Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sunday Sermon

November 20, 2011

Sunday before Advent


You see him in television and print ads for prostate cancer Pharmaceuticals. He's looking dignified and not at all embarrassed in a deep-blue, worsted-wool suit, white shirt and silk tie. He's saying: "When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, my first concern was ridding myself of the cancer. But I was also concerned about possible, postoperative side effects, like--erectile dysfunction. I'm speaking out now in the hope that men with E.D. will get proper treatment for a condition that affects millions of men."

Wow! If some guy can go on TV and talk without embarrassment about something like that then we should have no problem sharing with others the simple little good news that God is in the world through Jesus Christ and offers to all of us his love and forgiveness. However, many of us do have a problem speaking about just that. Some would rather do the commercial. Wouldn't you feel your chest constricting just a bit as you prepared to explain why making a commitment to Jesus Christ could provide the much-needed turnaround in a friend's life?

You might be an “EB”, an Embarrassed Believer. But the embarrassment stems not from some innate discomfort with the gospel message, but with the public and media perception of what Christians are like. The media portrays Christians as "backward" in their thinking, poorly educated, and identified with wild, right-wing, extremist agendas. Obviously, this is not case all the time and in all places, but that is how some Christians are viewed. Christians today, while not facing any physical danger for sharing their faith, do face public scorn and media ridicule. We fall for it. We're embarrassed. We're quiet. We don't have answers.

If you suspect that you're an “E.B.”, don't worry. You're not alone. Most people with embarrassment would be surprised to know how many of them there are. Indeed, some have wondered whether or not there should be an AA group for EB's. They wouldn't even need to rent space from anyone. They would not have to find new time in the midst of their already overcrowded schedules. They would not have to develop a new curriculum or set up a new organization. They could just continue meeting Sunday mornings, at 11 AM in the buildings they have been meeting in for years. It's called church.

How did we come by such a syndrome? What has prompted our pathology? What are the marks of our malaise? Maybe part of the answer lies in our belief that religion is a personal, private matter. Religion is our personal faith, and that shouldn't be a public issue.

But not everything personal is private. All of your clothing is personal; it all belongs to you. But not all of it is private; that would just refer to certain garments best left unnamed. But the rest of your personal wardrobe is very public; you share it all the time. We all think of how our clothing will be received publicly when we purchase it. Our clothing speaks, it communicates ... yet it's personal.

So, too, does religion speak, but faith shouts. The best faith is personal, but communicative. Individual and inspirational, a matter of the heart but gushing forth from the mouth. Yet, our tendency to privatize gets in the way of the intensely personal faith that communicates by its very nature.

Maybe the embarrassment stems from the fact that religion is still not "in," a cool or accepted way of belonging in the world, or even in the community. Faith is seen as a barrier, not a bridge; a wall and not a walkway. Yet, if more of us shared our faith and risked the embarrassment, we might discover that we have the power to change the status quo; faith is "in", it is alive and well.

It's amazing how many stories people tell of how once they make some form of open faith commitment, they find agreement from some quarter, affirmation from some coworker, or support from some sector. They were just waiting for someone to make the first move.

Jesus addresses this issue in today's gospel lesson. A day approaches, he warns, when we'll be knocking at heaven's door and the Lord of the manor will turn us away failing to recognize us. Others will be admitted. The litmus test is our treatment of Christ the King himself. When he was hungry we fed him; or we didn't feed him. When he was thirsty we gave him water; or didn't give him water. When he was naked, we gave him clothing; or didn't give him clothing. When he was sick, we took care of him; or didn't take care of him. When he was in prison, we visited him; or didn't visit him.

It says here if we recognize Christ, he will recognize us. We recognize Christ, Christ himself says, when we feed, clothe and welcome "the least" among us, the marginalized of society, the poor and oppressed, those who have been cast off and neglected by others.

This is not politics. This is not right wing or left wing. This is not this coalition or that political action committee. This is a simple mandate to feed and take care of Jesus Christ as we recognize him in our neighbors. How can we be embarrassed to do that? But, when we get right down to it, we have to admit that we are.

