Monday, May 27, 2019

May 26, 2019
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
(Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; John 14:23-29)
Do you recall the day you first learned to write in cursive?
Probably not. You probably don’t remember when you learned to read either. I only recall being scolded by my teacher, when asked to read out loud, I was reading too fast. Speed reader for my age, I guess.
You may remember the process to learn cursive. You might remember life in first grade when you were taught to read, or life in third grade when you were taught to write in cursive. But you don’t remember when reading and writing “happened.”
Not like learning to ride a bike. You’re either pedaling like crazy and keeping your balance, or you’re lying in a twisted heap with your ankles through the spokes. You might remember when you learned to ride a bike. I still have the scar on my knee.
But, cursive writing. The S had the bends in the right places, and the W rose and dropped wonderfully at the command of your tiny fingers clutching that big pencil. Then, beaming brightly, you unveiled the writing to your parents, who happily approved your advancing skills. It was a moment of victory to slant those letters precisely the way the teacher instructed and within the lines, too. Mastering cursive writing was one of those skills that marked a rite of passage; not only was your schoolteacher proud of you, better yet, writing in cursive clearly meant you were becoming grown up.
Okay, that might be an exaggeration. But only slightly, because it sure felt like it.
But cursive writing and the teaching of cursive is on the way out. Cursive writing is gradually being deleted as more and more students rely on keyboards for communication. Text messaging, instant messenger, e-mail: These are the skills that students are relying upon, and with that reliance has come a steady decline in handwriting skills.
So, cursive writing is disappearing. One could say, so what? Isn’t digital communication better, easier and more efficient?
Maybe, but easier and more efficient is not always better, especially when it comes to developing character and building relationships. The question is: What happens when you gradually begin to lose skills that were once used to build character and demonstrate that a person was maturing because she was able to master a skill through careful practice? It is not surprising that along with the gradual disappearance of cursive writing has gone the habit of letter writing; a habit often called an art. So the culture loses cursive writing and no one notices, because in its place is faster, easier and efficient — the triune god of our time.
But while this god is wooing us night and day, Alan Wolfe, author of the Transformation of American Religion, comments that cursive writing is not the only thing that is gradually disappearing. A host of important religious concepts along with the moral practices that undergird them are also disappearing, and not only in secular culture but among many, if not most, churches.
For example, over the last two generations, the notion of a Holy God whose love will not tolerate sin and to whom all lives are accountable has nearly disappeared. It has been replaced by a benign Being whose love winks at personal sins. This God is often described in the vaguely religious language of contemporary spirituality and defended by those who decry the punishing, grace-less God foisted upon the people by fearful religious institutions and the preachers who offer a poisonous brew of guilt and shame. I am not sure that either are the correct path.
Against such a backdrop, who but the most fearful could possibly be against a God whose tolerance is so expansive that anyone can find a place regardless of moral habits?
Sin itself is a concept that depends upon a biblical moral universe of duties and obligations where people are accountable to one another and answerable to God. The concept has disappeared, rendered hopelessly quaint or even tacky, a sign of poor taste in public conversation, replaced by personal choices whose consequences are measured by their effects on one’s sense of personal well-being, rather than a larger universe of moral obligations that have their foundation in a response to a righteous and just God. This may seem hypocritical from one who teaches liberal Catholicism, but hear me out. Remember, it isn’t really about a set of rules, many of which are legitimately out of context in today’s world.
As C.S. Lewis famously reminded readers in Mere Christianity, a fuzzy, tolerant God is a far distance from the God whose mercy and grace are amazingly profound for the simple reason that God despises immorality. Grace is meaningless when there is no sin to be forgiven. In the wake of this steady cultural trend to throw off oppressive moral codes, including those of institutional religion, people have also thrown off the notion of binding moral obligations that are nonnegotiable. We believe that whatever good we do, we do because we want to, not because we have any obligation to do good.
Under these conditions, where everything is optional, how shall Christians respond to the instructions of Jesus to keep his word? In his final conversation with the disciples, he repeatedly tells them that loving him and obeying his commandment belong together. Cutting against the grain, Jesus actually says that by our obedience we show our love for him. The very thing that many associate with feeling and personal choice — love — is what Jesus says his disciples are to do because he commands them to do it. One word. Not a long list!
This is not simply a possible option among many options that we can keep when it’s convenient for our schedule. It’s a binding moral obligation for the followers of Jesus.
