Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sunday Sermon

March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

One of the most familiar pictures on American TV screens is that of the president of the United States walking across the South Lawn of the White House to board Marine One, his white-topped VH-3D helicopter, for the quick trip out to Andrews Air Force Base to rendezvous with Air Force One, “the flying White House”, as some call it. It all looks so impressive, from the Marine guard’s salute to the famous light-blue plane taxiing down the runway.

It’s what we don’t see that’s even more impressive, however. Getting the president from place to place is a bit like planning the Normandy invasion: It involves hundreds of man-hours, millions of dollars and tons of hardware, making your last plane trip look like a cakewalk by comparison.

Let’s say the president is coming to your town for a speech. Even before the president takes off, Secret Service agents and local law enforcement at each destination have already been hard at work for days or, sometimes, weeks or months, interviewing and screening people who will be close to the president. They analyze primary and alternate routes through the city and sweep the site of the meeting or rally for any security problems. If the destination is a foreign country, coordination with the host nation requires even more planning and rehearsal to ensure the president’s safety.

On board Air Force One, the president and his entourage travel with all possible security precautions in place. The VC-25A, which shares the airframe of a commercial Boeing 747 but little else, takes off with a quarter million pounds of thrust generated by eight engines, which enable the plane to get airborne quickly when security concerns require it. The plane has a maximum speed of 630 knots — just 130 knots short of the speed of sound — and can travel 6,800 miles without refueling (which can be done in the air when needed). Air Force One also contains multiple electronic and material countermeasures to ward off an aerial attack but doesn’t have parachutes or escape pods such as those imagined in the 1997 Harrison Ford movie; they say that the jet’s huge slipstream would render those kinds of safety measures useless.

In the cabin, however, everything is appointed with comfort and workability in mind. Check out some of the amenities:

~ The president’s cabin suite is located near the nose of the plane and has couches that fold out into beds, complete with blankets monogrammed with the presidential seal.

~ The president need not turn off his cell phone before takeoff because he doesn’t need one in the first place. The plane has 80 phones on board and 238 miles of communications cable, along with Internet and satellite links.

~There are workspaces and conference rooms with leather chairs, plus a cabin just for the press corps.

~ In case of emergency, a medical room on board is stocked with a pharmacy, an X-ray machine and an operating table — and is staffed with a full-time surgeon.

~ No chintzy airline food here, either. Air Force One has two galleys staffed by five chefs who can serve up to 100 meals per seating (the normal number of people on the plane is between 70 and 80).

~ When each passenger comes on board, the wait staff notes his or her coffee preference and prepares and delivers coffee whenever requested.

~ President George H.W. Bush had a treadmill installed on the plane so he could keep up his workout routine.

And you thought that upgrade you got to first class was nice. Sounds like the Waldorf Astoria in air!

There are actually two identical VC-25s that can serve as Air Force One (an aircraft is called Air Force One only if the president is actually on board). Both planes are often flown to destinations so there’s always a backup. Accompanying them are at least two massive Air Force C-5 cargo planes that contain the armored presidential limousines (a primary and a decoy) and accompanying support vehicles for a motorcade, including a fully stocked ambulance. Sometimes, the presidential helicopter, Marine One, and other auxiliary aircraft are also ferried to a long-distance location on one of the cargo planes. The cargo planes land well in advance of Air Force One to begin assembling and staging all the necessary vehicles to be ready the second the president steps off the plane.

When Air Force One rolls to a stop on the tarmac at the local airport or airbase, there is no mistaking the famous blue paint scheme, presidential seal and the distinctive “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” lettering on the fuselage. Although the planes have changed, the look is nearly the same as it was when Jacqueline Kennedy had the scheme painted on the original Air Force One, a Boeing 707-320B, in the early 1960s. For five decades, the image of an American president emerging from that famous plane has been a fixture in world events.

After the president gets into one of the armored limousines, the motorcade moves quickly on a designated route accompanied by Secret Service and local law-enforcement vehicles and helicopters. Often the route is changed at the last minute to thwart potential ambushers. Arriving at the venue, the president’s personal Secret Service detail sets up a perimeter before the president emerges and, perhaps, waves to the crowd. He is then quickly whisked through an alternate entrance and into a secure holding area before the speech. All this is planned down to the second. The speech is the easy part.

Okay. I could now describe the preparations for the Pope’s travel, but I think you get the general idea for my little dissertation today.

If it takes all that for the president of the United States, or the Pope or some other dignitary just to go make a speech, what did it look like for the King of Kings, God’s chosen ruler of the whole world, to make his grand entrance at the beginning of the most important week the world has ever known? Luke and the other gospel writers give us a window into the travel arrangements that were needed when Jesus came into Jerusalem and into an environment that was anything but secure.

First, there’s the reason for the trip in the first place. Presidents usually go where they’re invited to make a speech or attend a meeting. Jesus received no invitation to come to Jerusalem. No summit meeting was scheduled with the temple officials, who had no doubt heard about Jesus’ teaching and healing. No town-hall meeting was set up with the Pharisees and Sadducees on the pressing issues of Torah and purity practice that Jesus had controversially circumvented or modified. No one had put together a press conference about his most recent activity in Jericho, where he healed a blind beggar and ate with a known tax collector (Luke 18:35–19:10). No congressional arguments over the latest health bill. Like Air Force One flying the President into a foreign country unannounced for Thanksgiving to have dinner with the troops, Jesus shows up quite unexpectedly.

But Jesus knew all along that he would need to make the trip. Jesus tells his disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.” He goes on to predict his death and resurrection for the third time, but even his own cabinet of disciples do not understand the plan.

Then there was his mode of transport. In the first-century Roman world, emperors always made their arrival in a city with a great deal of pomp and circumstance. Elite troops carried Roman standards — the equivalent of big, bold letters on a plane. The emperor himself entered the city riding on a warhorse, the ancient forerunner of a jet, or in a chariot, which acted like an ancient armored limo.

Jesus, however, eschews the decorations and instead has a donkey commissioned as his royal mode of transport. And it isn’t even a full-grown donkey; it’s a “colt” (Matthew 21:2 adds the donkey detail) — four spindly legs vs. the powerful hooves of a horse or a quarter million pounds of thrust in a VC-25. Jesus does have the disciples act a little like a first-century messianic Secret Service when they go to pick up this diminutive donkey, giving a kind of secret code word: “The Lord needs it”.

Jesus had specified that the donkey was to be a young colt that had not been ridden. This suggests the sacred aspect of his journey to Jerusalem. Only animals that had never been used as beasts of burden could be considered suitable for sacred purposes (Numbers 19:2; 1 Samuel 6:7). The unridden animal’s willingness to bear Jesus also says something about his power. Jesus is not only a king — he is a divine king. This is not a political occasion, but a sacred one.

A young donkey with a large passenger struggling down the steep road that leads from the Mount of Olives to the eastern gate of Jerusalem may seem a little ridiculous to us, compared to white-topped helicopters and jumbo jets. But to the people gathering around to watch Jesus’ arrival, the mode of transport was perhaps even more symbolic than Air Force One is to us. By riding into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, Jesus was making a very specific political statement and messianic claim, echoing the prophet’s imagery in Zechariah 9:9. Instead of a display of power and might with armed security and fighter escorts, this King comes in “humble and riding on a donkey.”

And what about the crowd? The crowd accompanying Jesus was as humble as his conveyance — a ragtag collection of disciples and hangers-on spreading their cloaks in the road, which was the ancient equivalent of rolling out a red carpet. This wasn’t an ordinary king, promoting his own glory and flaunting his symbols of power, but a fisher king, a king for fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, demoniacs and cripples. Many of these people probably wouldn’t have passed a Secret Service screening if they had to, but they nonetheless lined the road for the approaching donkey-cade, shouting a messianic campaign slogan, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”.

The religious elite certainly understood what Jesus was doing by arriving in the city this way, unannounced and unauthorized. Rather than joining the cheering supporters, they stage a protest. Eventually they will realize that this would-be king’s security detail was pretty weak, and they would make sure that Jesus left the city on their terms, wanting him to stagger, not swagger, carrying a symbol of defeat and death.

Of course, we know that a week later, Jesus will make another unannounced arrival for which no one was prepared, making an empty tomb the focal point of all human history. Presidents and their planes will come and go, but, because of Easter, there is only one eternal King for whom the world waits in anticipation.

Palm Sunday is a great time to assess our preparation for the King’s arrival, not only in our individual hearts but also in eschatological (or end time) terms. Speculating on the mode of transport for Jesus’ return, be it surfing on a cloud or riding a celestial steed à la the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation, is an exercise that some Christians have made into a booming theological business. I like to refer to it as counting the number of Angels that could sit on the head of a pin. We have to remember, though, that the King arrived the first time humbly, being born in a manger, and then began his inauguration week by riding into a city on a laughable little donkey.

If our King comes to us so gently and humbly, how might we prepare for his return by following his example? Would we be prepared? There are lots of examples we might lift up here, such as people who have chosen sacrifice over security or welcome for the poor over the pursuit of wealth. If Jesus were to arrive this Sunday, how would you welcome him? With what stories would you regale him? With what songs and shouts would you praise him? What would you be proud to show him (or ashamed to show him)? Would you recognize him for who he is or, like the religious leaders, would you mistake him for someone else because his humility doesn’t fit the model of a leader? How would you roll out the red carpet for the King? We know the King is coming soon, so why not stage a rehearsal?

May Holy Week be a Blessed time for you all!

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Sermon

March 21, 2010

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Intent: Humility

Today, we will look at one of the most dramatic private encounters. It also contains one of Jesus' most well-known statements. But before we can appreciate this encounter or understand this statement, we need to understand the setting.

The beginning of the Gospel reading sounds like an honest request for help in pursuing justice, but they weren't interested in justice; they were only interested in trapping Jesus! What kind of trap? The Scribes and Pharisees thought they had found a situation that would serve their purposes perfectly. They thought they had Jesus caught between the demands of Mosaic Law and the law of the occupying Roman forces. The Scribes and Pharisees were looking for the perfect example to disprove the claim of who Jesus was. Let’s face it, the Scribes and Pharisees did not need to go to Jesus to solve this; they could have (and should have) gone to the High Priests, based on Judaic Law. In fact, based on their claims that Jesus was nothing less than a heretic, it is ludicrous to think they would even consider Jesus to solve this moral problem. What they were doing, was setting Jesus up in a trap; pure and simple.

If Jesus, in response to their question, was “soft” and pardoned the woman caught in adultery, how could he claim to be faithful to the tradition of Moses? On the other hand, if he advocated stoning her to death, he would be liable to persecution by the Romans, who had taken away from the Jews the right to put anyone to death. They felt there was no way they could lose.

As we most know, the Old Testament listed adultery as a capital crime (Lev. 20:10). This is sometimes viewed as amusing to the modern reader, when it merits no punishment in our modern society. This could be said of many of the “laws” we find in the Old Testament in relation to modern times, however…. The Mosaic Law was very tough on crimes against people, relationships, and the family unit. The other law codes were tough on property crimes, as an example, cutting off hands as the punishment for property crimes, as opposed to stoning to death for crimes against people. This difference highlights the different value-systems, things versus people.

The religious leaders hoped to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If he agreed with the Old Testament law and called for her execution, they could accuse him of sedition before the Romans, because since 30 AD the Romans had taken away the Jews' right of capital punishment. If he said she shouldn't be stoned, they could accuse him of false teaching and discredit him with the people, because of what the Old Testament law mandated. Common people usually prefer harsh punishment for proven criminals.

Not surprisingly, Jewish civil law had very strict conditions under which this crime was punishable by execution. They really felt they had Jesus corned this time. They thought that they really knew the answer to this one and the woman. It required that they be caught in the act (Num. 5:13). So, are we to assume here that one of them caught the woman and the man in the act of adultery?

But the same law stated that both parties were to be produced and prosecuted (Deut. 22:22). The last time I checked, it took two people to commit adultery! If they caught the woman "in the very act," then where is the man? It is obvious that there is a conspiracy here. Why? If there was any integrity to the whole action, the ones drawing the woman here, they would have had the other party as well. The whole story could have been fabricated, but the most plausible explanation is that these men have set the woman up to use her in their attempt to discredit Jesus. They probably sent an "undercover agent" to solicit her services (maybe one of them), then on a pre-arranged signal burst in, let him go and dragged her to Jesus. This makes them accessories to the crime and therefore guilty of adultery themselves. Farfetched? Maybe…..

What did Jesus write in the dirt? Nobody knows for certain because it doesn't say. Whatever he wrote did not appear to back them off. Maybe he simply wrote the 6th commandment. What is important is not what he wrote on the ground, but what he said to them. They thought they really had him! But Jesus was smarter than they gave him credit for. Why is Jesus really writing on the ground? Stalling for time? No, he was tested many times like this and was never caught off guard. And here, he clearly smelled something rotten; not just that they were using her to get at Jesus--something equally as immoral. The common modern practice of dealing with misbehaving children is to put them in a “time-out corner”. So, maybe Jesus was giving these adult children a “cooling-off’ period, or “time-out corner”. So, in essence, Jesus ignores their test and gives them time to think.

So, how does Jesus respond? Just about everyone knows the verse, but most misapply it. It is usually cited either as a prohibition against making moral judgments, or as a support for abolishing capital punishment. This is not the time to discuss capital punishment, but whatever your view on capital punishment, you shouldn't use this verse to support it. Why? Because Jesus could not have meant this without directly contradicting Old Testament law and playing right into the hands of his enemies.

What Jesus means is "Whoever among you, who is without equal guilt in this specific case, be the one to initiate the execution." He had discerned the conspiracy, and was letting them know that if they initiated her execution, they were also initiating their own prosecution and condemnation! He turned their test around and against themselves. Jesus turns the accusation away from the woman and turns it toward the accusers. The older ones caught on more quickly and did the only smart thing they did in the entire incident - they skedaddled out of there! And with them went the case against her under Jewish law.

What the Pharisees did not take into account were Jesus’ deep love and compassion for humanity. They did not understand his claim that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17). A story that begins with a deathly accusation, ends with divine mercy. Jesus knew that every person in the world had been deeply tainted by sin; that everyone, regardless of outward appearances, was in slavery to sin and desperately needed the salvation he came to offer.

Now she is left looking at with Jesus’ followers still looking on. You think you've had bad days! She has been group-busted, publicly humiliated, and was in danger of losing her life. Now suddenly her accusers are dispatched. She has just witnessed Jesus' penetrating insight into their sin and his condemnation of their actions, but how will he deal with her now? As is so often the case, the way Jesus responds is different than what she probably expected.

Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery should encourage us. Our desire is often to avoid sin, but we sometimes feel powerless in rejecting temptation and overcoming sinful patterns. To know that Jesus believes us capable of overcoming sin, (through his help, of course) should give us great encouragement.

Jesus does not say "Sin no more, and then I won't condemn you." Instead, Jesus says "I do not condemn you--now go and sin no more." He isn't saying merely that he won't prosecute her. Neither is he saying that she isn't responsible for her actions. Neither is he saying that he accepts her apology to him, although we do not know of her giving one. He is forgiving what she did to others, and to God. In other words, he is issuing a declaration of divine forgiveness, even though she is guilty!! How can he do this without making a complete mockery of God's justice? Because he is willing to pay the penalty for her sins himself. Because he was willing to pay this penalty. God the Father has given him the authority to forgive all those who believe in him.

Paul’s words to the Philippians can give us hope in this regard as well. He says, “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s words express a heart set on Jesus, a heart that knows Jesus intimately and personally. They reflect one who has had a true conversion and who desires to turn from sin and embrace Jesus and the life he offers. When these qualities are reflected in our hearts, we too will be strengthened in our attempts to overcome temptations that lead to sin.

How does this all apply to us? Lent calls us to the same kind of encounter with Jesus, so that we too face our own sinfulness, hear his invitation to embrace a new way of living, and make the right choice. Part of the central theme is that we are quick to condemn each other. Jesus’ lesson is that we search within ourselves prior to proclaiming a condemnation.

As we approach Easter, let us open our hearts to Jesus so that we might know him more intimately, love him more fully, and follow him more faithfully. We will find the same power that freed Jesus from the grave will strengthen and free us from our sinful patterns and enable us to walk faithfully with him. That is true humility.

May God richly bless you during this Passiontide. +

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sunday Sermon

March 14, 2010

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Intent: Spiritual Refreshment

It used to be that when we did something stupid such as, say, walk into an apparently invisible plate-glass door or fall down the stairs or back the car out of the garage while the door was still down, we’d try to keep that to ourselves. No sense letting the neighbors know we’re coo coo.

But with the advent of the Internet and the popularity of shows such as America’s Funniest Home Videos, people are now beginning to look at their gaffes, faux pas and misadventures as things to share with the whole world. We’ve bought into Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” idea, even if that fame comes from a 15-second clip on a video-sharing site and shows us just before we headed to the emergency room.

But while most video-posting sites, such as YouTube and even Facebook, carry a wide variety of content, one site is devoted entirely to the imperfect populace. It’s called the “Fail Blog.” Think of it as a cross between America’s Funniest Home Videos, Jay Leno’s “Headlines” segment and Candid Camera all rolled into one. People post their own pictures and videos or upload goofy signs or sights they’ve seen for everyone else to view and comment on. You’ll see everything imaginable. Over each picture or video, the site stamps the word FAIL in big, bold letters. Kind of gives a new meaning to the concept of the “boob tube.”

When we read the famous parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, it seems to look like a photo album of failure; but without the funny.

The first scene shows a kid with his hand out, demanding (not asking) that he get his share of inheritance right now, up front. A kid with his hand out isn’t an unusual picture, as any parent knows, but in this case it’s a particularly shocking one given the cultural conventions of the time. Jewish law dictated that when the father passed away, the eldest son would get two-thirds of the estate, known as a “double portion”, and the next youngest son one-third. But, as Jesus tells it, Dad was still alive and well. So the younger son commits a major gaffe by basically saying, “Pop, I wish you were already dead. Forget the family business and, for that matter, the whole family. I’m outta here.”

Although it wasn’t unusual for a father to distribute property in advance, as in the case of marriage, Jesus strongly implies that the younger son’s demand is disrespectful, rebellious and foolish; a clear violation of the commandment to honor one’s parents. In a culture where family and community always took priority over the individual, the kid’s self-centered demand would have raised the eyebrows of those hearing the parable for the first time. They’d definitely lump him in with those “sinners” that the Pharisees and scribes were accusing Jesus of befriending.

As if to hammer home that very point, Jesus offers scene two. The suddenly wealthy kid living it up in some foreign (“Gentile”) country. There he “squanders” (the Greek word that means “scatters”) all the property by living a wild and undisciplined lifestyle. But after he’s blown it all and is flat broke, he hires himself out to a Gentile pig farmer, which is about as un-Jewish as he can get. Pigs were an abomination to Jews, and people who cared for swine were cursed. The picture of a young man, hungry and destitute, sitting in the filth of a pigsty envying the slop his porker charges who were inhaling down, would have qualified as a major FAIL photo. Jesus seems to be making the point that this kid is even farther gone than any of the “sinners” with whom he’s sitting down to dinner with.

But the pigsty is also a place of revelation. In the midst of piles of pig slop and manure, the boy “came to himself” and decided to go home. Notice, though, that at least initially it’s more of a pragmatic decision than a penitential one. He’s a hired hand to the pig farmer and gets nothing, so he figures that if he goes home he can at least get hired on to the family business and get what the other servants are getting, which is way better than pig fodder. Yeah, he’ll have to do a mea culpa, but at least he’ll have a full belly.

Of course, we know the next picture; that of the father racing down the driveway to embrace his long-lost sinner son and calling for a major-league party to be thrown in his honor. Here we might picture Rembrandt’s beautiful painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, with the penitential son kneeling at the feet of his father, whose face reflects a deep love and sense of relief. It’s a picture we certainly wouldn’t post on the fail blog but is one that Christians have looked to for centuries as a reminder of God’s love.

In a first-century context, however, Jesus’ hearers might have been more likely to initially assign the biggest failure in the whole story to the father, who is really more the subject of the parable than the prodigal son for whom it’s more readily known.

In the first place, the Pharisees and scribes would certainly have stamped FAIL on the father’s willingness to give the boy his inheritance in the first place. A good father would have squashed such rebellion in a child rather than give in to it. And then, after the insolent boy has the nerve to actually show his face back on the family farm, the father disgraces himself by running out to meet him “while he was still far off”. In first-century Israel, it was considered the height of indignity for a man, especially a family patriarch, to run anywhere for anything, let alone to run out from the house to meet the one who had dishonored him. Not only that, but the father actually forgives the boy and restores him to the status of son, even though the kid had disowned himself from the family. Where was the rebuke? Where was the lesson? Where was the justice in all that? Dad was a failure, here, for sure.

The older son thinks so, too. He can’t believe that Dad is doing such a heinous thing for his stupid kid brother. He stands outside the party and angrily pouts, so the father once again disgraces himself to come out and “plead with him”. The older son gives dad a tongue-lashing, reminding dad that he’s been a loyal son the whole time but he has nothing to show for it, except two-thirds of the inheritance, which his Dad later points out. The big brother wants justice, wants retribution, wants what’s coming to him, but all Dad says is, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found”.

Read the gospels and you see that Jesus had a habit of turning failures into the heroes of his stories. The “Good Samaritan” (a first-century oxymoron) in Luke 10 and the “Dishonest Manager” in Luke 16, are just a couple of examples that frame this particular story in Luke. Jesus picked losers such as tax collectors to be his disciples and partied with people who everyone in polite and pious society would have considered to be failures on a whole lot of levels. He didn’t seem to mind being pictured as a failure because he knew that was the only way that the many faces on whom the rest of the world had stamped FAIL would come to him. The parable of the loving father and his two sons was designed to invite self-righteous Pharisees and scribes to see how they had become the older brother, failing to experience the joy and celebration that God does when wayward sinners come home. But it was also designed to remind us all of the embarrassing lengths to which God, in the person of Jesus, would go to make that homecoming a reality.

Reminds me a lot of the ministry we attempt to cater here at St. Francis. In a world where some churches would make you feel as though you were the losers, failures, or those who simply do not fit the “mold” of what they seem to think is required of one who follows Christ. We see them in a manner that Jesus made clear; that those who were the outcasts, are really the ones to spend time with. The Church isn’t really for the well and righteous, but for the sick and downtrodden.

Lent reminds us that the story of Jesus inevitably moves toward the cross, the ultimate picture of failure and disgrace. Jesus was willing to risk the embarrassment of being stripped, beaten and hanged naked to die and to be held up as a failure for the whole world to see on that Friday. It is through failure that God chooses to save the world. As Paul would later put it in 1 Corinthians, the cross was and is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”.

In his book Six Hours One Friday, Max Lucado wonders if Jesus used his hands while telling the parable of the loving father and his two sons. When he got to the point in the story where the overjoyed father runs out to meet his broken-down son, did he open his arms wide to illustrate the point? “Whether he did that day or not, I don’t know,” says Lucado. “But I know that he did later. He later stretched his hands as open as he could. He forced his arms so wide apart that it hurt. And to prove that those arms would never fold and those hands would never close, he had them nailed open. They still are.”

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Weekly Catechism
It said that the UCC has a doctrine and no dogmas. Why?

Dogma is derived from the GK word dokeo, meaning to 'seem'. A dogma is seen as an arrogant declaration of opinion, based on what seems to be the case. In contrast to this, a doctrine is a body of teachings and is derived from the L. word docere, meaning to 'teach'. From the same root comes the word 'doctor', he who teaches and instructs, hence the reference in the Bible to the doctors of the church.

There is a subtle, although important, difference between dogma and doctrine. Dogma is prescriptive with regard to articles of belief, doctrine is instructive.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sunday Sermon

March 7, 2010

The Third Sunday in Lent

Intent: Understanding

The television commercial for one of those electronic stores opens with a couple of guys ‘vegging’ on the couch, watching TV. A voiceover says that on average, Americans watch six hours of television every day. Then, boom! The screen comes alive with shots of brand-new television sets, including flat-panel plasma screens, rear-projection and surround-sound systems. The voiceover now says: “Let’s try to up that to seven hours a day!”

Watching television is no sin, but it might be an addiction — a soft addiction, according to Judith Wright, author of There Must Be More to Life: Finding More Life, Love and Meaning by Overcoming Your Soft Addictions. She compares two women in her study. The first uses television as a learning tool to explore the world and understand history and culture. She finds it rewarding to learn about the eating habits of the African Ashanti tribe of Ghana, or the mating habits of the Big-Headed Amazon River turtle in South America.

The second woman doesn’t use television this way. For her, after a stress-filled day, television is a means to get away from it all. Rather than wanting to be stimulated, she wants to be numbed. So she ‘vegges’. Wright says that “the first woman uses television to enhance her life; the second woman uses it to escape from her life.”

You gotta do what you gotta do, right?

But the apostle Paul has another approach in this well-known passage about temptation. Unfortunately, any discussion about temptation and addiction goes right past most of us, because most of us (not all) do not have to deal with hard-core addictions and temptations.

Paul admits that in the past, the Israelites had some serious addictive behaviors to deal with. They “set their minds on evil things”; idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling and complaining. For the Hebrew children, these were some of the quintessential “deadly sins” which left “their bodies … scattered over the desert.”

But soft addictions and temptations are another matter. Maybe like working too much, consumerism (we spend too much on things we don’t really need), chocolate, neglecting the family, spreading gossip, undermining a coworker, neglecting your daily prayer life, chocolate, preferring to read anything but the word of God, a hankering for the latest and most fashionable clothes, spending too much time at Car Toys, and did we mention chocolate?

Or that need, that deep, probing need to get the new I-Phone that allows you to browse the Internet at speeds faster than most dial-up connections; check personal and corporate e-mail; watch clips and stream audio for news and music; download polyphonic, animated and voice ringers, and that has full-color, graphically rich games and screen savers. Yes! Exciting, isn’t it? What we live for!

Things like that could be “Soft Addictions”.

We’re talking about behaviors that in and of themselves are neither moral nor immoral, good nor bad, right nor wrong. The goodness or badness, the rightness or wrongness of these things are determined entirely by motivation, intention and attachment. When you’re watching television like the second person of Judith Wright’s study; wanting to escape, looking for an altered state of consciousness, and find yourself doing that a lot, then you’ve got a problem.

The big problem, however, is not what soft addictions do to yourself, or to others, but what they do in your relationship with God. When we’re tempted to give even soft addictions priority in our lives, God tends to get shoved aside. And that leads to a spiritual desert of parched earth, barren soil and a fruitless life.

Paul reassures us that the temptations we face are “common to everyone”. Neither we nor the temptations we face are unique, but they do impact our relationship with God, and that’s a problem we can’t, or we shouldn’t ignore.

Not sure you have any soft addictions? Check it out:

Do you Zone Out? When you’re doing this, your eyeballs go on screen saver mode and your mind is somewhere outside your body. Granted, we all need time to decompress from the stress of life, but there are more productive ways of doing it than numbing ourselves through mindless activity. If you have to zone out, meditation might be an option, or Centering Prayer.

Is this behavior Compulsive? A soft temptation is usually something that an irresistible urge drives you to do. You feel helpless and powerless when doing this activity, and you probably feel guilty about it when it’s over. Whether it’s eating too much, watching bad TV, surfing the underbelly of the Internet or even impulse shopping; the compulsive nature of temptation drives us into a very isolated corner of our souls. You swear you’ll never do it again, but though you try to stop, you can’t. It’s a vicious cycle.

Excuses and explanations are the grease that keeps the wheels of soft addictions turning. If we feel a need to justify our activities to ourselves or others, then we’re probably hooked. The distorted thinking that got us into the addiction in the first place makes it easier to justify the indulgence. Some examples:

· “This designer dress is really an investment.”
· “This doughnut has no calories if I eat it standing up.”
· “I can’t exercise this afternoon because I already showered this morning.”
· “Wide-screen TVs are easier on your eyes.”
· “All of this shopping is good for the economy.”
· “But I’m earning frequent-flier miles.”

Do we attempt to hide the behavior? A habit becomes a soft addiction when it must be done in secret in order to be enjoyed. Lying, backtracking and covering up the evidence are the methods of operating for the seriously tempted. In other words, you feel ashamed of what you’re doing and that’s why you want to hide it from others.

Are we looking to avoid feelings? Many of us spend our lives avoiding deeper issues and feelings, whether positive or negative. Soft temptations put us into an “emotion-muting state” where numbness, exclusion of others and wallowing in unsettled feelings become a way of coping with both the good and the bad of life. It’s a fact that leads many of us to be more engaged in watching and experiencing the feelings and emotions of a TV family than we are in our own.

The bottom line is that soft addictions/temptations are symptoms of deeper needs in our lives; needs for relationships, intimacy and meaning, and they can keep us from living an abundant life, the life that God wants to give us.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”. In fact, God offers an alternative way out of temptation if we’ll only make the decision to take it.

The simple answer to changing our behavior is to just stop it; but addictions by definition require more than sheer personal willpower to get over. It has been suggested that by adding real, life-enhancing, nourishing activities to your life you will naturally subtract the need for a soft addiction, literally pushing it out of the way.

A quick glance at what St. Paul wrote shows us how much God has added to our lives so that we can live addiction-free.

1. Temptations are a common experience.
2. God is faithful.
3. God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability to withstand it.
4. God will provide a way out.
5. This will allow us to “stand up under it”.

That is more than enough! We are also urged to add to our lives behaviors and activities that give us the rush we need in a wholesome and positive way. Coming to church can be viewed as one of those wholesome behaviors. It is here that we can meet with others like us and be part of a larger ‘support-group’.

The early Methodist movement was characterized by the “class meeting” — an accountability group in which every member had to participate. The meetings began by asking everyone around the circle, “How is it with your soul?” In turn the participants would respond with both the success and the struggle of their spiritual lives and would be prayed for and supported by the community.

“How is it with your soul?” It’s a great Lenten question. And in Jesus Christ, we have found the great Lenten answer. Truth is that we can learn new behaviors and feed the real spiritual hunger in our lives. Enough with the temptations of instant gratification and superficial spirituality. Let’s take care of our souls.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sunday Sermon

February 28, 2010

The Second Sunday of Lent

Intent: Control of Speech

The comfort of night-lights is something we cherish as children but tend to forget as adults. The world can truly be a dark and scary place. But by the time we are grown, both our eyes and our hearts have often become so accustomed to the dark that we forget the warmth and radiance that light can bring to our soul. Our theological ancestors reminds us that one of the primary ways God has made the divine presence known on Earth has been through revealing glimpses of the divine light.

Moses begged for a glimpse of God. Once he was honored with a back-view peek; he found his face forever emblazoned with God's radiance which he had so briefly glimpsed. The prophet Habakkuk describes God with beams of radiance shooting out from the Creator's creative hand. Today's Transfiguration text introduces the miraculous mountaintop epiphany with the presence of dazzling light.

The three disciples wanted to build three temples of light at the top of the mountain. A transfiguration "booth" would serve as a light at the end of the tunnel, a beacon of light beckoning those squinting from dim tunnel vision or those stuck at the wrong end of long, dark tunnels.

Jesus rebuked their "light-at-the-end-of-a-tunnel" understanding of discipleship and challenged them to embrace a tunnel-at-the-end-of-the-light discipleship. The church is not called to invite people out of the darkness into the light so much as to bring the light into the darkness. We spend so much time building our booths, our own safe "temples of light", our church buildings and communities, but fail to spend anywhere near that much time bringing that light into the dark tunnels.

The Transfiguration scene from our Gospel reading today, does not call us to be "a light at the end of the tunnel," waiting for people lost in the dark to blunder their way towards us, especially considering that in this day and age, most of the population avoids the Church altogether. The church is to take the light of truth, the gospel and glory of Christ, boldly into the tunnel. There is always a tunnel lurking right outside our ring of light.

If we are to enter the tunnel at the end of the light; if we are to poke new windows, not drill tiny peepholes, into the darkness of the world; if we are to live our lives in the light and lead others toward Christ, then we need to build three new kinds of windows in that tunnel.

First, windows that face outward; ever notice which way the beautiful stained-glass windows of churches are directed? Most stained-glass windows only tell stories to those already safely inside the illumined interior of the church building. To those trapped outside in the tunnel, the beautiful windows are nothing but hazy, multicolored blurs, a visual inharmonious confusion incapable of casting meaningful, penetrating light on anything.

One of the biggest barriers to God-bearing in the third millennium, is that the church seems to be a closed community. An invisible "For Members Only" sign is found on too many of our churches. In fact, it's a sign that is etched in bigger letters on our church doors than on many Rotary, Kiwanis and animal club doors. So many people find themselves not welcome at the very places that all should be welcome; within our churches. Hence why churches, such as our denomination, come to existence. So, people feeling unwelcome in many churches, can feel welcome as Christ meant them to be.

It's time to turn our stained-glass windows outward, to tell our stories to the world. But a word of warning: once we turn them around, it must be light enough inside for people to see outside. Unless the community inside is on fire for God, there will not be enough light to illuminate the windows so that the world can see them from the outside.

Second, churches should not only have windows that lets the light out, but windows that let in the light of the outside; some churches have forgone the expense of stained-glass windows but have instead erected great panes of frosted, glazed-over, or intentionally crackled glass to obscure any view of what lies outside the walls of the sanctuary.

In the early 18th century, when the imperial English colonized the wild Welsh, proper English travelers who ventured from England to Wales used to close the curtains of their carriage to shut out the "horrid scenery." They didn't want to be disturbed by the horrors of the outside world.

How many of our churches are using frosted glass for the same reason? For us to see the outside world as it is rather than through our blue-tinted windows would mean that we must come to terms with the fact that it's a different world out there. It's time to open the curtains. What realities are we hiding from behind our frosted-glass windows? How can we offer light to the world when our view of what that world is like is filtered through frosted, tinted glass?

Third, or finally, we need new stained-glass windows, the stained-glass windows for the 21st century; computer screens.

This new world will not get its inspiration the Gutenberg Way. We Catholics have had a rough affair with the bound book ever since typesetting was invented in mid-15th century. We have been accused, of many things, but notably by non-Catholics that we did not read the Bible, however incorrect that may be. Why, we failed to put windows in our churches for people to see in. A restricted membership with a high level of adherence expectations. However, the past century has been a mission to put a Bible in every hand, in every pew, even in every motel room, which has pushed the church and Christ's gospel message out into the darkest places in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, however, the way people carry on the fastest communication and obtain their most important information is no longer from the pages of a book. Instead, our postmodern culture is turning toward a new kind of stained-glass window for one of its sources of light. There is a very good chance that you look at that "window" at some point every day. When you boot up Microsoft Windows 7, what is the first visual you see? The colored panes of a software stained-glass window.

Christianity is now undergoing a visual metamorphosis. Our image of images must be altered. The image, not the word, has become the primary unit of cultural currency. I grew up in a world where texts were better and images, or pictures, were held in lower esteem. A book with pictures in it was inferior to one without pictures. In fact, if you had a lot of pictures in your book you had written (Oh, my gawd!) a "coffee table" book.

Christians of the 21st century will be Christians who experience God in a variety of ways, including a sensory web made possible through powerful new visualization technologies. In my opinion, one of the reasons why the three generations born after 1964 are not in our churches and have not become Christians is that we have not made it easy for them to become hyper mediated believers and metamorphic believers through multisensory worship.

Will we be a church that pokes new windows in the tunnel at the end of the light? We have to be a church that does not segregate those who seem to fall under categories that other churches find uncomfortable to deal with. We also need to be a church that is willing to live the passion; the passion of Jesus Christ.

Most of us live far too hectic lives; we are busy from morning to night with work chauffeuring kids, cleaning, meals, answering e-mail, taking care of the dogs, and any number of other things. When we finally sit down in the evening to relax a little, we often doze off while reading or watching TV program. We might wake up with a start when the book drops out of our hand, or when a loud commercial comes on, and we realize then that we have missed half of the program.

Peter, John and James in this gospel must've been really tired after their climb up the mountain, fore they fell fast asleep. They then awaken to see Jesus transfigured in glory. How startling, that must've been.

Luke's Gospel of the Transfiguration event is the only one that includes the necessity of the passion on the journey to glory. St. Peter awakens from sleep to see Jesus is Lord and wants to stay there. But the Gospels say that he didn't know what he was saying. In order to share in the glory of Jesus the disciples must walk the journey of Jesus. Meaning they must offer their very lives for the sake of others. These three Apostles were privileged to awaken from sleep to see Jesus transfigured in glory. But they clearly missed the most important point; this transfigured glory foreshadows his risen glory. Luke's foresight is to glory always presupposes embracing the Passion.

This is the paradox of the Paschal mystery; that something as desirable as to share in Jesus' transfigured glory only comes through our embracing something as demanding as dying to self for the good of others. Even in this glorious moment of Transfiguration, which gives us encouragement and hope during our Lenten journey, we are reminded that the only way to remain in glory is to die to self. We have to come off the mountain walk our own journeys through death to glory.

Let's face it, constant dying to self gets tiresome! This Sunday, we are given a glimpse of glory to help ease the discouragement of a lifetime of self emptying. This tells us something about how we might keep Sunday's holy. If each Sunday were a day of rest time, to be good to ourselves, to do something special that is uplifting, to enter into a moment of glory, we would be better fortified to continue dying to self.

All told, this Sunday, the readings are speaking to us in an attempt to get us to see beyond the stained-glass window, to open the windows and not only let the light in, but most especially, let the light out. As the church, we have a double duty; first, we must point out the things need to change, such as sin and Self-centeredness. Second, that we are all creations of God no matter who we are and therefore all are welcome into the building known as the church, where the light can be found; so that those who have little to no light in their lives, may see and find that light.

Let us be the beacon; let us be the light to others; let experience the Transfiguration this Lent, by the giving of ourselves in the opening of the doors and windows to all.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.