Scripture and history give us plenty of examples of those who have been Outspoken Believers, Courageous Believers, Risky Believers, Irrepressible Believers, Turbo-charged Believers. Abraham, Joseph, Rahab, Ruth, David, Daniel, Paul, Peter to drop a few names from the Bible. Polycarp, Ignatius, Cyprian, Hus, Wycliffe, Tyndale, Latimer, Luther, Calvin, and Knox--to name a few from the history of the church. And more recently, what about Mother Teresa, Schweitzer, Jim Elliot, Jim Wallis, Dobson, Colson, King, Abernathy, Tutu, or Graham.

But, we may be missing the point. God does not call us to be famous, but to be faithful. We live in a world where we cannot afford to be EBs. We may prefer a world that is comfortable and calm, familiar and friendly. But the hungry need daring people of devotion. The naked need faithful folks of fortitude, the imprisoned need people who think outside the box and their own solitary confinement. It may be a risk, just as it is to believe in a God whose track record includes healings, miracles and a full-fledged resurrection from the dead.

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, we do well to remember that many of us, even if we live poorly, are still doing better than many others in the world today. Most of us have a roof on our heads and food in our stomachs. Many of us even have mode of transportation and communication. We have clothes to wear and selection of them at that. We have not committed a crime voluntarily or involuntarily and thus are free to walk the streets. Most of us are healthy to the point that we can come to Mass today and/or read this sermon on the web.
No matter what we may be able to produce to try to prove our own disadvantage, there are always those out there that are in need far more than we and we not only should be thankful that we have more, but also treat them as Christ would where and when we can.

God's promise is that the embarrassed believer will never be without help. The EB will never be without support. While our embarrassment may seem to preclude God's working, God chooses to work with and through our timidity to strengthen us to be witnesses to those who are hurting; to those who are struggling to move from welfare to work, to those who do seek a crust of bread, a corner of warmth, a hand up, and a transformative vision.

You have an answer for the ills, suffering and pain of the least, last and lost. Dare to overcome your embarrassment. With the help of God, you can.

God Love You + and may He richly bless you this Thanksgiving!

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, Ca.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sunday Sermon

November 6, 2011

All Saints Sunday

Typos. When you run across them in your daily reading, they are no big deal. But when the errors occur in Holy Scripture, then you have a problem of biblical proportions.

“Thou shalt commit adultery” is what one Bible said. That mistake in the 20th chapter of Exodus could have started a sexual revolution.

“Know ye not that the unrighteous
shall inherit the kingdom of God.” The unrighteousness lobby certainly liked the sound of that one.

“Go and sin on more,” said Jesus in John 8:11. I am sure those who are tired of going to confession would have loved to see that.

How about, “Let the children first be killed.” Must have been edited by a frustrated parent.

And in Matthew 5:9, part of today’s passage of Scripture, we hear, “Blessed are the place-makers.” That’s almost as bad as the line that Monty Python misunderstood and mangled into “Blessed are the cheese-makers.”

And what about the phrase “our ancestors” typed as “sour ancestors.” Instead of condemning “factions,” the Bible would have called for an end to “fractions.” Not that America’s young math students would have minded that one.

Fortunately for us editorial and proofreading services work hard to catch and correct such biblical blunders. With an ordinary book, you can put up with more mistakes because it’s not something you’re basing your whole life on. With the Bible people expect perfection.

What’s so shocking about today’s passage from Matthew is that it sounds like it is full of typos even though it is completely accurate. When you read this stuff, it is so counter-intuitive that you figure that there must be a misprint here. “Blessed are the meek”? The
meek? In this day and age? Some would say that Jesus must have drank too much of that water he turned into wine!
The only way to see these words clearly is through the lens of the kingdom of God. A proofreader’s magnifying glass cannot help us to spot the truth here. We need to be looking through the divine optics of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus Christ. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” ... “Blessed are those who mourn” ... “Blessed are the peacemakers” ... these are not prescriptions from the self-help section of your local Barnes & Noble. Instead, they are statements of what is true about the new reality that the Lord is inscribing on the world.

There are no typos here. Only the God’s-honest truth. So what can we learn from these counterintuitive realities? What ahs all this to do with remembering All Saints and All Souls day?

For starters, we need to realize that these blessings, known as the Beatitudes, are not descriptions of human feelings. When Jesus says that we are “blessed,” he is not saying that we are necessarily “happy.” To be reviled and persecuted because you follow the Lord might turn out to be a blessing, but it is not going to make you feel particularly cheerful. The nine Beatitudes which Jesus proclaims in this passage are so much more than nine “be-happy-attitudes.”

To be blessed, in this case, is to be made privileged or fortunate by the action of Almighty God. It carries with it a sense of salvation and peace and well-being. You might say that the opposite of blessed is not “unhappy.” Rather, the opposite of blessed is “cursed.” To be blessed is to be given the gift of divine favor, a gift that we all have a deep human hunger to receive.

Stated this way, it’s clear that the blessing of the Beatitudes is not about us, and it’s not about how we feel. Instead, it’s all about what God has done for us. We are all saints in the eyes of God. That’s
saints with a lower case “S”, but saints all the same.

With this perspective in mind, we can get a clearer sense of what Jesus is talking about when he describes his disciples as “blessed.” What he is saying is that these former fishermen are blessed because they are experiencing the coming of God’s kingdom, and they are in the process of discovering that their lives are being reshaped by this new reality. No longer will the meaning of life be defined by the culture of the town of Capernaum, or the expectations of their extended families, or the size of the fish being pulled out of the Sea of Galilee. From now on, the dominant reality in their existence will be the kingdom of God, and the blessing of God will come to all who make a place for this kingdom in their lives.

When you think about it, there
was some truth in the typo that read “Blessed are the place-makers.” Blessed are those who make a place for the kingdom of God.

So, what does it mean for us to make a place for the kingdom in our lives today? What kind of blessing will we experience if we allow ourselves to be transformed by the radical new reality that Jesus offers us? What kind of renewal will come our way if we take seriously the invitation to open our hearts and minds to the arrival of God’s kingdom? Will we become like the Saints with the capital “S”?

Well, maybe not that far for us average people, but we might discover, for example, that we are “poor in spirit”; a term that describes people who find their true identity and security in the One Lord God. There is nothing weak or pathetic or shameful about being poor in spirit, but instead it means that we are not deluded enough to think that we are masters of the universe and in complete control of our lives. This spiritual poverty is really an excellent quality to have in this post-9/11 world of terrorist threats, international tension and economic uncertainty — it means that we are dependent on God, first and foremost, and that the Lord will reward us with the gift of his kingdom.

So, on the day we commemorate All Saints and All Souls, we might also find that we are among “those who mourn”; people who feel grief as we look around and see pain and crying, suffering and dying. We mourn because there is evil in us and around us, erupting in bedrooms and boardrooms, back alleys and battlefields. There are temptations all around us, and weaknesses deep within us, that make it an everyday struggle to follow the Lord in faith. But the promise of today’s passage is that this grim and often grotesque reality is not the final chapter of human history. There is going to be an unexpected twist in the tale with a turn toward love and peace and justice. God is writing a surprise ending to this story, and he invites each of us to play a part by doing what we can to live by the values of Christ’s kingdom.

If we do, we’ll be given a sense of comfort we never dreamed possible. We’ll find ourselves blessed, not cursed. Maybe we really are what Jesus calls “the meek”; gentle people who are trying to reject the power-hungry and violent ways of the world we live in.

Or maybe we are men and women who hunger and thirst for righteousness by actively doing the will of God. Maybe we are “pure in heart”, willing to show the world in word and deed that there is nothing more life-changing than single-minded devotion to God. Or are we “merciful”, showing others the very gift that we are so anxious to receive for ourselves.

These are not mistakes or misspellings, as strange as they look to us. Instead, they are kingdom-based qualities that can open the door to inner peace and everlasting salvation. Let’s make a place for them. Let’s try to be saints; whether capital letter or lower case, it is all about opening up to the Kingdom of God.

The challenge for us is to open ourselves to God’s kingdom, and receive this radical new reality that Jesus is inscribing on our hearts and thus making a place for the Beatitudes. Blessed are those who open the door to the kingdom of God, says Jesus; blessed are the placemakers.

That’s no typo.

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