But, there’s more: Jesus promises that the consequences of a life of obedience to love are peace, intimacy with God, the abiding presence of the Spirit. In other words, according to Jesus the path to human fulfillment — peace, meaning, integrity — lies in a life of obedience to him made visible by our loving others, day in and day out.
This kind of life requires hard work and practice. You could call it Cursive Obedience. And it’s not something you remember learning to do. It doesn’t “happen.” It’s a learned process. It’s a life. It’s a lifestyle.
Remember how hard you had to work to learn to write in cursive? The purpose of all that practice was not just cruel punishment (though I thought so, and to this day I still rebel and write in print, not cursive!), however, as I started to say, it was not just cruel punishment, but the ability to communicate well in writing. Without the practice, there is no fulfillment.
Likewise, to practice the commandment of Jesus in a cursory way, choosing if and when to obey him based upon our own inclinations, will never lead us to a deeper relationship with God where we know that peace that is promised. We don’t like to link obedience to fulfillment; it seems graceless and stern. But in fact, those who live a life of obedience often testify to joy and peace.
Love is neither easy, fast nor efficient.
Annalena Tonelli was a humanitarian who spent her life working for human dignity and setting up tuberculosis centers in Kenya and Somalia. When she was assassinated in October 2003 in Somalia, by rebels who objected to her work among the poor, The Washington Post featured a story about her life (October 8, 2003). In a previous interview, she was asked what gave her the motivation to devote her life to some of the poorest and sickest people on earth, especially over so long a time when most people give up in despair or exhaustion.
What was it that enabled her to be so positive and even filled with gratitude? She rarely ever talked about her religious foundation, thinking that people would dismiss her, but on this occasion she spoke of the key to her sense of peace and fulfillment and named the reasons that others often fall away.
“The reason that more people don’t feel this way [peaceful, joyful, grateful] is that they don’t try hard enough. You have to give time, you have to be patient; and then year after year, you’ll see that what matters is only love. But if you are impatient because people are not grateful or you were full of limits, you will not be happy. You need time.”
You need time. But then, you’ll see that what matters is only love. Annalena Tonelli said it, and that is what Jesus said to his disciples, too. Keep my commandment, love through thick and thin, day by day, year after year, and you will know the peace of God. No list of moral rules, though they are definitely implied, but merely love.
How do we obey Jesus’ commandment to love over a lifetime without becoming grim or simply falling away? After all, love is only easy on Hallmark cards; in actual life it can be quite demanding. On the one hand it is akin to the practice of learning to write in cursive or learning any other skill. You simply do it in faith.
But there is something else, too, something that brings the necessary delight into our obedience. In his book Living the Message, Eugene Peterson comments on the secret to faithful obedience in Jeremiah’s life. He says, “He did not resolve to stick it out for 23 years, no matter what; he got up every morning with the sun. That is the secret of Jeremiah’s persevering pilgrimage — not thinking with dread about the long road ahead but greeting the present moment, every present moment, with obedient delight, with expectant hope: ‘My heart is ready!’”
What a wonderfully hopeful way to imagine discipleship over the long haul: with obedient delight offering our hearts to God day by day.
This obedient delight, says Jesus will bring you the peace that this world can never give.
Let us pray.
On this Memorial Day, let us pray for those who lost their lives in war, for those in danger today, and for families and friends who care about them. We pray to the Lord.
For competent leaders and visionaries who guide us when our path is unclear. We pray to the Lord.
For the Church, that we may continue to extend peace to all those in need, especially victims of war, violence, loss, and other traumas. We pray to the Lord.
For our local church and our four parish family, that like the early church, we may be guided by the Holy Spirit as we make deci­sions and fulfill our mission. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for love in the world, for an end to hatred, an end to war, an end to violence, that God’s peoples can live their lives in peace and harmony. We pray to the Lord.                  
We pray for a Spirit of justice in the world: that the needy, the exploited, the abused, and the victims of war may know freedom, relief from oppression, and dignity as daughters and sons of God. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list; that they may find healing, hope, grace and long awaited answers to their prayers through Christ’s presence. 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.
Gracious God, we continue to rely on the promises of your son, Jesus, as we carry on his work to bring all people to you and your kingdom of peace to fruition. Come, O God, and speak words of comfort. We live in a world sorely in need of your peace, the peace that only you can give. Our resources have grown scarce; our nations turn against each other; our families collapse from within. We look around us and sometimes the bad news is all that we see. O God, who calls each one friend, for our hearts are troubled, our spirits often afraid. We dread stock market crashes and worker layoffs, violence in schools and lack of medical care. We fear worst possible outcomes, rather than trust that you will not ever leave us. Eternal Companion, walk beside us through our darkest valleys. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Sunday, May 19, 2019

