Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sunday Sermon

February 21, 2010

The First Sunday of Lent

Intent: Self-Examination

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. Obviously, I could start the season with all kinds of tidbits of what the season of Lent is meant to be in our religious lives; however I thought I would do it in a different form. Let’s talk about Satan, err … I mean temptation …. Lent is a time of preparation. It is a time of penance, self-denial and, like our intent for the day, self-examination. So, let’s look at one of the forms of our human nature that would be good to examine this Lent. We shall start it out using food as the analogy of sorts.

Some of the best food the world has to offer isn’t found in a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths and high prices. You won’t see it being made with skill and fury on Iron Chef or being finished off with a sprinkle of seasoning with Rachel Ray. Some of the world’s best food is found in the same place you’ll find cabs, newspaper stands and crowds of people making their way to work. Some of the best food your fingers can grab is found at greasy spoon joints or mom and pop corner diners.

Now, quality street food can be hard to find, unless, of course, you make your home in New York City, where thousands of vendors peddle everything imaginable, from the standard hot dog and pretzel to crepes. In the rest of the world, however, street food is standard fare and, according to many, it’s some of the most satisfying food to be found.

Now, outside of the United States, we have places and foods I can’t even pronounce, much less attempt to eat. In Palermo, Italy, it’s easy to be lured in by someone selling panelle, a snack of chickpea fritters, or caponata, a lush dish made with fresh eggplant and capers. If Italian isn’t your thing, head over to Mexico City, where street food is essential to the local culture. Here you’ll find churros made of fried dough covered in cinnamon. You’ll find roasted cobs of corn and freshly squeezed fruit juices. But, according to one street-food fanatic, you must try the tacos al pastor. “Hunks of marinated pork topped with pineapple are cooked gyro-style on a spit until they’re tender. Then chunks are sliced off and served atop two-bite corn tortillas. Cilantro, chopped onion and a squeeze of lime make a perfect garnish.” If you are lucky, you can find some venues serving the likes of these here in our own communities.

The knock against street food is that it typically isn’t the healthiest of foods, which is probably true. But forget about the fact that it isn’t good for you. Instead, think of how the handmade tacos and the warm pretzels with cheddar cheese for dipping are good to you; good to your taste buds, but not always good to your wallet.

In today’s text, we encounter a Jesus who had to be hungry. Forty days wandering in the wilderness is a sure-fire way to get your stomach howling for almost anything edible. Sure, Jesus was sinless and perfect, but he was also fully human. That means when we find him in Luke’s gospel, Jesus, we have to imagine, is seriously starving. And we Catholics complain of the measly Friday during Lent fasting!

But there’s a point and a purpose to it all. Jesus is on a mission. Actually, he’s prepping himself for one. You see, Jesus is in the midst of a fast. He’s been purposely abstaining from food and wandering in the wilderness to prepare himself for the three years of ministry and miracles as humanity’s Messiah, or Savior, that stood before him.

Yet we must imagine that, at this point, had even the nastiest of New York hot-dog carts (which are nowhere near kosher) crossed his path, even Jesus might have been tempted to call it all off and take a bite. In fact, that’s kind of what happens here. In place of a street vendor, however, Jesus crosses paths with Satan himself. Knowing that Jesus is feeling weak and hungry, he nudges up next to Jesus, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread”. In other words, “Hey, Jesus, if you’re hungry and you’re God, then what are you waiting for? How ’bout a little street food? You make the bread, and I’ll provide the butter.” Tempting for sure.

Just like Jesus, you and I know what it’s like to be tempted. We know what it’s like to have a hunger for something we want; something that others might say we need, but that we know will serve only to distract or derail us. Click on that questionable Web site. Spend that extra dollar. Talk trash behind the back of this coworker. Sleep in on Sundays. Eat the doughnut. Ignore the kids. The list is endless. Temptation is everywhere. And, like the smell of great street food when your stomach is empty, its pull is strong. The truth is that Jesus isn’t the only one who has Satan whispering in his ear.

How do we fight temptation and stay on track? First, it begins with understanding what temptation truly is. Some people see temptation as evil. Many Christians would probably even answer that being tempted is a sin. And the end result of that idea is followers of Jesus worrying about the strength of their faith or the fullness of God’s Spirit in their lives because they feel the pull toward selling out to sin. Some would point to Jesus’ comment about our eye’s tempting us, that it would be better to pluck it out. However, when we look at the Scriptures, we see that this isn’t really that simple.

Temptation was a part of life on God’s planet even before everything fell apart and sin entered the picture through the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Likewise, we hear today of Jesus being tempted, and yet the Scriptures tell us he committed no wrong, that he “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This may sound unusual coming from the pulpit, but don’t treat yourself terribly because you’re tempted. It simply means you’re human.

