Monday, January 23, 2017

January 22, 2017
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Sometimes it amazes me the amount of work that must have gone into creating the lectionary. Like many things in our lives, we tend to take for granted that something is already made and ready to go for us to use without even one second thought about how, when, who and where it was created or made. Catholic churches all use the same lectionary – we and our Roman brothers, along with other branches of Catholicism and even some Episcopalians to some degree – use the same lectionary (or set of readings)
The reason it amazes me, is probably quite apparent to you as well, if you were actually pondering on what was being read to you today, because the Epistle and Gospel reading obviously coincided with one another, with the Gospel quoting the exact Epistle reading from Isaiah. The readings were repetitive, but yet different. Both readings, however, were merely in order from the previous day’s reading – not taken out of order - and thus it would give one the thought that it was mere coincidence. I am not so sure, when God is involved, that anything is a coincidence. 
Most of us are very familiar with one of the lines from Isaiah that we read today. The people who walk in darkness will see a great lightThis particular line from Isaiah has been applied to and used to describe Jesus since the time of the Apostles. And while we are in the season after Epiphany this is the most apropos reading, because Jesus is that Great Light and Epiphany is about the discovery of Jesus – that Light in the wilderness. It should not be about just the three wise men discovering Jesus, it should also be about each of us discovering Jesus.
There is always so much to learn from Jesus. In the short time that he was on earth and the short time of his short ministry, he said a lot. Even with just a few words he said a lot more than most people realize. And those who do realize also know that if you live a couple hundred years you will never know all there is to know about Jesus and his teachings.
I’m sure some of you have heard the story of how a professor one time in class placed an empty jar on the counter top and asked the students if it was full. Of course everyone agreed it was empty and so he poured some pebbles into the jar to the rim. He then asked the class again if the jar was full; and this time they responded that it was. So at this point he proceeded to pour some sand into the same jar, and shook it a little bit so that the sand settled in and he once again asked the class if the jar was full. While obviously many to class were very intrigued and surprised, they agreed that yes this time it is full. So the professor proceeded to pour some water into the jar and again asked the class if the jar was at last was full. The class, ofcourse, was even more amazed this time and said yes again
I want you to think about something; if we left the lid off the top of that jar it would be considered an open vessel – an open jar. And when we are asked if something finite can be filled with or encompass that which is infinite we might respond no. Like the professor and his students, almost all of us tend to think that the jar would only fit just so much; eventually it is full and can take nothing more.
But it can - if it is an open vessel. A closed vessel can never contain anything more than what its size allows. But an open vessel has no limitations. It could contain possibly a flowing river. It might take a long time and it could potentially take forever to fill up with the river but the point is the same. As long as the jar is opened and the river is flowing, that jar will continually receive some more of that river even as it is recycled in and out.
If we were asked which was larger, that which we do know or that which we do not know, most of us would respond that what we do not know is larger. But when we ponder for a moment we might ask how does one contain that which is bigger than you - that which is bigger than your ability to comprehend? And the answer to that question is by being an open vessel. 
It is only by opening up ourselves that we can come to know that which you don’t already know. And by becoming an open vessel one can contain that which is greater than our self. Our minds and hearts are finite; but the truth of the world has no end. God has no end. The Eternal is infinite and always flowing - like a river.
So when we open ourselves like a jar we become unlimited. We could contain the waters of the river. And so we must open our minds and our hearts and our lives to that which we do not know and even to that which we thought we did know.
Let me illustrate it another way. This could be viewed as esoteric and exoteric views blending together. Say you have a thousand different books in your personal library. Let’s also assume for a moment that you have read roughly ¾’s of them in their entirety. I would then ask you where are those books you read, and you would reply they are still on the bookcase. Well, then how did the books become part of you? Your body can’t eat them, and even if it could, there would be only so much room for them. But – the answer is simple – you read them! You read the books and took all the knowledge learned and put them into a small space in your brain. When you need the information, your brain goes into hyperdrive and finds the information needed. The point being, the river of books flowed thru a finite vessel and left enormous amounts of information in its wake. Gives the catch-phrase, I devoured a book today, a whole new meaning!
If I asked you what is a year, you most likely would answer 365 days. But in the holy language of Scripture it’s much more than that. It is called shannahShannah is a Hebrew verb. The word shannah is like the number two. Shannah can mean the second, the duplicate, or the repeat. As we know the Scripture has a finite set of words, but not a finite set of understandings. There is always something more to learn from the Scriptures, because the words are inspired by God and thus the Holy Spirit is always teaching us something new through them.
As we know each year the cycle of the seasons repeat in the same pattern. We may not necessarily have the exact same weather on the exact same day each year and so forth; but the cycle of the year repeats year after year. We have winter, we have spring, then we of summer, and finally we have fall. We have flowers that grow and then wither away. We have rebirth of nature and its dying; the same progression in the same replaying of what already has happened before. So the year is a shannah, a repetition. And we still have a relatively new year ahead of us and we wonder what kind of year it will be. 
The nature of nature is to repeat. And we as human beings, by nature, are often time creatures of habit. I know I am. We tend to go toward doing that which we’ve done before, same routines and courses, even those routines and courses that are harmful to us. And some of us will sit here and say that we have no choice in the matter we will merely repeat what we had last year. But this would not be completely true.
We have a choice. Just as the Apostles had a choice in today’s gospel reading. We see in today’s reading that Jesus calls Peterand his brother Andrew; James and his brother John. They immediately left behind what they were doing and where they were to follow Jesus. Do you suppose they had a choice? Of course they had a choice. They very easily could have said no. God has allowed every human being to have the gift of free will. So Peter, Andrew, James and John all could have said no to Jesus and kept doing what they were doing. But they made a choice; they made a choice for change; they made a choice to keep the lid off the jar. 
Now we must take it a step further. Shannah has a double meaning. It also means to “change.” So the word can mean the opposite of itself. Much of the Catholic/Christian/Judaic religion can be a paradox at times. And as confusing as that might be, if we think about the repeating of the years, we can come to realize that something that repeats can very well be very different at the same time. This year that we have started, although it has many similarities to previous years, we all know that is already very different. We may be on the same date that we had last year, but it is most likely to be a different day of the week, and we know it is a different year. So, even though something remains the same, something else about it has changed. Same, yet different.
The way of the world is to repeat, but the way of God is the way of newness and change. You cannot know God and not be changed by knowing Him. And it is His will that this year – this shannah ahead - that it not be a time of repetition but of time of change, of new beginnings, new steps, the breaking of old bad habits. 
And if you want to experience a year of new things, then you have to be willing and open to change from that which is repetitious or that which comes natural to you. But you have to be open to this change and newness by way of the supernatural. One has to choose to walk not in our own will but in the will of Him who is beyond the natural and beyond that which is old. As we read elsewhere in the Scriptures, He makes all things new. So we have to open our lives to the newness of His will, and walk in that newness of life in order for ourselves to change and become better.
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them. You shall multiply the nation, you shall increase their gladness; they will be glad in your presence as with the gladness of harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.  For you shall break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, as at the battle of Midian.
Today’s message from the epistle that I’ve just repeated for you,is very much a message for us in our time as it was for the people then. It is very much the same message to us now as it was when Jesus spoke the words from Isaiah after the arrest of John the Baptist. And we have a choice; we can choose to listen to these words and open our hearts and our minds and our livesto these words that which were speaking to us today; or we can just leave here unchanged stuck in our ruts and routines and not allow Jesus to come into our lives and help us be different in the year that is ahead of us.
This is a great deal of the reason why Jesus established the church on earth. If we were to stay home and merely do our own thing every single day, we would not only not change, but we wouldn’t even live out the cycles of the year. We need the church to help keep us alive. We need to church to give us messages that sometimes we struggle with - messages we like and messages we do not like - because often times the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something and if we listen to our own voice all the time we will never hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and we will never progress or change and we will be worse off than the earth that might repeat it cycles every year as if it was going to storm on January 22 every year repetitively instead of each January 22 being slightly different from the previous year yet within the same season.
As Catholics we firmly believe that part of the reason we come to Mass - that we come to church - is so that we can partake in the Holy Eucharist. It is within these walls, and within this liturgy, that we enter in and take within us what looks like a mere wafer dipped in wine, but that has really become the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. When we take this Body and Blood in faith, something changes within us. We take this Body and Blood in habit and repetition to some degree true, but if we keep the lid off the jar, something more will come within us and we will change with its repetition. Shannah, esoteric taking in exoteric.
And so we need to come to church with our lids off, so that we can take within ourselves the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and have something miraculous happened within us and also so that we can learn something new and allow ourselves to change and thus allow a new year, even in its repetition, to be different.
And so today the message that we are meant to receive from the Holy Spirit, is that we allow ourselves to be open and allow ourselves to see that Great Light. And when we do this we will allow our souls to experience a sense of peace that the rest of the world does not know, because they’re living in the land of darkness.
As a Liberal Catholic Church, we teach slightly different beliefs, but these are beliefs that have come over time, through extensive study and research to bring us to the conclusion that Christ is calling us to be more “open” in view. Christ does not want us to be stuck in a rut like the temple priests – the Pharisees – of old, who Jesus accused of pouring on the rules and restrictions upon the people, while they in turn are hypocritical and would not live by their own rules and worse still, not even lift a finger to help the people they ministered to and laid the burdens upon them.
Let us leave here today, with an open mind – the lid off of our jars – and let us listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and see what we can learn and do better.
Let us pray.
Father God, we often times close our minds and hearts to change – sometimes intentionally, but often time unintentionally. Help us to open our minds and hearts to Your love and wisdom that we may be children of the Light. 
As we go about our daily lives, help us to make small changes to the way we live so that we can experience that which we have missed and/or unaware of. As an infinite being, You created the universe and everything in it. This too has infinite possibilities and things to learn. Help us to walk each day with an opennessto knowing You and Your creation better.
Lastly, help those of us who live in a dark land/life to seek Youout – the One who can change all darkness to light and relieve some of the burdens and troubles that possess our lives. We ask all this through Christ our Lord. Amen
God Love You +++
The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor –St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Monday, January 9, 2017

January 8, 2016
Epiphany Sunday
The Magi. 

This week we're talking about the Magi, also known as the "three kings" from the "orient," according to the well-known Christmas carol. Although, we haven’t the faintest clue if they came from orient or even the Bahamas for that matter, the Scriptures do tells us that three men of some influential background did come to see the child Jesus.

Although most nativity scenes show the Magi crowded into the stable of Jesus' birth -- along with the shepherds, animals, an angel, Mary, Joseph and the baby  some scholars feel the Magi were almost certainly later visitors, coming probably a few months to as long as two years after Jesus' birth. By then, Joseph had no doubt found better lodging for his family, which is probably why Matthew says the wise men entered "the house" to find Jesus. But whatever the time and place, these Gentile visitors from the East "knelt down and paid him homage." In older vocabulary, they "adored" him. They finished what they came to do. 

But Leonardo da Vinci didn't. Over the centuries, various painters have portrayed this visit, but one of the most famous -- despite its being unfinished -- is da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi. The artist had been commissioned in 1480 to paint what was to be a 8-by-9-foot work for the main altar of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, near Florence. He was 29 at the time, and he worked on it for quite a while, getting the piece to its brown ink and yellow ocher groundwork stage. But then he moved to Milan and left it behind, never to work on it again. Eventually the assignment was given to another artist who provided the requested painting to the monastery in 1496. Da Vinci's unfinished work still exists and is on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Though uncompleted, it is recognized in the art world as one of his most important works.

Wouldn't it be great if our unfinished projects were also considered very important in their uncompleted states? Imagine all the stuff you could let go of, saying, "It's not finished and now it never will be, but it's got high value nonetheless." 

Like that's gonna happen.

To start with, not many of us can rival da Vinci in terms of genius and artistry. But even if we could, do we really want our contributions to the world to be in the form of stuff we started but never got around to completing?

Da Vinci himself had a reputation as being unreliable at completing commissioned works. While he would devote months to the concept and composition of the work, he had no appetite for the actual labor of carrying out the painting itself. Point is, for whatever reasons, da Vinci never finished the portrayal of the Magi adoring Jesus. The Magi finished their work of adoration; da Vinci didn't. But, how about us?

Usually, it's not that we don't plan to finish, or even that once into a project, we make a reasoned decision to let the thing go, which sometimes is the better part of wisdom. Rather, with those things we think important to finish, we still have to deal with flagging energy and/or unexpected hurdles. Sometimes it's almost as if some chaotic force is triggered when we're within sight of the finish line -- something like the Allstate Insurance "mayhem" commercials which delights in sidetracking our plans. Maybe some examples might be:

- You practice for eight weeks for your solo in the community Christmas pageant, then, eight hours before the performance, you lose your voice.

- You finally start the kitchen remodeling project, but then the sump pump fails and you have to deal with a flooded basement. Somehow, you never get back to the kitchen remake.

- You vow to spend more time helping your son with his homework, but then you're pressed into longer hours at work. 

- You resolve to be more intentional about your devotional and prayer life, so you rearrange your schedule to allow yourself a half hour of quiet time at home. But just as you are getting into your prayers, the first of three telemarketing calls interrupts and the kid next door rings your doorbell to ask you to buy candy for his school fundraiser.

This is not about heaping guilt on anyone about unfinished projects around the house or elsewhere; Lord knows I have a few – even too many of my own. But if we want to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, that means following through on intended good deeds, missions to which we are called and resolutions to let go of prejudices and hatreds. It means doing the right thing long-term and following Jesus as consistently as we can in the situations of daily living.
In these things, it's not uncommon for us to make a good start and, in some cases, even make a lot of headway toward where we think God is pointing us. Nonetheless, we shouldn't be surprised if that's when a fresh wave of problems and hindrances hits us. We shouldn't be surprised if things that have never gone wrong before actually go wrong now. We also shouldn't be surprised if our passion for the endeavor suddenly evaporates. Life is like that. 

Thus, one prayer for ongoing discipleship might be, "Help me, O God, while my enthusiasm is leaking away and my energy is failing and problems are multiplying, to continue to do your will." I found myself in that situation on Friday when I was trying to untangle the new censer. I quit once, only for it to nag at me and I came back over here and worked on it until I finally got it untangled. I literally thanked God for giving me the patience and perseverance to get it done.

One of the signs that we are maturing in faith, however, is when we realize and accept that the Christian life is not only a matter of initial repentance and commitment, but also a matter of perseverance. As Paul told the Galatians, "So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up" (Galatians 6:9). Eugene Peterson, borrowing a phrase from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, describes the Christian life as "a long obedience in the same direction." Peterson writes:

One aspect of the world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by 30-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by 30-page abridgments. ... There is a great market for religious experience in the world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.

Simeon and Anna, the two people in the temple who recognize the presence of God in the infant Jesus, are good examples. Simeon, we're told, had been "looking forward to the consolation of Israel" (Luke 2:25). That phrase implies patient waiting. Anna, 84 years old, "never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day" (Luke 2:37). Both signed up for the long haul and both were faithful until the end. 

Likewise, the apostle Paul modeled such perseverance, writing as he drew near death, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7). His words, of course, refer to more than simply completing a mission project or seeking more holiness in living; they refer to the completion of a whole life of discipleship. But how do we attain a life of discipleship other than by completing the "faith projects" along the way? The life of faith is not a 100-yard dash; it's a marathon. It's not a tourist jaunt; it's an ongoing pilgrimage. Nonetheless, there are some shorter races that need to be run in route -- such as sticking with the not-so-easy task we feel God has called us to do; such as continuing to root out our unrighteous attitudes and behaviors that impede our spiritual growth; such as continuing to work at loving our difficult acquaintance as much as we love ourselves. 

As we stand here at the beginning of a new year, it's a good time to think about the faith-projects before us. 

- What's the project you are struggling with? 

- What's the next step in that project? 

- What's keeping you from taking that step, or implementing the step?

- What has God called you to do that is suddenly seeming to fall apart? 

- What naysaying comments need to be ignored? 

- What hindrances are really indicators that you are on the right track? 

- What last-stage problems are reminders to call afresh on God? 

- In the coming year, how can you build accountability into your life to encourage faithful discipleship? 

Believe this: When God calls us to a task, he gives us his help to finish it. One sign of God is that we are led to work that we did not intend to do. Another sign of God is that we are trusted to seek God's help to take the task to completion.
Let us follow the example of the Magi and see where our stars are leading us and stay on that course until we find what we are being led to.
Let us pray.
Father God, today we call to mind the scene of the Magi visiting your infant Son. This must have been a long and tenuous journey for sure, yet they followed the star and tolerated the journey because they believed something great had taken placeand thus it was worth the long journey. Once they arrived, they quickly realized who’s presence they were in front of.
Help us, dear Lord, to follow thru on our journeys and projects. We often get discouraged or start something and often times not complete it. Like New Year’s resolutions, we make great plans; we start our journey; but within days we have stopped. 
Help us when we decide to take up a cause, a journey or project, that we may stay the course; that we find the encouragement and motivation to see it thru. Help us to know, that like the Magi of the East, we too will find a fulfillment at the end of our journey – possibly even one as wondrous as theirs. Bring us the inspiration we need to lead the life that we are called to follow. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.