May 19, 2019
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
(Revelation 21:1-5; John 13:31-35)
Today’s Gospel is very timely actually. One of my goals as the new Presiding Bishop for our denomination is to not be afraid to show ourselves as progressives - to be the Traditional church that we are with a modern understanding of Christ. To show the Radical love of Jesus to everyone. There are many ways to do this, I suppose, but I will try to illustrate a little today.
Two full-face photos: One of Tom Cruise, and one of Lady Gaga. How do you tell these two celebrities apart?

You’re thinking, “Don’t be silly! Nobody’d ever take those two for look-alikes.”

Well — for most of us. But for some, about 2.5% of people in the United States, distinguishing faces is difficult if not impossible. These people suffer from a documented disorder called prosopagnosia, but because that’s such a mouthful, it is often referred to as “face blindness.”

Cecilia Burman, who lives in Stockholm, is one such sufferer. She can barely describe her mother’s face and struggles even to pick out her own face in photos. She continually loses friends because when they encounter Cecilia on the street, she doesn’t recognize them, and so she ignores them. They conclude that she’s stuck up or too self-centered to say hello, but in fact, they look like strangers to her. Prosopagnosiacs can see eyes, noses and mouths as well as anybody else can, but somehow they lack the ability to recognize a set of facial features when they next see them.

People with mild forms of face blindness do manage to memorize a limited number of faces, much like the rest of us might learn to distinguish one rock from another, but those with the more severe forms can’t do even that. Gaylen Howard, homemaker in Boulder, Colorado, says that when she is standing in front of a mirror in a crowded restroom, she has to contort her face to pick out which one is her. One of Howard’s family members, also afflicted with face blindness, could not distinguish between the faces of Elvis Presley and Brooke Shields.

Until a few years ago, face blindness was thought to be extremely rare. Only about 100 cases had been documented worldwide, and most of those were thought to be the result of brain injury. The disorder was not even named until 1947 when Joachim Bodamer, a German neurologist, called the condition prosopagnosia from two Greek terms: prosopon meaning “face,” and agnosia meaning “non-knowledge.” Bodamer had encountered the condition in three people, including a 24-year-old man who suffered a bullet wound to the head and lost his ability to recognize faces, including his own.

In July of last year, however, a team of German researchers released the results of a study they’d undertaken, and their investigations revealed that the condition is much more common than previously thought. Based on their studies, it is likely that there are more than five million people with this condition in the United States alone.
There is no known cure, but most learn certain coping mechanisms. Many can distinguish people they know by looking at things like hairstyle, body shape or gait, or by listening to their voice. To avoid appearing to snub friends, some sufferers try to look as though they are lost in thought while walking. Others act friendly either toward everyone or toward no one.

If you spend even a few minutes thinking about how different your life would be if you could not remember faces, you’ll understand that prosopagnosiacs deal with significant problems every day.

Certainly face blindness was unknown as a diagnosis in the first century, but the New Testament has an actual example of it. On the first Easter, two followers of Jesus were walking on the road to Emmaus when Jesus joined them, but according to Luke, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). Only later, when he broke bread before them, did they realize that it was Jesus who was with them.

Of course, they were seeing the resurrected Jesus for the first time, so maybe that accounts for their temporary face blindness.

But even before the resurrection, when Jesus was among his followers, he alluded to a kind of recognition problem that the world could have for which Christians are responsible. In his conversation with his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus told them that he loved them and that they should love one another. In fact, he called that a “new commandment.” In one way, it wasn’t new at all, for centuries before, the concept was articulated in Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Yet there was a newness about what Jesus said, for he intended that his followers’ love for each other should be a plain feature of their identity.

Thus he said, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Although in other places, Jesus talked about loving neighbors and even loving enemies, here he is saying that acting compassionately toward fellow believers is the way that people outside the church will know that they are his disciples.

That’s a positive way to state it, but consider the flip side. Jesus implies that it’s possible for Christians to live in the world without being recognized as Christians. To bring it right to our own day, Jesus’ new command means that if the world can know we are Christians by our love for one another, the world can also fail to recognize us as Christians if we don’t love one another. The world can have face blindness when it comes to distinguishing disciples from everyone else.

Francis Schaeffer, a theologian and pastor from the last century, in a small book titled The Mark of the Christian, argued that if we don’t have love for one another, the world has every right to conclude that we’re not Christians, not disciples and that we know nothing about God. Their conclusion might be in error, but they’re reaching the conclusion quite logically. He wrote, “Love — and the unity it attests to — is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.”

Now right off, there are a few things that contribute to this face blindness.

The first is that the practice of loving one another is not limited to Christians. Unquestionably, there are people who claim no allegiance to Jesus who nonetheless behave lovingly toward colleagues, friends, coworkers, family members, social group buddies and other groups of which they are a part, as well as to strangers in need. And many more in the world at large at least hold loving one another as an ideal and even give it lip service.

So there’s some difficulty distinguishing Christians from others by their love because we live in a society that honors love for one another even if it does not always practice it.

Another reason for the world’s face blindness about Christians is that we ourselves don’t always grasp the depth of love Jesus was calling for among his followers. Loving enemies, of course, is desperately difficult, and loving neighbors is often hard work, so it would seem that by comparison, merely loving our fellow church members should be a snap.

In some ways, however, that is harder. Doing something compassionate for someone on the other side of the planet or reaching out to a person we see only occasionally doesn’t require great emotional investment. But when it comes to members of our spiritual community, people whom we see up close and interact with frequently, it can be a different story. Just think how hard it can be simply to give the benefit of the doubt to certain members of our families who march to the beat of their own drummers.

