Wednesday, December 25, 2019

December 24, 2019
Nativity of our Lord
(“Mass at Midnight”)
(Isaiah 9:1-6; Luke 2:1-14)
What’s your favorite Christmas carol?
“Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “The First Noel” or maybe Charles Wesley’s, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” In fact, it’s number five with a bullet on Classic FM’s list of top Christmas songs.
Wesley’s carol, of course, is based on the lyrics sung by a choir of angels who startled some shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem. One angel has a solo part, and then comes the chorus: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Charles Wesley was John Wesley’s younger brother, and together they founded the Methodist movement – what is now know as the United Methodist Church -  in the early 18th century. John was the organizer and preacher, and while Charles preached as well, he is most famous for roughly 6,500 hymns he wrote, only a fraction of which are in most modern hymnals.
In 1739, he published Hymns and Sacred Poems, which contained this famous hymn we know a “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” But this wasn’t the original title.
In Charles Wesley’s original, the hymn begins with, “Hark! How all the welkin rings.” What in the opposite of heaven is a “welkin”?
It’s an old English word that refers to the sky, the firmament or the “vault of heaven” that contains the stars and all the heavens.
In an ancient cosmology, the welkin was like a set of crystal spheres that would ring. The first line of this carol went like this: “Hark! How all the welkin rings, glory to the King of Kings.”
That’s quite different than the version we sing now, which is actually the result of an unauthorized edit to Charles Wesley’s original work by his friend George Whitefield. Whitefield changed the line to read: “Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.” Wesley was not amused.
Wesley noted that the angels don’t “sing,” they “say.” And the glory given by the angels is to “God in the highest heaven.” Yes, the “newborn king” is God in the flesh and worthy of praise, but Wesley wanted to express the message of the angels as a sign that the whole cosmos, both heaven and earth, gave glory to God at Jesus’ birth, which is really the thrust of the biblical narrative.
God’s promised return was happening, but in a way that no one expected. God was not returning as a conquering hero, a glorious cloud-surfing warrior coming back to destroy Israel’s enemies.
No, the “sign” given to these shepherds was a leaky, burpy, dirt poor little baby, born in a barn in a nowhere town called Bethlehem. No one expected God to come into the word in this way!
A glimpse of heaven and earth coming together, as God had intended from the beginning. God was coming to dwell with his people to redeem and save them. The long-awaited Messiah, the true king, was the Lord himself, wrapped in the swaddling clothes of a tiny baby, fully human and fully divine.
God’s rescue mission was becoming a reality in a manger in Bethlehem. God and sinners reconciled. God’s messengers were heralding this great event in our lives.
Roughly a century after Wesley is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who was a celebrated writer. At the pinnacle of his career he was affected by the tragic death of his wife in 1861. The civil war in America began that same year, and the heartache of war was an additional burden for Longfellow. Two years into the war, Longfellow received word that his son had been seriously wounded during his service in the Army of the Potomac.
That year, as Longfellow sat at his desk on Christmas Day, he heard the church bells ringing in the distance. His heart, though burdened, longed for God’s help and peace. When he put pen to paper that day, he wrote the following words, lines that eventually became a beloved Advent Carol:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
    "For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
And so, we hear these words and hymns and we gather for our Mass at Midnight. Midnight by definition is a time of darkness, the middle of the night. And yet, it is during this time that light enters the world by the birth of Christ, the Savior. Such a stark contrast is not by accident in the Gospel of Luke or in our liturgy tonight. We recall how God brings life from death, joy from sadness, and light from darkness. When we face moments of darkness in our own lives, let us recall that Christian faith that is at our core, that see birth of a child during the night watch as a profound moment of grace.
And it was 50 years ago this very night that this parish, St. Francis Liberal Catholic Church celebrated its first Mass, by the then Father Dean Bekken, who is our retired Presiding Bishop Emeritus.
So, in a manner of speaking, St. Francis was born along with the child Jesus 50 years ago. At its core, our church is a bastion for those who feel unwelcome, trodden on or merely have a different theological or philosophical viewpoint. Maybe you are far left politically or even theologically. Maybe you are the latest target by being transgendered – the latest victim of the far right conservative. Or maybe you or a family member or friend is an immigrant – another victim of the far right. Maybe you are on the free choice side of abortion or birth control. Then the other hot topic, maybe you are a victim of sexual abuse/harassment and need a new church home that you can feel comfortable with – a church, thank God, that has not had any instance of abuse by priests, though this isn’t to say our priests are perfect, because we are far from it.
We are traditional, yet radical in our own right. This will not change. We cannot, or should not, be ashamed of being “Liberal.” Just as there are Democratic and Republican factions in government representing the people, there are the similar divisions in Christianity.
We mustn’t, also, be caught in the “Imposter Syndrome.” (The Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism.)
On this past December 21st, Pope Francis warned that "rigidity" in living out the Christian faith is creating a "minefield" of hatred and misunderstanding in a world where Christianity is increasingly irrelevant. Francis' message appeared aimed at conservative and traditionalist Catholics, including within the Vatican Curia, who have voiced increasing opposition to his progressive-minded papacy. Their criticisms have accelerated over the past year, amid Vatican financial and sex abuse scandals that may have predated Francis' papacy but are nevertheless coming to light now.
We, here at St. Francis and the denomination as a whole, have always been on the left side of Rome and have tried to be open to the needs of the people. Yes, we have dogma and teachings, but we also understand the human condition. We understand that one’s faith may be strong, but our minds, bodies and needs are sometimes weak. Jesus understood this with all the sinners he met while on earth. Not once did he make them feel unwelcome, though he did make the religious zealots feel like they needed change – just as Pope Francis has said to his curia.
Since Easter when I ascended to an archbishop and the primate of our humble denomination, I have been pushing that we should live in the light of the “radical love of Jesus,” and to not be afraid to be labeled as “liberal.” In the 50 years of this parish, some 2,000 years removed from the time when the Messianic babe was born in Bethlehem, we have, and will continue to, attempt to mimic this radical love of Jesus. We will always be a home for those that want intellectual freedom, but also for those who feel like their church makes them feel low and/or less welcome.
Jesus will sort out what is sin and what is not. Even when there is something our church might teach as a sin, we will always strive to NEVER make that person feel less or lower, because even the best of us have weaknesses or imperfections.
Can any of us possibly know what a person who is trangendered is going through and why they feel the way they do? Can all of us possibly know what a woman goes through prior to deciding to abort a baby – even if we feel it is wrong? Can any of us know what an immigrant is going through and thus the risks they take to get here only to find an unwelcoming border? Can we possibly know what is like to live with the shame of having been abused by a priest when they were young and thus why they have left the church and possibly even turned their back on Jesus?
Can we possibly know any of these things and myriad of other topics that are drawing people away from the church instead of in it? Can we possibly understand at all.. No, we probably can’t, but here at St. Francis, for the last 50 years, and for the next period the Good Lord choses to, we will attempt to understand and attempt to be welcoming and loving to them all. Like Pope Francis stated, the church has grown to be irrelevant, and we are by far more limber in our teachings and thus we can be relevant if we try. At some point in everyone’s life, they need the church and how we respond to that will dictate our relevancy to the world.
So, on this Nativity of our Lord, may we wish each other a Merry Christmas and a Happy Anniversary. Let us experience the birth of the Christ child in our lives by not being afraid of the “liberal” title and go out into the world and love with the radical love of Jesus – that same love he has given us this night by coming amongst us in the chaos and mayhem we call life. That non-discriminative love that looks beyond all else and see a fellow human being in front of us trying to make their place in the world just as we are.
Let Us Pray.
That as we celebrate the birth of your Son, we also celebrate your institution of this humble parish. Bless our founding pastor, Archbishop Dean Bekken who has been a faithful servant. And bless our parish, that it may be a home and beacon to Christians and Catholics needing a welcoming church. We pray to the Lord.
That as we continue our building and repairs a benefactor or benefactors will be led to our humble parish as we look to obtain the funding needed to finish the rectory and necessary repairs. We pray to the Lord.
May we all experience the radical love of Jesus on this most special feast and anniversary and learn to express it openly and generously to others. We pray to the Lord.
On this Christmas night we pray that the news of Christ’s birth enlightens our hearts and minds and fill us with love for our neighbor, particularly those in need. We pray to the Lord.                    
Just as the shepherds carried the good news that a child was born who would be a Savior for all, we pray that we too recognize our duty as Christians to also proclaim the glory of God and Christ’s message to all the world. We pray to the Lord.                      
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we remember in our prayers those, who like Mary and Joseph, are homeless this Christmas and pray that through the help, concern and generosity of those who are spared such tragedy, they may be helped out of their difficulties and experience less troubled times in the New Year. We pray to the Lord.                      
At this time of joy and celebration, we think of those in our community who have lost loved ones in the last year. May they find consolation in the goodness of the Father who sent his only Beloved Son onto this earth to show his love for us. We pray to the Lord.                      
As children enjoy the wonder of Christmas day, we pray for those children who are in suffering hunger, homelessness and terror in areas of conflict throughout the world. We pray that the peace of the Christ birth be theirs in 2020. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for all those present at our Mass today and for their families, that their Christmas holiday may be a happy and peaceful one. We pray to the Lord.
We praise and thank you, Father, for you have revealed your infinite love for us, through your son, Jesus Christ. We have sung through our Advent-waiting and have arrived at this special day of Christmas, when we remember your birth, your incarnation, the Word Becoming Flesh. Savior and Friend, remind us this day that you became one of us. You were born like us, you walked this earth like us and you have risen from the dead as we will one day rise. Emmanuel, God with Us, remind us of your presence throughout the year, as sometimes we lose sight, we forget, and we feel alone, lost and forsaken. Remind us of your birth, your life, your death and your resurrection, as we walk the journey of our own lives. Remind us that we do not walk this journey alone. In the name of Christ, the Light of the World, the Incarnate God, we pray. Amen.
Merry Christmas and God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA

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