Tuesday, December 25, 2018

December 24, 2018
“Mass at Midnight”
(Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14)
A woman and her four-year old son were standing in line at a fast-food restaurant when in walked a man covered in tattoos. The boy turned to him and said, “Looks like somebody got into the markers.”
Gentleman tells of flight he had that was a late arrival at the Nashville airport which left him in front of a car rental agent one night. In a heavy southern drawl, she asked, “Can Ah help y’all?” After processing my order, she said, “I have an accent. Is that okay?” “I do not mind at all,” he said. “Being from New England, I have on too.” She waited a minute before replying, “I meant the car. I have a Hyundai Accent.”
PRN is a medical abbreviation of the Latin pro re nata, meaning “when necessary.” Apparently, some nurses never learned their abbreviations. One day, a senior nurse walked into a patient’s room to find a suppository shoved up the patient’s nose. When she confronted the younger nurse responsible, the latter admitted that she thought PRN stood for “per right nostril.”
A blithering idiot enters a building and goes to the counter. “I would like a large soda, a hamburger, and french-fries, please,” he says. The woman behind the counter says, “Sir, you are in a library!” The blithering idiot looks around and notices others sitting quietly and reading. He leans in to the librarian and whispers, “I would like a large soda, a hamburger, and French fries, please.”
A woman texted her husband to tell him that she would be out of touch for a bit since she planned to color her hair. Thanks to spelling auto correct, here’s what he read: “After I finish my cup of coffee, I am going to die. You may not be able to reach me while I’m in the midst of that.”
Okay, now that I know you are all awake, I will actually start the sermon.
I think that is exactly what Jesus is trying to do with each of us; he is trying to get our attention; He is attempting to be sure we are awake. We tend to get so lost in the secular Christmas activities, that we forget to pay attention to the one who’s birthday we celebrate. Sometimes, He has to break in with whatever manner will wake us up or grab our attention. The Birth of Christ is one of those times.
The Incarnation – the birth of Christ – in my estimation, is by far the most important feast of the Christian religion. Some claim that Easter is, however, I, like some other theologians, feel that without the Incarnation, none of the rest would have been able to take place. God humbles himself to become one with His creation. What a radical thing to do. Sure, He has the power to raise Himself from the death of the cross, but why come and restrict Himself as a mere mortal and go through all that in the first place only to end up on the cross to boot?
Dorothy Sayers, a British essayist and novelist, some years ago, said: “The Incarnation means that for whatever reason God chose to let us fall … to suffer, to be subject to sorrows and death – he has nonetheless had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine … He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He himself has gone through the whole of human experience – from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death … He was born in poverty and suffered infinite pain – all for us – and thought it well worth his while.”
Sometimes, we can look across humanity and think to ourselves how indeed Christ could have thought it worth His while to suffer for us. God gifted us a gift above all gifts. But, we should consider what kind of gift it is. Are we deserving of such a gift? Some gifts by their very nature make you swallow your pride. What are we to make of this gift – the gift of the Incarnation?
Two Sundays ago I spoke about the Star Wars movies as analogies for our faith. (Yes, you Chreaster people missed a good one! That’s what happens when you only come twice a year. I blame the Romans for scaring you away from church!) I spoke of how the movie starts out with opening words scrolled on the screen, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Basically this open scroll is saying, “Once upon a time…”
However, the Incarnation is neither. If we were to read the opening of the Gospel according to Matthew, we would read the genealogy of Jesus the Christ. That means he is grounding what Jesus Christ is and does in history. Jesus is not a metaphor. He is real. It is His-Story. This all happened. And we should be so overjoyed!
The biblical Christmas texts are accounts of what actually happened in history. They are not Aesop’s Fables, inspiring examples of how to live well. Many people believe the Gospel to be just another moralizing story, but they could not be more mistaken. There is no “moral of the story” to the Nativity!
The shepherds, the parents of Jesus, the wise men – are not being held up primarily as examples for us. The Gospel narratives are telling you not what you should do but what God has done! The birth of the Son of God into the world is a Gospel, good news, an announcement! You don’t save yourself. God has come to save you!
Christianity is not really about self-improvement (though that should be one of the effects). It is not just a place to get some inspiration and guidance for life. Of course the Christian Gospel has massive implications for how we live. But it is first of all a message that you need to be saved, and you are saved not in the slightest by what you can do but rather by what He has done.
The part we need to remember, especially today in a society that is so split. We hear about so many people leaving the church. We hear so many that don’t feel welcome to come to church. We hear so many judgmental statements being made about other people – who they are and/or how they live – in and outside of the church.  However, let me tell you tonight, as I do very often in our humble denomination, if the Church were perfect, we couldn’t belong. Not you, not the clergy, not me – not even the Pope.
Jesus, in His Incarnation, made the biggest statement and lesson there is, and so many are missing it – especially theologians and pastors. What is that message?
Earlier I mentioned that the Gospel is based on history. Within that history are many men and women who make up that genealogy. I won’t go through them all, of course for reasons of brevity, however let’s dig into it a little and see how the Incarnation affects us.
When the future king David was a fugitive, running for his life from King Saul, a group of men went out into the wilderness with him, came around him, and put their lives on the line to protect him. They risked everything for him, and Uriah was one of them, a friend to whom he owed his life (2 Samuel 23:39). Yet years later, after David became king, he looked upon Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and he wanted her. He slept with her. Then he arranged to have Uriah killed in order to marry her. He did, and one of their children was Solomon, from whom Matthew lists Jesus as descended from. It was of that dysfunctional family, and out of that deeply flawed man, that the Messiah came.
So, here you have moral outsiders – adulterers, adulteresses, incestuous relationships, prostitutes. In fact we are reminded that even the prominent male ancestors – Judah and David – were both moral failures. You also have cultural outsiders, racial outsiders, and gender outsiders. The Law of Moses excluded these people from the presence of God, and yet they are all publically acknowledged as the ancestors of Jesus.
What does it mean? It means that people who are excluded by culture, by society, or by the law of God can be brought in to Jesus’ family. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, it doesn’t matter your pedigree, it doesn’t matter your sexual identity or even promiscuousness, it doesn’t even matter if you have murdered someone (though your life could become suddenly complicated, so I wouldn’t recommend it). If you repent and believe in Him, the grace of Jesus Christ can cover your sin or societal inequality and unite you with Him!
Christmas is that time of year when we should allow Christ’s holiness to infect us. We should come to Him, regardless of who we are, what we’ve done, how morally stained we may be, because he will make us as pure as snow. However, He has not just come to the obvious flawed, He has come for all. There is no one, not even the greatest human being, who does not need the grace of God. And there is no one, not even the worst human being, who can fail to receive the grace of Jesus Christ.
Yet, some of you might say that Christ has passed you by. He has ignored your pleas, He has turned away when you most needed Him. Christmas reminds us that this is not so. We can look to Joseph in the Old Testament as an example. For years it seemed like God was ignoring Joseph’s prayers, letting him experience one disaster after another. I know the past two years has seemed the same for me personally, but I am reminded by Christmas and by Joseph that it isn’t always so. Because, in the end, in Joseph’s story, every one of those things had to happen in order for all to be saved. Joseph was able to say to his brothers, who sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
We see Jesus, being called to heal a fatally ill girl but, He stops to deal with someone else instead allowing Jairus’ daughter to die. His timing seemed completely wrong – until it became clear that it wasn’t (Mark 5:21-43). God’s grace virtually never operates on our time frame, on a schedule we consider reasonable. He does not follow our agendas or schedules. When Jesus spoke to the despairing father Jairus, whose daughter had just died, He said, “Believe” (Mark 5:36)! Jesus was saying, “If you want to impose your time frame on Me, you will never feel loved by Me, and it will be your fault, because I do love you. I will fulfill my promises.”
Even if you have not kept your promises to Jesus, He will keep His toward you! In Jesus you stop having to prove yourself because you know it doesn’t matter in the end whether you are a failure or a king. All you need is God’s grace, and you have it, in spite of your failures. After you know Him, you want to live your life to please Him.
We also need to rest from the troubles and evils of this world. We feel like we have to control history, we have to make everything right, but that is not only exhausting but also impossible. The birth of Christ – the Incarnation – tells us that despite appearances to the contrary, our good God is in control of history. And someday He will put everything right. He hears our prayers and is making it all okay in His time.
So, as Jesus answered the people who questioned him why his disciples did not fast like the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” We too, have the bridegroom present. We have God present in the person of the Christ Child. For this, we too, no matter whom we are, should be glad and celebrate. “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, Upon David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.” Amen.
Let us pray.
On this Christmas night we pray that the news of Christ’s birth enlighten our hearts and minds and fill us with love for our neighbor, particularly those in need. We pray to the Lord.              
Just as the shepherds carried the good news that a child was born who would be a Savior for all, we pray that we too recognize our duty as Christians to also proclaim the glory of God and Christ’s message to all the world. We pray to the Lord.      
At this time of joy and celebration, we think of those in our community who have lost loved ones in the last year. May they find consolation in the goodness of the Father who sent his only Beloved Son onto this earth to show his love for us. We pray to the Lord.              
We pray for those who, through emigration, illness or other personal reasons are separated from family, loved ones or homeland this Christmas, that God’s comforting and strengthening love will sustain them. We pray to the Lord.
As our children enjoy the wonder of Christmas day, we pray for those children who are in suffering hunger, homelessness and terror in areas of conflict throughout the world. We pray that the peace of the Christ birth be theirs in 2019. We pray to the Lord.              
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we remember in our prayers those, who like Mary and Joseph, are homeless this Christmas and pray that through the help, concern and generosity of those who are spared such tragedy, they may be helped out of their difficulties and experience less troubled times in the New Year. We pray to the Lord.              
We pray for all those present at our Mass today and for their families, that their Christmas holiday may be a happy and peaceful one. We pray to the Lord.              
We remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
God of love and mercy, may the coming of your son scatter the darkness of the world, and make it radiant with his light. May we follow him faithfully, and come to the light that shines forever. May all of your creation come to know your love for them, regardless of their circumstances or perceived placement in your kingdom. As society moves further and further away from you, dear Father, bring yourself ever closer to them that they may experience your Holy Spirit in profound ways. We ask all this through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
Merry & Blessed Christmas to all.
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA
December 23, 2018
The Fourth Sunday in Advent
(Micah 5: 1-4; Luke 1:39-45)
The Isle of Iona in Scotland is a tiny, windswept place in the western Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. It's a skinny little island, only about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, but it's the destination of hundreds of people each year who brave a long journey involving trains, boats, busses for and more boats to get there.

At first glance it's hard for people to tell what the big deal is. Sure, it's a quiet place where you can get away from the sounds of civilization. Only about a hundred people live on the island, given its remote location. And while it's a beautiful place with emerald green grass, old stone buildings, and a landscape dotted with sheep that far outnumber the people, they say it's also a place where the rain and wind off the North Sea can drive right through you no matter how good your rain gear might be.

And yet, there's something mystical about this place -- the place where Saint Columba landed sometime in the sixth century to establish a monastic community, having fled his native Ireland. The old, 12th-century abbey that still stands on the east side of the isle acts as a sentinel of the island's past. It was there the monks welcomed many visitors who came to the island, searching for something missing in their souls. They were people who knew the early reputation of the place as what the native Celts called a "thin place."

Unlike so many Westerners who think that heaven is some place far away and far removed from Earth, the Celts believed that heaven and Earth were really about three feet apart. Sometimes, they thought, that distance was even smaller --small enough for those on Earth to get a glimpse of the glory of heaven. The Celts believed that Iona was a place where people could feel that thinness and experience the kind of revelations and feelings that one might have when so close to the holy. They believed that was true of other places as well, usually places far away from the crowd and wrapped in both mist and mystery.

The famous 20th century Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton once wrote that thin places are even more prevalent than the ancient Celts believed, but we just don't see them. "Life is simple," he wrote. "We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time ... if we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes ... the only thing is that we don't [let ourselves] see it." We miss those glimpses of the kingdom of God, breaking in on the earth, which is ironic given the fact that Jesus taught us to pray that we might see the kingdom come "on earth as it is in heaven."

Perhaps one of the most significant thin places and thin spaces we miss on a regular basis is the celebration of Christmas. In the midst of all the last-minute preparations for Christmas Eve tomorrow night and Christmas morning soon after, we can be caught up in thinking that this is just another Christmas season with the same traditions and myriad obligations (most of them self-imposed) that require all of our attention. We can miss the fact that Christmas really calls us to consider the thinnest place the world has ever seen -- not an island, but a manger; and not a feeling, but a person in whom heaven and Earth both fully dwell.

The prophet Micah called the people of Judah to focus hard on finding a thin place in the midst of the thick and foreboding threat of foreign invasion. Like a raging storm, the Assyrian invaders were bearing down on them to sweep them away as God's instrument of judgment against his people. They would dodge that particular fate at the hands of Assyria, but they would not escape the later Babylonian invasion. Like so many of us, the people of Judah made the mistake of thinking that God was far away and put up a thick wall of apostasy as a way of holding God at a distance. God would break through, however, and their walls, both literally and figuratively, would eventually come tumbling down.

And yet, even in the midst of all this impending doom, God offers a word of hope through the prophet with a promise to create a new thin place for his people -- a remote, out of the way place that, like Iona, was populated with only a few shepherd families and a lot of sheep. In Bethlehem, in a place few expected, God was going to bring the life of heaven to Earth in a very personal way.

Bethlehem was, of course, King David's hometown, and it was there that he was chosen as the unlikely successor to the reign of King Saul, who was Israel's idea of what a king should look like. God, of course, had a very different idea. The shepherd-boy David was anointed and would rule Israel successfully until his own moral downfall, but even then God would continue to honor the promise he made to David that one of the king's descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever (2 Samuel 7:16).

In the meantime, God would give up his people to exile until that king would be born and his people brought back from distant lands. Then that shepherd-king will "stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God." All of that would happen because God was going to create a thin place there in Bethlehem.

Interestingly, most people in Micah's day thought that the ultimate thin place in the world was the temple in Jerusalem, which was the place where it was thought that God dwelled with his people. But Israel's salvation wasn't coming from the temple, the future of which was already in jeopardy. Security wasn't to be found in relying on the temple, but in God's true king who would bring security and peace through his righteous reign. Instead of a temple, the place where heaven and earth came together, the place where God would dwell with his people, was going to be the feeding trough in a back alley of the tiniest and most insignificant of places.

If you visit Bethlehem today, you'll find that it doesn't have the same kind of pastoral, quiet and mystical aura of a thin place like Iona. There's jostling with a long line of pilgrims waiting to get into the Church of the Nativity, monks yelling instructions to be quiet, cameras flashing, security officers mulling about -- all for people to get one chance to touch the star in the cave below that church that marks the traditional site of Jesus' birth. It's more hectic than holy in there on any given day, which makes it hard to fathom that whole idea of a "Silent Night."

But on this day before Christmas Eve, it's not the Bethlehem of modern-day Israel that we need to pilgrimage to in order to experience the thin place of Jesus' birth. We can do that right where we are by simply focusing ourselves on the humble, obscure and yet powerful way in which God chooses to bridge the gap between heaven and Earth. He doesn't come with chariots rolling or guns blazing, but in the soft skin and helpless posture of a baby, born to a family who number themselves among the poorest of the poor. Life was thin for Mary and Joseph, but the life Mary brought forth in the manger was full of more than God's people and, indeed, the whole world could have ever imagined.

In Jesus, God broke through the barriers between himself and humanity by becoming one of us. We don't worship a God who is distant, cloaked in clouds, and oblivious to our world. Instead, we worship a God who has deigned to humble himself, as Paul says in Philippians 2, and take the road to a cross. This is a God we can know because he has a human face and in him the best of heaven and Earth come together and show us what is possible for us and for the world.

So, as you prepare for Christmas, maybe the best preparation is to take some time to go to a quiet place and consider that God is not far away, that the king is quite near and his kingdom is at hand. Allow yourself to live in the reality of who God is and what God has done in Jesus. Take a pilgrimage into the heart of the biblical story of Christmas and read it as if you're seeing it for the first time. Serve someone who needs to experience the reality that God has come to give them real hope.

May your Christmas be thin!
Let us pray.
For schoolchildren on their holiday break, and for their parents, that the Lord may bless them during this special time. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are facing a difficult Christmas, that they may be comforted. We pray to the Lord.
As Mary was greeted with joy by her cousin Elizabeth, we pray for all women who are preparing for childbirth at this time that the birth of their child be a safe and happy one for them and their families. We pray to the Lord.
As we look forward to the joys of Christmas, our hearts are with those families who in the last year have lost loved ones. We pray that our belief that the souls of the deceased are in the loving care of the Father who created them is a consolation to them at this time. We pray to the Lord.
As we prepare for this holy feast of Christmas, we pray that we may be conscious of those who are in financial distress and that we may, in the true Christian spirit, share with them some of that which we ourselves are blessed to have. We pray to the Lord.
As we approach Christmas  Day, we pray for love and reconciliation in our community, particularly in families, and that we make a special effort to reach out to those who are lonely or in need. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Generous God, you blessed Mary and Elizabeth, who trusted in you and answered your call. Loving Father, prepare our hearts with your grace, that like Mary, we may be a worthy dwelling place for your Son. Bless us, your faithful people, as we lift our voices to heaven with these prayers. Grant them in the name of your Son, whose coming we await, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA