabbath. History indicates that due to the enmity of the orthodox Jews toward the Christian Jews in their midst, the Jewish Christians were eventually ostracized. And although they were no longer bound to a rigid code of laws, it is believed that they came to view Sunday as a combined observance of the Sabbath and the resurrection day of Jesus. This day of Christian worship came to be called the Lord's Day, a day to fellowship in celebration of the resurrection, to worship, pray and study the Word together.
The Fourth Commandment and the Sabbath is not all about not working. Jesus made that clear to the Pharisees when they questioned why he allowed his Disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath. Yes, God wanted us to take a day of rest, as it were, but he also wanted us to take time to spend with him. Whether that be in quiet reflection or in a joyful worship service. He wants us to remember first and foremost that we are his creation and we have an obligation to him as our creator. All that we have and do is because he allows it. As Timothy Dolan also said, “If you want your faith to wither up and die, quit going to Sunday Mass. As the body will die without food, the soul will expire without nourishment. That sustenance comes at the Sunday Eucharist.”
He further states, “In recapturing our sense of Sunday, of the Christian Sabbath, it is important to grasp this key point, that the Sabbath rest is our liberation from the profane and our encounter with the sacred. The Sabbath is not rest so that we can work harder.” By profane he is using the word in its correct definition of taking something sacred and treating it with irreverence.
Archbishop Dolan continues asking us to listen to Rabbi Heschel: "The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work... The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude, but the climax of living."
“The idea of the Sabbath making present the covenant, reminds us Catholics immediately of the [importance of the] Mass. In the Mass, the one sacrifice of Calvary, the new covenant ratified in the Blood of the Lord Jesus, is made present anew. It is not another sacrifice, but the one sacrifice of the Cross. It is not repeated, as though Christ were being crucified again, but rather made present to us across time and space.”
“The heart of Sunday must be the Mass! How could it be anything else? The Mass is nothing else but the supreme work of the Lord Jesus, and nothing else will do to mark the Lord's day, the day of salvation, the day of the Church!”
When we think about it, these are all very good points that Archbishop Dolan makes. There are always those who simply do not go to church because they would rather do something else, or are too lazy, or put other things such as entertainment and amusements before God, or who harbor bitterness or indifference toward other believers. None of which are good reasons to not come to church and worship God. Some would say that they can worship God anywhere. Not so! That is simply a lazy cop-out! When you attempt to do this, there are too many distractions to take your mind off of God. Here at church, the distractions are actually of God. When one simply looks around, you see nothing except that which reminds you of God and your need to worship him and be replenished with the Word of God and the Holy Eucharist.
The Gospel of Matthew (10:32-33) indicates Jesus telling his followers that they should gather together in mutual belief of God. Going to church is a visible, tangible expression of our love and worship toward God. It is where we can gather with other believers to publicly bear witness of our faith and trust in God, something that is required of all Christians and it is where we can bring Him offerings of praise, thanks, and honor, which are pleasing to Him. We were created to worship God. People are often motivated toward church attendance for how it will bless themselves, however we should remember that the primary purpose of the corporate gathering is to bring "service" to the Lord as a blessing to Him. This is the reality of why we were created by God.
Receiving the preaching and teaching of the Word of God increases our faith and builds us up spiritually. Every believer knows what it is to face spiritual conflicts to their faith, and must realize the importance of being fed spiritually so that they can overcome the challenges. Paul states that Christians face a wrestling match with the Devil and his evil spiritual forces, and warns that the church must put on spiritual armor for protection, as it will take everything at our disposal to stand. It is thus so important that we take every opportunity available to receive ministry, and be strengthened by God's Word and the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist each Sunday. "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God". So, you should go to church because that is where you can hear the word of God explained and applied to your life, see how God works in people's lives, and experience the friendship of others.
There is the promise of a special visitation of the Lord's presence whenever two or more gather specifically in the name of Jesus. By implication, this means whenever "Jesus" is the object of gatherings of prayer, worship, praise, preaching, etcetera. Even though Jesus resides within the heart of every believer, he honors a gathering in his name by coming in the "midst," with his power, awareness, and anointing. In such a gathering, Christ is able to do things in hearts that he may not at any other time. The scripture says that God inhabits the praise of His people, and in such an atmosphere the Holy Spirit will often manifest spiritual gifts that minister to the body of Christ. "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20).
We are also called to gather at church due to the various gifts we have that can benefit the common good. I Corinthians 12 makes it clear that God has given spiritual gifts to every Christian. And verse 7 states unmistakably that these abilities are not provided to make you feel good; they are abilities to minister to those around us, and thus should be used for the common good! I Peter 4:10 commands us to use spiritual gifts to help each other.
Paul explains that each part of the body exists to meet the needs of other body parts. In the same way, God intends each of us to meet the needs of other believers, using our strengths to help in their areas of weakness. In Corinthians it says "The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you." Neither can a Christian claim to be self-sufficient today. Soaking God up at the beach just does not cut it.
The New Testament is full of “one another” commands. We are to comfort one another, build up one another, confess our sins to one another, pray for one another, and many more. How can we obey these directives if we stay away from the gathering of believers? A single verse should actually be sufficient answer for this question: Hebrews 10:25 warns its readers against “forsaking the assembly of yourselves together, as the manner of some.
God designed the church as a place where spiritual leaders could watch out for our welfare, as a shepherd guards the sheep (I Peter 5:1-4; Hebrews 13:17). A Christian who answers only to himself can easily rationalize sinful attitudes or actions; regular contact with other Christians can keep us sharp.
And what about faith?
St. James tells us, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead”. We have often heard James’ teaching put this way: faith without works is dead. Or in other words, faith is exercised in our daily lives or it is no faith at all. These views of James are not bad or incorrect. However, they narrow the scope of what I believe is James’ original, much broader, point. His message touches every corner of our lives each moment of every day.

Since the Reformation and the Reformers’ emphasis upon salvation by faith alone, theologians and preachers have tossed this passage back and forth in arguments about the role of works in our salvation. This passage is a favorite among those who remind us of our Christian duty to relieve the suffering of the poor and the oppressed. Some argue that we are saved by faith alone. However, when we state this, we have forgotten that Jesus himself stated the need to put faith together with action. When did we feed him, clothe him or visit him in prison, and the many other things we could do for one of the people of God. (Matthew 25)
Writers and commentators often use the term “faith” to mean the opinions individuals hold. In today’s multicultural, increasingly secular world, it is especially the case that faith is understood to be the purely subjective beliefs that an individual may hold or reject for his or her own private reasons. There is great cultural pressure to treat these beliefs as private, that is, to keep them to ourselves. It is considered intolerant to impose our faith upon others, since faith has come to be defined as my purely subjective opinions, and we believe that everyone has a right to his or her own opinion.
This all sounds very civilized until we look seriously at what Jesus and St. James teaches us. Faith involves actions or it is no faith at all. Being a Christian is not just about the ideas we hold to be true. Nor is Christian faith merely a credo of good works based on a theory of social justice or moral conduct. First and foremost, Christianity is about following Jesus Christ with our whole mind, heart, body, will, imagination, time, and substance. We believe ideas and thus model our behavior according to certain patterns because we trust and follow Jesus Christ. We can’t keep our faith to ourselves. To be faithful is to have an impact on the world around us!
Faith is not a set of opinions that we can just keep to ourselves. Faith is the posture we take toward our neighbors and our world as an expression of our relationship with God. To put this in a slightly different way, faith is how we engage the world we inhabit as people who follow Jesus Christ into that world.
So what does exercising our faith look like? We might speak about our moral life, the place of Christian study, the importance of committing ourselves to a ministry within the church, evangelism, outreach, and tithing. But let’s begin at the beginning: our devotional life. The Christian life begins in prayerful response to God’s loving initiative toward us. Worshipping our Lord is an act of surrender. We give ourselves back to the one who has given himself utterly to us.
So how do we put our faith to work? How about weekly worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Daily personal prayer devotions at set times. Make a date with God to give thanks, ask forgiveness, seek guidance, intercede for others, and above all, give our Lord praise. Daily devotional Bible reading. Saying the blessing before every meal, even when out in public. Spontaneous silent prayers during the day in response to events around us or thoughts as they occur to us. Maybe attend the Confirmation Classes taking place after Mass currently.
Much more can be said about each of these dimensions of our devotional lives. An exercise will only have its most positive effects if it becomes a daily habit.
What about those who say they are “‘Spiritual’ but not ‘religious’.” If there were a church of the Spiritual but not Religious, it would be one of the fastest growing denominations available. But, what does it mean?
We live in a culture and society that tells us we should think for ourselves. We live in the United States, after all, so we are taught that one of our freedoms is to think and do what we want. People who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ are simply saying that they think for themselves, and will not usually accept anything anyone else says as being true.
So, when they reject “organized religion”, they think they are rejecting having someone tell them to believe in a different way or act in a different way. They think that being a part of “organized religion” somehow takes some of their freedom away to think for themselves and believe what they want. They apparently haven’t visited our church, in which we allow people to think for themselves, as long as they respect each other’s views and are open to the Holy Spirit working through the pastor to communicate God’s word that may be different from their own!
However, how can you come to a belief if you do not allow yourself to be informed of various views, studies and facts? How can you think about something that you have not allowed yourself to be informed of? We all give a great deal of credit to science, because we feel it can be proven or has been proven. Little do we know that science is a “study” of something in physical reality. Science is not a perfect answer; it is a study of something. I do not hear people saying they are scientists, but they don’t believe in organized science. It would be illogical to make such a statement, because it is well known that we must share scientific facts to find answers to that which we are studying.
Just as science is the method by which we seek the truth in the physical realm, religion is the method we use to explore the spiritual realm. That is why we exercise our faith, by being a part of “organized religion” because it is in this capacity that we have the ability to investigate the spiritual realm that we know exists, but are unsure as to exactly how. Religion, or Church, gives us the freedom to explore the reality of God.
So, as I conclude this series, let us ask ourselves if we need the church; if we need to go there to be fed. We go to grocery stores to buy nourishment and other daily necessities for life. If we did not do so, we would eventually die. Our spiritual life needs to be fed too. We need to allow ourselves to be re-nourished with the word of God and the worship of God. When we are feeling down and out, sick or simply unworthy, those are the times that we need to go to church the most. If we do not take action, how can we expect God to? I am sure you have all heard the phrase, “even a miracle needs a hand”. That is because God wants our involvement, not just bland unexercised belief.
Jesus Christ mandated that the Church become a reality when he stated that St. Peter would be the rock upon which he would build his Church. Jesus knew all too well, that we need some ‘physical’ form to help us in our faith. Jesus knew that we needed priests and ministers to act as his agents to help us stay on the path toward him and to ensure we lived a life in promise to each other. When we miss an opportunity to go to church, we not only miss an opportunity for ourselves, but also an opportunity to build up one another and most importantly, to be in the presence of God more fully than we can do on our own!
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sunday Sermon

October 3, 2010

St. Michael and all Angels

Feast of St. Francis

As some of you know, my secular occupation is that of a manager in retail. Quite the combination the Lord has led me to, I must say. However, in this occupation, it has afforded me something that some Roman Catholic Priests do not have the “luxury” of having. We have all heard the adage that one must be “in the world, but not of the world”. This becomes so much more true for those of us in ministry, as we have to set the example of having Christ as our focus, not the trappings that our life existence can give us here on earth. However, in my case I wanted to be far enough of the world, to have a firsthand knowledge of what life on the outside (of the church) is all about. I have found in these many years in this secular career an interesting caveat. Sometimes, it is downright depressing.

We read today in our Gospel reading, that Jesus states that Nathanael has no duplicity in him. Just what does duplicity mean? Well, I tend to see it a great deal in my secular job. As a manager and as a bishop, I tend to receive a lot of what is referred to as “brown nosing”. I don’t think I have to explain what it means and it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate here at this moment to state the actual translation, but to me it means duplicity. They think that by treating me in a particular way, or acting a particular way while I am around, that they will somehow gain my approval and thus they will be granted things like easier tasks, promotions or raises simply because they think they have persuaded me to do so by their actions.

Now, frankly I do not fall for many of the ploys, but it can be amusing at times watching and/or listening to them try to be something they are not, just to gain my approval. Of course, the great majority also know that I am a Bishop, so they tend to try and meld in moral and ethical views that they really have no clue about or really could care less about, into their endeavors to influence me to their design. Doesn’t work. I wasn’t born a week ago. But, for the most part, it is done in fun.

However, what about life in general? Here we are, sitting in our pews listening to a “man of God” speak, all in an attempt to inspire some sort of grace into the lives before him. I am not even slightly bamboozled into thinking that all of us in this room are perfect and do all things in the name of Christ, simply because we all show up here today. We all fall short of God’s design in some way.

So we see Nathanael walking toward Jesus. Jesus then states that Nathanael has no duplicity in him. Nathanael is confused by this. So Nathanael basically says, I have never met this man in my life and he is making a statement about my character. A character statement that is not bad, but good. We all would love to walk into a room and have someone whom we do not even know, and whom we think does not know us, but all the same would say something so flattering as Jesus has, and to further tell him that he saw him under a fig tree where he was just at, but obviously not within human eyesight. All because of this simple statement, Nathanael comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus continues to state that Nathanael will see much more wondrous things than this. Jesus promises Nathanael that he will see God’s Angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. He will see the Angels ministering to Jesus’ every need. Many of us believe in Angels, but to have someone say that they will actually see them must have been an experience beyond words.

So, we have a few things to think about today; as if it were not already complicated enough. Today we have a double fold feast. One of which was actually this past Wednesday; the feast of St. Michael and all Angels. Given my propensity for the supernatural and the omnipotence of God, I could not simply allow that day to be skipped by without some honor toward these beings that inhabit our spiritual and mystical plane, communicating to and protecting us. Second, we have the feast of St. Francis on Monday. Now we certainly cannot miss that day either. Not only is he our patron saint of our parish, he is also the guiding principle of the Order of St. George of Cappadocia that we inaugurated here last week. Not to mention that our animals love him.

Angels are great beings that are also creatures of God. God created them, just as He created us, although for two very separate functions. The Angels are blessed to be in God’s presence at all times, in a manner in which we are not. Much of what we experience of God comes either from faith or, if we are blessed, with a miraculous spiritual moment that helps us to catch a glimpse of God. These beings are our great protectors and communicators. Some of you are aware that early in the Mass on each Sunday, the Angels are summoned to be among us during our service; most especially during the Eucharistic celebration. There are two most prominent Angels that hover over, the above right and the above left, of the Priest who is saying the Mass, so as to “protect and transmit” the miraculous and mystical aspects that take place each time during the Mass. Thus, the teaching that no matter what state of life the Priest may be in, the Mass is celebrated in a perfect form, as the Angels correct the mistakes or fill in the missed spots, as it reaches out to the congregation here in worship, expands out to the surrounding neighborhood and rises to heaven. Life without Angels would be amiss.

St. Francis. Just who was St. Francis? St. Francis was radical in his age. He started out much like you and I, except that his family was a wealthy family. His father owned a lucrative textile business. St. Francis briefly joined the military. Finally, while selling cloth and velvet for his father, a beggar came to him and asked for alms. At the conclusion of his business deal, Francis abandoned his wares and ran after the beggar. When he found him, Francis gave the man everything he had in his pockets. His friends quickly scolded and mocked him for his act of charity. When he got home, his father scolded him in rage. In so, Francis began his life of following the road less traveled, as we in Christianity sometimes equate to following Christ. He continued to help the poor and the mistreated and in time he miraculously received the Stigmata; the wounds of Christ

Probably the most well known aspect of St. Francis is that it was said that he was able to communicate with animals. In fact, legend has it that St. Francis on his deathbed thanked his donkey for carrying and helping him throughout his life, and his donkey wept.

We too, here in our small parish, consider ourselves a little radical as well. Here we can have all people of every kind of life situation come and worship and not feel as though they do not belong; to not be ostracized or looked down on simply because of who they are, what they are or what they have done or not done. Christ taught that only those who have no sin should cast the first stone. We are all sinners here in need of Christ’s love. Those who may have been denied Baptism, Communion or some other Sacrament at other churches, come here are welcome in our fold.

There are millions of Roman Catholics in the United States. An impressive number, no doubt about it. But there are many more non-Roman Catholic. You are one, or you are the other. This tends to sometimes cause confusion or downright animosity.

So what does it mean to be Catholic? Catholics are universalists — people who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family. Catholics are convinced that “every human being is an equal child of God, and that God will provide.” Makes you think, doesn’t it? Yes, when we chose “Universal” for the name of our denomination, there was more to it than simply having a name that basically meant the same thing as ‘catholic’. I get questioned about this all the time. What people do not understand, because they were not in the room that day when we decided on this name, is that we wanted something that not only seemed to rhyme well with each other, but we also wanted something that would cause question, while easing the conscience.

Yes, ‘universal’ and ‘catholic’ seem to be the same thing to many people. But, we intended something different. For us, ‘universal’ stood for a way of emphasizing something that people seem to forget; that is until you put the two words together and then people raise an eyebrow as if we are crazy. ‘Universal” for us stands for much of what St. Francis stood for. It stands for what St. Michael and all the Angels are commissioned to protect. All of humanity. We wanted the added emphasis that we are an inclusive and open to all church, and that all people can be saved in Christ.

Catholics should be committed to loving outcasts in an extraordinary way. They should volunteer in soup kitchens, run foot clinics for the homeless, play bingo with nursing home residents, volunteer at family planning clinics, assisting those with AIDS and/or maybe devote a week of vacation every year to doing mission work, among a very short list of possibilities.

The question is: What kind of focus does God want us to have? The world tends to reward the rich and famous, the moral majority (if you really want to call those folks moral), and the conservative right. The Holy Spirit wants us to reach out to those who feel forgotten, that they do not fit in, or simply less welcome elsewhere, because of where life has led them.

Let me read you a passage from The Acts of the Apostles (10:9-29). The story in the text takes place in the coastal city of Joppa, a town famous for piracy and other port-city problems. It is a rough-and-ready center of commerce, full of Romans anxious to find an angle, do a deal, and turn a buck. And when the apostle Peter comes to town, he stays with one of these local entrepreneurs, Simon the tanner, a man who works with animal skins, a ritualistically unclean profession, something that must’ve weighed on his conscience, because it was on the rooftop of Simon’s house that Peter has a vision of clean and unclean foods, and hears God declare, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean”.

St. Francis put this message given to Peter to work. We live on a planet, the God created earth, with about 6.7 billion people. And boy, are we an eclectic bunch. Roughly over a third of this number is Christians. When you think about the number of varying religions, we become a great majority. Why? I tend to think it is because it is the true religion that God intended.

Peter and St. Francis knew something that the rest of us are either trying to learn or simply have not been given the information to help us grasp the fact that God created this vast planet with a vast number of races, creeds and ways of life. He created the Angels to watch over this vast number of divergent people.

For over 30 years, Peter Gomes, an American Baptist Minister has served as a minister to the students of Harvard University, and he has seen them struggle with the expectations of their parents and their professors, as well as with questions of what they are going to do with their lives. While it is certainly true that most graduates of Harvard are not going to have any trouble finding gainful employment in the world, Gomes has discovered that many of them are consumed by a far bigger challenge. They are asking the question, “What will it take for me to make a good life, and not merely a good living?”

A good life, above and beyond a good living. Many know all about what it takes to make a good living, and most of them achieve this goal through tough classes, long hours, hard work and steely-eyed determination. But a good life? That takes a catholic sensibility.

Young people today are discovering that true happiness cannot be found in the culture of materialism. Nor can it be discovered in the patterns of the past, in lives based on the fantasy world of 1950s sitcoms. Young people want and deserve something better, says Gomes: They want a good life, real happiness and an opportunity to do something worth doing. They want to be able to live their lives and even offer them, if required, for something worthy of sacrifice.

Perhaps your Joppa is a post office or grocery store. In these environments, clerks can endeavor to face long lines of customers without haste or confusion. They can engage customers with smiles and conversation, and in so doing erase the annoyance of waiting. (And believe me; if you have stood in line at a post office lately, you know what I mean.) If clerks see their daily work as mission work, they can turn everyday transactions into meaningful human experiences.

Perhaps your Joppa is a large company. In that type of workplace, professionals can look for opportunities to mentor a young person, compliment a subordinate, or assist a colleague in need. They can also do well by doing good, by making sure that business is done with honesty, integrity and responsiveness to the community. Good Romans can also be good Catholics.

Or perhaps your Joppa is a home or a classroom. In these particular settings, there are so many chances to be a role model, set an example, and pass on an insight or skill. Children and young people are desperate for guidance about how to make a good life, and they are always looking up to their parents and teachers for instructions and examples. They may not ask for help, but they want it … and need it.

Further still, maybe your Joppa is working alongside the person that does not really have the morals you do, for any number of reasons, but needs and desires a friend. Maybe it is the divorcee down the block, living in a staunch Roman Catholic neighborhood with a Priest who weaves the topic of divorce into his homily every month and how morally wrong it may be. Maybe Joppa is the gay or lesbian person sitting next to you, who granted may not love as you do, but is a human being all the same. Maybe Joppa is the children of unwed parents; maybe it is the unwed parents. Maybe Joppa is the divorced lady in the pew next to you. Maybe Joppa is the person who is a drug abuser or been convicted of crimes. Maybe Joppa is the teenager who had an abortion.

Wherever your Joppa is, even if it is a place full of pirates and other scoundrels use it as your base for being a good Catholic. Don’t focus entirely on doing deals, creating products, and making money, because these achievements are bound to be limited. Be a person who can act like a Catholic, and love the outcasts of this world in an extraordinary way. All these Joppa's I mentioned may not be good things in themselves. We can still preach that these things people have done are wrong, but they are still children of God and are welcome in our midst. We may not have all the resources to help them, but we certainly will try in Christian love and we will not deny the Sacraments to anyone unless they are unrepentant or desecrate meaning. As Peter Gomes implies, we simply need to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, and allow ourselves to be filled with joy.

This means:
• Loving the homeless woman who asks for your spare change every time you walk by.
• Loving the teenager who bangs up the family car ... again … and again.
• Loving the employee who can’t concentrate because of a problem at home.
• Loving the teen who has some new body piercings.
• Loving the student with the multiple piercings and Gothic garb.
• Loving the neighbor with the rusty truck up on blocks.
• Loving the nursing home resident who can never remember your name.
• Loving the child you assist through a lunchtime Big Brother program.
• Loving the families you serve through a church mission project … across town, or across the globe.

• Loving all walks of life, no matter their difference, and help them to see Christ in you.

• Loving in a way that shows you know full well, that you too fall far short of God’s design. As Jesus said, “You, who have no sin, cast the first stone.”

This is extraordinary love. It is the love that Christ was teaching when he said it “isn’t what goes inside that makes you unclean, it is what comes out...” Let what is inside of you come out as love, compassion, understanding and a willingness to be around people different than you. It’s the love that the Catholics of the world are challenged to show, love that treats everyone as an equal, as a precious child of God. Like Nathanael, let there be no duplicity in you. Peter learned it. St. Michael and the Angels know it. St. Francis lived it. This is the love that never runs out, because it is not a worldly commodity. Instead, it’s a gift of God.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sunday Sermon

September 26, 2010

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

The Incardination of Jose Francisco Pereira

The Reception of the Order of St. George of Cappadocia
Today’s sermon will not be one of those inspiring ones, or even a Hell Fire and Brimstone type of sermons. No, today we have an educational sermon. Today is a milestone of significance for our young denomination. Today we receive within to our fold, not only a new Priest, but also a new Religious Order. The Order of St. George of Cappadocia, which Br. Frank has worked painstakingly to get off the ground. My sermon today will take on the topic of Religious Orders and what they mean to the world today. Some of us clergy folk may think we need no such introduction, but I tell you, that you would be surprised.
So, just what is a “Religious Order”? Some out there would say that the whole title, “Religious Order” is odd at best. “So,” they may ask, “Just what is ordering of religion?” Some of us know that the term has nothing to do with ordering religion at all. Most religions are ordered enough, or ordered around enough, as the case may be. We would explain to them saying something like, “No, I mean she is a Religious Sister”. And of course, they would reply, “Yes, of course we know she is religious. We see her praying all the time!” Of course, this discourse could go one for some time, with each rolling their eyes at the other, with one side thinking it is all just a play on words.
The term “religious” can be defined in many ways, but we will look at three. First, the one most people equate to the term, is that it is an adjective describing a person or person who outwardly show their devotion and beliefs faithfully to a deity. One would say that the little old lady that never misses Mass, who frequently is seen fingering her rosary, sitting in front of the Reserved Sacrament, or simply known for living her faith and is always pious and proper. However, that is not exactly what we mean here, but it is somewhat related. Second, it could also be termed as in a “religious institution” such as a church, or maybe even soup kitchens, etc. The third use of the term, is the usage that applies to our current situation on this very day.
Other religions and denominations have priests, nuns and monks, but most people usually equate them to the Catholic Church. “Religious orders”, as they are called, are groups of men and women in which they practice a particular form of spiritual life. All Catholic Christendom has some form of religious orders. Many of them are celibate communities, in which the members join with the intention of staying in this state for life. Some “disappear” into a convent, an abbey or monastery for life. “Sounds too much like prison”, some would say. A few are referred to as “secular” communities, or better put, those who do not live a secluded life or cloistered convents, or the “prisons”.
So, what is “religious” for our context today? Simply put, a noun. “A ‘noun’?” some may say, with one of their eyebrows contorted beyond normal human composure. Yes, a “noun”. You see, these men and women that devote themselves to a community of prayer and service, sometimes raising their own food and animals, and making food products to sell; others run schools, hospitals or some other form of social service; some do extensive research all day, 365 days of the year, searching for God; many are involved in one of the local parish churches in some fashion; or any number of an endless list of duties – these are “Religious”, with a capital “R”. Hence the proper grammar, that Frank is not only religious, but he is also a Religious.
There are usually two different types of religious life; active and contemplative. Active religious members are characterized by their work in the world. Contemplative are those who have chosen a life of solitude, silence, prayer and penance. The contemplative tradition goes all the way back to the second century Church movement called the Mothers and Fathers of the Desert. The contemplative religious also come under the heading of Monasticism, in which the practices can go further, as in vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, complete separation from society and personal sanctification. Yes, and the old use of flagellation, not commonly used anymore, that was exaggerated in Dan Brown’s, The Da Vinci Code. (We won’t get into that today!) They also can wear distinctive clothing, as we are used to seeing among monks and nuns (or would be if they were required to wear them anymore).
They come under many styles and observances, such as: Benedictines, Cartusians, Cistercians, Trappists, Basilians, Augustinians, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Jesuits, to name only a few. As can be seen from the names, many of them take their names from the saint that originally held that name. St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Francis, etcetera. Some saints were Religious who belonged to one of the aforementioned groups, but has of yet had a Religious Order named after them, such as St. Therese of the Child Jesus or St. Padre Pio closer to our time.
Many would question why these “orders” are needed or why one would join one. Some wonder what they do all day and bemuse that they simply sit through the day doing nothing but praying. “How can they do nothing but pray all day? There cannot possibly be anything that needs that much prayer?”
You would be surprised. However, the whole world is their prayer. They unceasingly pray for themselves; that they will live a very holy life and keep themselves separated from the sin and muck of the world, all in hopes of insuring their passage into heaven when it comes for them. They pray for the Church, regardless of whether you view the Church as the people that make up the worship services, or the hierarchy that seemingly make up the rules of what being a Catholic means, they pray for it unreservedly. However, we all need their prayers. They pray for the world, that it may know Jesus and live a righteous life. And they pray some more. Powerful prayers they are. Never underestimate the power of prayer. However, as we have seen, they do more than just pray.
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta often said that even the smallest of things you do, must all be done out of love, as the drop is one more to fill the ocean. Without those drops, even the vast oceans would go dry. It never rains here, so I understand. Few can deny the good she did in the world; even though her diaries confessed of “dark nights of her soul”. Frankly, few saints in the world have not experienced those times, though it would appear that Mother Teresa experienced it far more, and yet still did so much good in the world. It’s a lot more than just prayer! It is a whole lot of faith!
So, some say, “Now I know what monks and nuns are!” Be careful, because it isn’t quite that simple. There is always a monkey wrench or something to make the cake go flat. You see, there are monks, yes, but some prefer to be call “brothers” instead of monks. Traditionally, Monks are really those who live a solitary life of prayer and contemplation in seclusion. Brothers traditionally are those who are active in the world working in schools, hospitals, and the like. Nuns, like monks are traditionally cloistered, and Sisters are active in the world. Notice, I have said ‘traditionally’ a few times. The roles of monks and brothers, and nuns and sisters have become blurred to some degree in modern society, with their titles and roles being mixed interchangeably. Today, some monks are also priests. Anything to make the already confusing topic more confusing!
And what of this “order” business. “Just what is an ‘order’?” An Order is not a command from a general or commander. An order is not your wish-list you give to a waitress at a restaurant. An order is not even the list that you write down on paper in a specific sequence that makes it orderly. It is not even one of the Ten Commandments. All these are true to some extent, but they do not define a Religious Order. A Religious Order, to put it simply, is merely a term used to denote a ‘community’ that lives a prescribed life. Not a life where you live on the prescriptions you get from your doctor either. The prescribed life is what we discussed earlier; where they work and/or how they practice their Religious life. As examples; The Order of Benedictines, or the Order of St. Francis. So, in this case “Religious” is a noun; a person. An Order, is also a noun, it is the community or belief structure within the church in which the men and women of the Church work.
So here we are today, sitting here listing to another one of my boring sermons and still trying to put it all together. Well, like anything in the Catholic world of Christianity, there are hours of explanations that can be given or scripted in a sermon. Suffice to say, they have an important role in the object of the Church.
Frank has come to us, asking to be Incardinated. (“Another one of those confusing terms!”, some may be saying about now.) Frank was previously ordained in the Latin or Roman Rite, as a Priest. When Frank approached me originally about the concept of the Order of St. George of Cappadocia joining the Universal Catholic Church, the discussion presented itself as that of him wanting to be a Brother in this Religious Order, with myself as the Bishop Protector. As time went by, and conversations ensued, it became apparent that Frank was not just a layman looking to become a brother or monk, but actually a Priest who was seeking a role in ministry once again, even if he had never completely left it. He humbly never mentioned he was a Priest, it simply became apparent. As it became obvious, I indicated to him that I would not only grant his request to allow the OSGC to function under our church umbrella, as it were, but that I would also Incardinate him as a Priest within our church. Heaven knows what I am getting myself in to, but we shall see!
Incardination is an overly complicated term for a simple process. By Incardinating Frank, it means he will become an active priest for our church without the need of being “ordained”, because he has already been ordained by a church authority that is Apostolically Valid. (Yes, I know; another difficult term.) Simply put; our heritage is from the Roman Catholic Church, so we would be hard pressed to say they do not validly ordain men to the priesthood. When the founding fathers of this denomination were Roman Catholic Bishops back in the early 1900’s.
So, today we get a Religious Order, a new Brother and a (not so) new Priest all in one lightning bolt…… Oops, you fell asleep and missed it.

God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sunday Sermon

September 19, 2010

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Hypocrisy! And so we begin the second in my little series regarding why people do not go to church and my rebuttles to the thoughts. Of course, I haven’t the faintest idea why anyone would want to miss my sermons. Maybe we should interrupt regular programming and show them on television …. During the Super Bowl!
Anyway, back to hypocrisy…..
It’s perhaps the single biggest reason people say they don’t go to church. In fact, according to UnChristian, a book based on surveys done by the Barna Research Group, among people with no religious affiliation in the 16- to 29-year-old bracket, 85 percent say one reason they don’t go to church is because Christians are hypocritical. And it’s such an easy dodge. One word: hypocrisy. When asked, folks simply respond, “Everybody there is a hypocrite and always judging me.”
Now, who is judging who here, is what I ask? They apparently have not come to our church; we are just full of self-confessed imperfects!
If you’re looking for a group of people who always live up to their highest values and who never say one thing and do another, you’ll need to look elsewhere — though we doubt you’ll find a group of any sort totally free of inconsistency anywhere on this planet.
But although it can be a healthy thing to acknowledge the contradictions between our profession of faith and our daily actions, it’s also useful to qualify our confession a bit. In the New Testament, the only time Jesus hurled the charge of hypocrisy was when people were doing something deliberately to appear outwardly different from what they were inwardly. For example, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, he spoke about people who gave to charity “so that they may be praised by others”. Likewise, he spoke against those who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others”. He also chided the scribes and Pharisees for putting on appearances, saying, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth”. Jesus called all of those people hypocrites, and the Greek word that’s translated “hypocrite” actually means “actor” or “stage player.”
How many church attendees do you suppose get up on Sunday morning and think, “I’m going to go to church so I can pretend to be righteous and appear to be holy”? No, when we church people admit to being hypocrites, we aren’t usually confessing to playacting. More often, we mean that we failed to follow through on our good intentions or that we can still see the gap between the people we feel called to be and the people we actually are. But we aren’t trying to deceive anybody; we’re seeing where we still need to work to bring our behavior up to the level of what we really believe. To get some perspective on this, there was a poll conducted by Homiletics magazine of its readers, all of whom are involved in ministry in one way or another, to ask when they’d heard the complaint that Christians are hypocritical. The results were revealing. While they’d all heard the hypocrisy charge from people outside the church, they had almost never heard anybody who was leaving a congregation say they were doing so because of hypocrites. More often, those folks explained their decision to depart in terms of what they perceived as somebody’s failing: The congregation was too insensitive or didn’t have enough activities for kids, the theology was different from their own, the sermons were boring, they didn’t like the new pastor (or his/her sexual orientation) or they had a small issue that was never addressed, which, after a lengthy period of festering, had become an irreparable riff. Some of these actually sound very familiar. One colleague told of losing a member because he was disappointed that the pastor hadn’t attended a family member’s wake. The pastor also had someone leave because of not feeling “fed” by the sermons, but hadn’t had even one person say he or she was leaving because of hypocrisy in the church. Another team member said he’d heard the hypocrisy charge a couple of times from spouses of active members, “probably to try to scare me off. My response is, ‘Always room for one more.’ The topic usually changes to weather or sports.” After everyone had responded, one team member wrote, “The perception of the nonaffiliated [about hypocrisy in the church] makes me think that it may fall mainly into the category of ecclesial myth, which is not to say it isn’t a real perception but that perceptions aren’t necessarily the same as realities.”
It appears, then, that when somebody is outside the church and has no intention of coming in, it’s easy for him or her to say it’s because of hypocrisy in the church. And because there are some gaps between our best intentions and our follow-through, the person can no doubt find an example of inconsistency in the behavior of a Christian. But church insiders are more likely to see those gaps differently. In other words, if you really get involved with members of a congregation, you are less likely to see problems in the church in terms of hypocrisy and more in terms of human failure. And when you’re talking about human failure, it’s easier to include yourself in that category. In fact, many people stay in the church because, though they recognize imperfections among both fellow attendees and themselves, they also see it’s a place where we’re called higher. And if you pay attention in church, you’ll often see people who are working very hard to follow Jesus faithfully.
Thus, one good reason to come to church is because it puts us in company with other people who also see that gap between their profession and practice, and care enough to want to narrow it. In church, we find people who aren’t that different from ourselves and who are on faith journeys similar to ours.
Of course, the church has its share of wing nuts and disordered personalities here and there and even real hypocrites. But those terms don’t describe the general population of those who go to church. For most of the people we meet there, a description Jesus gave in our reading is more on point.
That text includes Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager, a guy who’s such an outright rascal that we would never point to him as a model churchgoer. We can’t call him a hypocrite because he isn’t playacting at anything, and he doesn’t appear worried that he isn’t living up to a call from God. He’s simply looking out for his own hide, and he’s quite straightforward about it. Still, his employer, whom the manager is cheating out of expected income, can’t help but be impressed by the manager’s resourcefulness. We can imagine the employer speaking to a friend about the incident, saying, “That guy cost me a bundle, but you’ve got to hand it to him for his shrewdness. If only he’d put that kind of effort into the work I hired him for.” Yes, we can admire his cleverness, but we don’t go to church hoping to find people like him as Christian models. As Jesus draws out the implications of that parable, he says, “[W]hoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” Clear enough. That fits the manager in the parable, so part of the point is “Don’t be like him.” But Jesus also states the application positively: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,” and in those words is the description of most of the people we actually meet in church — people who are working hard at being consistent in their approach to both minor and major matters. Sure, even the most sincere Christians don’t always hit that mark. Nonetheless, it is good for our souls to be among people who keep striving to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
• It is good for our souls to be among people who accept responsibilities in the church — sometimes thankless and difficult ones — and show up week after week to fulfill them. • It is good for our souls to be among people who quietly go about their business on the days between church services and do their best to be faithful, honest and caring, whatever their duties are. • It is good for our souls to be among people who respond with unwarranted kindness to someone in need who unexpectedly happens across their path. Here’s an example. It’s a true story, but we’ll allow the pastor who tells it to remain unnamed: “I stopped at the local library one day to pick up a book I wanted. Afterward, as I was driving out of the parking lot, a filthy, scraggly man in ragged clothes pushing a shopping cart filled with what looked to be nothing but junk shambled across the lot exit. As I waited for him to complete his passage, the front wheels of his cart caught on a crack in the pavement and tipped over. I heard some glass shatter as the contents spilled out. This mishap occurred right in the middle of the exit, so there was no way I could get out of the lot until the man picked up his stuff and moved on. But clearly, that wasn’t going to happen quickly because he seemed to be in a kind of daze and was moving as if he didn’t quite know what to do. So I sat there in my car, drumming my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, getting more annoyed by the second. “Just then, however, the young woman who was in a car behind me got out and walked past my car to where the man was. In sharp contrast to him, she was nicely dressed, well groomed and appeared to be in full command of her faculties. I wasn’t close enough to tell, but I was pretty certain she smelled a whole lot better than he did, too. “As I watched, she bent down and began helping this poor man put his items back into his cart, and she continued until everything was loaded. She then helped him get his cart past the crack in the pavement, and he resumed his shuffle down the street. “I have to tell you that never in my life have I felt more like the Levite and the priest who passed by on the other side while the good Samaritan, in the form of this young woman, helped the downtrodden guy at the roadside. And here’s the irony: The book I had come to the library to get was one I wanted to consult for a sermon I was working on. But in that parking lot, I saw a much better sermon played out in front of me.”
We don’t know if that young woman was a church person. But anyone seeing her being “faithful in a very little” could reasonably conclude she’s someone who can be trusted to be “faithful also in much.” That example is more dramatic than most, but coming to church puts us in the company of some people who are working at being as faithful in little things as they are being faithful in big ones. And that can inspire us to continue working at that as well. If being faithful in a little thing can have that kind of effect, consider what effect being faithful in a big thing can have. Consider the grandfather of one of the five Amish girls shot to death in their Pennsylvania schoolhouse in 2006 by a gunman, who also seriously wounded five other girls. Standing next to the body of one of the victims, this grieving Christian turned to some Amish boys and said, “We must not think evil of this man.” There’s not a much bigger thing to be faithful about than forgiving the murderer of a loved one, so don’t you think that man can be trusted in little things, too? In fact, in his application of the parable of the dishonest manager, Jesus gave us a good description of what the Christian life should be: working at being faithful in little things so we can also be faithful in big things. Back in 1889, John Hunter, a Scottish Congregational pastor, penned a few lines about the gap between the Christian profession and practice, which he later published as a hymn. What’s encouraging about his treatment of the subject, however, is that it isn’t about a guilt trip but about continuing to follow the light of Jesus. His hymn is “Dear Jesus, in Whose Life I See”: Dear Jesus, in whose life I see
all that I would, but fail to be, let thy clear light forever shine, to shame and guide this life of mine. Though what I dream and what I do in all my weak days are always two, help me, oppressed by things undone, O thou whose deeds and dreams were one!
That’s what Jesus does for us, and we come to church to keep our eyes on that light. But in church, we also find people much like ourselves, in whom we see glimmers of that light as we work together at being faithful in things both small and great. Sometimes the light of Jesus shows so strongly through their actions that it both shames and guides us.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sunday Sermon

September 12, 2010

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

(Nativity of Our Lady)
Very briefly, sense the Nativity of Mary’s feast day landed on Tuesday, I wanted to take a moment to give us moment of reflection on her. I debated for some time this week whether to celebrate her day or to celebrate a day with a higher octive in our Liberal Catholic Rite that we use, by celebrating a day of devotion to the Holy Spirit. I chose to make the prominent celebration that of the Holy Spirit. We all know that God, who created us, create Mary as well, and that she would be perfectly happy sharing the day with the Holy Spirit. In modern time, most churches simply skip her feast, because it landed on a weekday.
The Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been celebrated in the Church at least since the 8th Century. The Church's calendar observes the birthdays of only two saints: Saint John the Baptist (June 24), and Mary, Mother of Jesus.
John the Baptist is considered especially sanctified even before his birth. His birth to Elizabeth and Zachariah is foretold in the first chapter of Luke, and it is also recorded that Elizabeth felt the infant John "leap in her womb" when Mary approached her soon after the Annunciation.
The birth of Mary was also miraculous. She was conceived without sin as a special grace because God had selected her to become the mother of His Son (the feast of her Immaculate Conception is celebrated on December 8). The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, though generally believed throughout the Church for many centuries, was formally declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
There is nothing contained in Scripture about the birth of Mary or her parentage, though Joseph's lineage is given in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. The names of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna, appear in the apocryphal "Gospel of James", a book dating from the 2nd Century AD, not part of the authentic canon of Scripture. According to this account, Joachim and Anna were also beyond the years of child-bearing, but prayed and fasted that God would grant their desire for a child.
In celebrating the nativity of Mary, Christians anticipate the Incarnation and birth of her Divine Son, and give honor to the mother of Our Lord and Savior.

“What’s in it for me?” “I don’t need to go to Mass to get close to God.” “I had a bad experience with the Church.” “I don’t get anything out of Mass.” I don’t have the time.” “I’m a sinner. I don’t deserve to be at Mass.” Hmmmm
An old cartoon from the pen of Joe McKeever shows a lakefront shop named Anglin’ Sam’s that rents rowboats labeled “Little Green Chapels.” Out front, Anglin’ Sam himself is holding one of his green rowboats upright, with its stern resting on the ground and its bow pointed toward the sky. In that position, the boat does look a bit like the arch of a chapel, and Sam is explaining to a potential customer that the boats are “for those who prefer to do their worshiping on the lake.”
The cartoon, of course, is a potshot at the explanations people sometimes give for spending Sunday morning fishing, golfing, going out for a leisurely breakfast or even sleeping in instead of attending church. The heart of that argument is “I don’t need to go to church because I can worship God by myself.” (Translation: “Who needs to get up, get dressed, drive in, be harangued and then be asked to pay for the experience?”) Pastors typically respond to such explanations as if they are excuses or rationalizations. We point out, for example, that while it’s true you can worship God alone, most people who make that argument, don’t actually spend their alone time worshiping. When they’re climbing a mountain, walking on a golf course, sitting by a stream or lying home in bed, chances are pretty good they aren’t thinking about God at all. And even if they are, we all know, it isn’t quite the same. In fact, all arguments about why you should attend church have validity. The problem is that they sometimes have an undertone of either desperation or ambition. We pastors have a vested interest in not only the survival of the churches we serve but also their growth. In that case (and that is the case in many places across America today) our arguments about why people should attend church can sound self-serving. But are they really? Both worrying about survival and having the ambition to lead a growing congregation might make us sympathetic to the chaplain who accompanied a volunteer militia led by Benjamin Franklin back in 1756. To defend the Pennsylvania colony against Indian attacks, Franklin led his recruits in to the building of a fort in the Blue Mountain region. Once established inside the wall, the chaplain — “a zealous Presbyterian,” as Franklin called him in his autobiography — complained that few of the men were showing up for his worship services. Franklin, ever the practical man, solved that problem by putting the chaplain in charge of the daily ration of rum. Franklin told the preacher, “It is, perhaps, below the dignity of your profession to act as steward of the rum, but if you were only to distribute it out after prayers, you would have them all about you.” The chaplain accepted that duty, and Franklin reports that thereafter, “never were prayers more generally and more punctually attended.” That solved the attendance problem, but we might wonder just how much good those prayers did the soldiers under the circumstances. It’s better to remember that we all benefit from participation in church life. A faith community provides instruction, support, feedback and accountability. It brings order to our lives. Attending worship is an important way of putting the events of our lives in helpful perspective. In support of the benefits argument, the preacher might trot out that hoary old illustration about the longtime church member who had always attended regularly but then suddenly stopped coming. After a few weeks, the pastor decided he’d better make a visit. He went to the man’s home and found him alone, sitting in front of a blazing fire. The parishioner invited the pastor in and directed him to a comfortable chair near the fire. After an initial greeting, the two sat in silence, watching the roaring fire dance over the logs. Then the pastor took the fire tongs and picked up a brightly burning ember, which he then placed to one side of the hearth by itself. That lone ember’s flame began to flicker and eventually died. Soon it was a cold, gray coal, with no life or warmth whatsoever. Then the pastor picked up that coal with the tongs, and placed it back into the middle of the fire. Within seconds, it began to glow, with light and warmth, ignited by the flames around it. As the pastor rose to leave, the parishioner said, “Thank you for the sermon, Pastor. I’ll be back in church next Sunday.” Who knows if that incident ever really happened, but the truth it presents is plain enough: Our individual faith gives off more light and warmth when kindred believers support it. Someone once asked a woman who faithfully attended church why she did so. Her only response was “because God said so.” For her, that settled it, but actually, it isn’t easy to make that argument from the Bible. Nowhere in Scripture does God say, “Go to church every Sunday.” Granted, the Bible has many texts in which God tells the Israelites to worship him. Consider these: ~ In 2 Kings 17:35-36, God says: “You shall not worship other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them, but you shall worship the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm; you shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice.” But those verses are really talking about the ancient sacrificial system, which was something different from how we worship God in church. ~ In the fourth commandment, God said, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,” but Sabbath-keeping is something larger than attendance at a public worship service. It is the devotion of a whole day every week to God and the life of the spirit. It includes lifestyle changes for that day and special family practices designed to remind one of one’s covenant with God. But the gospels document Jesus as one who sometimes broke the Sabbath rules, doing such things as healing people on that day. As he put it, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). ~ If we count Sunday as the Christian equivalent of the Jewish Sabbath, there are important examples in the Bible for us about attending worship. Luke tells us it was Jesus’ custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day (Luke 4:16), and Acts reports that Paul had a similar custom (Acts 17:2). ~ Some of the first members of the early church apparently worshiped daily. Acts reports, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple ... praising God ...” (Acts 2:46-47). ~ The closest reference to a command to attend Christian worship comes not from God but from the writer to the Hebrews, who said, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another ... ” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Taken together, all those things give us a biblical basis for attending church, but none quite in the way that woman put it with her “because God said so” response.
Yet she likely had it right. And maybe the best place to see that is from a text not usually thought of as referring to church attendance: Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep in today’s gospel lectionary reading. The shepherd has 100 sheep, but when one wanders off, the shepherd leaves the 99 (presumably somewhere safe), and searches for the lost one until he finds it. And when he does, he brings it back to the flock and then asks his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. According to the text, Jesus told this parable in response to some Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling because Jesus was welcoming known sinners to listen to him. In fact, he was even eating with them. So in the parable, the shepherd can be viewed as a stand-in for Jesus. And what does he do when the sheep wanders off? He hunts it down and brings it back to the flock. While finding the sheep was of some benefit to the shepherd, it was of even more benefit to the sheep, which, had it stayed apart from the flock, probably would have become a mutton-chop dinner for a wolf or lion. Can we draw from this parable something of God’s perspective on our church attendance? Perhaps the main reason to be present in the flock that is the church is simply because that’s the place to which the Divine Shepherd drags wandering sheep. In the parable, the shepherd does nothing for the sheep beyond bringing it back to the flock. Of course, the sheep is only an animal, so the shepherd cannot seek a commitment from the ovine creature that it will obey the shepherd henceforth and not wander off again. But it’s a parable, and so if the wayward sheep represents sinners, there are human applications. Yet the only one Jesus makes is that the return of the sheep to the flock qualifies as “repentance.” This is where today’s Gospel reading continues in the perennial story of the Prodigal Son. And maybe that’s the point. Although we can enumerate benefits to our faith from being in church, the main reason for being here isn’t for the benefits but because it’s where God wants us to be. Yes, shepherds do go out after strays, but most of the work shepherds do with sheep is while they’re in the flock, and most congregational flocks are nourishing locations where God can work with us. We can talk about why we should attend church in terms of the church’s survival or of the benefits we receive from being there, but it’s enough to notice that when we wander off and Jesus comes looking for us, he will likely push us toward a flock, toward a community, toward a place of safety, sustenance and nurture. And when we get there, there will be joy in heaven. “Just so, I tell you,” said Jesus, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
However, it is not as easily said as that. Nor are you getting off the hook that easy. For three additional weeks, with maybe a brief hiatus for Michaelmass, we shall explore this topic. I have oodles of information to throw at you, so don’t even think you will get a break with a short sermon!
Seriously though, we shall continue this exploration for three additional weeks. We shall explore some sound reasoning’s for why we should attend church. Obviously, I hope those who attend Mass on Sunday’s will benefit from it. However, given we also have a presence on the web, I hope that it may benefit those who are not attending with us each Sunday, or any service on Sunday’s for that matter; so as hopefully we can all appreciate more the positive benefits to genuine worship on Sundays. And if, as we go along, I touch a nerve or a heart, I hope it will bring greater appreciation and devotion to our Blessed Lord.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.