This isn’t to say that temptation shouldn’t be taken seriously. It may not be a sin, but it is a tool of the devil who, Scripture tells us, is “prowling around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, ESV). And if Satan can lure you in through subtle temptation or an overt call to crazy sin, he’ll do it. Again, just look at Jesus. If the devil is bold enough to try to fool the Son of God, he surely isn’t intimidated by you and me.

Now temptation, like street food, comes in countless forms. But no matter how it manifests for you, temptation is always the same: to pull us away from a life that gives glory to God in exchange for a life of gratifying ourselves. This is the tactic the devil tried with Jesus. “Hey, J.C., forget about following the plans of your Father. Feed your stomach instead. Stop submitting as a son. Instead, bow to me and grab some glory for yourself. Why do you trust all God’s plans in the first place? Jump from these heights and see if he has your best interest at heart.” The goal of temptation, just like with Jesus, is to pull you off the mission of living a life that’s obedient to God and gives glory to God.

So what are we to do? Well, the antidote to temptation isn’t to assert more willpower. As if we have it within us to resist every single sin if only we try hard enough. Some would argue that the best defense is to barricade your life from as many evil influences as possible. Cancel the cable. Pull the plug on the PC. Homeschool the kids and start making your own clothes. Pull away from society, and you’ll stay far from temptation. Yup, become a cloistered monk or nun, that’s the ticket! The only trouble is that Satan can permeate our perfect world. He followed Jesus into the desert; he’ll follow you, too. Besides, there’s this whole issue of our depravity living within us that can warp almost anything into some kind of sick little sin.

If we look back to Luke, we see that Jesus decides to fight temptation in a very specific way. He didn’t assert his power, although he could have. He didn’t flee, although it was an option. Instead, Jesus fought temptation with truth. He fought temptation with the truth of God’s word. With each offer, Jesus answered by pointing Satan to the promises and standards of the one true God. As temptation tries to pull us from God, the greatest antidote we have, our lifeline, is the truth of God. When temptation shades our eyes and clouds our minds, God’s “word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path” (Psalm 119:105). We can’t truly live by feeding our hunger, by devouring the bread or by savoring the joy of street food alone. We truly live only when we feast on the things of God.

How can we fight temptation or even know that we’re being tempted if we don’t know God’s expectation? How might we know that this choice or that option is less than God’s best if we’ve never been inspired to strive for his ideal? How will we spot the lies of Satan and self if we don’t know the truth of God? Honestly, this is one reason the study of Scripture is so essential to the life of a disciple. It isn’t just so we all become Bible nerds. This is why we go to church; the grocery store for our soul. It’s so we can see the lies, hold to the truth, stay on mission and steer away from sin. In this section of Scripture, Jesus is fighting temptation the way we should fight it, too; with God’s word.

There’s something else here, though, that’s even greater. Something incredibly important for us to understand. During his time under the pressure of temptation, Jesus didn’t budge. He didn’t sway. He endured. He did it not only to stay on task, but he did it for all of us. We give in to temptation all the time. Jesus never gave in once. But where we have fallen down, Jesus succeeded.

Scholars tell us that during his time in the wilderness, Jesus was replaying the struggles of Israel and being the faithful child of God that they weren’t, so that through him, they might be restored to God. During his time in the wilderness, Jesus was also “reliving” the struggles and temptations of you and me and being faithful in our place so we, too, might be counted as righteous in the Father’s sight. Therefore, when you fall to temptation and prove yourself unfaithful, you have the ability to hold on to the faithfulness of Jesus. You can cry out to God, saying, “I have fallen, but your Son is strong. I am rebellious, but he is obedient. Forgive me for his sake, and set me again on his path.” And as sure as there are amazing tacos on the streets of Mexico City (or even San Diego), there is forgiveness, there is mercy and there is grace abundant for you.

Temptation, like street food, comes in countless forms. And it can look and smell incredible! But just because we’re hungry for it doesn’t always mean we need it. May we model the strength of Jesus. May we run to the truth like Jesus. But most of all, when we fall, may we feast on the forgiveness found in Jesus.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Ash Wednesday Sermon

February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

How did Mother Theresa do it, walking through the slums, day after day? How could she bear to see the matchstick-thin arms of the children, the despairing faces of the ill? How did the young aid workers in Louisiana bear it, carrying out the weak and dying from flooded houses? How is it that we are able to witness such horror as piled up bodies of those in Haiti, knowing that further still are more buried under the rubble? How do we bear it, this pervasiveness of death?

It is everywhere we look, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. It hides behind the loveliness of the tulip tree blossoms; it lurks in the twinge of a muscle, the flutter of a heartbeat. It accompanied me to the altar rail years ago when I received ashes for the first time. There amongst us was a young girl bouncing up and down with atypical exuberance of youth awaiting their first chance to have a black smudge on their foreheads.

