Sunday, February 24, 2019

February 24, 2019
(1 Corinthians 15:35-50; Luke 6:27-38)
Across the United States, sidewalk cafés are booming. Back in 1964, only about 30 such cafés existed in all of New York City. Fifty-five years later, the count is at 1,300 and climbing.
In 1971, a little place called Starbucks opened in Seattle. Possibly you’ve heard of it. By 2018, there were more than 29,300 around the world, and in many cities they now sit on nearly every corner. People seem to enjoy iced coffee, handcrafted smoothies, pastries, sandwiches and free Wi-Fi in a relaxed and comfortable setting. Starbucks is huge, and so is café culture whether the café has a sidewalk option or not.
But how about the “Death Café?” Not so huge. Not so relaxed. Not so comfortable.
The “Death Café” began in England about fifteen years ago. Although it sounds like a place for dying, it’s actually the opposite — it’s a place to make the most of your life through a greater awareness of death.
That’s surprising, isn’t it? Finding life through a focus on death.
As unusual as it is, it’s in line with the thinking of the apostle Paul who said, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (1 Corinthians 15:36).
Death Cafés are basically discussion groups, and they can be virtually any size and structure. About all that unites them is the presence of people, tea and cake.
Why, someone might ask, would someone go to a Death Café?
Linda Potter will tell you why. She is a pastor’s wife and she was drawn to the Death Café by personal tragedy. In a four year span, she lost an aunt to brain cancer, her father to colon cancer and a nephew to drowning. As she grieved these losses, she asked herself and others the question, “How do you want to live, knowing you are going to die?”
She began to lead Death Café discussions at First Presbyterian Church in Canton, New York, and recruited participants from nearby colleges. She discovered that “as we become more comfortable in talking about our death, we become more alive in our living.”
We need these discussions today, because we live in a death-denying culture. If we talk about death at all, we do so in the most general terms, and rarely probe too deeply into the future reality of our own deaths.
Americans tend to emphasize youth and beauty, and spend huge amounts of money in attempts to reverse or mask the aging process. People don’t just buy moisturizer — they purchase “age-defying” moisturizer.
When we take sick people to hospitals, we expect heroic measures to be performed, even when patients are very old. Death typically occurs in hospitals or nursing homes these days, far from the center of family life. And when it does happen, we don’t even like to say that a person died. We euphemistically say they “passed away” or have “gone to a better place.” Literary types quote Shakespeare and say that a person has “shuffled off this mortal coil.” I am no different; I have referred to my St. Bernard’s death in the same way.
Fortunately, our Christian faith gives us the language we need to accept death as a fact of life. And as we become more comfortable talking about death, we become more alive in our living. Paul makes very clear that death is an essential part of eternal life with God, because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
Paul uses no euphemisms when he talks about death. In fact, he is very down-to-earth. Paul considers the physical body to be “a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.” Just as seeds need to go into the ground before growth can occur, our bodies have to die before we can experience resurrection life. “What is sown is perishable,” explains Paul, “what is raised is imperishable. … It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
The reality of death is central to our Christian faith, but not to our popular culture. In fact, what we see in many movies is the idea that dead people continue to hang around with living people — as ghosts. In the classic romantic film Ghost, a young man played by Patrick Swayze — who himself died of cancer in 2009 — is killed by a mugger, and then his ghost stays close to his girlfriend to protect her from danger.
In a more recent film called A Ghost Story, a man played by Casey Affleck is killed in a car crash, and then spends most of the movie stuck in his house, unable to communicate with his partner. There’s no real death and resurrection in these movies, just a ghostly continuation of life.
In contrast, the Christian faith understands death to be the end of our finite, earthly lives. We really will die, each and every one of us, not just float off to a better place. But the good news is that after death, we are raised in glory and in power. The value of the Death Café is that it forces us to take both death and resurrection seriously.
For Paul, resurrection is not the reanimation of dead flesh. Resurrection is rather the creation of a brand new spiritual body. “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body,” he writes. “If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” After death, in most instances, our souls do not leave our bodies and fly around like ghosts. No, our physical bodies die, and then God raises us with spiritual bodies. After the very real deaths of our physical bodies, we are given the very real life of our spiritual bodies.
All of this comes from God, of course — it is the gift of the one who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Resurrection is not a natural process but is a supernatural process, one that is grounded in our relationship with God and Jesus. “Christ has been raised from the dead,” Paul says to the Corinthians, “the first fruits of those who have died.” The resurrection of Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrection that we will all enjoy, through our faith in Christ.
So how does a figurative visit to the Death Café make us more alive in our living? We realize that we don’t have to fear the end of life. Death is a natural and necessary step on the path toward eternal life with God. Paul tells us, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies,” meaning that we have to let go of our physical bodies before we can receive our spiritual bodies. This knowledge helps us to accept death as a part of God’s care for us, in this life and the next.
If we let go of fear, we can get more out of life. At Linda Potter’s Death Café in New York, people find release and restoration when they tell their stories of life and death. Two college students came to one discussion and were captivated by the story of a veteran with stage III cancer. They discovered that they had a great deal to learn about life from this man who was very close to death.
Moreover, by talking about the end of life, we prepare ourselves for eternal life. Now it’s true that none of us can predict exactly what it will be like to have spiritual bodies and live in the kingdom of God. But by discussing life and death in community, our faith in God gets stronger and we grow closer to one another as Christians. One leader of a Death Café in California says that the experience “pulls us back to the communitarian roots of our religion.”
There is a book written by Mitch Albom, Have a Little Faith. It is a true and moving story that I highly recommend for all to read. In Have a Little Faith, Mitch Albom offers a beautifully written story of a remarkable eight-year journey between two worlds--two men, two faiths, two communities. Have a Little Faith begins with an unusual request: an eighty-two-year-old rabbi from Albom's old hometown asks him to deliver his eulogy. Feeling unworthy, Albom insists on understanding the man better, which throws him back into a world of faith he'd left years ago. Meanwhile, closer to his current home, Albom becomes involved with a Detroit pastor--a reformed drug dealer and convict--who preaches to the poor and homeless in a decaying church with a hole in its roof. Moving between their worlds, Christian and Jewish, African-American and white, impoverished and well-to-do, and observes how these very different men employ faith similarly in fighting for survival: the older, suburban rabbi embracing it as death approaches; the younger, inner-city pastor relying on it to keep himself and his church afloat. As America struggles with hard times and people turn more to their beliefs, Albom and the two men of God explore issues that perplex modern man: how to endure when difficult things happen; what heaven is; intermarriage; forgiveness; doubting God; and the importance of faith in trying times. Although the texts, prayers, and histories are different, Albom begins to recognize a striking unity between the two worlds--and indeed, between beliefs everywhere. In the end, as the rabbi nears death and a harsh winter threatens the pastor's wobbly church, Albom sadly fulfills the rabbi's last request and writes the eulogy. And he finally understands what both men had been teaching all along: the profound comfort of believing in something bigger than yourself.
Death, to me, is much like this story. We have little clue what comes with death, but with faith, we know that it isn’t something to be feared – in fact, we should embrace it as a natural step in our existence.
One vision of eternal life comes from the epic poem Paradiso, by the Italian writer Dante Alighieri. He was a required read in seminary. This poem is the third and final section of his Divine Comedy, which begins with a journey through Hell and Purgatory and ends in Paradise. Commenting on Paradiso, the Christian writer Rod Dreher says that “for Dante and the medieval thinkers, salvation consists in achieving unity with God. It is the end goal of all our striving: to return to unity with our Creator.”
When we talk about death, we prepare ourselves for eternal life. We focus on unity with God, and try to open ourselves completely to the presence of God. Dreher writes that “we reach our final end when we have let go of everything that separates us from God, which will mean by definition letting go of everything that separates us from each other.”
That’s the life that Albom learns from the rabbi and pastor. That’s the kingdom of God, according to Dante. In both literary pieces, in a way, it’s the place called Paradiso, where faithful people live in the light of love, eternally close to God and to each other. There we achieve unity with God, we yield our egos to the will of God, and we let go of everything that separates us from God and from each other.
We don’t move closer to Paradise by pretending that our lives won’t end, or that we’ll transition into ghosts. Instead, we prepare for it by talking about life, death and resurrection, and focusing on unity with God and with each other.  
Let us pray.
We pray for the insight to listen to the words of Jesus and in our own lives to be patient, generous, forgiving, compassionate and non-judgemental. We pray most of all that we love our perceived enemies, do good to those who hate us and bless those who curse us. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those who have been hurt and who find it hard to forgive. We pray that through the healing love of God and the guidance of the Gospel, they find peace and forgiveness in their hearts. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for tolerance in our country. We pray particularly for those who see the Gospel as a threat to liberty that their eyes be opened to the love and goodness of our Heavenly Father. We pray to the Lord.
For the insight to recognize those in need as our sisters and brothers and the courage to respond to them as friends. We pray to the Lord.
For conversion of our hearts: that God will free us from returning evil for evil and help us confront evil with love and mercy. We pray to the Lord.
That Catholic Christians will focus on life, not death; and focus on the resurrection and not the destruction of the body. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence those on our prayer list, our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.  
Compassionate God and Father, you are kind to the ungrateful, merciful even to the wicked. Pour out your love upon us, that with good and generous hearts we may keep from judging others and learn your way of compassion. Father God, help us to understand and be less fearful of death and see it as a new transition ever-lasting life with you. Father, for your goodness, which we resolve to imitate in our way of living. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Sunday, February 17, 2019

February 17, 2019
(1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26)
You’ve heard our country described as rich and poor, urban and rural, conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican, gay and straight, red and blue. This list goes on.
How about Hard and Soft?
A political analyst named Michael Barone has written a book called Hard America, Soft America, and in it he describes a division in our country between those who are Hard and those who are Soft. Barone believes that Hard America is marked by competition and accountability, while Soft America is defined by government regulation and social safety nets.
An example of Soft America? Our public school system. It’s filled with progressive values, including a desire to promote the self-esteem of its students. Playground games that seem to be too competitive and cruel, such as dodge ball, are banned in Soft America. (I absolutely hated that game as a kid! Though, I have no opinion as to whether it should be banned – maybe made optional.) You remember how dodge ball was defined in the Ben Stiller movie, called “Dodge Ball”? It’s the sport of “violence, exclusion and degradation.”
Hard America, on the other hand, is not afraid of competition. Private companies fire people when profits plunge, and the military puts its people through intense physical training along with exercises using live fire. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about Hard America, and very little coddling — unless you happen to be a CEO with a golden parachute.
Hard vs. Soft. Competition vs. coddling. It’s one way to view a divided and polarized America.
It could also describe the church in Corinth when Paul went to visit it, and later wrote his first letter to it.
The early Christian church certainly had its share of divisions, nowhere more clearly than in Corinth, where the apostle Paul had to plead with the Christians to settle their differences. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)
The Corinthian church was a shattered Greek urn, lying in pieces on a cold stone floor. Some of the members were swayed by brilliant rhetoric, others were influenced by knowledge, others were impressed by spiritual gifts, and still others attached importance to wealth and social status.
As example, there was sexual immorality in the church — a man living with his father’s wife — and this behavior was being tolerated by some. There were abuses at the Lord’s Supper, with the rich arriving early and enjoying the very best food and drink, while the poor arrived later and had only the leftovers to consume.
In the face of these fractures, Paul calls for the Corinthian Christians to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1:10).
Unity was a problem then, and it’s a problem now. There’s a huge division between the red and blues; red Hard Faith-ers and the blue Soft Faith-ers.
The Hard Faith people place an emphasis on the obligations of religious life, and they appreciate moral clarity — their scriptural foundation is a covenant with God, an agreement defined by righteous living. If your faith is hard, you’re focused on knowing God’s truth, keeping the Ten Commandments, and living a disciplined life in a community of faith.
The Soft Faith people see religion as a liberation movement. They tend to stress God’s love for the oppressed of the earth, and they trace their spiritual roots to the exodus, when God brought the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. If your faith is soft, you’re focused on experiencing God’s grace, keeping the commandments of Jesus to love God and neighbor, and living a life that is open and receptive to new understandings.
Hard Faith is all about obligation, clarity, covenant, truth and discipline. Soft Faith is committed to liberation, charity, exodus, grace and openness.
We’re not talking right and wrong here, good and bad, because both sides are important to the church, both have deep roots in our Scripture and Tradition, and both are necessary for a fully formed faith. Without both, many good things would fall apart.
But Hard and Soft perspectives create a very tricky tension — they exert a kind of magnetic pull as they draw people of faith in opposite directions.
The apostle Paul had a similar problem in Corinth, where the Christians of that community felt drawn to different leaders in the early church. Some felt they belonged to Paul, others to Apollos, others to Peter, and still others to Christ. Some of these leaders were eloquent, some were not ... some were Hard, and some were Soft.
But Paul rejected these distinctions by asking the Corinthians point blank, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
For Paul, the unifying reality for us is always going to be Jesus Christ, whether we are Hard or Soft, competitive or coddling, obligated or liberated.
The amazing thing about Jesus is that he is simultaneously Hard Jesus and Soft Jesus. The Hard Jesus lays out the obligations of discipleship, and is clear about the Christian way of life. He calls us into a New Covenant, one that is sealed in his very own blood. He is devoted to the truth — in fact, he himself is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) — and he asks his disciples to be so disciplined that they actually deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him. You simply cannot get any Harder than that.
At the same time, Jesus is the Soft Jesus. He liberates us from captivity to sin and death, and challenges us to show Christian charity to the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the imprisoned. He leads us on a new exodus, one that passes through death to everlasting life. And he shows amazing grace to all who follow him in faith, receiving with open arms the outcasts, the sinners, the brokenhearted, and the sick. He is a Soft, Soft Savior — no doubt about it.
The apostle Paul knows this, which is why he calls for unity in the midst of the Christian community’s diversity. He doesn’t expect the Corinthians to have identical views and perspectives on all things, nor does he expect them to live out their Christian faith in exactly the same way. But he does expect them to be united in their determination to follow Jesus, and equally dependent on the power of the cross of Christ.
In fact, Paul doesn’t want to do anything to distract people from the cross — the clearest possible symbol of Jesus’ sacrificial death and life-giving resurrection. He doesn’t want to baptize or speak with eloquence or do anything that might turn people away from the central image of what God has done for us through Jesus.
The cross of Christ is what unites us, according to Paul. It is the perfect symbol of Hard Truth and Soft Grace.
So, what does this mean to us today? Hard and Soft divisions are going to continue to plague us, but their existence does not mean that we have to lose sight of the centrality of Jesus Christ. Some of us will naturally practice a Hard Faith, and we’ll be clear about our beliefs, our practices, our Scriptures and our morals. But at the same time, some of us will embrace a Soft Faith, and we will show charity to others as we focus on hospitality, inclusiveness, outreach projects and unconditional love.
What unites us is always going to be more powerful and all-embracing than what pulls us apart. The way for us to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (v. 10) is to remember the message.
The message is the message of the cross and that message is “the power of God.” (1 Peter 1:5)
That’s what we’re about. If we stay on message, we’ll stay together. Which recalls Benjamin Franklin’s famous advice: “Brothers, let us all hang together, for if we don’t, we most assuredly will hang separately.”
The trick is to remember that it’s about the message. It’s not about me.
Dan Wakefield writing in Spiritually Incorrect: Finding God in All the Wrong Places, tells of meeting one of his heroes of the faith, theologian Henri Nouwen.
Flustered by his proximity to his idol, Wakefield stuttered a question: “Father Nouwen, I’ve read your Prayers from the Genesee. What bothers me is that if someone as advanced as you has doubts and difficulties with prayer, what hope is there for someone like me who’s just starting out?”
Nouwen looked at him sternly and said, rather sharply, “Mr. Wakefield, Christianity is not for ‘getting your life together.’”
He said he was “taken back, abashed. Was I getting it wrong? In a way, yes. Nouwen was telling me that Christianity was not simply another scheme for the never-ending satisfaction of the self; it went beyond an ego trip and grew into service to others, and the giving up of self, surrendering to God. Christianity offered a journey that was not just sweetness and light but thundering darkness and doubt, thorns as well as doves.”
No, it’s not about “getting your life together.” It’s not about Paul, Apollos, Peter or Chloe. Or you. Or me or us.
It’s about the message. Hit the message hard, or hit it some, but stay on message.
It is certainly appropriate to teach a class on Christian doctrine, but don’t look down upon those who feel called to feed the homeless when you might think there is a more urgent need.
And you are to be commended if you do political work on behalf of peace and justice. But don’t neglect your prayer life.
Hard Faith and Soft Faith. Both are required if we are going to follow a Hard-Soft Savior.
Let us pray.
We pray that we be not diverted by the excessive pursuit of material things and false happiness but listen closely to the Word of Christ which leads us ultimately to eternal happiness. We pray to the Lord.
As the Church comes under increasing attack throughout the world, we pray that all Christians stay loyal to the Christ Saviour who gave his life for us on the cross and take solace in his promise that their reward will be great in Heaven. We pray to the Lord.
For Presiding Bishop Dean, Bishop Robert and all clergy: that God will inspire and make fruitful their efforts in helping others to come to know Christ. We pray to the Lord.
That those engaged in business will serve society by working to make goods of the world accessible to all. We pray to the Lord.
For the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the marginalized; that they will find consolation in being close to Jesus. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for the victims who were killed in the shooting this week in Chicago, that they may rest in peace eternal; and for their families and friends to be graced with much love during this horrible time of losing their loved ones and rest I the assurance that their loved ones are now with our Heavenly Father. And for the shooter, may Christ fill his heart with knowledge of the horrendous crime he has committed and find true repentance. 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.    
God our Father, help us to seek you in all things and above all things. Help us to take a fresh look at our lives and at what we regard as being important in this world. You bless those who are in distress and reward those who trust in you. As you answer our prayers, keep us faithful in your service. Jesus promised your blessings upon those who are poor, hungry, weeping, excluded, or insulted. Therefore, we also call upon you, our heavenly Father, with our prayers for all those in need. May we always stay true to your message. We ask all these things, through Christ our Lord. Amen.      
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Sunday, February 10, 2019

February 10, 2019
The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
(Isaiah 6:1-2, 3-8; Luke 5:1-11)
There is a story, floating around that was told in Roman Catholic seminary, that the flamboyant, bourbon-drinking, coke-snorting, smart-aleck actress from the 30’s and 40’s, Tallulah Bankhead, who claimed to be a “recovering Mormon”, who attended one Christmas mid-night Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York sitting in a pew waiting for Mass to start. It would seem she had been partying a bit before she arrived. As the procession came down the aisle - when the Cardinal passed in his finest vestments, with an altar-boy in front of him swinging a censer full of burning incense - through very bleary eyes, Tallulah took one look at him and with that deep gravelly voice of hers shouted "Darling, your dress is divine, but your purse is on fire!"
It has been a standing joke for seminarians for years. I have also heard it told in slight different variations. Who knows if there is any truth to it, but it has always been a fun story.
Given our Epistle reading speaks about incense today and also given that we choose to use incense for every Mass in our little chapel, I thought it would be good to talk about incense, why it is used and some history and origin. As many of you are aware, I discuss the topic in the booklet in your pews about the Mass, so some of this may be a refresher and maybe something new.
And as you know, each Sunday there is a small prayer the priest or deacon prays immediately before the reading of the Gospel.  They originate from the words of today’s Epistle reading.
In the temple rituals of the ancient world, incense played a symbolic and a practical role. Because it was rare, expensive and would be completely consumed by fire, it was considered a suitable sacrifice to the gods. Priests and people hoped that their prayers would rise to heaven like the great clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. Then there was the practical dimension of burning incense: In temples where animals were sacrificed and their carcasses burned, incense helped mask the stench.
Both the Old and the New Testaments tell us that incense is pleasing to God. In the book of Exodus, God commands Moses to build a small, gold-plated altar specifically for the burning incense every morning and evening (Exodus 30:1-8). In St. Luke's Gospel, we read that Zachariah the priest was about to offer incense in the Temple in Jerusalem when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to announce that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son, the future St. John the Baptist (see Luke 1:8-13). And the book of Revelation describes a scene in heaven in which an angel burned incense in a censer, "and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints ... before God" (Revelation 8:3-4).
In the Old Testament, use of incense is found starting in the Torah worship regulations. There are two main descriptions of incense ritual. It is important to remember that in identifying the specifics of incense in the Bible we have a problem of translation. We are not sure in every case what exactly the ingredient being described was, but have to take an educated guess.

First is the command to construct the altar of incense in Exodus 30:1-10.
Like most of the ritual implements it is to be made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. Interestingly, it also has horns and two rings so that it can be carried on a pole, similar to the Ark of the Covenant. Its location was to be in front of the veil or curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Burning incense here would create a cloud of smoke and fire that would further communicate the holiness of God. This may be the basis for some of the Biblical imagery of God residing in clouds of darkness. (Psalm 18:11) The two frequent usages listed are morning and evening offerings. The incense was to be done with the temple lights. There was also a regulation on the type of incense, the priest could not use any “unholy” incense, but only that which had been commanded. This altar of incense also had to be ritually purified on Yom Kippur along with many of the other Temple objects. This altar was also used on Yom Kippur as part of the ritual process for the high priest to be able to enter the inner sanctum. (Leviticus 16:11-14)

Second is Exodus 30:34-38 which gives the formula for the specific incense to be used. The mixture is made of equal parts of four ingredients: Stacte (staktē) or gum resin. Onycha (on'i-ka) - what the onycha of antiquity actually was cannot be determined with certainty any longer. Operculum from sea snails is one possible identification. Galbanum which comes from a Persian plant called ferula gummosa. And lastly frankincense. This formula is considered holy, and originally it was forbidden for it to be used for any other purpose other than Temple ritual. It is not to be reduced to common usage.

Later in the Old Testament incense as worship is used in the Psalms as a metaphor for prayer (Ps 141:2) and again as shorthand for the worship of God.
(Mal 1:1)

Because incense’s religious usage was exclusive to the Temple, there are few mentions of it in the New Testament. Incense is used in Luke 1:9 in a similar manner as the Old Testament, to describe Temple worship in general. Showing the cross cultural nature of incense there is also the example of the wise men who bring a gift of frankincense (Matt 2:11). What the wise men believed about Jesus exactly is not known, but it was common in Persia to see kings as divine and treat them as such, with incense being a common gift to a king. The only other occurrences are in Revelation where it takes on a metaphorical meaning. In Revelation incense represents the prayer of the saints (Rev 5:8, 8:3-5). Here the Angel offers up the prayers of the saints and then fills his censer with fire from the altar. When thrown on the earth this fire caused earthquakes and lightening, marking the beginning of the trumpet judgments.

There is little connection between early Christian incense usage and Old Testament ritual. In fact, it took several centuries for the early Church to adopt incense. One of the more common Roman religious usages was worship, and in particular in worship of the Emperor. This association with emperor worship, and this being the primary manner in which early Christians suffered persecution, created a strong aversion to incense for the Church. Etheria, of whom little is known, was said to be a nun from present-day France who in 381 began a lengthy pilgrimage to the Holy Land, tells us that incense was used in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Around the 5th century, after the peace of the Church under Constantine, Christians began to feel more comfortable with incense, and as the bitter memory of incense's link to the era of persecution faded, the Church in the West took up the custom, too, censing everything that was considered holy -- the bread and wine, the altar, the crucifix, the book of the Gospels, the celebrant of the Mass and the sacred ministers and the congregation.
Much of the initial usage was connected to funeral processions, the first recorded being 311AD. This funerary use developed early into processions for saint’s relics, as well as being burned in honor of saint’s tombs by at least the fifth century. Although this later use was derived from burning of incense before people in honor while alive. During the time of St. Ambrose (340 - 397 AD) incense was only really used in the liturgy to perfume the church. This fumigatory usage was widespread by the end of the 4th century. Other early usages follow, such as processing with incense before Bishops or the Gospel book as a sign of honor similar to Roman dignitaries.
The earliest religious usage of incense in Christian worship seems to date to St. Ephraim the Syrian in the late 4th century and represents a transition period. This religious usage started in the Eastern rites and eventually spread throughout Western ritual as well. By the end of the 6th century, at least in the East, incense was being widely used as part of worship. Evidence of this comes from the Seventh Ecumenical council which specifically mentions incense as an acceptable “offering” to images of the Cross, and the Gospel Book, and other “holy objects”. It is not too long after this that it takes on a greater liturgical integration of censing the altar, priest, people, and oblations that are found in later rites. In the 9th century, Bishop Hincmar of Reims ordered all priests in his diocese to have censer and incense for Gospel procession and Offertory, but it was not until the 14th century in Rome that the Gospel book itself being censed became custom.
Additionally, Jewish Chaburah meals used incense, at least as burning spices, as part of the common culture, and gave it religious domestic meaning. Possibly this means incense was used at the Last Supper.
The mystical meaning of incense - by its burning it symbolizes the zeal with which the faithful should be animated; by its sweet fragrance, the odor of Christian virtue; by its rising smoke, the ascent of prayer before the throne of the Almighty. As St. John tells us in the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation: "The smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended before God from the hand of the Angel."
Also, incense creates a cloud. A cloud is a symbol for God the Father. For example at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5) a cloud appears and from it comes the Voice of God. In Acts 1:8 Jesus enters a cloud. Also in Exodus 13:22, the people are led by a pillar of cloud; and in Exodus 40:34 the cloud settled on the meeting tent and the glory of the Lord filled it. Thus the cloud of incense should remind us of God whose presence is revealed by a cloud.
The use of incense is a beautiful example of the wisdom of our Church, which adapts to our own purposes all that is good in every creed, all that will typify the spirit with which she wished her children to be animated, all that will aid them to attain to true fervor, all that will add solemnity to the worship which she offers to God.
Incense has several purposes in Christian liturgy.  Honor to God - following the Old Testament pattern - honor to people and holy objects, symbol of purification, cleansing, or blessing, symbol of the prayers of the saints rising to God following Revelation, symbol of our prayers during Mass rising to God, engage all the senses in worship though the addition of smell, add a nice aroma to worship and to purify and cleanse areas and objects of evil influence.
When most objects are censed they are commonly done with double swings. Each “swing” of the thurible is two short swings with an intermediate pause. Traditionally the number of these double swings varies from one to three depending on the thing being censed. There are rubrics for the number of swings. Some examples are, but not all inclusive:
3 Double-Swings: A Bishop. Also the exposed Sacrament, a relic of the True Cross, and a bambino (Christmas infant).
2 Double-Swings: Canons in their Cathedral, Principal Priests of a Church, All Priests in Parish Churches. Palms on Palm Sunday, the Book of the Gospels. The image/statues of a patron saint on their feast day. The Advent/Christmas wreath.
1 Double-Swing: Deacons and any servers being incensed individually, as well as the congregation at the second censing of the Mass.
And there you my smoking habit laid out for you. I’ve been on the patch, but incense is hard to break!!
Let us pray.
In today’s gospel, we read how Jesus called Simon and Andrew, the first of his disciples. We pray that young men and women hear and respond generously to the Lord’s call to become ministers for the church and proclaim his message of hope, love and salvation. We pray to the Lord.                      
Through our baptism, we are also called by Jesus to be fishers of men for his sake. We pray that in our lives, our words and our actions we lead others to Christ’s message and belief in God, our creator and loving Father. We pray to the Lord.              
Tomorrow Monday, February 11th, has been nominated as World Day for the Sick. We pray for all those who are sick, and particularly for those with life threatening illnesses. We also include in our prayers all family members and helpers who care for the sick with such loving care and patience. We pray to the Lord
For those who do not feel loved, who do not have the companionship of family or friends, that they may know God’s constant love. We pray to the Lord.
That when we see and smell the incense during Mass, that we become aware of the purification of the sanctuary and the rising up of our prayers. 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.
Loving Father, we turn to you, confident that your love is greater than our weakness. May we always be faithful to you. Father, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.  Lead us closer to yourself as we make these prayers. Loving God, your faithfulness has no bounds, let your hand guide your people, who bring their prayers in faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor - St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Sunday, February 3, 2019

February 3, 2019
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
(1 Corinthians 12:31 – 13:13; Luke 4:21-30)
Is there's an app for that? Of course there is!
Think of any first-world problem you can imagine and, thanks to the genius of computer geeks holed up in their mom's basement somewhere, you now have the solution at your fingertips via millions of applications or "apps."
Need to get your "to do" tasks organized? You need the "To Do Reminder" app.
Are you always running late? You need the "Bounce" app, or the "Running Late" app that will text your friends to let them know you're a bit behind.
Need to track your daily walk around the block? Try the "Map My Walk" app.
Feel a compulsive need to take a picture of your lunch and share it to your disinterested friends? Of course, there's an app for that, too.
Some of these apps are about better productivity, while others are all about wasting time. All of them, however, have become an ever-present part of our lives.
Of course, none of these apps is a one-and-done deal. If you use enough of them, you know that an app is only as useful as the next update from the developer. We're constantly being reminded to download the next update, and we're also told what the app will do better when it's installed. Maybe it will make it less buggy. Maybe the update enhances the security features. Maybe the app has been remodeled with new graphics, or given it a cooler feature.
And sometimes, unless you update, the app will not work. While other times, you update only for the app or your phone to suddenly not work correctly – or what you view as “correct!”
Even if that is not the case, if you use apps, at some point, you must update. That's the way it works.
But while apps have made us better connected electronically, they haven't necessarily made us into better and more compassionate people. We might add a comment to a distant friend's Facebook post that offers sympathy for their illness, but, while we're typing, we ignore the distressed person sitting next to us on the bus.
We can Instagram a picture of our luscious lasagna dinner while walking past a hungry homeless person on the street. Somehow, getting the update should lead us to getting a clue, but for that we might need to go to a different source.
Paul was dealing with an app problem in Corinth - as in the "application of Christianity" that is. Even though they were first century Greco-Roman people living with nary a cell tower in sight, the Corinthians were acting like a bunch of selfie-taking narcissists instead of the church of Jesus Christ.
The list of problems in Corinth, in fact, was not unlike the ones we face in the 21st-century wireless world.
- They were as divided as two sets of social media trolls lobbing insults back and forth at one another (1:10-17).
- They were obsessed with celebrity teachers, always posting sound bites from their favorites (3:1-9).
- They seemed to have a relaxed view of sexual ethics, rather than clearing sordid affairs from their history (5:1-2).
- They might have used a legal app to draft lawsuits against one another (6:1-11).
- They may have Snapchatted pictures of food sacrificed to idols to those who were trying to eat kosher (8:1-13).
- The wealthier members of the community might have Instagrammed pictures of the Lord's Supper feast before their poorer neighbors got there and missed out on all the food (11:17-34).
The Corinthians were working all the angles, seeing their own reflections in the screen, and missing out on the richness of real Christian community.
So, Paul messages them that they need an update -- one that will not only make their community run more smoothly and in a more Christ like manner, but will also beef up their spiritual security and make the church more user-friendly to outsiders.
We'll call it "The agape update," AKA: “the love update.”
A few words here before we read the specs on this particular update. In the 21st-century world, we use one word to describe some widely ranging understandings of love. We might say, "I love this app" and, in the next sentence say, "I love my wife."
It's the same verb but with two very different meanings (at least, one would hope. If you love your wife in the same way you love a phone app, then we need to talk!). In the Greco-Roman world in general and the Greek language in particular, there were several different word choices for love that communicate its meaning more clearly in context. There's the word phileo, which is like the kind of friendship love you might have, maybe even with someone on the Facebook app. There's storge, which is the kind of parental love your mom might send to you when you post something cute on Pinterest. Then there's eros, which is the kind of romantic love one might look for on a dating app (or on some illicit apps that we won't discuss).
The word Paul uses here in 1 Corinthians 13, however, is the word agape, which is the kind of love that is less about typing your feelings in cute emoji’s than it is about upgrading to real, willful, sacrificial, unconditional, self-giving love.
In this famous chapter, which is popular among wedding planner sites, Paul lays out the details of that particular update, and how it turns the attention from taking selfies to taking action on behalf of others.
You may be gifted, but without the update, it doesn't really work
Paul has already noted in chapter 12 that the Corinthian church is gifted. But he says in 12:31, "Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way."
You're gifted, he says, but you need the one gift, that makes it all work. Without it, their community will crash like a "noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." You might have a ton of apps that give you the mysteries of the universe right at your fingertips, but if you don't have that agape, you're really just a person holding a box of silicon chips. You might even decide to give everything away, and make do with your old flip phone, but you won't gain anything if you don't have that agape.
In a community that embraces agape, however, that particular update changes everything. Instead of being at each other's throats, love makes them patient with one another and takes away the specter of jealousy. It pulls peoples' heads up from the minutiae of their own lives, and gives way to the needs of others without resentment, anger, judgmentalness or lack of trust. The agape update turns us away from the evil influences that can creep into our lives, and, instead, turn us toward the truth of the Gospel.
In short, this update is the one that enables the community of faith to bear, hope and endure all things for each other and for Christ. Indeed, once this update is installed, it will never fail.
Technology geeks know that when a new, upgraded operating system is installed on a phone, a tablet or a computer, the apps that the old system supported are often no longer useful. Paul says that once the agape update becomes widely downloaded in the church, other apps that were once so cool and hip, are now not so cool and hip.
The prophecy app, for example, pales in comparison to agape.
The knowledge of an app like Wikipedia? Not so necessary.
Even faith and hope, pale in comparison to the power of the agape app.
In fact, those apps will always be incomplete without the full update of agape type love. The self-obsessed way of the world makes people act like a bunch of spoiled kids, whereas the presence of agape leads the community to maturity, clarity and fulfillment for all. Faith and hope are great apps to have on hand at all times, but neither of them is as vital to the entire church operating system as agape.
How do I get this app?
It's interesting that Paul frames chapter 13 with two similar instructions. In 12:31 he says, "Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts," while in 14:1, he entreats the Corinthians to pursue love – for without love we are noisy gongs. The reality of agape is that it is really more an act of the will than it is a fleeting feeling. It's the kind of love that has to be chosen daily, prayed over, studied, practiced and constantly used in order to be effective. It's an app that's designed to be shared freely with others, and, when it is, it makes the whole community better reflect the presence of Christ.
As we know, most of the apps update automatically. Obviously, such is not the case with love. We have to be quite intentional about it. Truth is, the agape app is made available to us by the Holy Spirit. But it's totally on us to activate it and use it. And, it takes some practice, however, and a clear sense that we have the ability to share this love because Christ has shared it with us first through his sacrificial death on our behalf. As another love app designer named John put it, "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). When we recognize how much we have been loved, it can increase our bandwidth for loving others in the model of Christ.
The Corinthians were in desperate need of this update, given their history of wrangling with one another. Paul's encouragement to download the agape app is no less important for us today when individuals, churches and denominations are in conflict with one another. In a world where many apps are places for trolls to gather, the church needs to be a people whose primary pursuit is love.
It's the best app ever!
Reflecting on 1 Corinthians 13, N.T. Wright, British New Testament, Pauline Theologian and retired Anglican Bishop, tells of a practical joke Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used to play on his father, Leopold -- who was also a musician. After a wild night out on the town with his friends, Wolfgang would stumble into the house, sit down at the piano and pound out a rising scale of notes. But he wouldn't finish the scale. He would just get up from the piano bench and go to bed.
Wolfgang knew the unfinished scale would drive his father crazy. Leopold would toss and turn in his bed, sleepless, until he had to get up, go to the piano and finish the scale his son had started.
"What we are concerned with here," Wright explains, "is the way in which Paul describes the call of love, and of life itself, as an unfinished scale, going ahead of us into God's future. The music of love, which will one day be completed, is therefore not just our duty. It is our destiny."
Let us go out and continue to work on this scale, and update our agape app!
Let us pray.
In today’s Gospel, we hear how the people of Nazareth were unwilling to listen to Jesus in the synagogue and rejected him. We pray today that we do not reject him but open up our hearts and minds to God’s message and make it an essential part of our daily lives. We pray to the Lord.
St Paul talks to us about the importance of Love; it is always patient and kind, never jealous, never rude or selfish; never boastful or conceited; always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope. We pray to the Lord for the grace to embrace true agape love in our lives in everything we do. We pray to the Lord.              
We remember in our prayers our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who were killed this week in a bomb blast while attending Mass on Jolo Island in the Philippines. We pray that our loving Father receive them as martyrs and reward them with the joy of eternal life in His holy presence. We pray to the Lord.                      
We pray for all those who have died in road accidents, for the injured and for the emergency response services, and those who have died from exposure to the extreme cold during this week. We pray also for the bereaved families that they be consoled by the love and support of their caring communities. We pray to the Lord.  
We pray for all those who are on our prayer list, that they find healing, comfort and love during their time of need and that the Lord will send abundant graces to them all this day. 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.
Father, we pray for your wisdom and for the hope your words hold out to us.  God of love, you sent your only Son for our salvation and sent your Spirit to be with us forever. We turn to you now in our need, knowing that your love will never fail. Rain down your goodness across the universe and let us grow in your love – especially that of agape love, so that no matter who we meet and interact with each day, they may feel accepted, appreciated and loved. We ask all this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca