Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sunday Sermon

April 25, 2010

The Third Sunday after Easter

God calls the church to be a sign-- the leaven of heaven.

Dealing with the public in a retail forum, as I do, I have come to know some people (maybe you do, too) whose first priority in life should be to re-arrange their bedroom furniture. What else could explain the fact that they permanently seem to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed? It seems as if they misread the installation instructions on their beds and put them up wrong-side out.

I am sure we all know people that seem to resemble this characteristic. They go through each day cranky and cantankerous, purveyors of doom and gloom. These are the folks that always know what new natural disaster has just struck, what local businesses are about to go bankrupt, whose marriages are on the rocks. How could we survive life without these wrong-side-of-the-bed type people? How could we get around without the black clouds and gloomy forecasts. Without wrong-side-of-the-bed type folks, we would never fully appreciate how miserable life really is. Sounds like atheists to me.

The book of Revelation is often perceived as sharing that same sort of bleak perspective -- a wrong-side-of-the-bed vision foretelling pestilence, punishment, famine, death, destruction. But the Revelation of Jesus to John is not a narrowed down version of despair, a nerve-racking vision of wrath. Here in today's text we are given celestial glimpses of glory. What might it be like to enlist in God's reign and exist in God's peace?

The divisiveness of nationality, the prejudices of particularity, are forgotten as all peoples forge forward to praise God. There is one congregation, one church, and it joins all its separate voices together in a resonant harmony of glorifying God. John saw this as the church of the future. John also saw this as our template for bringing the church to life in our own time.

Instead of being just another organization lobbying for what it deems important, the church is challenged by this vision in Revelation, to itself become a sign of paradise. For our text calls the church to be what in biblical language, is a sign of the end times.

In Hebrew the concept is conveyed by the word Shamayim, which literally means a foretaste of heaven. If you have ever had an encounter with the Spirit, if you are alive and aglow with life, you know the meaning of Shamayim. In Greek the word for sign is arrabon, a legal term denoting a deposit made that renders the contract binding. A sign is a promise, a pledge, a foretaste, an embodied symbol of something which is to come in its fullness later.

When a young couple plants a spindly little oak sapling smack in the middle of their new backyard, it is a sign of the future they envision in that space. Someday the tree will grow to shade their yard with an enormous umbrella of green. Its sturdy branches will hold the tire swings and tree house platforms of the children yet to be born. It will carpet the ground with its brilliant fall foliage and feed a legion of squirrels with its annual crop of acorns. It might not look like much when planted, but the few spindly limbs of that sapling oak bear the weight of a tremendous sign of that to come.

Although the ultimate sign is the Holy Spirit, as Spirit-empowered people we are each called to act as a sign of the ultimate triumph we know Christ's salvation has in store for all creation. On the day of salvation, today's Revelation text proclaims, all believers will loudly praise God's "blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might".

Are you a sign, a leaven of heaven? Does your life attest to the presence of these divine gifts to the world? When others listen to you speak, watch you work, see your home, do they experience that encounter as an sign of Christ's victory, of God's redeeming love for the world. We are all signs; we who are part of the body of Christ.

Is our church a sign of the future; human conduits of the divine light offering others little glimpses of the brilliance and the glory that awaits the redeemed creation? Is our role in this community a leaven of heaven? We hear a lot about “ethics” in today’s society, especially when it comes to conversations about the church as a whole; do we exemplify ethics in our ministry?

Missionary/physician/musician/historical theologian Dr. Albert Schweitzer gave his life to serve the needs of those who lived in the African jungle. He was to the first half of the 20th century what Mother Teresa was to the second half. He gave one of the best definitions of "ethics", and lived what he defined. He said:

"Let me give you a definition of ethics: It is good to maintain life and further life; it is bad to damage and destroy life ... Ethics is the maintaining of life at the highest point of development -- my own life and other life -- by devoting myself to it in help and love, and both these things are connected." (Reverence for Life, 1965)

Schweitzer allegedly hung a lamp in front of his hospital that shone brilliantly throughout the jungle darkness for a wide area. The light became a beacon of hope and healing for the area's sick and dying. He is said to have hung under the lamp this sign:

"At whatever hour you come, you will find light, and hope and human kindness." *

Both the sign and the lamp were signs of Schweitzer's ministry. Is there a lamp for our church that says to the world, "Come by here. For here is a Leaven of Heaven"?

Though portraying an eternal future, this morning's text focuses on the three most basic human needs of our frail and mortal present. Let’s examine our reading from the Book of Revelation in some analogy type ways.

Physical Needs -- The vision from Revelation promises that when believers are gathered around God enthroned, they will "hunger no more, and thirst no more". In other words, we will be delivered from physical needs.

Each of us is capable of providing some measure of sheer physical comfort to those whose physical needs are consuming all their energy and hope. Welfare reforms have made the global Church's role as a social service agency even more vital. It's hard to work on an empty stomach; it's hard to learn when you're cold and tired; it's hard to play when you're weak and malnourished. Can we feed the hungry? Can we heal the sick? Maybe not in ways that Jesus can, but we can make a difference, even if it is only visiting the sick and bringing bread to the hungry.

Spiritual Needs -- Jesus' vision to John revealed that divine deliverance involves more than just filling up stomachs and banishing body aches. There are other aches that have no neurological cause. There are pains suffered by a parched soul. Without addressing the spiritual needs of the human condition, one finds there is no true sign of salvation present. Saving the body is not enough, for it will fail to thrive unless the spirit is nourished and nurtured by a community of faith. Can we bring our ministry to those in need? Can we bring it to those who may have lost faith in the church, but maybe are still yearning for it all the same? Maybe all it takes is a simple invite to a Catholic Church that is not like other Catholic churches? Just might be ours!

Emotional Needs -- As frail and failing human beings, however, we find our emotional needs are perhaps the most difficult to satisfy, and are even more demanding when denied. Without emotional strength and suppleness, even the strongest body will fail; even the surest spirit will falter. When our body labors, it needs a quiet center, a sense of emotional ease, in order to bear the physical hardship. Our spirit can soar only if it knows there is a safe and secure emotional scaffolding resting under its flight path.

One of the most tragic figures in biblical history is Israel's first chosen king, Saul. Although he was a great and strong warrior and commanded the 12 tribes of the new nation, although he experienced the exalted presence of God's Spirit, Saul's body and soul had a fatal weakness. Although he enjoyed physical and spiritual triumphs, Saul's own emotional melancholia destroyed his faith, his vision, his purpose, his will.

In today's Revelation text, God meets our emotional needs in two ways. The text promises God will "wipe away every tear"; suggesting that the emotionally honest and cleansing tears will first be allowed to flow, but that these tears will then be dried by God's own tender hand. As a sign of this quality of emotional care, we, too, must not be afraid to show the same depth of feeling and to let others do the same. In response to a genuine outpouring of emotion, a sign of the coming age does not judge those who sin or who are different, but offers what is needed -- to dry a cheek, to hold a hand, to show empathy.

Our short little gospel reading is very well matched for today's reading from the book of Revelation. Let me illustrate that for you. Hands are strong symbols. Two clasped hands are on a logo for the United Way. A child walking hand-in-hand with adult is sometimes featured on commercials for Hallmark cards. A child who falls receives a bump or scratch, runs racing to hands for comfort. Anyone who has sat with a very inward dying person knows how important a touch of the hand is; a loving caress, a gentle stroke, the massage of soothing cream. Medical massage therapy is a respected alternative medical practice. All these images and countless others remind us that hands are symbol for connectedness care and hope. This Sunday’s very brief gospel includes the Good Shepherd's reassuring words, “no one can take them out of my hand”.

The gospel conveys Jesus’ great, tender care and concern for his sheep. This care does not keep his followers from violent abuse or great distress, but it does assure them of protection in the midst of persecution and of eternal life. But this assurance only comes when we followers of Jesus hear his voice and live out of the personal relationship God offers us.

By placing side-by-side, hearing and following, the gospel tells us that hearing Jesus is already following him. We follow first by listening. The call to follow is a call to faithful obedience (the root word for obedience means “to hear”). To put it another way, hearing Jesus and heeding his voice is already an active following. Heeding Jesus' voice is already our participation in proclaiming the Gospel. But probably most importantly, hearing Jesus voice is already our participation in eternal life. Ultimately this promise of eternal life is the reassurance and care that Jesus offers. By hearing Jesus voice and following him we will not perish, but we already share in Jesus is eternal life. No better cure than this could the good Shepherd offer.

Let me leave you with some words that a one John Fischer wrote some time ago:

Don't criticize.
Don't analyze.
Don't even try to sympathize.
Don't say you understand because you don't.
Just hold me in your arms for once.
And love me as I am.
Like my mommy used to do
before the world grew up on me.
(John Fischer, "In Praise of the Unrenowned,")

Will this church hold the world in its arms and love it, as a sign of God holding the whole world in the arms of the Almighty -- and loving it? Will you be a leaven of heaven in your family, your community, your world?

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sunday Sermon

April 18, 2010

The Second Sunday after Easter

Millions of Americans used to spend every Sunday night glued to their television sets, watching a Fox Television series called The X-Files. It used to inspire a kind of devotion usually reserved for Sunday morning worship, and for many people the show was an hour of sacred viewing.

This show tells the story of two FBI agents who investigate "X-Files" -- cases involving paranormal or unexplained phenomena. The pair probes evidence of alien visitors, genetically mutated serial killers, unseen violent forces and even religious miracles. Agent Fox Mulder, preoccupied with paranormal activity, is the character convinced that "the truth is out there." His partner, Agent Dana Scully, is a medical doctor who balances Mulder's belief in the unknown with her own scientific skepticism.

As the two work to solve these mysterious cases, they encounter an increasing number of occurrences that defy scientific explanation. Agent Scully discovers that not everything fits her rational world view, and she is led to probe ever deeper into the Christian faith of her childhood. One episode ends with her asking the question, "What if God is speaking . . . and no one is listening?"

If Mulder and Scully were to take their work to first-century Galilee, they would encounter a number of occurrences that could be classified as "X-Files." In John 21 alone, the resurrected Jesus is involved in three odd happenings: He stands unrecognized in front of his closest friends, he causes 153 large fish to rush suddenly into the disciples' net, and he engages in a mysterious dialogue with Peter. These occurrences are clearly paranormal, outside the range of normal experience or scientifically explainable phenomena.

Let’s look at those three happenings individually. For today, we will take our cue from the “X-Files”, and we shall call ours the “Christ-Files”.

Christ-File #1: Jesus Unrecognized.

We struggle to see Jesus in times of exhaustion and confusion. Easter is over, the celebrations have passed, and now we are back on the job, working long hours to try to put food on our tables. Although we are aware that Jesus is risen, we do not know where in the world he is. He certainly does not seem to be close to people like us, or the disciples on the Sea of Tiberias, hard-working men who fish all night and catch absolutely nothing.

It is difficult to see Christ when we are burning with frustration. It is hard to sense his nearness when we are overwhelmed by anxiety, grief or fear. Our feelings can consume us and cut us off from the world around us, a world that is full of signs of the presence of God. We stare blankly over the sides of our isolated boats, like the exhausted and confused fishermen who cannot even recognize their close friend Jesus waiting for them on the beach. How so very often, when life seems to not be going right, that we sometimes forget to call upon Christ.

"Children, you have no fish, have you?" Jesus asks. They answer him, "No," probably with tremendous irritation in their voices. If you have gone a week without sales, or a night without fish, you don't want someone asking you how it's going.

At a time like this, it is best to rethink the task at hand, the one that is causing us such frustration. We should take a break; look at something beautiful, get fresh insights, or best of all: focus on people besides ourselves. The most dependable way to lift our own spirits is to do something good for a person in need. This is also the best place to recognize Jesus once again.

"Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor," said Dorothy Day, "are atheists indeed." The Catholic Worker movement grew out of this woman's desire to live the gospel with directness and simplicity, and it came to include 175 houses of hospitality that feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. "How can there be no God when there are all these beautiful things?" she would ask her atheist friends. From age 15 until her death, she found beauty in places and faces that most people are glad to avoid, says author Jim Forest. Dorothy Day would not let exhaustion or confusion prevent her from recognizing Christ in the faces of the people she served. That is a good lesson for us as well. I frequently think of this as I look at the blighted buildings the neighborhood kids live in, right here on this block.

Christ-File #2: 153 Large Fish.

Men are notorious for resisting guidance and direction. As an example, why did the Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years? Because Moses refused to ask for directions.

With this history, it is likely that the disciples are not terribly receptive when the stranger on the beach suggests, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some fish." Yeah, sure, they think.

The disciples cast the net, and they are not able to haul it in because there are so many fish: 153 large fish, to be exact. This number is intriguing, and would probably inspire Agent Scully to run a mathematical analysis on her computer. The theologian Augustine figured out that the number 153 is obtained when all of the whole numbers from 1 to 17 are added together, a mathematical fact that suggests the completeness of the number 153 itself. Others have suggested that the number is a symbol of the Trinity, or a sign of the totality of the church. At the very least, it describes an enormous catch, one that points to the abundance of Jesus' gifts.

This miracle allows the disciples to recognize Jesus, and Peter, with characteristic passion, with leaps out of the boat and into the sea. It reminds us of when Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes and fed the 5,000, and when he opened the eyes of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in the sharing of a meal. In our own lives, we think of how Christ meets us in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and of how he comes to us with gifts of forgiveness, healing and strength. In times of spiritual emptiness, Jesus surprises us with life-sustaining nourishment.

This phenomenon is not miraculous because 153 fish appear. It is a miracle because it strengthens the faith of the followers of Christ. We should all open our hearts, minds and souls to the miracle that takes place at the Eucharist as we receive our Lord.

Christ-File #3: Dialogue with Peter.

Philip Pare, author of God Made the Devil, writes that miracles tend to mean not less work for their beneficiaries, but more. Such is the case with Peter. After finishing a breakfast of bread and fish, Jesus asks Peter a question three times, a reminder of the three times that Peter denied Jesus on the night of his arrest and betrayal. Three separate times Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" and three times Peter says, "Yes, Lord." Each of these questions and answers cancels out one of Peter's shameful denials. In this way, Jesus gives Peter an opportunity to change his ways, and receive forgiveness.

Forgiveness is central to this dialogue, although the word itself is never used. Theologian L. Gregory Jones believes that forgiveness is an innovative gesture: one that offers a hope for the future that we do not have to be defined by the sin of the past. Jesus makes this innovative gesture to Peter in order to free him from his cowardly denials, and he does this so that Peter will be able to feed and care for God's sheep. Peter is not forgiven simply so that he can feel good about himself again, but so that he can serve the church with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. The miracle of forgiveness certainly makes work for Peter, but it is work that makes his life worth living.

This same is true for us: We are freed from sin so that we will be free to serve. If we truly love the Lord who gives us forgiveness, we will feed his sheep. By helping people around us in ways we all know how and can do. By baking a casserole for a grieving widow. By committing to tutoring disadvantaged schoolchildren. By sharing of our personal faith with a friend. By giving a disadvantaged child free piano lessons. By teaching a class. By providing transportation to those who can't get around. As you can see, it doesn’t have to be in ways most of us think of when we think of helping others or strangers. It can be in different and unusual ways.

The crucial thing is to translate love and gratitude into action; to do what we can to care for the sheep that our Lord has left us. These "Christ-Files" are outside the range of scientifically explainable phenomena, but they are central to the life of faith. Recognizing Jesus, receiving his miraculous nourishment, and serving others in his name are steps we are called to take if we are going to follow our resurrected Lord.

Agent Scully asked, "What if God is speaking, and no one is listening?" The question we should be prepared to answer is: "What if Christ is calling, and no one is following?" In today’s Gospel, the risen Lord calls the Disciples to a new future. Lost and uncertain about what to do and where to go, they decide to return to what they did before they met their Lord; fishing. But Christ comes to them during this fishing and asks them to renew their vocation as Disciples. They return to following Christ. And so should we!

God Love You +

+The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sunday Sermon

April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday

"Angel gear" is what New Zealand drivers call coming down the mountains with the engine off and no brakes. On Easter morning all Christians should put themselves in "angel gear," turning off all our mechanistic doubts and refusing to put the brakes on the faith and hope that Easter morning represents for each of us.

A lot of non-Christians have no problem agreeing that this first-century Jesus of Nazareth was a gifted leader, a provocative teacher, a prophet and a powerful moral figure that the world should emulate. Sure, there are mountains of evidence for the historical life of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. In particular, there were a number of writers in ancient Rome and Israel, who lived at the same time as Jesus or shortly thereafter.

An ancient historian named Cornelius Tacitus, born sometime between A.D. 52 and 57. He was the Roman governor of Asia and the son-in-law of the governor of Britain, and to him we owe much of our knowledge of the Roman emperors, including Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. In his Annals, first dating from around A.D. 117, he wrote: "Christus, the founder of the name Christians, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius."

Justin Martyr, born A.D. 100 in Palestine, called himself a Samaritan but was probably of Greek or Roman ancestry. A well-educated philosopher, he studied the doctrines of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and the Stoics, but decided Christianity was the only philosophy that was "safe and profitable." When forced to defend his beliefs to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, he referred the emperor to the report written by Pontius Pilate at the time of Jesus' crucifixion for details of the incident--a report which Martyr presumed must have been on file in the imperial archives. Martyr, of course, was killed for his beliefs.

One of the most famous of these writers is Flavius Josephus, a historian born A.D. 37. A Pharisee, an ancient Jewish sect that observed strict adherence to Judaic Law, he commanded the Jewish forces fighting against their Roman conquerors in A.D. 66, and was captured when Galilee fell and Jerusalem was razed. In The Antiquities of the Jews, he wrote: "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day."

Of the three, Josephus is the most valuable source because he was well known and was not a Christian and thus his views would hardly be biased in this regard.

However, this morning, Jesus' secular well-wishers and the church's members must part company. This morning we move from the man named Jesus, whom history obviously records as having actually lived. This morning we celebrate a mystery and a miracle - the greatest miracle and mystery ever known: The one and the same Jesus is the Risen Christ!

Then why do we so often crack that cornerstone and undermine its stability? Why do we doubt the miracle of Easter morning? Why do we diminish the mystery with all our explanations? Why do we come up with such silliness as the notion that the resurrection was something that happened in the minds of the disciples rather than the body of Jesus? We falsely flatter ourselves when we rationalize our doubts and dissemblings as part of our 20th-century- critical-scientific-rationalistic heritage.

Let's not fool ourselves; the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was just as hard on the faith of first century believers as it is on ours. Death has been around for a long time; first-century folk knew its face just as well as we do. In fact, they saw it more closely and intimately and frequently than do we in our hospitalized, sterilized, death-denying attempt to avoid the whole topic.

We envy those who actually saw the resurrected Jesus before the ascension. We imagine it was much easier for them to believe. But while it is true that none of us had the honor of actually bumping into Jesus in the flesh on the way to church this morning, it is also true that none of us helped pull his lifeless body off the cross on Friday evening. None of us carried his heavy, limp, blood-stained form into a barren tomb and wrapped it in a shroud. For those who had known the living, laughing, loving Jesus, there was no doubt that he was stone-cold dead. Believing that he could be truly alive again, not just some spiritual apparition, but a warm, living being, was an enormous act of faith for the first disciples.

When the news of Jesus' resurrection, the rumor of an empty tomb, began to circulate, the Roman and synagogue authorities got nervous. Having taken enormous effort to post guards so that Jesus' body could not be stolen, these officials now used these same guards to start spreading a rumor that body-snatching was exactly what had happened. The possibility that a genuine miracle had taken place was too threatening, too incredible for those who had opposed Jesus and put him to death.

They did an excellent job spreading doubt, however, for that rumor still circulates today. There are lots of church members who confess faith in Christ yet continue to suspect that the chief priests and leaders probably had the story straight. For these Christians the concept behind a risen Christ is perfectly acceptable, but the reality of an actual resurrection is just too outlandish to take literally.

We expect life and death to follow a certain set of rules and to meet certain rational criteria. Therefore we scramble around trying to find alternative explanations for the empty tomb. Maybe the guards did fall asleep and some well-meaning disciples did come to take the body. Maybe Jesus wasn't really dead - only drugged, or in a coma, or hypnotized - and he came out of it and escaped the tomb. Maybe this was all part of an elaborate plan to prove Jesus' messianic nature.

But maybe, just maybe, all our doubts are wrong!

We take for granted the many things we think our God can do and has done, yet we find it incomprehensible to think that God would come in the form of man. That God would come in the form of His only begotten Son. Come to die and rise for our miserable sakes. We can believe in so many things. Many of which we cannot even explain with any level of modern science, and never will, but we still allow the doubts to creep in.

The resurrection, as rock group U2's Bono puts it, was when "the universe exploded in one man's life." Easter is our spiritual supernova. We must experience it as the true miracle it is without trying to make it fit our expectations and, especially, our limitations. When we refuse to let the miracle be miraculous, when we try to crimp it and cramp it to fit our style, we find ourselves distorting everything that made up Jesus' life and ministry on earth. It is time to let the mystery shine.

Let's quit analyzing Easter. Instead of looking for human explanations for the open tomb, let's look with awe at that mighty angel perched in front of it. Let us be so convinced of his presence that we see the misty vapors of angel breath billowing from his mouth as he tells the wondering women what has happened to Jesus. Then we must walk with bold faithfulness through the tomb's opened doorway, look at its empty, uninhabited space and shout the miracle: "He is Risen!"

Do you see the angel's breath this morning? No? Then you need to remember the first paragraph of my sermon this morning and get in angel gear.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.