Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Sermon

January 24, 2010

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

A 16-month-old child was dying; her mother wanted someone to come to the hospital to pray. Once again, I was presented with the frustration we in ministry all face, the frustration of not having good news, freedom, or recovery to offer someone. Once again I was not able to look a sickness or disease in the eye and say:” Be healed!” If there were one more gift I would ask of God in doing my ministry, that gift would be the power to restore the many suffering people I see.

Someone has calculated that every human being, on average, has some medical complaint or problem every three days. An aspirin will usually do, or a Band-Aid, or a good night’s sleep. But occasionally we need Creator healing. In the next year, many of us will undergo batteries of tests and diagnostic procedures. We will endure CAT and MRI scans, electrocardiograms. We will use therapies, treatments or surgeries; be bombarded by laser, sound or radiation; measured and fitted with heart valves, knuckle joints or pacemakers; and mobilized once again with braces, crutches, a walker or wheelchair. The arsenal to overcome our tendency toward illness is impressive; the cost staggering. Yet, though treated, counseled, or operated on, all of us will eventually lose the battle.

You see, the bodies we inhabit for what we call a lifetime are imperfect vessels, jars of clay, as Paul said. Their resistance to attack ‘is futile’, as it was said in that long-ago movie. Their endurance under severe stress or trauma has a breaking point. Without food, as we know, these bodies last only weeks; without water, only days; without air, but a few minutes.

Has God, our Almighty Creator, failed us somehow? Is the design so fraught with flaw and imperfection that God has had to depend on the medical establishment to undo the least divine blunders?

I doubt that! God has not failed in carrying out a better creative plan. Nor do I believe that we are flawed when we should have been perfect or weak when God intended strength and invincibility. Weakness is not an absence of strength; it is rather the means to strength. The struggles that you and I must go through to survive, to deal with our pain and are suffering, to conquer our imperfection; occur not because God hasn't succeeded creating us, but because God hasn't finished creating us.

As I sit with a family who has just lost a child, I know how difficult it can be to place that catastrophe into some kind of understanding of a loving and gracious God. It is a temptation to say that God planned it this way, that God sends us trials and tribulations to test and teach us. In Jesus Christ, however, we are revealed a God who is loving and compassionate. He said, “In this world, you will have tribulation, but fear not, I have overcome the world.” Our troubles are not sent to us by God; they are already here. The Scriptures reveal quite clearly that brokenness and fallenness are the basis of this world. From the opening verses of Genesis, the Hebrew people described it so well: “The earth was without form and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Rather than sending us trials, God's spirit is still at work calling us, bringing something out of nothing, light out of darkness, life from death.

A little girl, upon finding a butterfly cocoon, brought it home and planned to care for it until the butterfly came out. She waits with eager expectation until the day finally arrived. A tiny head appeared, munching its way through the gray, paper thin wall. She viewed the little creature with such love, but what she wasn't prepared for was how long it would take and how difficult a time the butterfly would have.

With a small stick, ever so carefully, she decided to give the butterfly a helping hand. And within moments instead of hours, the butterfly was free. Then it tried to fly, but when it stretched its wings, it fell and died. “What happened?” She pleaded, teary-eyed, to her father. “I even helped.” “The Caterpillar needed that struggle,” her father answered. “Without it, it was never able to strengthen its wings to fly.”

When we struggle, God wants us to become something through that struggle. The real miracles that occur in hospital rooms are not the ones where suffering has been canceled in a moment, at the end of the prayer, but where, through suffering, someone has courageously lived. Whether a child dies at 2 or 20, what has been demonstrated is not failure, but the miracle of life being called out of chaos.

Jesus began His ministry with these words read from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” The arrival of the dominion of God was, in those words, inextricably tied to helping the poor, releasing prisoners, healing the sick. And yet, the poor remain in our streets, our prisons are overcrowded as never before, and every one of us will eventually succumb to ill health and physical death. Had Jesus failed? Was it a mistake to announce that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled in this reading by Jesus?

Following in His steps from that early synagogue worship service, to the hills of Galilee, on the road to Jerusalem, and the way of the cross, we discover that suffering is not God’s will. Rather, life in the face of suffering is God’s will; courage in the face of hatred and prejudice.

God’s will is to call these things out of the hurt and brokenness that we are and that we find around us. Yes, you and I need good news, freedom from healing; that is, in Christ, healing of our minds and hearts, freedom from our attitudes and outlook, good news to speak as we get up in the morning, and new hope for what we are doing in our lives. With Christ, the prophecy is fulfilled, in you and in me.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday Sermon

January 17, 2010

The Second Sunday after Epiphany

First, prior to getting on with my sermon for the day, I wanted to take a few moments to remember the people of Haiti. Natural Disasters or “Acts of God”, as some people call these occurrences, are the most confusing and faith testing times in a Christian’s life.

Many of people have attempted to explain why these catastrophic events seem to take place. Why God seemingly allows or even enlists these events. Truth be told, we really do not have those answers. There are many theories that could be discussed, but to do so would take more time than we might want to sit in these pews and listen to.

In Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11 we read:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

Haiti is in terrible shape to be sure. I don’t think that a small passage from Scripture will cure the ill thoughts of what has happened in this tiny country. However, we can take some comfort in the fact, that whether we can ever understand the why of what has happened, we can take solace in knowing that God is not absent during this time. God is most surely among His people. God most surely loves them the same as He did the day before; or the millennium before.

I dedicate today’s Mass to those who have lost their lives; their homes; their families; their existence as they knew it. May this Mass, ever carried to heaven as an oblation to God, act as an oblation for those who have lost and suffered much.


Baby chicks are among the cutest of God's creatures. Have you ever tried to tell one fluffy, yellow baby chick from another? Newly hatched these little balls of down are intentionally designed to be as alike as possible. Their identical sizes, uniform pigmentation, round shape; and quickly imprinted behaviors make a joke of the notion of "cloning".

Every now and again, however, some baby chick has the misfortune to "stand out" in some way. Perhaps it has a distinct dark or light spot in its feathers. Perhaps it is smaller than the rest. Perhaps a run-in with a sharp stick or a bit of fencing gives it a red scratch or a slight limp. Whatever the distinguishing mark may be, it is almost certainly a mark of death. The other chicks, despite their adorable, cuddly appearance, are programmed pitilessly to peck and persecute any chick in their midst who appears to be somehow different. A tiny scratch will become a beacon attracting the savage pecks of all the others in the flock. The off-colored feathers will be plucked out, then the bald spot itself attacked. The small will be shoved, beaten back, and driven away at every opportunity. The flock mentality of these "birdbrains" declares that anyone different must be driven out or destroyed.

Although Americans tend to romanticize the notion and time of childhood into an age of innocence, it would probably take each one of us about 10 seconds to recall a time when we felt like one of those blighted, berated baby chicks. Children can be magnificently cruel and vicious to anyone in their midst or their "flock" who is different.

Which one were you? The "fat" kid, the "slow" kid, the "dumb" kid, the "gimp" kid, the "poor" kid, the "ugly" kid, the "short" kid, the "smelly" kid the "brace-face" kid, the "overdeveloped" kid, the “gay” kid or the "bad" kid? Whatever the weakest, most indefensible spot in your spirit, there was always at least one strutting chick who could find it and start up the pecking by all the others.

As adults, we like to think of ourselves as mature, tolerant, and sophisticated. We are comfortable with accepting all of the quirks and differences that make up our pluralistic, multicultural society. Despite racial bigotry, gender bias, economic oppression and a host of more subtle discriminations of all sorts, we still believe that ours is at the core, a civilized, "politically correct" world, where undisguised persecution cannot, could not and would not happen.

As Christians in America, perhaps we find it doubly hard to hear a shocking, scandalous message that is slowly reaching out to the church. We pride ourselves on a purposeful heritage of religious freedom and toleration. We feel secure in the knowledge that much of our nation's history was written by Christian men and women whose personal faith influenced our national character.

But we should remember that we declare that our salvation is found in the utter rejection, the malicious torture, the gruesome crucifixion and the agonizing death of the one who was the "Anointed One," the Messiah, the "Son," the "Beloved." Our identity comes from the one who suffered persecution to the point of death, despite the fact that he enjoyed the fullest measure of God's pleasure.

If death on the cross was the experience of God's Son with whom God was "well pleased," it seems reasonable to expect that both persecution and pain may be a part of our Christian experience as well. To experience "God's pleasure" doesn't mean one will experience a life that is all pleasure. As ones who share with Jesus in his baptism a common anointing with the Holy Spirit, we may still be persecuted.

Indeed, wearing this stamp of God's pleasure is often the distinguishing mark that signals to other members of the human flock: "Attack -- this one is different." Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, an American Jew, received the 1997 Wilberforce Award. His dedication to spreading the message that worldwide acts of violence and targeted persecution against Christians are escalating at alarming rates is a signal flare to all of us who feel snug in our suburban safety. When asked why a Jew should work so long and hard on behalf of Christians, Horowitz suggests that, “No man, not me, or any of us, can honorably sit out more than one holocaust per lifetime. You get a grace period for just one, and after that you are on the hook. And thus we are all on the hook for this one".

Horowitz has seen Christians targeted for persecution and populations targeted for persecution and driven to near extinction by regimes that proudly duplicate the tactics of the Nazi regime. Just as the Nazi party blamed all of Germany's economic and political failures on the "foreign" presence of the Jews, government policies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are now officially targeting the Christian members of their societies as the scapegoats of choice.

Even more alarming, perhaps, is that Horowitz also claims that the response of the educated elite of the world is also much the same as it was 50 years ago as the Jewish holocaust began to gain momentum. Horowitz notes with agony the apparent indifference of these elites to those who are "not like them." And even among those of us who should be united by the web of faith, there is still an unbelieving silence. In general, the Western Christian Community has been slow to respond, seemingly unswayed by the systematic atrocities being visited upon Christian brothers and sisters worldwide.

-- How can we stand unmoved when, in Sudan, an open-air slave market sells 6-year-old Christian children for the price of a cow?

-- How can we stand idly by while the atrocities of Darfur are still raging as if the world were in the year 1700 and there was no way for the news to reach any other country or as if killing of a fellow human were not an evil?

-- How can we stand unmoved when the radical Muslim regime of the Sudan targets its own Christian villages for carpet-bombing runs and siege tactics, finally confronting the Christian survivors with the ultimatum, "convert or starve"?

-- How can we stand unmoved when in Saudi Arabia the government pays bounties for identifying Bible-study groups, in order to arrest and torture those who attend?

-- How can we stand unmoved when the official line of the Chinese government sanctions the imprisonment and physical torture of all Christians -- from any active lay member to Catholic bishops and Protestant clergy?

-- How can we stand unmoved when our own ambassador to China responds to a question about the systematic persecution of Chinese house-church Christians by saying: "What's a house-church?"

-- How can we stand idly by while in our own very country, there is still hatred and hate crimes?

As Jesus discovered throughout his life, being participants in "God's pleasure" doesn't guarantee any of us safe passage, unscathed passports and unscarred portals through this life. What we are guaranteed, however, is God's unswerving love, steadfast faithfulness and poured-out presence throughout all of our days.

We are ultimately destined for the safe haven of the granary. But the fires that consume the chaff may scorch us along the way.

H. P. Ehrenberg, in his autobiography of a German pastor, tells how it happened that his church was instrumental in establishing the "Confessing Church," the group that refused to accept Hitler. Ehrenberg himself was dispatched to a concentration camp.

He describes something that took place at a summer camp for teenage girls that says it all. A "united service" for Catholics and Protestants was held in a room dominated by a large picture of Hitler set up on a table. A young Lutheran girl, who was recently confirmed, could take it no more and tore down the picture and smashed it against the wall, shouting these words, "Thou shalt have no other gods but me."

The remarkable thing was not that she smashed Hitler's picture, nor even that she had the courage to confess the First Commandment, but that she was prepared beforehand to do both.

What was it that made her "prepared beforehand"? The church! It is the only community on Earth that can confront the Evil One. For it is the only community on Earth to whom the keys of the kingdom were given. The gates of hell can prevail against anything and everything -- but the church.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor - St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca