Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Sermon

January 29, 2012

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

(Special memorial for Connie Wilson Barsby)

We live in a generation where everything isn’t really taken at face value. As recent as 75 years ago, one would not hear nearly as much question over the validity of the Bible as one would today. For us Catholics, a Bible has 73 books between its leather flaps. The younger generation today would ask how one can possibly believe that 73 books, mostly written by different authors over a span of a few hundred years could possibly be the inspired Word of God. However, to have 73 books written by about forty authors, from kings and nobles to fishermen and soldiers, in three languages and on three continents, be of the same mind as it is the case with the Bible, is just not humanly possible. Why, the editorial writers in our newspapers can't even agree when they come from the same culture and similar educational backgrounds.
As we consider the inspiration of the Bible, it is understandable for some to think that it is unacceptable to consider the Bible inspired just because some man or some organization declares it is inspired. We all know that men make mistakes and the organizations run by men are equally fallible. Just because someone desires that the Bible be inspired by God does not necessarily make it so.
Interestingly however, the Bible invites close scrutiny of its claim to be a book written by God. It acknowledges that there are hustlers in the world and that we must be careful regarding who we can believe. From I John we read: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world". Anyone can claim to receive a message from God, but the claim alone is not proof of inspiration.
However, we would expect that any work of God would claim God as its author. There are an endless number of books in the world, yet for most we do not need to consider whether they are inspired by God because such books do not claim to be inspired. Let’s face it; is Shakespeare the inspired word of God? Not hardly. To further demonstrate this, the works of Shakespeare have sold thousands of copies over the years; however they have not sold nearly as many copies as that of the Bible! How many people have read the Bible as compared to Shakespeare’s works? Further still, do you hear or see people living by what Shakespeare wrote? In a modern perspective, even the current popularity, the Harry Potter books are not viewed as inspired. There are a few fanatics on the Harry Potter subject, but few, if any, would treat the books as the inspired Word of God.
Christians claim that God is all-powerful and all-knowing. Therefore, a book that was written by such a God would have to be consistent in its message. Uninspired messages contain contradictions in their doctrine. A book by God would be perfectly consistent. In fact, this is offered as a point of proof within the Bible. In Deuteronomy we read: "If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, 'Let us go after other gods' -which you have not known-'and let us serve them,' you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams". Moses stated that a true prophet of God will not deliver a message that contradicts previous messages from God. Hence we read of Jesus telling the Pharisees that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.
These ancient works cover every major topic dealing with the human condition including: love, hate, death, sin, marriage, civil laws, and relationships with each other as well as with God. Although these works were written independently, they show an amazing congruency and they never seem to contradict each other when given fair scrutiny!
Paul wrote in third chapter of II Timothy "All scripture is inspired by God". Paul believes the Scriptures are "God-breathed"; that is they hold the same authority as if God were to come down and speak to you directly. Every word recorded in the original documents is considered to be chosen by God. We obviously cannot go into a laboratory and test for "God residue" on the text, so to ask for scientific proof is impossible. Similarly, asking for scientific proof that one loves his spouse is absurd. True science is limited to making claims on that which it can disprove through experimentation. Since science does not have any objective standards for measuring "God-ness", it cannot be asked to make a determination on His existence.
The Bible is the most published book in history, with the widest distribution of any published work. It has been translated into more languages than any other book. It is the most sold book in history. It was the first book published with moveable type. It is still the #1 best seller of any book. This in itself speaks volumes. If it were not the inspired Word of God, then how does one explain its popularity and longevity? Surely, God is behind this. It has been published for a few hundred years and the original manuscripts before that were, in some cases, a thousand years old. And through all this, the message and words have only changed to match the language. Such meticulous care for mere words would be a ludicrous waste of time, if it were not really the inspired Word of God. Surely something is behind this for 2.1 billion people to profess Christianity as their professed faith. That’s one third of the world’s population! Nearly 57% or 1.2 billion of all Christians are Catholics, or one fifth of the world’s population. I doubt seriously we could get all these people to profess a belief in a religion based on books of scripture if there was not something behind it all.
The Bible has an incredible amount of manuscript evidence to authenticate its message as it was originally written. Of every ancient literary or historical work, none can come remotely close to the huge amount of manuscript evidence for the New Testament. There are over 5,300 manuscripts or parts of manuscripts we can examine today. If you count all the early copies of translations of the New Testament, the number skyrockets to over 24,000. The Old Testament, unfortunately, does not share the wealth of manuscript evidence that the New Testament possesses. However, because of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other discoveries, along with ancient Hebrew sources that quote from the Old Testament, we are assured that it is in the same form as it was in Jesus' day. The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves included almost the entire Old Testament canon and they date from 250B.C. to 100A.D. Also, the copies of the Septuagint, which was a Greek version of the Old Testament written about 250B.C., shows the text we have today has been nearly perfectly preserved.
Archaeology has also borne out the reliability of the Bible. Everywhere the archaeologist searches, he uncovers discoveries that bolster, not refute support of the Bible as being a true account of history. Archaeological digs have uncovered a stele (a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected for funerals or commemorative purposes, most usually decorated with the names and titles of the deceased or living — inscribed, carved in relief and/or painted onto the slab) dedicated to Pontius Pilate and even found the remains of a crucified man, with the nail still in the bones of the hand. The Hittites were a group considered in the last century to be a mythical people only mentioned in the Bible. It wasn't until A.J. Sayce brought forth evidence of their existence in 1876 that the Hittites were generally accepted as historically true. In fact, the archaeological evidence for the validity of the Bible is so overwhelming that Donald J. Wiseman stated over 25,000 sites mentioned in the Bible have been found.
Further, there is no valid reason to believe that the men who wrote the Bible were lying or trying to deceive. The New Testament particularly shows that the character of the writers was beyond reproach. Each of them suffered and was executed because they would not recant their position that the teachings of the Bible are true and accurate. If their testimony was made up for gain or folly, surely someone would have renounced his stand to save his life, but it did not happen. All the apostles and the writers believed unwaveringly that the Bible was absolute fact. Let’s face it; you do not see people willingly dying to prove Superman is real, or that the comic books of him are inspired words of God!
Given that, we can then rest assured that the Old Testament writings were equally true. The Apostles refused to recant their teachings of Jesus’ life; hence we have support that Jesus did exist, with archaeological evidence to boot. This same Jesus during His life, by His teachings and example, confirmed the inspired Word in the Old Testament writings.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Imagine a classroom of thirty students at the high-school level. The teacher has decided on the class writing a novel for a class project. Each student will independently be assigned one chapter and they will then gather the papers together to assemble the finished work. The topic chosen is "Why God is important in man's life," but there is no outline and there are no rules as to what that statement means. Because the students are all the same age and live in the same area at the same point in time, they have a tremendous advantage over the Biblical writers, yet still to expect a congruent work is ridiculous. The thirty chapters would have far too obvious differences, unlike that of the Bible. The fact that the Bible is a unified message shows that its origin comes from beyond man.
Because the Bible claims it is the word of God, it requires of itself a stricter assessment. The Old Testament is filled with the authoritative phrase "Thus sayeth the LORD”. The fact that men recognized it from the time it was first penned as authoritative gives it a measure of strength. The laws that were required of the Jews were very arduous. Because they chose to accept them as commandments from God before any significant length of time had elapsed to mythicalize them shows that the people believed with their lives that these documents were from God. Jesus Himself validates the Old Testament by regarding it as the word of God and authoritative in all things.
And so, in today’s passage, Paul addresses the issue of unnecessary anxieties in the Christian life. He does this in the context of what was a major concern for the Corinthian believers, namely, the issue of asceticism. In today’s modern terms, people find Paul’s directive downright impossible, which explains the decline of vocations of Monks, Nuns and Priests throughout the world. But, in reality, Paul isn’t really speaking of it in the terms most would immediately assume.
Paul is not opposed to the ascetic single life, but he ends up arguing against sexual abstinence in marriage, marriage separation on ascetic/spiritual grounds, and even the ascetic single life itself, because an authentic Christian life is not dependent on ones marital, or single state. Given the inclination toward spiritual asceticism in the Corinthian congregation, as against a background of societal promiscuity, Paul's advice is "better marry than burn." There are, of course, good grounds for the ascetic life, although in general terms the better principle is "stay as you are." As far as Paul is concerned, given the impending crisis, "there is no point in making any significant change in one's ordinary way of life". Paul moves past the issue of the relative worth of either the single or married life to the more important issue of pursuing eternal verities. Paul then tackles the issue of damaging "anxieties" in the Christian life. Anxieties could be from many different things in life, not just marriage.
This passage is notoriously difficult to interpret. Yet it is clear that in chapter 7 Paul is making the point that an unmarried state is not intrinsically better than a married state, as though sexual intercourse was somehow less than holy, as some may seem to teach. The "doing" rather than "receiving" ethos of the "nomists" in the group Paul is writing to, has obviously produced an unhelpful aesthetic approach to sexual relations. Paul, in his typical argumentative style, affirms the ascetic ideal; celibacy is a worthy "gift" to pursue given the impending distress, the difficulties of marriage, and the impermanence of this life. Paul thus ends up promoting a realistic compromise - "better marry than burn." (Or at least it was realistic in that period of time.) Overall life was created by God, and thus we are better to keep the distractions down so as we can better focus on God.
At face value Paul seems to be affirming the single life with its increased opportunities for service to the Lord, as opposed to the married life with its inevitable family distractions. With this approach there is bad "anxiety" or the troubles of the world experienced by married people and good "anxiety” or the increased opportunities of the unmarried to please the Lord.
So, Paul encourages the Corinthians to set aside all their anxieties, and this with particular reference to the issue of sexual abstinence in marriage, marriage separation on ascetic/spiritual grounds and the ascetic single life, because in the end these things are "not a matter of what is right or wrong, but what is or is not expedient and profitable in particular circumstances". Paul's practical advice to the Corinthians is that they "remain as they are", but if they need to re-gig their personal relationships, then do it - "better marry than burn".
So by now you might be asking what this has to do with what I have to say today? Are our attachments and our distractions keeping us from God? Are our attachments and our distractions keeping us from simply believing? Are we allowing our incessant disbelief, questioned belief or our lack of appropriate time keeping us from spending time with God? Do we not understand God? Do we have doubts that creep in simply because we cannot see Him any more than the Israelites could during their recorded 40 year journey through the desert?
When someone dies, we grieve. This is a natural human reaction and emotional response. God understands. There is nothing to be ashamed of there. God even understands when we lash out at Him for taking that loved one away from us. He also tries, through his ministers here on earth, to help you understand that those who put their trust and faith in Him, will not be alone. Not only will he be there, but so will the many other faithful believers to help support you.
God has never promised an “easy” life, but He has promised that he will be there. As some of you know, on my Bishop’s coat of arms there is a motto written near the bottom. All Bishops have one. My reads, “Is eram tunc ut Portavi vos”. It is Latin for, “it was then I carried you”, from the Footprints in the Sand poem about Jesus. I firmly believe that we sometimes must carry one another. Jesus said that when we help the sick, or visit the people in prison, or put clothes on the backs of the homeless, we are doing so for Him. We are the hands of Jesus. We serve Jesus when we serve each other. It may not be easy. It certainly will not always be painless, but we will serve Him when we serve our brother man.
Sometimes God works in supernatural ways we cannot see, feel or touch. Sometimes miracles happen and we miss them, and sometimes we witness them clearly. God is here. God is there. God is everywhere. The main core of it all is that we simply believe and have faith. We have the Bible written by witnesses of God and His power. We have the Inspired Word of God to support us when life pushes us to the floor. God is not an empty deity statue in the corner of a room; He is an all-powerful, all-knowing God who awaits our call. We do well to not allow our worldly anxieties take us away from God.
When our loved ones die, they only die to this world; not God’s world. They live on in eternity looking down on us and loving us still. They are up there loving us more than we can ever feel from another human being left here with us. We do not know how. We do not understand why. But you see, the Bible isn’t about how heaven goes; it’s about how to go to heaven.
So I want to leave you with something to ponder. It will not necessarily make all your troubles go away or even make you feel better (at least not immediately), but it surely will make you think. It’s called, God’s Plan.
Some things are beyond planning.
And life doesn't always turn out as planned.
You don't plan for a broken heart.
You don't plan for a failed business venture.
You don't plan for an adulterous husband
or a wife who wants you out of her life.
You don't plan for an autistic child.
You don't plan for spinsterhood.
You don't plan for a lump in your breast.

You plan to be young forever.
You plan to climb the corporate ladder.
You plan to be rich and powerful.
You plan to be acclaimed and successful.
You plan to conquer the universe.
You plan to fall in love - and be loved forever.

You don't plan to be sad.
You don't plan to be hurt.
You don't plan to be broke.
You don't plan to be betrayed.
You don't plan to be alone in this world.
You plan to be happy. You don't plan to be shattered.
Sometimes if you work hard enough, you can get what you want.

But MOST times, what you want and what you get
are two different things.

We, mortals, plan. But so does God in the heavens.
Sometimes, it is difficult to understand God's plans especially
when His plans are not in consonance with ours.

Often, when God sends us crisis, we turn to Him in anger.
True, we cannot choose the cross that God wishes us to carry,
but we can carry that cross with courage knowing that God will
never abandon us nor send something we cannot cope with.

Sometimes, God breaks our spirit to save our soul.
Sometimes, He breaks our heart to make us whole.
Sometimes, God allows pain so we can be stronger.
Sometimes, God sends us failure so we can be humble.
Sometimes, God allows illness so we can take better care of
ourselves. Sometimes, God takes everything away from us
so we can learn the value of everything He gave us.

Make plans, but understand that we live by God's grace.

~Author Unknown~

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

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