Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sunday Sermon

January 16, 2011
Baptism of the Lord
(The Second Sunday after Epiphany)
Eighteen-wheeler dropped me off at that city limits sign

Sunday morning sunlight hurt my eyes

It’s a long way from where I been back to my hometown

But there’s a man in me I need to drown

Baptize me in that muddy water

Wash me clean in amazing grace

I ain’t been living like I oughta

Baptize me in that muddy water

These are just some of the lyrics to “Muddy Water,” written and sung by Trace Atkins. The words remind us, among other things, that if Jesus were to come to the Jordan River today for his baptism, he would need a tetanus shot … or a Hazmat suit.

That once mighty river, the river that Joshua and the Israelites miraculously crossed with God’s help, the river that shielded David and Elijah from their enemies, and the river where John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of God’s Messiah; is now little more than a stinking, bacteria-infested, polluted little creek.

At the site where many believe that Jesus was baptized, down near the Dead Sea, Christian pilgrims still plunge themselves into the brown water repeatedly. This, despite the fact that it’s so replete with bacteria and raw sewage that the Israeli government has banned people from entering the water. (They still can enter from the Jordanian side, although the Jordanian government strongly advises against it.)

A few miles north, the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism, the river is still very narrow but somewhat cleaner near where the shrinking Sea of Galilee spills into the Jordan. Here, in this scenic spot, the Israeli government has set up an official site for people who want to get baptized or remember their baptism in the Jordan. There you can rent a baptismal robe and change in a locker room before stepping down into the green water to be baptized while your tour group looks on and the fish nibble at your toes. For many pilgrims coming from around the world, it’s a memorable experience. Earlier I said Jesus would need a tetanus shot or a hazmat suit; here he would need his wallet, much like the commercialism for his birth.

Although getting into the same water that Jesus did is a spiritual high, we’re still reminded that, even here, consumerism is another dominant world religion. There’s a snack bar overlooking the site and, as you exit, you have to journey through the extensive gift shop, which features bottles of filtered Jordan River water to take home, along with other trinkets and souvenirs. Some might call it Baptisms-R-Us.
It was much different 2,000 years ago. Sewage and sales pitches weren’t part of the Jordan River experience in the days that John was baptizing. Rather than avoiding the water, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and the entire region along the Jordan, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins,” Matthew tells us. Like the prophet Elijah of old, John was a forerunner and messenger, pointing to the Messiah who was to come. John’s message to the people was to get cleaned up ritually and spiritually before Jesus arrived.

Jesus would have walked along the Jordan as he traveled from the shores of Galilee down to John’s area of ministry near the Dead Sea, which was closer to Jerusalem and more accessible to large crowds coming from the city. That Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and not the Sea of Galilee, closer to home, is significant, especially for Matthew. Remember that for Matthew and his Jewish audience, Jesus is revealed as the new Moses, delivering God’s people from slavery of sin and death. In Matthew’s gospel, the infant Jesus escapes the murderous intent of Herod, just as Moses escaped Pharaoh; comes out of Egypt and Jesus will cross the water and enter into the desert for 40 days for a time of testing and preparation; a reminder of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The Jordan is thus not only symbolic as the crossing point of liberation but also as a foretaste of entrance into a new kind of Promised Land that Jesus would proclaim as the kingdom of God. Jesus’ baptism thus functioned as a sign that the king had arrived and his kingdom project had begun.

Although the Exodus story is present here in Matthew’s gospel, so, too, is the story of creation. Jesus emerges from the water, which the Old Testament often uses as a symbol of the watery chaos that existed at the beginning of creation. As the Spirit or “wind” of God moved over the waters in the beginning, so the Spirit of God moves over Jesus “like a dove”, reminding us of the Noah story, when God saved his people from the watery chaos through the ark. As God spoke creation into existence, God speaks his Son’s commission to renew creation through his life, death and resurrection: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is a glorious one that sets the tone for our own baptism, even if that baptism occurred when we were infants. As adults, we can now better understand the significance of what we’re going to see as a “dangerous” baptism. Christians sometimes have a hard time agreeing on the proper mode of baptism, but its meaning merges these ancient stories into a present reality for every Christian. In baptism, we are liberated from slavery of sin and death through the forgiveness of our sins. We receive a new identity and new life through a relationship with God, who is present at our baptism as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we are invited to once again take on our vocation as people created in God’s image; a vocation that involves stewardship and care for each other and for God’s good creation.

What we might miss, however, is the fact that baptism, regardless of the water source, is also a dangerous act. We may not be exposed to nasty parasites and diseases such as those pilgrims who still insist on plunging into the stinking Jordan. But, like Jesus, we will be exposed to other, even more frightening, dangers. Our baptism is dangerous because it marks us as belonging to Jesus, the crucified Messiah. When we go down into that water, we’re doing nothing less than taking on the mission and message of the one in whose name we are baptized.

For example, Jesus emerges from the water and, in the next scene, is starving and wandering in the desert while being tempted. Satan invites Jesus to an easier kind of life and death than the one Jesus seems to know is awaiting him. The baptized followers of Jesus face similar temptations to be comfortable, powerful and satisfied instead of focusing on the life of service and sacrifice God calls them to lead. Baptism marks us as being set apart for a different kind of life that denies much of the temporal, pleasurable and consumable things the rest of the world values. Jesus teaches us to live simply and generously in a culture of excess. For us, like the rich young ruler, walking away from our possessions, our status and our former life is painful.

Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and God’s justice for the poor, the infirmed, the immigrant, the stranger and the lost. His ministry took him into back alleys and hostile territories, where he risked his reputation and his life to bring the good news of God’s coming kingdom to those who needed it most. His calls for justice and his identity with outsiders would make his detractors angry enough to want to kill him. When Jesus’ followers stand for and with people who cannot stand for themselves, those who seek to retain power, wealth and the status quo will react negatively and, as history teaches us, sometimes violently. Jesus told his disciples that their identity as his followers would mark them as being guilty by association in the eyes of many.

Baptism is a commissioning to a dangerous vocation, but when we live it out, that vocation is world-changing. Our association with Jesus marks us in the eyes of the rest of the world but also marks us in the eyes of God as his own beloved children who will participate with him in the renewal of God’s good creation. As John Dominic Crossan puts it, God is engaging in the “Great Divine Cleanup of the World” through the ministry of Christ and his church. Whether our tasks are easily doable or imminently dangerous, the baptized are called to follow Jesus out of the water and into the world.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sunday Sermon

January 9, 2011
Epiphany Sunday
As everyone can notice, the Christmas decorations are still up. Technically, the Christmas Season ended on January 6th, the actual day of Epiphany. However, given that we did not celebrate this day on its actual designated day, but transferred it to today, we still get one last glance of the Christmas joy. Our Roman brothers and sisters celebrated Epiphany last Sunday, and we this Sunday. Rome rushes it; we prolong it. Christmas does not end until the Magi come to see the Incarnation of God. This period of Christmas is popularized by the song, Twelve Days of Christmas.
In countless stories and images, the season of Epiphany is about Jesus being recognized as the beloved Son of God, the one in whom we see the glory of God revealed. This is the time when Jesus is “manifest” as the light of the world. This is a time when the love of God is “shown-forth” for all the ages in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This “manifest” or “shown-forth” comes from the Greek word for Epiphany which means “manifestation” or “showing-forth”. From the feast of Epiphany on January 6 through all the Sundays after until Lent, this season is about the manifestation or showing forth of God's glory in Jesus Christ. This all may seem like a “dragging-out” of Christmas, as one could say that Christ has been manifest since Christmas day. This is true to a point. The feast of Christmas celebrates the incarnation of the Son of God, while the feast of the Epiphany emphasizes the earthly manifestations of his eternal birth.
We hear that a star in the East leads the wise astrologer-kings to the Christ child. Epiphany is about three mysteries. The star that leads the Magi to the Christ child; the miraculous wine at the marriage at Cana; and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. (The baptism of Jesus, in modern times has been separated, if you will, as a separate feast, though it is still very much a part of the Epiphany theology.)
We see further epiphanies as Jesus makes repeated invitations to his would-be disciples and other followers to “come and see”. He proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He teaches the multitudes, through what we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” Finally he is “transfigured” in the sight of Peter, James, and John, and once again God declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
This season is also about another “e-word”. Epiphany is about Evangelism. “Evangelism” also has its Greek root: Evangelium, which means “Good News.” We usually encounter as “Gospel”, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. “Evangelism” never actually occurs in the Scriptures, but we come to understand that the Scriptures subtly suggest that we must all become evangelists; and this we should.
So as we move through this season, we need to remember our position. In countless ways we will encounter Jesus as the Light of the World, the manifestation of God in our lives. But it should not stop with us; we are called to make the Good News manifest to others through our own loves; what we do, what we say, and how we live. This Epiphany we are all called to be an evangelist. We need to promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
Epiphany celebrates the proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord, the manifestation of the Savior, the revelation of God in the world. Isaiah speaks of this epiphany as a light shining in the darkness. In our Gospel we see the magi—astrologers, star-followers—seeking a new light, a new life. Perhaps they are looking for something unusual and exciting. Or perhaps they are genuinely searching for something that will change their lives. We don’t know what brought them together as companions except the shared quest. We’re told that they brought rich gifts to honor the new king and perhaps win favors, and that they inquired at the palace of the reigning king (Herod) for news. They did all the expected and conventional things, but one thing is certain; they found something more than they expected.
We can discover in the experience of the Magi, questions about our own spiritual search. Often we begin our search in ordinary and expected ways. But in the course of asking questions and discovering answers, we suddenly come upon a manifestation of faith in God’s love for us that turns many of our conventional expectations upside down.
Once the Magi had seen the savior, once the manifestation of God in their lives was clear, they did something unexpected. “They returned to their country by a different way.” No longer were they interested in an alliance with Herod. Their gifts became symbols of a far greater reality. No longer were they comfortable and content with their familiar ways and habits. They accepted the challenge of new possibilities, new ways of looking at things, new ways of doing things. They were still on their journey but no longer searching with starry-eyed daydreams. They had seen the true radiance of the Lord. They knew a new world was dawning.
In contrast to the Magi, Herod wasn’t interested in new possibilities. He remained in the darkness because he didn’t understand the light. He feared the light—and the change it would bring to his life. If we’re honest, we know that at times we, too, resist change. Do we believe that the light of the new star will make us look dark and dim in our sinful, self-indulgent ways? Rather than living in the light of Christ, do we prefer to snuff that light out so that ours might seem to shine all the brighter?
Unlike Herod, the astrologers gave everything they had to follow the star. They recognized the light in their life and accepted the changes it brought. We know this by the gifts they gave to the child Jesus. They are conscious of honoring the divine nature and the human nature as united in a single being. To God Jesus they offer incense, to the man Jesus they offer myrrh, and to the King Jesus they offer gold.
We don’t hear what happened to them after they returned home, but we know they left by a different route because that’s what God called them to do, and they followed that call. Our lives too should be changed by the light that has come into our lives. And we should be willing to give everything so that the light may shine through us. The manifestation of the savior should lead us along new roads to eternal glory.
Our faith, like theirs, has to be strong enough that even though we only see a star in the night we follow it all day, we live our lives as people who have seen the light, who have been given the promise that a new king has come into our lives.
Epiphany reminds us that we come to the experience of Christianity from all walks of life, from a variety of attitudes and expectations. But once we have seen the Lord, we travel as companions on a common journey, a different and life-giving way.
We are called to go on a journey much like the Magi. When we participate in the Eucharist, or the Mass, it is this offering which replaces the gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is during this we must all offer our very selves as human beings being grafted into Christ. When we pray later in the Mass, asking our Lord to accept these offerings, the gold, frankincense and myrrh, are replaced with wine and bread, or the sacrifice of food and wine that symbolizes Jesus Christ present to us all.
Christians, therefore, are called to be Magi, as he or she seeks the light and is guided by it in his or her life of faith while drawing the nations into the light as well. As we meditate on these truths, it is difficult not to feel a painful distance between what ought to be and what is. The Magi were the first in a procession of countless people who have journeyed toward the Lord. But we must always be asking ourselves, “Are we really Magi for today?” As Christian Catholics we must let the divine light within us shine through to others. The light should never be hidden under a basket or such, but put on a lampstand for all to see.
We, like the Magi, should be on a journey of knowing and living in Christ. Our whole life should be a journey. Not just a Sunday at church or a muttered prayer or two once in a while type of journey; but a journey of life - a way of life - all day and every day, living in Christ. That is Epiphany for us today. That is Epiphany for you and me!
God Love You +
+The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sunday Sermon

January 2, 2011
First Sunday after Christmas
New Year
With the possible exception of April 15, January 2 is probably everyone's most dreaded day of the oh-so-new year. From the fourth Thursday in November through the first day of January, everyone in America parties. We stuff ourselves with turkey and dressing, homemade cookies, candies and pumpkin pie. Once-a-year delicacies appear New Year's Eve--like smoked salmon, caviar and champagne and eggnog. We stay up late, party constantly, spend lots of money, act nicer -- and what do we get for it?

January 2.

Overweight, exhausted, in debt and with the house a mess, we wake up the day after and find ... it's January 2. After all those football games and all those Frito-Lays, we realize it's now time to go on a diet, get on a budget, go back to work or school and pack up all those ornaments. (And why is it that all the Christmas decorations that looked so lovely and exciting in the middle of December suddenly look so bad or boring on January 2?)
January 2 is important because as the beginning of where we left off. As an example what would've happened to the sheep and the livelihood of the shepherds had they not returned but had gone on as the vanguard of some new movement? What would've happened to those Wise Men of the East had they not “returned to their country by another way”? What would have happened to Elijah and to Israel had Elijah chosen to remain at the mouth of the cave in mystic splendor, nursing his wounds and wondering at the strange events that have befallen him?
There is a time to lay down all of our cares and responsibilities and to run with excited spirits to Bethlehem and the manger, to go see this thing that has come to pass; there is a time to follow the Eastern Star and take the road less taken; there's a time to flee for refuge from the troubles of the world and seek the safety of the mountaintop. There is also a time to return. To return to the hillside, the laboratory, the place where one labors and to begin we left off.

Whose idea was it to put the big holiday season so early in the winter, anyway? January, February, March -- all the really cold and dreary months must be faced head-on, with nothing except the appropriately sacrificial season of Lent to mark their passage. If we are going to make it through January 2, we need to get a new perspective on this day. The Church in its rhythm knows this, and that is why the seasons are planned such as they are. It is a lesson we might well learn, and there is no better day than New Year's Day on which to learn it.
Christmastime somehow promises so much and delivers so little. Christ is born, yet wars continue, marriages continue to fail, the job is no better on 26 December then it was on the 24th. Joy, cheer, peace and goodwill; these are guaranteed minimums for the season, and when we are denied them, life has a way of making us think things are worse than before. Will the world really be any different simply because we employed all the symbols to suggest that it is? Is the newness that we seek really going to make it any better than before? We should try not to give in to pessimism; optimism is the way of Christ; optimism is faith; but none of this is magic. We must be faithful to Christ so that even the worst of times we know that some good will come of it.

The month of January takes its name from the Roman god Janus, a two-faced being, with each visage facing the opposite direction. Janus/January is a hinge time; a vantage point from which we can still see back into the past year and yet can also face forward and look expectantly at the year that lies ahead.

January 2 isn't just a day to sigh over "how far" we've got to go to lose that weight or pay those bills or see the spring flowers again. January 2 is also a vantage point from which we can plot the course of the New Year. Janus does look backward to the past, but he also looks forward to the future. January 2 must become the start of the hope month, not just the end of the party.

Part of the problem with this year's January 2 is that it still is carrying baggage saved from last year's January 2. Without any definite idea about "where to," we tend to repeat each year in much the same way. With no sense of ownership about the future, about this coming year because we have been spendthrift and irresponsible. One of the greatest indicators of this attitude is our soaring national debt; an amount now so vast that its proportions are more mythic than real.

Traditionally, we think of January 2 as the day we get back into the grind and hit the grindstone after the long holiday season. But for a moment, use the backward-looking face of Janus and see if you ever really got out of the grind. Were you faxing memos to clients or coworkers while heading "over the river and through the woods?" How about thinking through a couple of questions such as these?

What color did your daughter wear at Christmas dinner?
Which was your mother's favorite Christmas decoration on the tree this year?
Did your dad stay awake through midnight on New Year's Eve?
Who ate the last piece of fudge? What was your favorite granddaughter's or nieces or toy this year?

If we don't know the answer to any of those questions, maybe we need to take another look at our family. Our children must not become another item in a mortgaged future. The pressures confronting families this January 2 are enormous. We cannot shield our loved ones from the threats that bombard them, but we can face those threats together.

Some use January 2 to look back on the past year and compose an annual list of disappointments and failures: Didn't get the big promotion. Didn't win the lottery. Didn't learn to control the temper. Didn't make five new friends.

This "litany for a loser" undermines our spiritual life in two ways. First, it tempts us to blame God for all our failures. Second, it makes us increasingly incredulous that God would ever really take any interest in us or our future.

The world does not change and the duties that we have avoided or put off await us with grim determination on Monday morning. The magic of this season is too great to play with so trivial a set of things as that. What has transformed and what it's capable of being transformed so that where we left off is not the same place as where we now begin. It is ourselves that has changed, for we have come from an encounter with the world of the possible in the midst of the impossible.
We, like Moses in the shepherds and Jacob have seen God face to face and have prevailed, that is to say, that we have survived to tell the tale, moving about not knowing their faces shine with the encounter, bearing the mark of our encounter forever, and marveling in the darkest nights of our soul at the wondrous star filled night. Why? Because as I said during Christmas, when we have seen Jesus, we have seen God.
So he we are, on January 2, called to begin where we left off and yet to make a new beginning. It is the same old choice, but a brand-new chance for us and for the world. Christmas and creation apart the same process of God. They have everything to do with one another. They each speak of love the purpose and renewed hopes. Is it not calls for joy there are gospel, the good news from which we seek, is a gospel of second chances, new opportunities to claim the love of God the father; new opportunities to share and express that love in the world; new opportunities to discover who we are and what we become in Christ?
It seems that the routine beckons, the familiar haunts require our attention and our presence, and before too long the memory of this holy time will disappear and be packed away with the paraphernalia of the season. Yet by God's grace we will be open to his most remarkable grace and surprise in the world.
The world moment change until and unless we change. The spirit of Christmas cannot be born from a cold January air and list we are born of the and even reborn again by it. We must return from whence we came, but we do not need to return as the same tired creatures, careworn and spirit lost, for we have seen wonderful things that have come to pass; strange and mighty sites that will never let us look at the skies in quite the same manner as before. Every baby that comes into this world, every man and woman born of a woman is no longer of the same old flesh but I promise any token of Christ. To deny them as they may come to you is to once again denying Christ room as it was denied to him in that first Christmas long ago. To love and cherish the men and women need each day is to receive a new Christ and to each of our lives this world.
If past January 2s have seemed spiritually debilitating, we need to look with a spirit of hope at the "where to" of this year's January 2. In Ephesians there is a positive image, "We who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory".

It is January 2. The profligate party is over. But the coming year promises more than just dieting and dues-paying. Let us use this January 2 to begin creating a future built on hope. It is the first day of living a faith that looks backward to the evidences of God's great gift to us in Jesus Christ and forward to the day when God's plan "to gather up all things in him" will become a reality.

We have been given another New Year. Let us use it wisely, to the glory of God. Christ's presence has hallowed all that we are in every place that we are, and by his grace the world and we can never be quite the same again. Therefore this January 2, we begin again, that leaving the manger we may embrace the world for his sake and for ours.
Have a Happy and Blessed New Year.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.