Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sunday Sermon

March 25, 2012

Passion Sunday

Annunciation of our Lady

There are two kinds of Christians-- those who "pray their way in," and those who "pray their way out." Most of us, unfortunately, take our prayer lives most seriously when we are trying to "pray our way out."

--When you're rushing to get to an appointment that you're already late for and you don't notice the traffic cop's car until you've whizzed halfway past it -- Time to "pray your way out."

--When you walk into math class and suddenly realize the chapter test is today, not tomorrow -- Time to "pray your way out."

--When you get a letter with a return address from the Internal Revenue Service -- Time to "pray your way out."

--When your company announces it will begin “downsizing” "right-sizing" "upsizing" or whatever else they call it -- Time to "pray your way out."

--When your spouse confronts you with the possibility of divorce -- Time to "pray your way out."

As a child I would often wonder if I would have to experience the pain of the cross in the same way that Jesus did. I certainly wasn't looking for anything like that. None of us do. And although in time we all realize that we are not necessarily called to experience exactly what Jesus did, but we are called sometimes to be willing to suffer for the sake of the Christian faith. Christians are taught that Jesus died on the cross to redeem us from sin and death. And we are taught that Christ's death on the cross was a costly sacrifice to cancel the debt that we owe God on account of our sin.

This is true, but there is much more that is true. On the cross Jesus revealed God, not as a remote, exalted, glorified deity, absent from the agonies and sufferings of human life, but of the suffering servant. The glory of God is seen in the sufferings of Jesus Christ, the one who pours himself out for others. Because the Son offered himself really and lovingly for us, we now see God from the perspective of the cross.
The cross also has a vital message about human sufferings. Jesus Christ suffered and continues to suffer for the sake of humanity. Every time we minister in Christ name to others, we minister to him. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is a present reality. Leo the great said that as long as we are in the body, Christ suffers still. But the cross of Christ means that humanity does not suffer alone. In Christ God has taken our sufferings upon himself and shared with us.
In the cross, the meaning of suffering grief has been forever changed. The crucified Christ bears our sorrows in our briefs. The Son experienced suffering and death; the Father experienced a loss of the Son, the Spirit shared in grief them both. In the cross, God made your sufferings his own.
Life hits a skid when situations arise that may cause pain or fear, anger or hardship. We are suddenly brought up short. Even those who might not consider themselves very pious or prayerful or even very religious, when faced with these kinds of clutch circumstances, hurl up "panic-button prayers." We pray to God for help in getting us out of the mess we've landed in.

One has to wonder whether God doesn't spend the better part of the day hearing attempts by people to "pray their way out" of situations. It must get very old. Praying one's-way-out prayers are not very creative or new. When we're trying to pray our way out, there simply isn't time to be eloquent. I know that Jesus listens to my panic-button prayers because Jesus himself got to a point in his life where he authored and offered one of the classic "greats" in this genre of praying: "Father, get me out of here." As he looked down the road toward Jerusalem, he cried out, "Father, save me from this hour."

Sometimes we try to dress up our panic-button prayers by gilding them with flowery promises. We promise we'll never speed, slack, cheat, lie or steal ever again if God will just get us out of this one. As if God hasn't heard that before.

But there is another kind of attitude Christians can take in prayer. Instead of flailing around for an escape hatch, instead of praying our way out, we can "pray our way in" to God's plan for our lives.

--Confronted with the need to make a midlife career change -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a new possibility.

--Finding that the demands on your time are causing your blood pressure to rise, your head to pound and your nerves to snap -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a slower pace.

--Discarding another commodity of fun for a community of faith that can nurture your soul while prodding you forward -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a new address.

--Worried about the strain on your budget and hating the pinched feeling you always have at the end of the month -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a new examination of what is an authentic style of life and what is just "lifestyle."

--Grieving over the loss of a spouse -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a renewed love for family and friends.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus says: “
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Here Jesus speaks in absolute terms to emphasize a point. “Loves his life” means to delight in his life in this world more than in God. “Hates his life in this world” means to think so little of our own life and instead to think so much of God that we are willing to sacrifice it all for God. Following Christ entails self-sacrifice, shown supremely at the cross.
Earlier I said, “Confronted with the need to make a midlife career change -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a new possibility.” I can certainly relate to this, as my own personal life goes through little bit of turmoil. I struggle with the knowledge that my career is going to change either with my approval or without. So most recently, I have started to try and pray my way in to a change of career or job so that I can stay here at St. Francis the pastor to those who call upon me. As we all know, St. Francis is not nearly in a position to support its pastor.
Much of life is beyond our control. We can't run the show. We might as well relax and enjoy the picture. Why don't we trust God's plan and pray our way in to a yielded life? We do not, because we fear the unknown. We don’t, because we want to be in control. We don’t because we do not want to let happen what our nightmares seem to tell us will happen if we do not take action into our own hands. Yes, as the saying goes, even a miracle needs a hand, but sometimes God simply wants us to let the miracle happen. He doesn’t need our help; but we need his!
Everyone must carry the cross, not a cross of wood, but the troubles of everyday life. Some people pretend they have no difficulties, but it is not true. Everyone has their troubles. And so I've come to learn that there is a cross for everyone, myself included. None of us is immune to suffering, pain, grief, tragedy, or sickness. We all have our crosses. But because of Jesus Christ, and our fellowship with him, we do not bear them alone.

A few years ago Henry Blackaby challenged the Christian community to rethink its approach to God. In his now classic discipleship resource Experiencing God, Blackaby pointed out that our approach to God most resembles a Christmas wish list -- a litany of blessing "gimmes" that itemizes what we want: "Lord, bless our church, bless my family, bless my ministry, bless my hopes, bless my dreams, bless my desires."

Blackaby proposed following Jesus' lead and learning to pray not for what we want but for what God wants for us. Instead of asking God to bless our lives, authentic discipleship is asking God to "Let my church, my family, my ministry, my hopes, my dreams, my desires be a part of what you are blessing." Mother Teresa talks about shifting our prayers from what we want to what God wants.

In today's gospel text, Jesus shifts the direction of our prayers even further than Blackaby and Mother Teresa have proposed. Instead of asking God to "save me from this problem," or "deliver me from this mess/stress/distress," Jesus teaches us to ask God to "glorify your name in this action."

When God's voice rang down out of heaven and promised that Jesus was being glorified, some heard angel voices, others heard thunder. When your life takes unexpected turns, crashes into a barren spot, or overwhelms you with responsibility, do you hear the din of thunder roaring in your ears? Or do you hear the voice of an angel offering you a chance to glorify God?

It is especially hard in this modern age to “Let go, and let God”, as the famous saying goes, but sometimes that is exactly what Christ is calling us to do. It's our choice. Either we can try to pray your way out of a thunderstorm. Or we can pray our way in to the glory of God.

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

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sunday Sermon

March 11, 2012

The Third Sunday in Lent

Some people's bedrooms are a total mess. To enter, one might have to wade ankle-deep through clothes. The desk is piled high with books and papers. The closet is jammed with everything but the kitchen sink. They seem oblivious to the mess and don't mind the clutter. They don't have time to clean it up, but they can spend hours texting their friends. And this is the point; cleaning up a mess isn't a priority to them. Their friends and relationships claim their time and attention. The gospel this Sunday is a familiar one about Jesus throwing the money changers out of the Temple. Jesus is clear about his “Father’s house” being a place of prayer and covenant; a place where God dwells. In the midst of the messiness of the Temple Jesus reorders priorities.
What a mess Jesus made! He spilled coins, overturned tables, and even destroyed the most important institution of all of Israel; the Temple as God's dwelling place. He declared that the place of God's presence among people was no longer building up the “temple of his body”. This “temple of his body” would be destroyed by enemies but then raised up to a new life dwelling among us and within us who are now the Body of Christ. What a new creation God made! What a new priority God has established for us!
Jews expressed their covenant fidelity by worship in the Temple and obedience to the commandments. For Christians, Christ is our new Temple and his word is our new commandment. Thus, Jesus’ driving out the merchants and money changers from the Temple is an example that displays for us what ought to be our priority; a worshipful relationship to God and just relationship with each other. The zeal followers of Jesus must show is not for a building but for those Christ has claimed as his own. Our zeal is for the Body of Christ, the living Temple of God's presence.
At the same time Jesus challenges priorities, he announces a new pattern of living. The Temple of his own body would be destroyed, but his body would be raised up. Through Jesus' death and resurrection we have a new covenant with God. No longer is our covenantal relationship measured only by keeping Commandments, but our covenantal relationship to God is measured by how well we pattern our own lives after Jesus in dying to ourselves for the good of others. New, risen life is ours when we conform ourselves to his new commandment of love. As believers and followers of Jesus our own bodies are also temples that must be destroyed in order to be raised up. Our own bodies are given up in love. Such must be our zeal.
As an example of dying to ourselves for the good of others, recently I read of a married couple who adopted a six-year-old boy from Peru. He is physically incapacitated to some extent in that he has been undernourished for years and is smaller in stature than he should be. But he is also emotionally underdeveloped and has the mental capacity of a three-year-old.
Most people if they heard this would swallow slowly and probably softly say, “Wow!” This couple did not adopt a child who's going to be an unadulterated delight. Maybe no child ever is, but people who do adopt into their family have the expectation that the child will be a delight to them at least most of the time. In this case, this couple bought problems from day one. It's enough to make someone stop in their tracks of life.
What this couple did was of God. Their gesture is a response to the word of God. This is the kind of behavior the Jesus exemplified. Let us think for a minute. Don't you think if more people acted in this fashion in our world, the world would be a substantially better place? Don't you think our parish would be different, their neighborhoods, our city, our country would be better? When we open our eyes and see without prejudice, it becomes obvious how prideful, how divisive, how riddled with self-interest we are. Our parish, our city, our nation, our world.
We should all find that the action of this couple is life-giving. In your experience and in your mind, is obedience to the inspiration of God's word life-giving? Or do you see such behavior like this couple more as an experience of death? A gesture like this couple's would mean dying to so many cherished things in life. I know I would have to give up so much to do as they did.
We have come into our artificially created desert of Lent to consider such things. We fast, so as to see what kind of slavery we are in, what alien gods we unconsciously worship. We pray, so that we might rid ourselves of the illusion that we are God. And we do works of charity and mercy to get us thinking more about the other and less about ourselves.
We also entered the desert to find out what God's will may be for us. This is difficult work, especially when we are subject to all sorts of strong attachments. God asks different things of each of us. Do we each want to know what God's will is for us? There are all kinds of ways to avoid the knowledge that God's will for us may possibly be like the action of that couple. So I ask again, do we really want to know what God's will is for us?
Here's the kicker; we say we believe in the word of God, we say we believe that God's will for us means a true and full life. Can we trust enough to be open to what God really wants, as that couple probably was? They were buying into a real diminishment of their lives in some ways, a change in so many things they had. You might say that they were open to downward mobility. They are both professional people, healthy, and have one other child, a little girl who is healthy, bright and well developed. They bought into a situation that will change their lives for years, perhaps for as long as they live.
Some might ask how this could be a sign of life? It is an act of faith. And we have our model for this sort of living and it is in Jesus. The wisdom of God showing Jesus was absolute folly to people. Jesus’ life was a secular disaster. It looked and smelled like death. No worldly wisdom could justify the kind of life Jesus lived. None of us here today would choose it. He loved unpopular people; he took unpopular stands, being faithful to his Father's will as he saw it. Jesus is anything but a conformist. Instead of embracing cultural assumptions, he does or says the opposite. Worldly wisdom makes no sense of that. Jesus’ life, just like that couple’s act, was what some would call a signal of transcendence. This means an element of human experience simply cannot be explained by the collective wisdom of the world. We want to live by the wisdom of God that is the source of true life.
And so we continue our Lenten, desert experience, but probably with some trepidation. God may ask something of us other than what we expect. We are tempted to say that we are good people and we tried to obey God's law. And today we are called to wonder whether maybe being a good person is just not good enough. Maybe we are compromising the true wisdom of God. The gospel story should make us wonder if we are behaving like the merchants in the Temple.
I would suspect that the merchants in the Temple did not think they were bad people, yet Jesus kicked them out in a rage. The practice of buying and selling in the Temple area was not considered blasphemous, and maybe for some it was even imagine as being pious. They were providing a needed service for the worshipers. Roman coins, because the coinage used in Jerusalem could not be used to pay the Temple tax; one had to use shekels. The Judaic law forbade graven images; therefore one would think that Roman coins with Caesar's image would have to be exchanged. So the faithful had to deal with moneychangers when they went to the Temple. People also needed animals to offer as sacrifice, so one might argue that the merchants were providing this service for good religious cause. Merchants provided the necessary service for the worshipers. All so it would seem. Conventionally, it all made sense.
What caused such anger in Jesus, some scholars surmise, was a factor the business of buying and selling had gradually moved from outside of the Temple into the very court of the Gentiles. He felt that the house in the worship of God was being compromised and insulted. Jesus’ zeal for his Father's glory was uncompromising. The Temple was supposed to represent God's assured presence to Israel. Hence his justified anger. The gospel tells us that the disciples would later see Jesus' prophetic act as fusing with the Psalmist’s profound expression of faith as was written in Psalms 69. In hindsight it is especially easy to see that human conventions can blind us to spiritual truths. What seemed legitimate really profane what was holy.
Yet in amongst all this, the Jews asked him what sign he would show for doing these things. And Jesus answered them that if they destroyed the Temple, in three days he would raise it up again. The very problem of this to the ears of the Jews at the time was that they did not understand what Jesus truly meant. Jesus was not speaking of the Temple on the mount made of brick-and-mortar. He was speaking of the Temple of his own body. He was speaking in advance of his crucifixion and his own dying and rising again.
This speaks to us today in a way that many of us also do not understand any more than the Jews of two thousand years ago. We as Catholics are called to a faith and belief that for some is hard to accept. As Catholics, we have the inheritance of the teachings of the apostles. And as such we take seriously the direction that Jesus later gives when he celebrates the Passover supper with his disciples. That we are to take the bread and break it in memory of him; we are to take the wine and drink it. We are to believe in full faith and by Jesus’ own words, that the bread becomes his body; the wine becomes his blood. This is a miracle; this is our very own supernatural experience each and every Sunday.
Being Catholics, as I often have said and will continue to say, is not just a religion; it is a way of life. Just as the Jews of that time and even of today, we Catholics take seriously what God through Jesus Christ has commanded us to do and to be. We come to the Christian variation of the Temple, known as a church, to take in God's holy word, and then Christ's very own body and blood within us. We become the spiritual Temples of Christ’s body within ourselves. We must be willing to tear down these temples only so they can be rebuilt as one’s belonging to Christ. As Catholics, we believe in the miracle of the Eucharist, of which our eyes deceive us with. We believe that miracle of the Eucharist is the bringing of a spiritual sustenance to our body and souls. Whether we “feel” it or not, we know in faith it to be so, because Jesus promised it so.
To what extent have we behaved like the merchants in the Temple? God's hard word faces us, challenges us, but also strengthens us. We believe what the psalmist says, that the law of the Lord is right and makes the heart rejoice. The commands of the Lord are sweeter than honey. We believe this. And we ask the Lord God, in the celebration of Christ's holy supper to reassure us that our dying with Jesus shall be our rising with God to a fuller life. We too, must be willing to love unpopular people; take unpopular stands on various topics society is dealing with; we must be faithful to the Father’s will as we understand it. We must be willing to tear down the temple of our old selves and allow the Holy Spirit to rebuild it as God desires it to be; one worthy of Christ Jesus.
The risen Christ is the ultimate countersign in a world where death is imagined to be final. He is a new presence visible symbol of God. It seemed like foolishness back then, just as it may seem to some today. To live in the risen Christ, is to not let conventions blindness the truth. The Gospel is neither irrational nor absurd. Therefore, let us open ourselves to the call of God. Whether it is to become human temples receiving Christ body, or simply following his call to do that which the world may find strange.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sunday Sermon

March 4, 2012

The Second Sunday in Lent

Most of us think we know what it means to say that someone has a cross to carry or bear in life. But do we really understand that phrase based upon Jesus’ command that we must take up our cross and follow him?
Jesus's disciples and followers were used to danger. It was a perilous time; anyone growing up in Galilee Just then knew about the revolutions, about people hoping God would act to deliver them, and ending up getting crucified by the Romans instead. Sometimes any new leader, prophet, or teacher with something fresh to say, might very well end up crucified. Anyone who chose to follow Jesus at that time period must have been aware of the risks. The death of John the Baptist surely must confirm that. But this was different. This was something new.
Often we think of the cross someone bears as a burden inflicted by nature or circumstance. Harriet was born without the gift of eyesight; some think that is her cross. John lost his job because of a factory closing and is too close to retirement to find new employment; some say that is his cross to bear. Such circumstances as physical disability or poverty are indeed very heavy human burdens which should elicit both compassion and assistance. But these are not the kinds of things the gospel for today is talking about.
The cross Jesus calls us to take up is modeled upon his own cross. The cross of the Savior has notable characteristics to be considered. First, he took it up willfully. Second, it was taken up in sacrificial devotion to others.
The cross of which Jesus speaks is something we voluntarily decide to do. It is not something inflicted upon us without our consent; nor is it some unfortunate difficulty that befalls us because of our carelessness or neglect. Jesus does not tell us merely to bear the cross, but to take it up. Life is full of burdens we have to bear because we can't escape them. But the cross can be evaded. This is the meaning of Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane. Jesus has the power to avoid crucifixion; but he will accept it in order to fulfill God's intention. We remember Jesus saying, “If possible, let this pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” That is his prayer and ours if we take up the cross with him.
As mentioned earlier, we often think of those who take up their cross as those who are suffering in some fashion. Yet a more accurate depiction of taking up our cross would be those who are in the armed forces; those are firemen; those who are policemen. These people have willingly taken up a cross that puts them in harm way each and every day. They willingly do this because it is what they want to do. They do this for the help and protection of other people who predominantly they never know or will know. This is the type of cross Jesus asks us to take up. The cross Jesus asks us to take up is one in service to others and to God.
The cross we are called to take up is there for the sake of others. It is not some suffering we accept so that people will pity us, or praise us for our endurance. It is not some act of penance we engage in, hoping for personal spiritual growth because of it. The cross is suffering we take up in order to help others, even as Jesus went to Calvary on behalf of the world.
Thus to be afflicted with cancer or some other deadly disease is not the cross of which Jesus speaks, torturous as those diseases may be. Rather the cross is carried by those who willingly minister to these cancer victims, when they could avoid it. The cross is carried by those who show compassion to persons dying of contagious diseases that they may suffer from due to their inappropriate lifestyles or things they've done in their life that have caused them to have this disease. In times past, and to some small degree even today, people who suffer from AIDS would be a prime example. Some would say those afflicted with AIDS deserves the disease they now have.
To be poverty-stricken due to circumstances of birth or loss of employment is not the cross which Jesus speaks, unfortunate as such deprivation is. Instead, the cross is borne by those who do not need to work in soup kitchens or shelters for the homeless, but choose to do so. The cross is borne by those who call for higher taxes or reduction of spending on armaments and thus who favors social services. The cross is born by those who will fight for those some in society think should not be fought for, such as the gay and lesbian community and their desire to be allowed to be married. The cross is borne by those who continue to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, known as the unborn; even against those who feel as a United States citizen they deserve the right to an abortion. Those who take such stands will be maligned by friends who want taxes lowered or military spending increased. The criticism such advocates accept is their cross. They assume this cross voluntarily, for the sake of others.
To have a son on drugs or an unwed daughter who is pregnant is not to take up the cross. Rather taking up the cross may mean loving our children when we might instead kick them out of the house, telling them to suffer the consequences of their own actions without any sympathy from us.
To take up the cross is no easy thing. Thus when Jesus spoke to his disciples of his own impending crucifixion, St. Peter rebuked him, trying to argue him out of it. Jesus, in turn, spoke the most stinging word ever reported of him: “Get behind me, Satan! For you, Peter, are not on the side of God.”
So important is this message that opposition to the plan, wherever it comes from, must be seen as Satanic, from the accuser. Even Peter, Jesus's right-hand man, is capable of thinking like a mere mortal, not looking at things from God's point of view. This is a challenge to all of us, as a church in every generation struggles not only to think, but to live from God's point of view in a world where such a thing is madness. This is the point at which God's kingdom, coming on Earth as it is in heaven, will challenge and overturn all normal human assumptions about power and glory, about what is really important in life and in the world.
You might as well have a football team captain tell the team that he was intending to let the opposition score ten goals right away. This was what Peter and the rest had in mind. They may not have thought of Jesus as a military leader, but they certainly didn't think of him going straight to death either.
When Peter speaks his rebuke of Jesus, we read the Jesus turns and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter. The very fact that Jesus looked at all the disciples implies that his review of Peter was intended for all of them, not just Peter. It is only Peter's thought, not him personally, that Jesus rejects as Satanic. Peter does not recognize that the messianic ruler of God's eternal kingdom has come to die for his sins, but he soon will recognize it.
Jesus instructs in discipleship all those who come after him should have a goal of self-denial. Taking up one's cross is not a pathological self-abasement or martyr complex but that of being free to follow the Messiah. Self-denial means letting go of self-determination and replacing it with obedience to and dependence upon God.
We are not inclined to take up the cross, or even to watch someone else do it, without arguing or impugning motives. But this is the call of the Lord, pressed upon us especially during Lent. This is the true Lenten penance; not giving up of some pleasure for the sake of our own souls, but taking up of some difficult work for the sake of others.
What crosses are you capable of assuming this holy season? What can you do, without thought of personal reward or even satisfaction, but also without regard for the criticism or misunderstanding that may be generated among your family, friends, and even fellow church members? Therein may lie the cross you are called to carry.
But the power to carry it comes from the crucified one, who by his body and blood given us in the sacrament strengthens us. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s, will save it.” That is Jesus’ paradoxical statement. It demands two different senses of the word “life”. Whoever lives a self-centered life focused on this present world will not find eternal life with God. Whoever gives up his self-centered life of rebellion against God for the sake of Christ and the gospel will find everlasting communion with God.
Let me leave you with a prayer that I have said daily for years and speaks about this. It is called “Learning Christ”.
Teach me, my Lord, to be sweet and gentle. In all the events of life - in disappointments, in the thoughtlessness of others, in the insincerity of those I trusted, in the unfaithfulness of those on whom I relied. Let me put myself aside, to think of the happiness of others, to hide my little pains and heartaches, so I may be the only one to suffer from them. Teach me to profit by the suffering that comes across my path. Let me so use it that it may mellow me, not harden nor embitter me; that it may make me patient, not irritable, that it may make me broad in my forgiveness, not narrow, haughty and overbearing. May no one be less good for having come within my influence. No one less pure, less true, less kind, less noble for having been a fellow traveler in our journey toward eternal life. As I go my rounds from one distraction to another, let me whisper from time to time, a word of love to Thee. May my life be lived in the supernatural, full of power for good, and strong in its purpose of sanctity. Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.