Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sunday Sermon

September 9, 2012
The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Ever watch the movie, Third Miracle? I decided to watch it with fear that it would turn out as one of those movies that makes a Priest look pathetic in his apparent loss of faith. It also seemed to pray upon what first seemed that of him breaking his vow of celibacy. However, they were both dealt with quite well. Yet this is not all that really caught me about this movie.
What additionally caught me about this movie was about the process the church goes through to recognize someone as a saint. Here is this priest who is meant to be the advocate for this person that many people want the church to recognize as a saint. The story begins with him in a soup kitchen eating. Apparently, it has been eight months since he is been active in ministry. Another priest comes to see him and give him a message from his Bishop. The message basically is that they need him to work on an assignment. This particular priest had done many investigations in the past for the church on the sanctity and worthiness of people the church might have wanted to recognize as a saint.
He had taken a sabbatical due to his questioning of his faith and thus his dark night of the soul. Some of you have heard me speak of the dark night of the soul. It first became used and then infamous within the religious realm based on St. John of the Cross and his writings of the same name. The dark night of the soul is a phrase meaning that someone who is normally very spiritual, religious and has mystical experiences who suddenly feels as though God has left them. More recently for us, was Blessed Mother Teresa who did not publically acknowledge it, but in her after death biography, it was revealed from some of her diaries and writings to her superiors that she also frequently struggled with this same thing in her life. However, unlike St. John of the Cross or Blessed Mother Teresa, this particular priest was not sure if he believed anymore. Part of the reason is that every investigation he did on a person for possible sainthood proved that that person did not live even a close life of a saint. He began to doubt. So, he took a sabbatical.
Well, in his own diocese, there was a woman who was thought to be a saint. She had died some years previously. She had died some years past, but still had a daughter who was also living in the same town. She and her daughter were estranged. You see this woman basically abandoned her daughter, when the daughter was 16. Although when I say abandoned, I do not mean so literally, as she was given to another family to raise by the woman. The daughter never really forgave her mother for this. You see, the woman abandoned her daughter so that she could go to a convent and work for the church.

This woman was a survivor of the Second World War. As a very young child, she lived in Germany in a town that was about to be bombed. It was said that she ran out of her house, just as so many others were doing on that day during the bombing, and she ran to the local Catholic Church which had a statue of Mary in the front courtyard. It was a rather large statue. The child had went up a couple stairs, and then knelt down. She was seen by a number of people, with a miniature replica of the statue in her arms, praying to the larger statue of Mary. She prayed and she prayed, and as she was so doing, other people watched. Bombs were about to fall in their very spot, but as the bombs got close they all dissipated into what seemed like flocks of pigeons. The people who saw the miracle, knew it was due to this little girl’s intercession to Mary (hence God).
The story goes, that the modern-day church where this convent was, put up a replica statue of Mary in their court yard in a city within United States. The woman, while working in the convent, met a young girl who had a very life-threatening disease. They said what the disease was, though it fails me to remember what it was at this point, but the point of the matter was that the woman touched the scars of the various wombs on the young girl with this disease. Later, the woman dies. Not long after, the young girl was about to be admitted into the hospital where she was expected to die as well. However, before doing so, on the anniversary of the death of the woman who touched her, she went to the statue that was in the courtyard of the church and convent. As she gets to the statue, a thunderstorm begins, but the young girl stands and prays by the statue. As she is so doing, blood suddenly starts flowing down from the eyes statue and as it's raining, some of this blood splashes onto the young girl. Obviously, the young girl is terrified by this and runs into the church where many others are, and see all this blood on her. She is immediately taken to the hospital where they find she has been cured of her incurable disease.
The townspeople and the members of the church, all feel that the miracle happened through the intercession of the woman who had died. If this were to be true, then this would be the second miracle that could be attributed to her intercession. Every year thereafter, it thunderstorms on the anniversary of this women’s death and the statue cries tears of blood. People congregate to the statue each year at this time in hope of more miracles.
So as I mentioned beginning, they bring in this priest, who is an investigator of this sort of thing for the church, but had been on sabbatical. He does his investigation, all the while being haunted by the previous investigations that he had done that only proved that these people were not Saints, and consequently causing many people to dislike him. However, this is exactly why his Bishop calls upon him. The Bishop knows that this priest will look at the evidence and not be swayed by religious hysteria.
Without going further into the movie, and jumping to the end, the priest not only discovers that this woman was indeed saintly, but he also manages to get the daughter to feel better about her mother; he is able to get his faith back (without breaking his vow of celibacy I might add); and was also able to prove that this woman was worthy to be named to the sainthood.
Now let me jump to Saturday before last. I was watching another movie. I'd mentioned a little bit about it to Koko the other day at work. It was a movie about St. Padre Pio. It was called, Padre Pio: between heaven and earth. It was a three-hour movie, and very enjoyable. I thought it would be done in documentary fashion, but it was not. It was very heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.
Padre Pio struggled a great deal as a priest. As most of you know, he suffered the stigmata, similar to that of St. Francis of Assisi. Padre Pio had the stigmata on his hands. St. Padre Pio died in 1968. Very modern and recent saint. There were many people, religious and otherwise, who tried desperately to prove that Padre Pio, not only did not have the stigmata - that it was self-inflicted - but that he was not faithful to Christ and his church.
As some of us know, Padre Pio was proven to not be a fraud, not only with modern medicine proving that the stigmata in his hands were not self-inflicted or fraudulent, but the many other gifts that Padre Pio had were most certainly divine. He had the ability to look into a person's soul and tell them what sins they have committed. He had the ability at times to be able to tell what would happen to an individual in the future. He was a very sickly individual, yet continued and persevered with the strength that many of us would give up under. He would do more in his pain, then most of us would do while suffering the common cold. It is also said by some, that he had the gift of bi-location.
Now why do I bring all this up? Well, I'm slowly getting there. This Sunday's Gospel tells us that people brought to Jesus a deaf man who had a speech impediment. What a loving act. Perhaps the people were family members who only wish that the man could hear the full of life crying of a newborn baby. Maybe the people were coworkers who desire to be able to communicate with a man much more fully. Maybe the people were total strangers who cared enough about the physical challenges of this man to bring him to another man named Jesus who was known to be able to heal. The folks in the gospel are already living the vision of peace and restoration proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah; that Jesus whose coming is the fulfillment before their very eyes. This is a vision of wholeness, a vision of salvation. God came to save his people through his son Jesus Christ.
Jesus says, “Ephphatha”, which means to be opened. Some of you might remember it from our baptism rituals that we perform here at this church, because we actually use that word.
Jesus commands the deaf-mute man as he heals him, to be opened. The encounter with Jesus, that this man has, is more than a matter of physical healing. The focus isn't strictly the miracle of healing alone, but also the miracle is a sign of salvation. God's abundant life breaking open the closed human condition of life.
When we encounter Jesus, he also tells us, “Ephphatha”, to be opened. When he does this, we too are healed. Our ears are opened to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and our tongues loosened to proclaim it. Even in the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives, God is present saving us, even without our knowing it.
The encounter between Jesus and the deaf-mute man captures the entire relationship between God and the human person. Salvation is not only a future event or even a figment of our imagination. Salvation happens in the now, and is a concrete encountering of God in Jesus Christ and allowing God to heal us in our human weaknesses.
As reread the Gospels, we’ve seen many stories of how the sick are brought to Jesus for healing. This is very much an embodiment of God’s saving power. When we reach out to others and help them in any way we can, we ourselves are acting like Jesus to heal and to save. We do not have the ability to bring people to a physical Christ for healing, but we do have the ability to announce the salvation that is at hand when we act with generosity and kindness, openness and courage.
Stephanie showed me something on her phone the other day, that at the time I really liked and enjoyed seeing, but it had an effect on me later on, that it did not have initially. As I sat preparing and thinking about what I wanted to say in today's sermon, many thoughts went through my mind. One was that little billboard picture that Stephanie showed me on her phone. I do not remember the words exactly, she would have to show you, but it spoke of our human condition and how our lives would be without Christ. I also sat and thought deeply of the movie about St. Padre Pio.
Then Friday rushes in. It's a wonderful new schedule I have, tends to make my brain shut down. However, I had an obligation that I had committed to, in which I was going to attend a service at Lauretta’s synagogue. It was a musical service. It was actually very enjoyable. You should all come sometime. What I did not say to Lauretta at the time however, was that Adam Blotner, the main singer and musician, spoke about miracles at the beginning of the service. While listening to him talk about this, it reminded me about something I saw on Facebook earlier in the day. I had shared the video and music of something that touched me a little bit.
I remember sitting at the computer, thinking about what I frequently talk about to others and most especially to people here at church about having a belief in God. The video showed photos of various things on earth. Good things and bad things. But the point of the video was much the same as my argument for the existence of God. Look around you. What do you see? Go outside, and look around some more. What do you see there? Open a book of Gray's anatomy, and what do you see there? Turn on a television; use your cell phone; watch satellite television; use a printer that prints out something in a matter of seconds; go to the zoo look at all the many different creatures. I could go on, and it could be an endless parade of visuals.
No split second bang, on its own merit, gave us all that we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Something intelligent had to be behind all. Something intelligent had to create all these things in their most intricate manner to have it all worked out as it has. Something intelligent had to give us human beings with some of that intelligence to continue to invent many more complicated things that we now use and take for granted many days if not every day of our lives.
So I now go back to miracles. I spoke a moment ago about bi-location. We could think of St. Paul the Cross, St. Martin De Porres, Venerable Mary of Agreda, St. Anthony of Padua or even our own St. Padre Pio. We can speak of the stigmata and how it cannot be explained that many Saints have lived with this, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine Dei Ricci, and Padre Pio. We have the saints who have died, yet somehow their bodies are still incorrupt after many many years and are not displayed in glass cases for all to see. Scientists have even done tests to prove that none of the bodies have been tampered with or had embalming fluids used. St. Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Mary Magdalene De Pazzi, St. Francis Xavier, and even recently part of Cardinal John Henry Newman, all have incorrupt bodies to this day.
I could go on with a list of many other miracles. There are many testimonies and books on the topic. I even brought one for Koko to see today. But as I mentioned earlier, I had a point to all this. My point is rather simple actually. We all have our struggles or various needs in our life. It may be physical, emotional, financial or spiritual, just to name a few. We all have them. We all in some way want a miracle in our own lives. Some of us are vocal about; some of us are not.
I have things in my life that I wish a miracle would take place. However, my old Roman Catholic background, before, during and after becoming a priest, nags at me and reminds me that wanting a miracle that would directly affect my life is selfish as priest. But, as a priest, there certainly isn't anything wrong with hoping and praying for miracle in someone else's life. That I do rather frequently.
We have to believe in miracles, or our faith is believing in a God who merely exists, and nothing more. As Christians - as Catholics - if we believe and have faith, we must believe in miracles. There are small miracles all around us. There are bigger ones that we ignore. There are those we never see or hear about, but take place all the same.
Our God is a supernatural God. He can do all things, he can know all things. That is to say that he's omnipotent. We use that word during the Mass. Some of us have come to realize that during every Catholic Mass, something supernatural and miraculous happens every time throughout the entire Mass, but most especially at the Eucharist. Most of us cannot see, feel or sense it, but it occurs. I could go on, but most of you would think me crazy.
As your pastor and Bishop, it would be wrong of me to not tell you that I too have suffered dark nights of the soul. I have those days and weeks wondering where God is in my life. Sometimes, I merely go through motions. Sometimes, I could not possibly begin to explain the ecstasy that I experience during some of my prayers and moments with God. I wish I could experience this ecstasy 24/7. I wish I could pass on the feeling that comes with this ecstasy to all of you. And you might think me crazier still.
I cannot make every one of you believe, but I can tell you with some assurance, even during those dark nights of the soul, that miracles do happen. We merely have to accept and acknowledge Jesus Christ and to thus do what we know is right in our heart, and then if God wills it, we too can experience miracles in our lives. God blesses us in many ways; sometimes we simply do not realize it until later or we choose to ignore it altogether.
Each time that we pray for miracles, we of course will not always get them. But, something always does come from those prayers. No prayer is in vain. No prayer is left unanswered. But a prayer that is given without even the slightest hope for something miraculous seems to me to be a worthless prayer indeed. I do not expect everyone here to leave here today and suddenly become mystics and spiritualists, or even monks and priests. But I would hope that somewhere within you the nagging, which is the Holy Spirit, will pull at your heart so at least you will allow yourselves to try and know you're Lord Jesus Christ better and at least live with some of his grace in your heart. That will most certainly be a miracle for you and me. And will not hurt you as a Christian and Catholic either.
God Love You+
+The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Monday, September 3, 2012

September 2, 2012
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

In today’s Gospel, Jesus appears to take on the Pharisees and to downplay the importance of dietary laws. However, lest we forget, Jesus was Jewish -- and probably very Jewish -- and may have been more aligned with the Pharisees than we thought. Be that as it may, today’s Gospel is a valued teaching from Jesus, which we Universal Catholics take to heart.

One of the difficulties of reading Mark 7 is that unless you’re inside the Jewish world or have a great understanding of such, you simply won’t get the point of today’s message from Jesus. Mark, it would seem, knows this, which is why he’s explained to some readers something which, if they were Jewish, they wouldn’t have needed to have it spelled out in the manner in which Mark did. Most of the time in the gospels, the Pharisees come off as petty legalists who oppose Jesus -- apparently because he refuses to honor or abide by their strict traditions, but actually because they see him as calling for a new order that threatens their standing as religious guides.

The present reading is a case in point. A group of Pharisees, along with some scribes, notices Jesus' disciples eating without having first performed certain ritual hand washing. So they ask him, in front of others, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" Their question seems designed to embarrass Jesus in public and demonstrate that he's not qualified to teach others about religion. Jesus responds by calling the Pharisees
hypocrites, using a verse from Isaiah and one of the Ten Commandments to illustrate how far from righteousness they are.

The Pharisees' question seems limited to the hand-washing ritual, but Jesus expands his response to include kosher foods as well. On the surface, at least, it appears that Jesus doesn't put much stock in keeping kosher, for he says to the crowd, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." Later, alone with his disciples, he elaborates, saying, "Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?"

Clearly the shout out here is that ritual and dietary practices that
symbolize holy living cannot be a substitute for actually living a holy life. In fact, Jesus says that quite plainly when he declares that defilement comes from the human heart, not from what passes through the digestive tract.

Would Jesus, who had been raised in a Jewish household, whose
custom was to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath, and who once declared, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel", actually tell his fellow Jews that keeping kosher was not worth the effort?

His comment about all foods being clean is really an example of taking something from the life of Jesus and applying it in a different context. Although Christianity began within the Jewish community, by the time Mark wrote his gospel, it had expanded well beyond Jews into the Gentile world. The early church had to wrestle with the issue of how much of Jewish practice was to be required of Gentile Christians, and what they came up with was not much. In fact, kosher practices sometimes made it difficult for table fellowship to happen in the early church when both Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles were present.

Jesus wasn't out to "kill" kosher practices, but instead, he identified what is truly kosher. And what is
truly kosher (as Leviticus 20:25 makes clear) is to be holy to the Lord, set apart for God's purposes. However, rejection of kosher rules and other purification rituals takes away the observable outward markers that separate Jews from their Gentile neighbors. A Jewish teacher might insist that the moral virtues in Jesus' list are just as important as kosher rules and that both are central to Jewish identity. External rules remind Jews that they are different from other nations. But, this is just the point. Jesus wanted to eliminate the barrios and obstacles put up by the Jewish leaders and elite of the day, and bring God’s saving grace to everyone.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be distinguished from the general population by what we eat, but be distinguished by how we live
. And regarding being distinguished by how we live, recall that Jesus said the great commandment is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." In other words, we shouldn't restrict our commitment to God to only some parts of our lives, but rather let it permeate our being.

The question of the Pharisees was about purity; but the answer Jesus gave was about people obeying human traditions rather than God’s word. Ritual hand washing shouldn't be separated from the holiness it symbolizes. Keeping religious dietary laws shouldn't be separated from the sense of being set apart to live as God's people. Who we are at church shouldn't be separated from who we are at work, which shouldn't be separated from who we are at home and during leisure pursuits. With the right kind of living, we find worshipful rituals, religious dietary practices and attendance at church can be deeply moving and meaningful practices. That is not to say that in these various and different activities that we will not act differently during these times. We are sure to act differently, but we should do so without separating who we are as Christians or Catholics.

Keeping precepts – an external act – is indicative of internal conformity to God. Not keeping precepts is indicative of a ruptured relationship with God and results in the kinds of behaviors Jesus mentions at the end of today’s Gospel.

These hurtful and destructive behaviors all come from within people, from their hearts. The central teaching theme is the question of where do our hearts lie? Jesus teaches that observance of the law and tradition is not an end in itself, but an indication of where the heart lies. The charge that Jesus levels against the Pharisees and legal experts is that, by teaching as fundamental law what is in fact only human custom rather than divine revelation, they are guilty of hypocrisy. They are claiming to be teachers of God’s law, but in fact they are only teaching human traditions that have not come from God.
Part of the difficulty here is that some Christians have grown up knowing there is a long-standing debate in Christian churches about the relative place and value of ‘Scripture’ and ‘Tradition’. We are in danger, if we are not careful, of hearing this story with this debate in mind. The debate has usually been between Catholics and Protestants. As Catholics, of course, we hold that ‘Tradition’ handed down from the Apostles and many Church fathers is inspired by the Holy Spirit. As Jesus was trying to teach then, is just as important now, that we are careful to identify those ‘traditions’ of human making and those ‘Traditions’  we know in faith are of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus calls these Pharisees and scribes hypocrites because they keep external observances but their hearts are far from righteousness. Jesus decries this hypocrisy, this hiding behind an external conformity while neglecting the real work – turning to God. God is not a distant God, keeping track of our conformity to myriad external laws and regulations, but a God who is close to us.
In the reading today from James, we see many ‘rules’ as it were, in how to live our lives. In actuality, they are not ‘rules’ at all, but guiding principles that St. James was trying to give us to live in a way that would stand up to the standard Jesus is implying in the Gospel of Mark. All the things that are listed at the end of today’s Gospel reading, are sins of the heart. If you were to read them again, you can see that all that were listed there were sins of selfishness. Sins of not putting yourself right, not only with God, but with the person you committed these sins with or against. This is what Jesus means.
I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon that this Gospel should be taken to heart, and it is true. We do not lay down a myriad of laws, as it were, at least not more than God already has. We simply look at the actions of a person and determine if the person is living as Jesus is trying to tell us in today’s Gospel, or if the person is living as the Pharisees he addressed. When people come to confession with me, I will frequently ask a question that seems a bit unsettling to some; especially if they come from a more stern Christian background. I ask them, “What was your intention during this action?” Many will stop for a moment as if it were a trick question. It’s not. I liken it to a Jesus question. What was in your heart when you committed this act you think is a sin? As Universal Catholics we don’t believe that every action or even lifestyle is a sin, only the possible motives behind it.
This is why, if a couple comes to me asking for a baptism of their child, I have little concern for the parents background really. Whatever life the parents are leading or may have lead in the past, is not the error of the child. When a couple come to me for a wedding and one or both of them are divorced; did they enter into their first marriages never intending to live out their lives together, or did something in life happen to come to this result? Are you trying to commit an abomination against God if as a Homosexual you fall in love as if to do so intentionally to anger God, as if that would actually anger Him anyway; or is it something you are predisposed genetically to do?
The point Jesus made then and makes now, is simple. Committing acts of selfishness or intention of hurt toward another is truly bad. But committing acts without bad intention, is a motive of a pure heart simply trying to be the best human God created you to be.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.