Monday, March 14, 2011

Ash Wednesday Sermon

March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

There must be a gazillion reasons why human beings break down and have a good cry now and again. Some of us have our tear ducts so close to our eyes, that we can, as they say, cry at the drop of a hat. It was said that CBS anchorman, Dan Rather, however, did not. This hard-biting journalist is widely known for his aloofness and apparent imperturbability in times of crises. That's why the country was amazed to watch Rather cry when appearing on the Letterman Show in September, 2001, following the terrorist's attack. Dan Rather simply doesn't cry.
Crying isn't so hard for a lot of us. Our kids cry when their feelings are injured, when their mother leaves them with the sitter, or when the teacher scolds them for being disruptive in class. We cry during arguments, at the loss of a loved one, when watching a movie, listening to a song, when a passing thought runs across our minds, when we've hit the lotto jackpot, when we're slapped with a lawsuit, when our children do us proud, when the daughter gets married or because the daughter isn't married. We cry tears of revenge, seduction, escape and empathy; tears of pleasure and pain. The biblical history of tears shows us David crying at the death of Absalom, Abraham over the death of Sarah. Joseph cried when meeting Benjamin. Even Jesus, according to that famously short verse in John's gospel, wept.

Some even have the ability to get moist in public on cue. Jimmy Swaggart wept profusely in an attempt to keep his ministry afloat. Sally Struthers gets moist on TV as she pleads for your support for Save the Children. George Bush could tear up during moving invocations of patriotism. And the mother of all weepers, Tammy Faye, was prone to weeping adventures that alone assure Estee Lauder a long and bright economic future.

Tears are always arouse us to action, observes Tom Lutz in Crying, a book that details the history of tears from the 14th century B.C. to the present day. The tears of public figures can spur people to pity or empathy, and then to action. Although tears were once seen as a sign of emotional instability in men, they are now considered to be proof that a particular man has feelings, and that he's strong enough to show deep emotion.

So what's this crying game all about? That's a good question as we observe Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent - the season of the church year that might bring us to a tearful or sorrowful state of emotion. To start things off, the prophet Joel issues a call for tears, for repentance. Divine judgment is on its way, and so God says through the prophet, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning". Although the people of Judah are terribly threatened by the coming of the day of the Lord, God offers them the opportunity to repent with fasting and weeping, and to return to communion with him.

Joel is convinced that these tears must be genuine. His God isn't interested in crocodile tears, or in any weeping that is designed to manipulate others. God is not looking for the kind of crying that is simply a biological event, a form of bodily elimination that may have the effect of evacuating ulcer-causing chemicals and proteins. No, God is interested in the type of weeping that accompanies an authentic change of heart.

In the middle of this state of crying, the prophet Joel calls for a particular kind of weeping: That which is genuine, and which leads to repentance. To repent is to turn your life around and begin to walk in a new direction; it means to turn away from sin and idolatry, and turn toward God's will and God's way. "Return to the LORD, your God," implores the prophet, "for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love".

Here's where the crying gets complex: It is not only a sign of sorrow over sin, but can be an expression of joy over God's goodness. We are invited to turn toward a gracious and forgiving God, not toward a vengeful and punishing Lord. God is "gracious," full of goodwill; "merciful," showing the love of a mother for her child; "slow to anger," waiting patiently for repentance; and full of "steadfast love," love which is grounded in God's promises to his people.

Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In it, the prodigal goes to a distant country, squanders his fortune in dissolute living, and then he "repents" - that is, he decides to turn himself around and return to his father. Here, we envision God - God's forgiveness knows no boundaries. His joy knows no restraint. He runs to meet us, according to the parable. Puts his arms around us. Kisses us. Welcomes us home.

The key thing to remember is that our crying - whether happy or sad - should result in changed behavior. The prophet Joel says, "Rend your hearts and not your clothing"; change your insides and not just your outsides; make sure your fasting and weeping and mourning are part of a new walk, not just a new talk. What Joel really hates is hypocrisy: People who say they are repenting but then fail to turn their lives around.

Barbara Brown Taylor argues that repentance is not complete until confession and pardon lead to "penance" - penance being a set of actions that allow community to be restored. "Just for a lark," she suggests, "imagine going to your pastor and confessing your rampant materialism, your devotion to things instead of people, and your isolation from the poor whom Jesus loved." Picture yourself confessing, with tears, all those things that you have done to rip the fabric of your community.

"Then imagine being forgiven and given your penance: To select five of your favorite things - including perhaps your Bose radio and your new Coach book bag - and to match them up with five people who you know would turn cartwheels to have them. Then on Saturday, put your lawn mower in your trunk, drive down to that transitional neighborhood where all the old people live and offer to mow lawns for free until dark." Notice that none of this is standard punishment. None of it is designed to inflict pain on yourself. Instead, it is penance, which is for the purpose of showing that your life is now turned around and that you are devoted to repairing relationships and restoring community.

If you find yourself crying over a lost valuable, just remember: When you weep in the process of true repentance, you're crying the tears of new life.

Tears and new life - they are inextricably linked in the promises of our faith. In this mournful season of Lent, we can believe that if we return to our gracious God with all our heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning, then we will discover a fullness of life that we have never known before. If we turn our lives around and work hard for the restoration of our relationships and our community, we'll know a joy that we never thought possible.

Our tears will lead to resurrection life. That's something to cry about!

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

Sunday Sermon

March 13, 2011

The First Sunday in Lent

Chris Gottbrath is no slacker. In spite of the fact that he wrote an academic treatise he fondly calls "The Slack Paper," this astronomer/computer engineer/swing music lover is no sluggard, at least intellectually. In this essay, Gottbrath unleashes a barrage of high-powered mathematical calculations to answer this timeless question: If you're running a long race, should you take the slow and steady approach, or chill at the back of the pack and then sprint from behind to win?

Others, of course, favor the methodical pace of the turtle over the rabbit's last minute energy spurt. But Gottbrath begs to differ. He mathematically calculated that a more successful strategy in problem solving begins with slacking off. That's right. Don't touch the project for a while. Go to the beach. Hit the mountains. Kick your feet up. Relax.

Gottbrath's research goes like this: the computational power available at a particular price doubles every 18 months in your local computer showroom. If the overall productivity of the newest computers overtakes older technology at this rate, one is better off "slacking," or waiting for some period of time, before purchasing a new computer and beginning the project. Waiting to purchase and work on the newest, fastest computer while your competitors plod along on soon-to-be obsolete machines means improved productivity.

The first step, then, if you want to beat the competition, is to achieve an attitude of slack: slackitude. Diligent laziness.

As Gottbrath coaches individuals to seek optimal slackitude, others in the world of time management advise other common sense strategies, helpful even to the mathematically challenged. Gil Gordon writes in
Turn It Off that our long-term effectiveness as employees or entrepreneurs is at risk if we don't occasionally turn off our computers, cell phones and brains.

Who doesn't answer the phone during dinner? Who doesn't sneak into the office on holidays or weekends? Check e-mail on vacation? Gordon, like Gottbrath, advises us to slack off a little.

Lent reminds us that disengaging is not the exclusive obligation of employees and entrepreneurs. The spiritually challenged - all of us - require periods of diligent laziness. The excitement people once exuded over their new technological toys has been replaced by resentment over being "on duty" all the time. Without refueling and re-energizing, both our personal lives and our work lives suffer.

The slow and steady discipline of following the Fourth Commandment has proven to be ineffective in our culture. That whole resting-on-the-seventh-day-plan hasn't captured our 21st century sensibilities.

But Lent invites us once again to slack off a bit. Give up something and take on something. Shake up the spiritual life a little by taking a step back.

Many view Lent as Plan B for failed New Year's Resolutions. But Jesus did not venture into the wilderness to lower his fat intake or curb caffeine consumption. He "was led" into the wilderness by the Spirit to develop a slackitude attitude. Along the way, it turned into a war with hunger, wild beasts and even the devil himself.

You'd think that after his media debut at the Jordan with John the Baptist, Jesus would've launched into a flurry of power healing and miracle making. Without delay, Jesus could have multitasked his way through Galilee turning the world upside down, wowing the masses. But Jesus did not rise from the baptismal waters of the Jordan to burst immediately onto the temple scene. Jesus didn't move directly from under the parted heavens to the top of the ministerial world, frantically moving from the blind to the lame to the bleeding, all the while charting out his goals for optimal career growth.

No, instead he took off for the hills above Jericho, to a stony, desolate place where he accepted the spiritual discipline of fasting for 40 days and 40 nights all alone. Well, almost alone.

The problem with slackitude is that one is particularly vulnerable to temptation while kicking back. Without every minute scheduled, temptations present themselves and fill the empty spaces.

For Jesus, temptation meant flirting with more than illusions of grandeur. Problem was the plan involved humble service, not awesome political dominance. If Jesus did not think of these enticements himself, a tempter was on hand to remind him. While in the throes of his spiritual retreat up there in the Judean wilderness with little to do and nothing to eat, the devil reminds him, "You know, you could turn these stones into loaves of bread. Crusty, chewy, extraordinarily tasty bread."

Of course he could. Water into wine. Stones into bread. What's the difference? But Jesus was up in some down time. Wilderness time meant personal time, spiritual time. He could turn stones into bread, sure, but bread is not everything. One does not live by bread alone.

The devil flatters him. "You could fling yourself off the pinnacle of the temple, and armies of angels will swoop down and save you at the click of a finger. How cool is that?" But Jesus knew better than to test God with such games.

The devil tempts him: "You're the man. You have the power. You could take control of the world." With an arm casually tossed around his shoulder, the tempter eggs him on saying, "One day all this could be yours," as if the devil were the one who could bequeath it. Jesus could have trumped The Donald, out-monopolized Bill Gates, crushed the power of the world's most sophisticated armies, richest treasuries and smartest think tanks. But instead, he waved Satan off like a pesky fly, remembering the commandment: "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him."

Jesus' example of retreating to the wilderness reminds us of the importance of being tethered to God - the one who ultimately feeds us, protects us, and owns us. Optimal slackitude involves a freedom that comes when we realize that the world can go on without us, and no longer are we afraid to admit that reality. In fact, we delight in it.

For Jesus, temptation in the throes of slackitude meant one thing - or three things. For us perhaps the temptation is to fill every minute for fear that empty moments will find us haunted by something we'd rather not face. For us perhaps the temptation is to work night and day to prove we are worth having around, terrified that somebody will not value us if we stop even for a moment. For us perhaps the temptation involves clinging to keep control of our lives, while ironically, the technology that keeps us in touch with each other winds up controlling us and keeping us out of touch with what is really important.

Lent invites us into a season of slackitude when we might reflect on making room for the most important things. The truth we discover, as we unplug and unwind, lies in the fact that the Spirit continues to lead human beings to a place of spiritual rest so that we might prepare for what lies ahead. Tethered only to God, we realize what truly nourishes and feeds us in lonely places.

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