Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sunday Sermon (Palm Sunday)

April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday

Judas is our brother. Indeed, Judas is our middle name. Can you receive God’s gift of forgiveness?
As part of a study, a group of researchers from Harvard contacted an elementary school teacher at the beginning of a school year. They told the teacher that they had designed a test that would correctly predict which students were going to grow intellectually during the coming school year. Someone called it "The Harvard Test of Intellectual Spurts" because he said it told which students were going to 'spurt' that year. The researchers promised it would indicate the right students. The test was said to be very, very accurate.

The researchers then administered, unbeknownst to the teacher, an obsolete IQ test. When the students had finished, the researchers threw the tests away. Then they picked five names at random from the roll-book and told the teacher, "These are the students who are going to have a very good year. Watch these kids. The first one of them is Rachel Smith."

"Rachel Smith?" the teacher replied incredulously. "She couldn't 'spurt' if you shot her from a cannon. I have had two of her brothers and each one of the Smiths is dumber than the last. “But the researchers maintained that the test was hardly ever wrong in its findings.

You can imagine what happened that semester. However, I bet you would be wrong. Rachel never had a chance to be her same old self. Under a barrage of "Rachel, would you write this on the board this morning?" or "Rachel will lead the line to the lunch room today?" or "Is that a new dress, Rachel? It sure is pretty" or "Thank you, Rachel, that was very good," Rachel "spurted" all over that school. And so did every name they put on that list.

According to the apostle Paul, every one of our names belongs on a list like that. We are all "God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved." A little boy in elementary school said, "My teacher thought I was smarter than I wuz. So I wuz!" All of us need to believe we are smarter and better and more gifted than we have ever dared to think we are. This is one of the ways that each of us will begin to hear the calling voice of God.

Throughout the dark night of his soul in the Gethsamene Garden, Jesus begged his disciples to stay up with him, comfort him, pray with him, and support him. But they couldn't do it. On the night that Jesus was arrested, all of his disciples abandoned him. And two of them actively betrayed him.

Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus only once, almost immediately regretted his action. He boldly marched back before the powerful, corrupt officials and proclaimed Jesus' innocence to their faces, throwing their bribe money back at their feet for good measure. Peter, the other fallen disciple, betrayed Jesus on three separate occasions. He hid out of fear of the officials and then ran off seeking anonymity and seclusion. Yet that first disciple, Judas, has been named throughout history as the prime example of all that is contemptible, corrupt and deceitful in human nature. That second disciple, Peter, is honored as the father of the church and is designated a "saint.” How did such a disparity of interpretation occur? What distinguishes Judas' action so starkly from Peter's?

Perhaps the simplest way to understand is to look at their motives. Judas' treachery, we declare, was premeditated, calculated, even paid for. Peter's act of betrayal, on the other hand, was a cowardly, spontaneous burst of emotion that profited him nothing. But there remains the unpleasant fact that Matthew tells of Judas returning the blood money, defending Jesus' innocence before the tribunal and realizing his mistake - and all while Jesus was still alive. In contrast, Peter only sneaked back to the disciple's fold as a mourner after the crucifixion frenzy had passed and the tomb was sealed.

The only real difference between these two betrayers - Judas and Peter - was their perception of how Jesus must see them. Judas was overcome with guilt. Although "he repented", Judas could only envision a wrathful, Judgmental Jesus declaring him cursed according to Deuteronomic law. In his despair, Judas blocked out Jesus' forgiving gesture in the garden. Hearing only condemnation ringing in his ears, Judas cut himself off from the healing capabilities of God's grace and, in an agonizing fit of self-Judgment, hanged himself.

Peter heard other voices. Undoubtedly he replayed his own three pitiful denials of Jesus over and over again. After leaving the courtyard Matthew says Peter "wept bitterly". Surely Peter also heard himself as before promising Jesus he would never deny him, even if it meant facing death. But there were other crucial conversations Peter had stored in his memory that gave him hope on that dark night.

Peter was the disciple who had come to Jesus to ask specifically about the act of forgiveness. How many times should we forgive? Peter asked. Jesus declared "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven". Would Jesus do any less for Peter now than his own proclamation of when and how to forgive? Even more importantly, Jesus had singled Peter out when asking, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter could recall he had once boldly confessed, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God".

Even more comforting and hopeful must have been Peter's recollection of Jesus' response to that confession: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!" And then came Jesus' statement, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it". What a life-time lifeline this memory must have been for Peter - and what a life-vest that very night for Peter's sinking heart. Jesus had believed in him. Jesus had designated him to be something special in the life of the church. Whatever Peter had done in his past, Jesus had assured him he had a future.

Judas did not do anything that every single one of the disciples and that every one of us have not done. But Judas forgot one thing, and this one thing was the difference between life and death. Judas forgot that he was only one in a long, established, distinguished tradition of God's failed faithful. Moses, Aaron, David, Thomas, and Paul all committed grievous acts of betrayal against God. But each one found their way back to God's side through the back door of grace.

Judas died, stigmatized by his own heart as a betrayer. Why? Because he never even tried the door. Judas didn't want a gift of grace. He wanted to be in control of his situation. With those 30 pieces of silver, Judas thought he could buy his way into God's presence - as if by forcing Jesus' hand through the arrest, Judas thought the messianic age could be hurried.

Faced with the consequences of his monumental mistake, Judas then sought to buy his way out of his betrayal by throwing that same silver back at the feet of the chief priests. But Judas could not control the tidal wave of events his actions had unleashed. In panic, Judas' final controlling act was to take his own life. He never dared to check that back door of grace that God always leaves unlocked - and even pushes open for us. It was, after all, his destiny to betray Jesus as part of God’s plan for redemption of us all.

The message of the gospel is that God's grace is available to all, that the back door to God's loving presence is always open. Judas is the middle name of each one of us. And Judas becomes our first name not when we betray and deny Christ himself, but when we deny the redemptive power of God's grace that Christ offers every one of us.

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

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sunday Sermon

April 10, 2011

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Passion Sunday

“George” had been sleepwalking her way through life. An aimless college student who drove her family nuts with her cynicism and lack of motivation, she dropped out of school and reluctantly landed a job at a temp agency, and that only because of her mother’s ceaseless prodding.

Her life changed on a lunch break where, standing on the street, she’s instantly killed by a falling piece of the burned-up MIR Space Station ... the toilet seat. End of story? Hardly.

Immediately following her fatal encounter with interstellar Soviet-era bathroom hardware, George finds herself standing again on the street amid the gathering crowd. She doesn’t realize that she’s dead until a kindly man named Rube points out her remains and tells her that she’s now a member of the Rube-led Pacific Northwest chapter of grim reapers — people who, like George, died with unresolved issues and now must learn lessons that, for one reason or another, they failed to learn in life.

This quirky and darkly comic look at one possible version of life after death is the premise of Showtime’s series
Dead Like Me, starring Ellen Muth as George and Mandy Patinkin as Rube. Weaving its storylines through the interaction of the characters and their “victims,” the show asks some compelling questions about life and death: “What if death is not the end? What if it’s not even an escape from the issues that plagued us? What if it’s not a way to avoid accountability, but an opportunity to accept responsibility? What if it’s a wake-up call?”

A literary version of this theme is taken up by Mitch Albom, who published the novel
The Five People You Meet in Heaven on the heels of his wildly successful Tuesdays With Morrie. If you have not read either, I highly recommend this very motivational author. In Five People, Eddie works at an amusement park in Jersey, but is killed by a malfunction of Freddy’s Free Fall. In heaven, Eddie meets five people who help him understand why what happened on earth — happened.

George. Eddie. Now Lazarus. Think of the story of Lazarus as kind of a
Dead Like Me prequel without the attendant grim reaper storyline.

When the story opens we learn that Lazarus, a friend to both Jesus and the disciples, had “fallen asleep,” his illness leading to death. Sleep was the common term used when speaking of death in Jewish texts and in Greek mythology where Sleep and Death were portrayed as twin brothers. Jesus tells his disciples that he will go to Bethany to “awaken Lazarus” but, being way too literal, the disciples think that sleeping is a good thing and that “if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right”.

“Lazarus is dead,” Jesus has to tell them plainly. “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him”. Jesus is going to not only wake up his death-sleeping friend, but also wake up his own disciples to the reality of resurrection power. The rest of the story is like a script right out of a Hollywood horror flick. Lazarus has been decomposing for four days; the odor of death is pervasive; bodily fluids have run everywhere – you get the idea.

Jesus arrives, weeps with and for the mourners, and then gets to work. Ordering the stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb, he prays and then calls into the darkness, “Lazarus, come out!” Out lurches this former corpse, wrapped in smelly linen.

But what’s the rest of the story? Imagine you’re Lazarus, just awakened, standing outside your own tomb looking at a stunned crowd of people who don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or run for the hills. What was it like for him to wake up to “life after death?”

In television’s
Dead Like Me, George gets another chance to do it right while still dead. In Five People, Eddie learns what life was all about while dead and in heaven. But in the gospel of John, Lazarus has a Real Death Experience, not a Near Death Experience, and lives to tell about it. He dies once, but is born twice — from both the womb and the tomb.

We can almost imagine what it would be like to have something like that happen in our time. Percival Everett’s novel,
American Desert, is about a man named Ted Street, a UCLA professor whose life is a mess and who decides to take his own life by walking into the ocean. On the way, however, his life is cut even shorter than he intended when a traffic accident decapitates him. His head is reattached with thread by a mortician so that the body will look presentable.

Problem is, during the funeral, Ted wakes up and sits up in his coffin, sparking an instant riot among the funeral attendees and they all run out into the street. Ted is dead — no pulse, no body heat, but he is now conscious and aware.

Not knowing what to do with his reanimated life, Ted goes home to his horrified and confused family. Soon, TV crews are parked on Ted’s front lawn, he’s an object of morbid curiosity by the government and by the scientific and medical communities, and feared as a minion of Satan by an obscure religious cult such as the like of Fred Phelps (of course he thinks everyone is ill, sick or evil anyway).

But the heart of the book is Ted’s new-found lease on life — after death. He reconnects with his estranged family and finds new value in getting a second chance at life, or at least something like it.

Is it surprising in an American culture as hedonistic and pleasure-seeking as it is, that there is some evidence that we’re not quite able to pull it off? We’re not quite able to escape our Puritan and piety background. There is still the residue of moral and ultimate accountability that rings true; maybe not much these days, but still some. We live for ourselves, but now we’re asking ourselves if perhaps there isn’t a second chance on the other side.

John 12 tells us that Lazarus, too, became an instant celebrity with the crowd and an instant outcast to the religious establishment. As Dan Rather would say, he’s hotter than a Times Square Rolex. The grateful dead man walking was an animated testament to the power of Jesus — living, breathing evidence of the possibility of resurrection that the people of Israel were looking for to occur – but they were looking for it to occur “at the last day.”

The chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus and put him back in the tomb for good. But that’s where we lose track of this dead man walking in the Scriptures. The truth is that we don’t know exactly what Lazarus was like before and after he emerged from his tomb. Christian tradition goes a couple of different directions when it comes to the rest of the story. One tradition says that Lazarus, learning of the plot against him, fled to France where he became bishop of Marseilles and was later martyred. Another says that he and his sisters fled to the island of Cyprus, where he was later ordained by Paul and Barnabas and served for years as bishop and an example of the Christian life and hope of resurrection to the people there. He died (again) at age 60 and was buried in a sarcophagus with the inscription “The four-day Lazarus — friend of Christ.” His remains were removed to Constantinople in the year 890 by the Byzantine emperor who, in return, built a church in Cyprus that survives to this day.

Whatever happened, we imagine that Lazarus spent the rest of his second life devoted to telling others about the Christ who had given him life — not just raising him physically from the dead, but giving him a new life of purpose as well. He awoke to a new reality in Christ.

Here’s the deal: Characters like George Lass, Ted Street and Lazarus pose a spiritually significant challenge to all of us. It forces us to view life through the lens of death; to look backward at life from its end point rather than always forward; to recognize that while death comes to us all at some point, we should prepare for that death not by fearing it but by facing it.

To put it another way, we don’t have to sleepwalk through life and wait for death in order to wake up and smell the malodorous life we’ve left behind. We can have a second chance, an opportunity to die more than once, to die to self, as Paul put it, and to put behind us an old life and awaken to a new one filled with new adventures, renewed relationships and ultimate purpose.

Lazarus’ physical death and resurrection put him on a different path toward living out his purpose as a follower of Christ. Our spiritual death, dying to ourselves and our sleepy, sinful way of life can do the same.

Think of it as joining the ranks of the “living dead” without the lurching, drooling, and moaning. No whacking over the head with a toilet seat required. Instead of being Dead Like Me, we are Alive in Christ.

God Love You +
+ The most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.