One pastor tells of taking a team from his church in Ohio to work on homes of low-income families in a financially depressed part of eastern Kentucky. While they were fixing one home, a minister who pastored a nearby church stopped by and thanked the Ohio team for the work they were doing in his community. Then, in private conversation with the pastor, he mentioned that some members of his own church also wanted to participate in work camps to help others, but he’d found that he had to take them somewhere other than their home area. “Around here,” he said, “everybody knows everybody else. When I propose fixing up the homes of some of our neighbors, people are reluctant, saying that that person doesn’t deserve it or doesn’t really need the help. But if I take them where they don’t know anybody, my folks will pitch right in and work hard.”

Sometimes it’s devilishly hard to really love those close at hand. We tend to judge those we know - sometimes more than those we don’t.

Yet another reason for the world’s difficulty recognizing Christians by their love for one another is that Jesus set the bar very high for relationships within the church. He said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Earlier that evening, Jesus had given one demonstration about what he meant by loving one another when he had humbly washed the feet of each of his followers. That alone should give us pause when claiming to love one another, but there’s even more reason to realize the seriousness of this new command from Jesus when we remember that the fullest expression of Jesus’ love for his disciples was his laying down his life for them. So we are to love one another that fully. Wow. The radical Love of Jesus!

Of course, today, not many of us are required to actually die for our fellow believers, and foot washing isn’t needed either, unless we do it as part of a religious ritual. So what does loving one another within the church look like?

Francis Schaeffer, whom I mentioned earlier, wrote specifically about how else loving one another should play out in the church. He talked about our willingness to apologize to one another, especially when we have been mistaken or failed to help or support one of our fellow Christians. Likewise, he said that having a forgiving spirit and being willing to make peace with those within the church who have hurt us is a fulfilling of Jesus’ command. Schaeffer also wrote about how Christians who disagree with one another should deal with differences by first, spending time in prayer about the issue, and then approaching the other person in a spirit of non-belligerence, with the goal being not to win the argument, but to solve the problem or to merely understand the other point of view. Sometimes, we should remember, that possibly neither side is completely correct. Sometimes, it isn’t about who is right or wrong, but in how we treat one another and learn to accept different views.
In short, what Schaeffer was talking about was an “observable oneness” within the Christian community, something the world beyond the church can see.

One other way we can get a handle on what it means to love one another within the church fellowship is to consider to what lengths we are willing to go for each other. Sometimes parents learn something about going to the limit when one of their children gets into serious trouble. We’ve known of parents who went to extraordinary lengths to help one of their offspring, far beyond what they’d ever do for themselves. Parents who normally are quiet and unassuming have called in personal favors, exhausted their bank accounts, pleaded with judges, appealed to teachers, prostrated themselves before authorities and accepted humiliation to try to help their kid in difficulty. As outsiders to those situations, we may sometimes wonder if the young person in question deserves such love, but it is hard to fault the parents who are trying to move heaven and Earth to save their child.

We can understand that, of course, when it is parents assisting their own child. But Jesus’ remark suggests that it is a hallmark of Christians that they do things like that for one another, people to whom they have no other connection than a common belief in Jesus Christ. Even to helping those we disagree or consider as enemies without any expectation of reciprocation. The radical love of Jesus.

We cannot explain ahead of time what it will mean to be Christ-like in every relationship with other believers. Relationships and human nature are complex things, and situations we could never have anticipated arise. But Jesus’ new command gives us not only a place to start but also a spirit in which to act and a goal — unity — toward which to move.

As we internalize this command and put it into practice, we go a long way toward dispelling the face blindness of those on the outside, and we enable them to see the features of Christ in the church he has called us to be.

They will know we are Christians because of our love for one another. The radical love of Jesus, means love literally ALL people. Let us go forth and carry out this commandment of Christ!
Let us pray.
For the Church, that we may be a sign of God’s love for us by the love we show to each other and the service we provide for our neighbor. We pray to the Lord.
That barriers between peoples may be overcome, opening the doors of empathy and compassion to those of other cultures and backgrounds, for God’s dwelling is with the whole human race. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for love in the world, for an end to hatred, an end to war, an end to violence, that God’s peoples can live their lives in peace and harmony. We pray to the Lord.                  
We pray for a Spirit of justice in the world; that the needy, the exploited, the abused, and the victims of war may know freedom, relief from oppression, and dignity as daughters and sons of God. We pray to the Lord                    
We ask God to bestow on us the wisdom and insight to care for the earth and to preserve His gifts of water, land and climate for ourselves and the good of those who come after us. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list; that they may find healing, hope, grace and long awaited answers to their prayers through Christ’s presence. 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 of all, out of love for the human race you sent your Son to sacrifice himself for us. In his living example, we see Jesus loving those whom were perceived as unlovable; we see him love those who were sinners, adulterers, unclean, Roman soldier slaves, gentiles - even those who disagreed with him, and so many more. In his life, Jesus showed us the utterly radical form of love that many of us find difficult to emulate. Help us to love one another as you have loved us and grant the prayers we make out of that love, through Christ, our Risen Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor - St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Sunday, May 12, 2019

