Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sunday Sermon

October 24, 2010

The Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She replaced cowardice with courage.

She rejected independence in favor of ministry to others.

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

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

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

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

God Love You +

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

Sunday Sermon

October 17, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Sermon

October 10, 2010

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

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

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sunday Sermon

October 3, 2010

St. Michael and all Angels

Feast of St. Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.