We too this Ash Wednesday will be kneeling, as she knelt, in acknowledgement of our mortality. “The Lord God himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust”, so the psalmist says. So it is fitting that we are marked with ashes, the indistinguishable remains of something that once had being. Ashes remind us that we must die to this world. On this day we die to our desires; our intemperate love of worldly things, our exploitation of people and environment, our anger, envy, and hypocrisy.

And we do so with a gesture. Look, we say, this black smudge on our foreheads has marked us as those who know what we have done. We have laid waste our Eden; we have twisted our enormous potential for doing good into war, disease, and hunger. We have been cowardly; finding it easier to turn aside from injustice and cruelty than to take a stand against it. We have had the boldness to put a price on the head of God’s own children. And we have put greater value on public approval than on God’s approval; so unlike the hypocrites in Matthew’s Gospel, the problem is not that we give and fast and pray boastfully, but more often fail to do so at all.

On this day we acknowledge our wrongdoing and more. We acknowledge our impermanence. Even ashes with which we are marked were once alive. They are the remains of the palms that we carried into church last year on Palm Sunday to hail the coming of the Messiah. Vibrant and green, they dry out during the year and are burned. This smudge on our foreheads marks us as those who soberly looked death in the face and called him brother.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. That is what our liturgy says. That would be the end, except that the smudge is in the sign of the cross, the same one that rises from ground zero, and the one thing that reconstitutes us from an undifferentiated pile of dust. The ashes are a sign of mortality and penitence, but the cross is a sign of God’s love, the same sign we received at Baptism. It is his gracious gift of a new being, a clean and contrite heart, a fresh start, a brand new creation. The sign of death, the ashes, becomes the sign of life, the cross.

And that cross shows us both how to bear our mortality and how to transform it. The cross is how Mother Theresa not only walked through the slums, but rolled up her sleeves to feed the hungry and comfort the dying; how the aid workers not only wept over the flooded streets, but gave a hand, a coat, a meal to those they met. That is how we deal with the fragility of the world around us. By looking through the cross, we see beyond the surface, see through death to life.

With that view, how can we not rend our hearts, how can we not repent giving our heart, soul, and mind to other loves than God, how can we not feel remorse over loving ourselves more than our brothers and sisters?

Bowed with penitence over things we have done and have left undone, we are, by God’s mercy, marked as his own, scrubbed clean, made whole, and set on our feet, so that we may go back on our knees.

As Sacramental people, we return to the altar for Eucharistic thanksgiving. The wonder is that on the day of fasting, on a day that begins our personal forty-day trek into the wilderness of our own selves, we are fed so abundantly. No matter how many wolves howl in the wilderness, no matter how thick the underbrush or dark the path of repentance, we carry with us the light of a promise. We have looked life in the face and know that we are all God’s children.

The ashes will wash off of our foreheads, but the cross is inscribed on our hearts. It is our own transformation that gives us the courage to love and serve the Lord by serving all of those he loves.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sunday Sermon

February 14, 2010


Intent: The Holy Spirit as Fire of Love

The Gospel reading today provides a remarkably interesting text for us today. We live in an age where we take so much for granted. We live in an age where the multiplicity of people seems to drown out the miracles of the day. We live in an age where medicine is the only miracle some people even know.

The story of the centurion and his terminally ill servant speaks to us on various levels. First, it is the story of an army officer who cares about a beloved servant. At still a deeper level, here is a foreigner who understands, better than the any of his day, how far Jesus' authority extends and how it operates. As we dissect this story some, I hope you'll find yourself deep within this the story too.

While Rome had its own troops garrisoned in Jerusalem and Caesarea, each of the petty kings who governed under the Romans also had military forces modeled on the Roman pattern. Since there was no Roman military presence in Galilee before AD 44, the centurion headquartered in Capernaum, in our story, would have been attached to the army of Herod Antipas who ruled the area. From the text it is clear that the centurion is a not a Jew.

Originally a centurion was in charge of 100 men (from our word "century"), but in time, the number varied. A centurion was an officer, probably similar in the Roman hierarchy to the position of an army captain in our own. The ancient historian Polybius offers a list of qualifications looked for in centurions. They must be not so much "seekers after danger so much as being men who can command, steady in action, and be reliable; they ought not to be over anxious to rush into the fight; but when hard pressed they must be ready to hold their ground and die at their posts." I suppose is another way of putting it would be to say that a centurion must be a man among men.

But the centurion posted to the Capernaum garrison is far more than just a military leader. The text reveals several remarkable things about his character.

He is deeply moved by the sickness and imminent death of a beloved servant. "Servant" sounds good to western ears, but he was probably a "slave" (Greek doulos).However, depending on which translation of the Bible you read, this differs as well. Mainly due to the style or translation of some of the Greek words used prior to modern Bibles. Obviously, though, he was more than just a servant, but a trusted friend. By his actions, you can observe the centurion's longing to see his servant well. Matthew's Gospel indicates that the servant was paralyzed and in terrible suffering. He may have had a stroke, and is now just clinging to life; we simply do not know for sure.

This centurion is also deeply respected by the religious community in Capernaum. Though he is not Jewish, he is certainly sympathetic to the Jewish faith. "He loves our nation," the community elders tell Jesus, "and has built our synagogue." Apparently the centurion is a big donor to the synagogue building fund. For a non-Jew to get the leaders of the synagogue to "plead earnestly" with Jesus on his behalf says a lot about the esteem in which they held him. Respected Jews were often proud that they had no association with a non-Jew. This centurion was clearly an exception. They could see that and admired him for it.

The centurion is depicted as a deeply humble man. As I explained earlier, centurions don't lead by being bashful or self-effacing. Yet, according to Luke’s account, this centurion never actually appears personally before Jesus to plead his cause. Instead, he sends others in his place, not as a tactical move in order to get Jesus to agree to his request, but merely as a show of unworthiness. Clearly it is because of a sense of personal unworthiness. The friends are told to say, "Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof". No doubt the centurion knows the pious Jew's common refusal to enter a Gentile home. But, there's something more. The centurion has a very clear sense of who Jesus is, and what his level of authority is. His humility is grounded in a profound respect for Jesus' position. In comparison, the centurion sees himself as unworthy to even invite Jesus to be a guest in his home. And since he sees himself as undeserving, he is all the more aware of the pure grace with which Jesus operates.

Let's consider what is called "the Synoptic problem," that is, making sense of the differences between the accounts of the first three Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Obviously they had some source in common, since many of the accounts of Jesus' life are verbally identical. We see the story of the healing of the centurion's servant in Matthew's Gospel, too (Matthew 8:5-13). But there the centurion seems to be speaking to the Lord in person, asking Jesus directly. Which are we to believe?

Both are credible, and both are true. But each Gospel writer shapes his telling of Jesus' life to accomplish particular purposes with his particular audience. Luke's account is more complicated, with the centurion relaying his plea through intermediaries. Matthew simplifies, and tells the essence of the story without going into all the details. Many times the Bible credits leaders as doing what others have actually accomplished at their direction. As an example, 1 Kings 6:14 concludes, "So Solomon built the temple and completed it." Solomon never even smoothed a block of stone that went into the temple, but it was completed under his direction. A person's words were often transmitted through messengers, but considered their own.

Both Matthew's and Luke's accounts are true. In this case, Luke's seems to be the fuller account and Matthew's more abbreviated. Of course, sometimes we come to Synoptic problems that are much more difficult to harmonize.

For most of Jesus' disciples, their faith grows gradually as they see Jesus exerting power of an ever widening circle -- blind, lepers, the dead, and the powerful storm on the Sea of Galilee. After Jesus had calmed the waters they are stunned.

They have walked with him for a year or so, and still haven't figured out the extent of Jesus' power. But the centurion has a profound understanding without even meeting Jesus in person. Let's consider the centurion's great insight.

"He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: 'Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, "Go," and he goes; and that one, "Come," and he comes. I say to my servant, "Do this," and he does it.'

"When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, 'I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.' "

The centurion sees Jesus as a commander like himself. He knows Jesus doesn't have to come into his servant's chamber, and lean over him, lay hands on him, and personally raise him up. The centurion recognizes that Jesus has authority in the spirit world to heal. By whatever means and by whatever agency. The centurion recognizes that all Jesus has to do is to speak the word and it will be accomplished by those forces under him. "But say the word, and my servant will be healed."

Luke doesn't record Jesus even having to speak a word, though He probably did in order to satisfy the centurion's friends who had come bearing this message full of faith. "Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well". The servant is now up and fit and healthy. He is completely healed!

Now, what else does this text tell us? Well, there is a more controversial lesson too. Now, I know some of you here may find this hard to swallow, but wasn’t there many things in the Scriptures we find hard to swallow?

Matthew and Luke have parallel stories, as we have already mentioned, which derives from a common or similar Gnostic gospel known as "Q". A significant difference between the Matthew and Luke texts is Matthew's use of the Greek word, pais, meaning ‘son’, ‘serving boy’ or ‘servant’, compared to Luke's use of doulos, meaning ‘slave’, to refer to the centurion's serving boy, who was really a teen or young man. Pais is the derivative noun in, paidika, used to refer to the beloved youth. Thus the interpretation that the centurion’s serving boy is his sexual slave, the "beloved youth", here is euphemistically called his ‘son’. Significantly, Luke’s version of the story makes specific reference to the centurion's affection for the boy, something that the Matthew text does not require, for that understanding is already carried in the use of the word pais.

Luke is more specific in his description of the sick man; he calls the man the centurion’s entimos doulos. The word doulos generically means ‘slave;’ it could not mean son or boy. Entimos means ‘honored’, so the combination would produce the contradiction of ‘honored slave,’ meaningless unless it applied to a ‘junior or younger male partner.’ Thus the meaning of pais in Matthew is limited to a same-gender relationship (some historians state that reputedly, the shield bearers for Roman soldiers were their lovers). In the only example in the Bible where anyone asked for healing for a slave, Jesus was not only healing for a conquering overlord, he was healing his male concubine of sorts.

To our modern minds, the idea of buying a teen lover seems repugnant. But we have to place this in the context of ancient cultural norms. To some minds, this is an unacceptable lifestyle, however in that time period it was not only acceptable, but common. In ancient times, commercial transactions were the predominant means of forming relationships. Under the law, the wife was viewed as the property of the husband, with a status just above that of slave. Moreover, in Jesus’ day, a boy or girl was considered of marriageable age upon reaching his or her early teens. It was not uncommon for boys and girls to marry at age 14 or 15. Nor was it uncommon for an older man to marry a young girl. Fortunately civilization has advanced, but these were the norms in the culture of Jesus’ day.

In that culture, if you were a man who wanted a male “spouse,” you achieved this, like your heterosexual counterparts, through a commercial transaction — purchasing someone to serve that purpose. A servant purchased to serve this purpose was often called a pais.

Thus, when this term was used, the listener had to consider the context of the statement to determine which meaning was intended. Some modern Christians may be tempted to simply declare by fiat that the Gospels could not possibly have used the term pais in the sense of male lover, end of discussion. But that would be yielding to prejudice. Sometimes we must let the word of God speak for itself, even if it leads us to an uncomfortable destination.

Now, if all this hypostasis is true, Jesus’ response ignores the man’s powerful, hated position and the implied sexual relationship; instead he highly praises the greatness of the man’s faith. By implication, love is not degraded by who shares it.

The rhetorical use of pais, the son who is really not a son and who is paralyzed, alternating with the word, doulos, the servant who is faithfully obedient but is not called a son, sets up an interpretation for the sons of the kingdom, who are true sons but of too little faith to be obedient servants of the kingdom. Their little faith is to be understood as a type of paralysis. The curing of the Centurion's son, through the faith of another, hints at the possibility of a similar cure for the sons of the kingdom.

However, whether that small section is true or not, there comes with the story a marvelous scandal and lesson all in one. The marvel is not that the Centurion, in great faith, has approached Jesus on behalf of his son, his serving boy. Rather, it is his faith, which is pronounced greater than the faith of the sons of the kingdom, but who do not faithfully respond to the Son of God, and thus exposes their little faith as shamefully scandalous.

To whom this reproach is addressed remains ambiguous. It could be to the Jewish-Christians who are too timid to undertake a Gentile mission. It could be a universal call to repentance, shaming Jewish Christians into action by the extreme example of an outsider's faith, or it could be a dispute against Jews who have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. One thing is certain; it teaches that faith is the key to participation and not status. It shows a biblical tradition of inclusivity that runs contrary to that of the hard-line that would exclude or control participation by strict application of Levitical Law, from the Mosaic codes.

All this said, I think there is a big message here that is by far and wide the important message. The text, like many others in the Gospels, is attempting to show us that Jesus is the true Messiah. Jesus is the Son of God and thus has authority over all things. Jesus frequently healed the sick. Jesus frequently was found in the company of less than acceptable company (at least based on the Levitical Law).

So often in our powerlessness we mumble something about, "If Jesus were here in the flesh and were to lay his hand on this person he would be instantly healed." This is good faith, but only a nursery school level of faith. It's like the woman with the hemorrhage who said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed." Her faith was focused in her personal ability to touch the hem of Jesus' garment. We're like that. If only so-and-so were here, he could accomplish this. If only Billy Graham, or Benny Hinn or John Wesley or Mother Theresa or .... We look to the personal instrument of the healing rather than to our Lord who can accomplish the task with just a word -- his own word. He is the Delegator of the power, not some great saint past or present. They are mere instruments.

The centurion's insight is that Jesus' delegated word of authority can span distance. He has power in the spirit world to speak a word and his word is accomplished.

Now you and I are on the front lines. We are the ones who see the sick and downtrodden and oppressed. And our Lord, whose word of spiritual authority can span distances, wants you and me to take faith and do the impossible on his behalf.

Jesus can speak his word across whatever distances and delegate his power to be exercised by you and me, here and now, by any authorized means. That is the message. That is the insight, if we can grasp it.

I think that what the Holy Spirit, as the Fire of Love, in keeping with our Intent of the day, is telling us is that God’s love is indiscriminate. First, it matters not who we are or the state of life we lead. Second, we need only to have faith and approach Him with our needs and concerns, and His grace which passes all understanding will indeed reach over the span of time and space to reach us in our need.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sunday Sermon

February 7, 2010


Intent: The Holy Spirit as Sanctifier

Sexagesima is one of those days in the Christian calendar that will draw curious looks. Curious looks, mainly due to the fact that the Roman Church no longer celebrates this and the two other specific Sundays prior to Easter. Many Old Catholic and thus Liberal Catholic Rite churches still celebrate these days. To be true, I haven’t the faintest idea why we still do, aside from the fact that we still use a vernacular form of the former Latin Mass, and have therefore kept these on our liturgical calendar as they were then. I have been told once by another Liberal Catholic Rite Bishop that we have kept them mainly as a way of breaking up the liturgical colors for the Sunday celebrations. After all, we mainly use green, with white and purple being the next most used. Red is hardly used, so these three Sundays gives us an excuse to do so.

Due to an accidental goof on the calendar this year, we missed the celebration of Septuagesima, but we are back on track with Sexagesima this week. Translated, it is a form of the Latin Sexagesimus, meaning sixtieth (with Septuagesima meaning seventieth and Quinquagesima meaning fiftieth). Although we are not numerically 60 days from Easter, that is the representation. We use these three Sundays as days devoted to the Holy Spirit. Prior to Vatican II, the Latin Church recognized these as the start of Lent. Today, as we know, Lent starts with Ash Wednesday. All told, this bit of trivia may be useless to some and interesting to others, however, I for one like that we haven’t given them up as the Latin Rite has. Part of mystical aspect of ‘religion’ is the rituals, liturgies and set celebrations making each day of life so special. Ancient Judaism has kept most of their rituals intact these 3,000 or so years, and it is very special and meaningful for them. It can be equally the same for us if we allow ourselves to be drawn into their mystical expressions.

Due to our following this old Tradition, the placement of readings this week separates us from other Liturgical brethren who use a common lectionary. So, we take up a couple of readings that is sometimes a hard swallow. Sin, Judgment and Forgiveness are all well and good until they hit home.

Nothing delights God more than seeing His children care for one another in love and humility. It is in doing this, that we most emulate Jesus. It must break His heart when we serve our own desires in selfish and impure motives. Maybe we think of ourselves as more spiritually advanced than others. Maybe we write off a neighbor as hopeless or useless simply because he/she does not think as we do. How quickly judgments form in our hearts. We may be so accustomed to them, that we do not even realize we are doing it.

It is this aspect of life that Jesus warned us to become aware of in ourselves, when He told His followers to remove the ‘log’ that was in our own eyes before we tried to remove the ‘speck’ from our neighbor’s eye. Think about it a second. Let it really sink in. Jesus did not say ‘speck’ in our own eye; He said ‘log’. We need to take the larger piece from our own eye, before we can even think of suggesting to someone else to take their smaller piece from their eye. When we get right down to it, we know ourselves far better than any neighbor or friend. We can find a far larger amount of errors in our own lives than that of others .The blind leading the blind, Jesus said.

So, some would ask, “Should we stop helping others?” No, helping is not what Jesus was concerned with. His concern was judging other and/or placing ourselves in a perceived better position. Finding fault and helping are different things. Judging and helping are different things. If we stopped helping others, based on a faulty thinking that Jesus is instructing us to stop helping, then there would be no one left to help a living soul. So, of course we should still help those whom God may put in our path. However, all the while we should desire of the Lord to examine our hearts and souls and bring us to a deeper understanding of our failings and true repentance for our errors, so as we do not become tempted to judge someone we are meant to help.

As a suffering servant, Jesus embraced all pain and weakness of God’s people, even to the point of death on the cross. So selfless was His love for us, that even His last breath was not an appeal to punish us, but a prayer of forgiveness.

It is easy for us to think at times of such as these, when your pastor stands up here and talks of such things. We are ever so tempted to think, “Well, I haven’t anything to be concerned with. I am not like that.” Hate to tell you, but you are only deceiving yourselves. We all have something about ourselves that sometimes needs a little nudge from God telling us to humble ourselves some.

How often have we gotten angered at someone on the road as we were driving? We start to cussing and cursing about this and that and how they know very well what they did or they are one thing or another. We pretend to know what went thru the mind of the person who cut us off or turned in front of us. All as if God suddenly gave us ESP. Or maybe the clerk at the store that we may have thought as rude or unhelpful. Ooops, there goes that ESP again! What do you suppose they think of us, when we do something similar, no matter how unintentional it may have been? Maybe that was simply their personality, or maybe they were having a bad day. Either way, we have no way of knowing if their actions or words were as intentional as we may like to think.

We tend to say that someone did whatever it was that angered us on purpose. How do we know that? We need more information before we can pass judgment. We need more information about the whizzing by car or the two minute interaction of the store clerk. We have no way of knowing what is going on in their mind; what is in their line of sight; what may have preceded our rude clerk encounter.

Or bank executives. We hear, read and speak of the news about how some of the very banks the government bailed out have paid out bonuses. We do have a right to be concerned. After all, our taxes helped to bail them out. However, to automatically assume that we know all the facts as to who, what, where, when and why is presumptuous and judgmental. Innocent until proven guilty would be a good application here. As I tell my employees at work, who are in supervisory positions, one sometimes has to be humble and diplomatic. Assuming guilt without regard is wrong. After all, it is easy to do when you think of how much money or stock they may have received and think of our own state in life. I am willing to bet that a great majority of us would vote ourselves a bonus if we could.

We need to realize that we are simply a manifestation of our inner selves. We sometimes do not realize that we have what I call a “Scrooge syndrome” going on. We get so caught up in ourselves that we lose the focus on others. This leads us to the latter part of our Gospel reading. ……

Just what makes a tree strong? Doesn’t it have to have a great root system? Doesn’t it need to be rooted in good soil, and receive the right amounts of water and sunshine to be healthy and bear good fruit? Yes, if the soil is poor, if the water is too light and the sun negligent in lighting its leaves, it will be very ugly and/or die.

Jesus used this illustration to teach a fundamental lesson. Unless we are rooted in Him, the True Vine, we will not have a healthy and deep root system and therefore we will not produce good fruit. If we stay close to Jesus; if we imitate Him and what He teaches, we will have a hardy root system and grow wondrous fruit.

Have you even tried to emulate someone you admired? I know you all have, and so have I. However, like most of us, you probably started out well, but gave up once you realized how hard it is to be someone you are not. The good news is that with Jesus, this is not the same story. He died and rose so that we can be like Him. We can bear the same fruits the He bears, because we are baptized into His life. He has given us the Holy Spirit, the Intent of today’s liturgy; the Holy Spirit to help transform us more into His image and likeness.

As we remain close to Him in prayer and obedient to His commands, we will find ourselves changing at the very root of our being, our hearts and soul so that the whole tree will be pleasing to God the Father. By adding some extra prayer, the divine office, reading of the Bible, sitting before the Blessed Sacrament, or helping with duties at church and many other possibilities, you open yourself up to the Holy Spirit to work in you.

Jesus makes this point by using another illustration of the house built on rock having a firm foundation. We too can have a firm foundation and a less judging attitude when we put Jesus at the center of our lives. You will be amazed at the change in yourself. Maybe, as we approach Lent, we would all do well to give up quick judgment and add more patience and prayer. Who knows, maybe the person who cuts in front of you on the road, instead of getting hand gestures, they may simply get a wave and a statement that maybe their day is going bad and they have a lot on their mind today. God’s speed to you!

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sunday Sermon 1-31-2010

January 31, 2010

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “God does not love us because we are valuable. We are valuable because God loves us.”

We are valuable because God loves us. Isn’t that an awe inspiring thought? Even in our worst of days or lives, we are still valuable because God loves us! When presented with this, we will readily acknowledge that we know this. Yet, during our everyday lives; during our meeting of friends new and old, stranger and not so strange, and with challenging and not so challenging people, we so quickly forget or simply put out of mind this well known fact.

What is it about Christians who, despite professing themselves followers of Jesus Christ, he himself who is the King of Love, we are yet capable of monstrous acts of hatred, intolerance, prejudice and even violence? The evil in manifestly evil people can be attributed, as it usually is, to an absence of love and subordination to Satan. They are said to so lack the fundamental quality of love that marks those who know God, love God, are loved by God, and hence should love all of God’s people. This, perhaps, we can understand in the perversions of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or even Osama bin Laden. One could include the genocidalists of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. The abuses of any so-called heathens wherever they can be found throughout history and present. How, though, does one explain the perversions of what are supposed to be good people; Christian believers who in the name of love do some very hateful things?

In America, alas, we are not exempt, fore we are all too used to confrontations in the name of Christian love. Fred Phelps, a Baptist preacher from Kansas, has made a career of picketing many a thing, but most notably with signs that says, “God hates fags”. He does not do it alone, his congregation participates. He has gone to the extreme of picketing outside of funerals for gay men who died of AIDS with signs stating that the dead man is going to Hell. Quite the Christian, don’t you think? I am quite sure it is done in Christian love. At least, I am sure he thinks so.

Or how about those who go to abortion clinics and scream many hateful things to those who go into the clinics. Apparently, killing the doctors who perform the abortions is what Christians are meant to do. I am sure there is a passage in the Old Testament someplace that specifically tells us to stone abortion doctors. Of course there are those who advocated slavery in a not too distant past. Oops, I forgot the Klu Klux Klan is still alive and kicking.

The lists are virtually endless.

Over the years I have encountered many a couple who wanted I Corinthians 13 read as part of their wedding service. On face value, it would appear to be the best Scripture reading available for a wedding. I won’t discount that, however scholars have tried for centuries to show what this passage may have actually meant. The love that which the Apostle speaks and the love that couples propose at their wedding day, are not the same thing.

St. Paul did not have marriage in mind with the sort of romantic love we most associate with weddings. Believe it or not, the usage of this passage has only become popular for weddings in the past century. Prior to this, and the birth of dozens of English translations of the Bible, the English translation of the Bible was the King James Version of 1611. It is in this version in which the word ‘charity’ was used, where as the Revised Standard Version of 1952 that had the word ‘love’. So an unintended consequence of the ‘modern translation’ liberated St. Paul from the captivity of the older notions of philanthropy and social welfare with which “charity” was associated. By doing something as seemingly harmless as changing one word, we now have a wedding passage and no longer a charitable passage. However, theologians tend to think the original Greek word here is better translated as charity. Further, with what we know of St. Paul and his teachings, ‘charity’ would seem to be a better fit than ‘love’.

But ‘love’ sounds so nice and right, some would say. However, St. Paul is speaking of a love that is much more difficult and demanding than the love a couple is prepared to give. The love he speaks is not an inner romantic, full heart or erotic love. No, his love is a love of direction of what Christians do, not feel. As we know, St. Paul was not necessarily an advocate of marriage. He went so far as to recommend against it. This in itself would seem to imply that he was not speaking of the love we tend to think of when the word is mentioned.

If love is simply a matter of loving those who love you, then what is the point? As Jesus said during the Sermon on the Mount, “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Jesus required His followers to follow a more demanding style of love. Christian charity.

Love of neighbor is therefore the eternal quality in loving. As Jesus pointed out in his famous parable of the Good Samaritan, by making us think about who is really our neighbor. The neighbor Jesus implies may be the less handsome, perfumed or entertaining. The neighbor may live a life that is different, love differently or simply live poorly. The neighbor is really every person you meet. He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you and me before God. But we must remember that every person unconditionally has this equality and has it unconditionally.

Since the neighbor is everyone who stands equally before God, and we are obliged to love our neighbors, it follows naturally that we are to love our enemies, for despite the fact that we do not like them and they do not like us, they are our neighbors and therefore we are obliged to love them. We are being called to treat them with Christian Charity. This makes a great challenge for us. Fore this has turned a difficulty, loving those who are similar to us, into impossibility, loving those whom it is natural not to love because they are dissimilar to us and therefore easily defined as enemies. Hatred is the fruit of fear. Perfect love, the Bible says, casts out fear.

Love is doing what the law demands; it is loving God and one’s neighbor, as He so loves us. To love God is to love oneself truly; to help another person to love God is to love another person; to be helped by another person to love God is to be loved.

Let me leave you with a little turn on this topic, by telling you a brief story of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Though this story may not seem directly related, I think you can see Christian charity or love at work here.

In 1994 she was the keynote speaker at the National Prayer breakfast in Washington D.C. The scene was unforgettable; on either side of the podium sat President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and other dignitaries. Aids rolled the frail, eighty-three year old Mother Teresa to the podium in a wheelchair and had to help her stand to her feet. She stood on a special platform, and even with that, the four-foot-six inch woman could hardly reach the microphone.

Nevertheless her words sent shock waves through the auditorium. She rebuked America and its leaders for the policy of Abortion. Mother Teresa said that “America has become a selfish nation, in danger of losing the proper meaning of love; giving until it hurts…”

Mother Teresa further said, “If we accept a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill each other? … Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love; but to use any violence to get what they want.” Mother Teresa continued by pleading with pregnant women who did not want their children, “Please don’t kill the child …. I want the child. Please give me the child. I want it. I will care for it.”

She meant what she said. Mother Teresa, at that time, had already placed over three thousand children with families in Calcutta. She is a model of self-sacrificing love, speaking out on behalf of the weak and giving herself to serve them.

She speaks of love and charity rolled up into one. We are challenged today to determine if we too will fail at Christian charity; at Christian love. If God so loves us, even in our days of acting out some form of anger or hatred, can we not do the same in place of anger and hatred? Some have accused Jesus of teaching us to become pacifists. Maybe he did; and maybe he didn’t. Is that such a bad thing? However, one thing is for sure. We were called to love our brethren as we would have them love us. Is this passivity or simply living in peace? All of human life is valuable. Why? Because God loves us and asks nothing less of us toward our fellow mankind.

God Love You+

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.