May 12, 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
(Revelation 7:9, 14-17; John 10:27-30)
If you can, try to remember how you felt when you heard the news about each of the following events:
• The massacre of 28 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012;
• The killing of 17 students and staff and the wounding of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida in February 2018;
• The slaying of 10 people at Santa Fe High School, in Santa Fe, Texas in May 2018;
• The gunning down of 11 people and wounding 6 others at Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania , in October 2018;
• The killing of 13 and the wounding of 12 others at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, in November 2018;
• The killing of 1 and injury of 3 at the Chabad synagogue, in Poway, California last month.
• The killing of 1 and injuring or 8 others at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado this past Tuesday.
There are many, many others in between that I could mention, but obviously there are so many that we would need all day to list them. I merely picked some that came to mind. A great majority were shootings. We could also talk of the churches in Louisiana that we set on fire. The hate and evil that is running ramped in our country is astonishing. It seems like we are no longer a civilized nation.
If you’re like most people, you experienced a sense of deep shock and dismay on hearing the news of the first of those events. But unless you were personally connected to a victim of one of the subsequent tragedies, it’s likely that each one had progressively less emotional impact on you. In fact, by the time the last of these was reported, your reaction may have been little more than a sad shake of the head and a weary utterance of, “Oh, no. Not again.” And you probably turned your attention away from the news much more quickly than you did after Sandy Hook.
That isn’t surprising. We’ve lived through 9/11. We frequently hear body counts from terrorist activity. By way of television and the Internet, we’ve witnessed such awful stuff that our shock threshold has been raised. Now when we hear of such tragedies as the most recent slaughter of innocents, our reaction is more controlled – or is it numbed disbelief?
Following the Virginia Tech shootings some years ago, columnist Daniel Henninger, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, and commented on this growing numbness to bad news. He said that “it may be that as a nation we’ve reached tilt with tragedy. ‘Tilt’ is the famous metaphor drawn from the old pinball machines, which shut down if one banged on them too hard. Pinballs could survive plenty of random shocks to the system. But there were limits. Of late, we have been banged on hard.” Later in the same column, he wrote, “Our capacity for shock at genuine violence has been recalibrated.”
When tragedies become commonplace, it just isn’t humanly possible for us who are at a distance from them to experience the same level of emotional distress as those who are close at hand. And our lessened reaction has nothing to do with not caring or a lack of empathy. It’s that we have a survival function that causes us to become protective of our emotional energy. We cannot continue to dump it out day after day on extreme events and have any left for daily living.
And so a kind of numbness creeps in, and to some degree, it needs to. It’s a defense mechanism that keeps us from reaching our personal tilt point.
That said, such numbness also gives us a jaded view of life, a pervasive pessimism that whispers to us that the cards really are stacked against us, and that no matter how much we think we’ve organized our lives, the forces of chaos and destruction will ultimately prevail.
We hear some of those whispers after almost every one of these shootings. Some commentator says the incident should reignite the debate about gun control, but those of us who’ve been around awhile find ourselves thinking something such as, “Yeah, this latest tragedy might cause some debate, but even if some changes are made, it won’t make the kind of difference we need. People who are determined to kill others will always find a way to do so.” But do you hear in that admission deep pessimism — that nothing could have prevented it, or something like it — that neither arming everybody nor disarming everybody would make much difference?
I wonder, at times, if we have taken this whole “Second Amendment” thing a bit too far. I don’t think our fore-fathers were intending people to just go wild-west and start killing people just because they don’t like them. Yet, we can’t seem to get anywhere on this topic.
That’s a fatalism we don’t wish to surrender to, but it nibbles at the edge of our minds when we contemplate awful things. Fully developed, it can cause us to doubt God’s existence, or at least his goodness.
Against all that, there’s the vision that John of Patmos had of the eternal age to come, where a multitude of people — so great it cannot be counted — with representatives from every nation, tribe, peoples and language group, stand worshiping before the throne of the Lamb of God. And they cry out good news: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10) When John seeks to know who these people of this multitude are, he is told, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
In the context of John’s time, the “great distress” likely referred to the bitter experiences — the bad news — that befell the followers of Jesus at the onset of the Jerusalem war in A.D. 66. But we can read it in our own context and apply it to the bad-news distresses of our own time. In contrast to the pessimism that first-century distress might have engendered, however, this Revelation passage sees the brightness, the good news, beyond it. These people, who have come through that great distress faithfully, “will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water.... ” (vv. 16-17). They are the ones who were numbed by the battering of bad news in their day, but in the realm to come, they are “un-numbed.” In fact, they have no need for defensive numbing, because “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17).
But what about us? If this passage is to fit into our existence somewhere, it has to be read as belonging to some future that we cannot see and can only, like John, envision. And then we can only hold on to that vision with the most slender of threads, those of promise and hope, and maybe even wish.
However, the multitude in Revelation sees this brightness because they are gathered around the throne of God in worship together. Maybe, in that time to come, that throne is the place where they get their questions about life answered. But what John’s vision shows us is that in that place of worship, they jointly perceive what they need to know, that the Lamb is their shepherd.
As we live on this side of eternity, what we need to know is that God is still here in this life, that he hasn’t left us, that he is our shepherd, too. And corporate worship can bring us that assurance; it can give us a glimpse of the divine perspective.
It’s significant that we don’t go to church for private devotions. We go there as part of a congregation, and we get some of the uplift we need from fellow worshipers.
Following the shootings, some schools reacted by holding a convocation, by creating a place for people to come together and talk about God. In an essay on after one tragedy, religion correspondent Lauren Green wrote, “So where is God? He is in the prayer vigils. He is in the rivers of tears flowing from everyone affected. He is in the community coming together to offer support to the families. He is at work in the love and strength people are offering each other. God is with us.”
We shouldn’t discount the power of corporate worship to help us when numbing news bombards us. A study by a Harvard researcher, in conjunction with a UC San Diego researcher, gives us some evidence in that direction. In 2003, this pair gained access to some old papers found in a storeroom in Framingham, Massachusetts. They were the handwritten records of 5,124 male and female subjects from a heart study done in that community in 1948, looking for risk factors for heart trouble. It wasn’t so much the heart information that caught the attention of the latter-day researchers, but rather some clerical information on the forms. The original Framingham researchers had noted each participant’s close friends, colleagues and family members simply so that if the participant moved away, the researchers could contact the friends to locate the participant.
Looking at that information, the 2003 researchers realized it could be transformed into a detailed map of the human relationships of those folks. Two-thirds of the adults in Framingham had been included in the first phase of the study, and their children and grandchildren had participated in subsequent phases. Thus, almost the entire social network of the community was chronicled in these old records. It took nearly five years to input all that data into a computer format, but once that was done, the current researchers were able to construct detailed diagrams of the social networks of the Framingham residents. As they began tracking those people as an interconnected network rather than as a mass of individuals, they discovered that the social networks influenced the behavior of the people involved, even as the participants spread out over a larger geographic area.
Because the study had kept track of the subjects’ weight, the current researchers first analyzed obesity trends. They found that in 1948, fewer than 10 percent of the residents were obese. By 1985, 18 percent were, and today, 40 percent are. That equates with national trends, but looking at it from the social-network angle, the researchers realized that while the whole group discovered fast food at the same time, the social-network effect was what caused obesity to begin to spread, almost like a virus. In other words, when your friends change their eating habits, it’s likely that you will, too.
They found a similar trajectory with smoking. In the early ’70s, 65 percent of Framingham residents between the ages of 40 and 49 smoked regularly. But by 2001, only 22 percent did. The researchers found that friends and family had a positive influence, and that people quit together.
Both eating habits and smoking are behaviors, but the researchers went further and found that such things as happiness are also influenced by our social networks. Because the original study asked people to describe their moods, the latter research showed that essentially, happy people have happy friends and unhappy people have unhappy friends. In other words, gloom is contagious, but so is joy.
It doesn’t take much thought to apply that same dynamic to people who worship together. One thing that helps us maintain hope when soul-numbing bad news is all around us is that we’re coming before God in company with others who share that hope.
So it’s no wonder that in the eternal age to come, those gathered around God’s throne aren’t described one by one but as an uncountable multitude. They grew to be so many because they were already following Jesus in company with each other when they were on this side of eternity.
There have been enough awful tragedies caused by somebody with a grudge, or paranoia or evil in his heart, or a desire to get even or whatever, that we assume similar things will continue to happen from time to time in some place in our society. Evil is real, sin rages in people’s hearts, madness descends, despair begets chaos.
Further, there’s no guarantee that we or our loved ones might not someday be among the victims.
But standing here among the people of God, in the place of worship, we can sense the truth: that good is stronger than evil, that there is something — something — that cannot be taken from us because God has given it to us. And furthermore, we together know that nothing — nothing — can separate us from the love of God.
It’s that knowledge that helps us not tilt when bad things happen.
Let us pray.
We pray that in our daily lives we are never far from Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness so that we can reap the reward of eternal life which he so clearly promises. May we embrace the “radical love of Jesus” by emulating His example! We pray to the Lord.
For all Mothers and for those who have shown us a mother’s love: that God will grace them with every gift, bless them with health, happiness, peace and joy of heart. We pray to the Lord.
For healing and justice for those harmed by violence, abuse or neglect, especially those in the shooting in Highland Ranch Colorado: that they may be embraced by the peace and love of Christ. We pray to the Lord.
For all who mourn the death of a loved one, may they find comfort in the joy of Jesus’ Resurrection. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list; that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. 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, you call each of us to serve you with faithfulness and joy. Hear our prayers, and bring us to the joy that never ends. God of Mercy, Good Shepherd, may those whom you have called to the Christian life be ever true believers in your Son and the power of his Resurrection. Loving God, you cared so much for us, your children, that you sent your Son to us to be our shepherd. Listen to the prayers of your flock, and grant them through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Sunday, May 5, 2019

May 5, 2019
The Third Sunday of Easter
(Acts 5:27-32, 40-41; John 21:1-19)
Turn on your TV at any given time of the day, and there's a pretty good chance you'll find a rerun of Law and Order (or some other courtroom procedural drama) somewhere on a back channel of your cable feed. It was on the air for 20 years, so its popularity makes it a popular rerun show. In fact, if aliens are really out there in the universe somehow getting our television signals, we wouldn't fault them for thinking that we're primarily a race of cops and lawyers who spend most of their time interviewing or cross-examining witnesses.
We've watched so much courtroom TV that we're all well-versed in the lingo. Without Law and Order, we might not know what "exculpatory evidence" means, or what constitutes an especially "heinous" crime. We wouldn't know what it means to "badger" a witness. We wouldn't know when a witness is testifying to "hearsay" conversations. We're so used to hearing phrases like this that we might think we really know how to navigate a courtroom ourselves using as our legal mentors lawyers from movies and television. On television, cases are wrapped up in about an hour, and stunning confessions are revealed from the witness stand.
If it were only that simple, but court is rarely like that. It's far more boring and repetitive, and a lot of the arguing takes place behind closed doors where deals are cut. Rarely do you get that line from the movie: A Few good Men: "You can't handle the truth!" moment from a witness. In fact, when witnesses do appear in court, they often fail to answer the attorney's questions altogether. Witnesses can be so notoriously unable or unwilling to answer the question that there's a whole lexicon of phrases that lawyers (both TV lawyers and real attorneys) use to request the judge to force the witness to give a definitive response.
"Objection! Non-responsive!" is the line used by a lawyer when a witness is ducking the question.
And there are plenty of ways to duck a question with a non-answer. Answering a question with a question, for example, may be fine for the classroom, but it's lousy in the courtroom.
Q: Were you with the defendant on the night in question?
A: Where else would I be?
You can also describe what you would normally do in a situation without saying what you actually did.
Q: Did you lock the door that night?
A: I normally do.
Q: But did you actually lock it?
Whether it's intentional or unintentional, humans tend to try to find loopholes or evade the question when confronted with direct questions that might incriminate their behavior.
Our gospel today contains a very interesting transcript of an "interrogation" in which the respondent seems to be ducking the question. We're referring, of course, to Jesus' questioning of Peter on a beach on the Sea of Galilee several days after the resurrection. Still reeling from the whole crucifixion drama and from Jesus' appearance to them in Jerusalem, Peter and a few of the other disciples decided, the resurrection notwithstanding, to head back to Galilee where they intended to resume their old lives. They were going to get back into their fishing business, Fish-R-Us Incorporated.
These disciples knew a lot about fishing, but their ability to bring in a catch that day was about as successful as their ability to stick with Jesus during his trial and crucifixion. Peter, the leader of the group, had denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus had predicted, and was, no doubt, stunned when the risen Lord showed up. The sudden appearance of the Lord he had betrayed must have shamed him greatly -- hence his desire to get away, and go back to fishing.
But like a diligent SDPD detective, Jesus was not about to let Peter get away without an interview. The risen Christ stood on the shore early in the morning, inviting the disciples to try a different fishing strategy. He had instructed them for some three years on how to fish for people, and now he was telling them how to fish for fish, although, at this point, they did not recognize him. When the nets suddenly became full, they realized that the figure on the shore was actually their Lord. Seeing Jesus, Peter jumped in the water and swam the 100 yards to shore while the others brought in the fish. Jesus proposed a breakfast meeting of fish and bread, and they ate it together, the disciples not daring to ask, "Who are you?"
After breakfast, it was time for Jesus to take a deposition. So he asks some questions. Peter was called to the witness stand for examination first. Knowing his own guilt, he begins to duck the questions.
"Simon, son of John," Jesus asks, "do you love me more than these?"
It's interesting that Jesus uses Peter's original name and not the one he had given to the disciple previously -- Cephas or Peter, the rock (1:42). It was almost as though Jesus was acting like a lawyer, trying to get the witness to focus from the beginning: "Let's go over your story again."
Peter's answer, however, is non-responsive. He doesn't really answer the question directly per se, but speaks to the questioner's previous knowledge. It's a classic dodge -- describing expected procedures. "Do you love me even more than the rest of these guys?" asks Jesus.
"Sure," Peter seems to be saying, "that's the expectation. I know you have always expected me to do everything better than the rest! That's why you named me Rocky and all that."
But Peter's answer is a non-answer. It's love that's expected, not necessarily offered sincerely. Peter is cautious here because he knows his previous actions the night Jesus died revealed how apparently shallow and superficial his love for Jesus really was.
Let me give you some inside info on the narrative here: A lot has been made of the fact that there are two different Greek words for "love" being used in this courtroom transcript. Jesus is using the stronger word agape, while Peter is using the word phileo, which is more akin to friendship. A lot of scholars now downplay this contrast, because those two words are used interchangeably throughout John's gospel. More important than the use of different words for love is the fact that Jesus asks essentially the same question three times in order to get the witness to answer. As Peter denied Jesus three times to engage in his act of cowardice and betrayal, so will Jesus take three opportunities to restore him as a true disciple who, not only confesses his love for Jesus, but acts on it as well.
"Feed my lambs," Jesus responds to Peter's weak first confession. In other words, Jesus is calling Peter to demonstrate his love by caring for the people whom Jesus cared for. It's an echo of Jesus' instruction to his disciples earlier in the gospel: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (15:12). Love for Jesus is always love that is lived out in relationship with Jesus and with others. Like Peter, we cannot answer with a definitive yes to Jesus' question unless we're living out his love in our relationships with others, even with those who may be our enemies.
So, Jesus asks a second time: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"
This time, Peter gives a definitive "Yes, Lord," but qualifies it again by putting the onus on the questioner: "You know that I love you." We can almost hear Jesus say, "Objection! Calls for speculation!"
Peter makes an assumption of Jesus' knowledge, but Jesus is after a real demonstration of that love. "Tend my sheep," he commands. Show me how much you love me by being a good shepherd, and following up on your bold promises from before. Be willing to really sacrifice yourself on behalf of them and on behalf of me. That's real love. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (15:13).
It's one thing to be a "witness" to Jesus with our words, and quite another to put those words in action. The call to follow Jesus is a call to self-sacrifice -- to give ourselves on behalf of others. Previously, Peter had bailed out when given the chance to stick with his friend all the way to the cross, despite his bravado in saying to Jesus, "I will lay down my life for you" (13:37). Now, he was getting a second chance to carry through on his commitment. We may not be called to die for Jesus, as Peter did, and as many are doing today, but we are all called to "tend his sheep" in ways that may cost us our reputation, our comfort and our resources. This is real love -- laying down our lives and our agendas for Christ and his people.
Jesus asks a third time: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"
Peter attempts one more time to dodge the question. By now he is "hurt" by this line of questioning, so he offers an argument -- another way that witnesses in court are non-responsive. Like a frustrated Colonel Jessup argues with the attorney in A Few Good Men, Peter fires back, "You want answers? You know everything, Jesus!"
Jesus responds with the truth, and Peter has a hard time handling it, as would we. Jesus tells Peter that he will, indeed, die for the sheep; die for being a disciple. The non-responsive Peter would eventually give the ultimate response to his Lord by offering up his life in authentic love.
And so, Peter steps down from the stand and steps out as a true disciple -- forgiven, restored and made new by love. Ever since, disciples of Jesus have been confronted with the same questions: "Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?" If you do, you will feed and tend his sheep. There's no way to dodge that inquiry. We can't deflect that responsibility on someone else (another classic non-responsive answer). Even Peter attempts this by pointing to "the disciple whom Jesus loved" and asking, "Lord, what about him?" (v. 21).
But the question is being asked of us. We will either demonstrate our love for Jesus through our love and care for others, or we will perjure ourselves before the ultimate Judge. Jesus said as much in Matthew 25 -- our words of love for Jesus must be matched by our actions on behalf of others.
If we've been failing on that account, however, we know that the one who judges us is also the one who is ready to forgive and restore us, just as Jesus forgave and restored Peter. We can begin again and become responsive disciples who can really handle the truth!
Let us pray.
For immigrants, whose traditions from their native cultures enrich the tapestry of the nations they now call home; that they may always be made to feel welcome in their adopted country. We pray to the Lord.  
For all those involved in the fishing industry, that they may act responsibly in their work, caring for the habitats in which they operate. We pray to the Lord
For our parish community, that in our words and actions we may be faithful witnesses to the Easter miracle. We pray to the Lord
When Jesus asks Peter three times, do you love me, he is also asking that question of us. We pray that our commitment to Jesus as a way of life be a true, a strong and a lasting one. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for all those in our church, men and women, ordained and lay, who have been called to the role of shepherd, that they may follow closely the example of Christ and bear witness to His goodness. We pray to the Lord.
We pray that the Holy Spirit enlighten the leaders of our Church and show them the way to ensure the continuance of sacramental life in our parishes and the future parishes to come. We pray to the Lord.
For government leaders: that they may act with integrity and truthfulness, working together for the peace and common good of all, and not for their own self-interest. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for the victims of the mass shooting at UNC Charlotte. May the deceased rest in peace eternal and may the friends and families left behind be showered with love and comfort in this difficult time. May those who were injured, heal quickly and completely of both physical and emotional injuries. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for the people of Venezuela that peace and harmony be restored to them and that all may benefit from the richness of resources which our Creator has bestowed on their country. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list: that may they draw strength, consolation, and healing by turning to Mary, who intercedes for us. 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, as we present you our petitions, may we also declare to you our love. Keep us faithful throughout life. Almighty God, you have sent your Son and the Holy Spirit to us to redeem us, to sanctify us, to show your great love for us, help us to feel and sense this in all we see and do. O Loving God, and let our people forever find joy in the new life you give us. Listen to the prayers of your people and grant them according to your will, through Christ, our Risen Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ + The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA