Monday, January 18, 2016
Readings: 1 Cor. 12:1-11 Epiphany 2/C
By the Rev. Karen Siegfriedt; Trinity Episcopal Church,
Sutter Creek, CA 01/17/16
There is a lot of talk about spirituality today. Many people have an unquenchable thirst for it. Some have abandoned organized religion in order to seek a deeper spiritual experience. Some prefer to dabble in New Age practices, or visit a spiritual vortex in the Grand Canyon, or seek out solace in nature. Some folks visit mega-churches to feel the excitement of thousands of people singing to a band in a large auditorium while others become members of a church who have just the “right kind of liturgy.” Some spiritual seekers spend hours in meditation yearning for a mystical experience while others go on a weekend retreat, hoping to feel an emotional high. But the truth is, we don’t have to go to a mountain top or learn some exotic practice in order to experience God. Because most of time, God comes to us in the ordinary moments of our life. One way to recognize and experience those sacred moments in our day to day lives is by recognizing and sharing our spiritual gifts in order to make this world a better place. It is this subject of spiritual gifts that is the focus of today’s sermon.
On January 15, 1929, Michael King was born to a poor black preacher in Atlanta Georgia. When he was five years old, his father took a trip to Germany and when he returned, he decided to rename his son, Martin Luther (after the reformer). At the age of 10, Martin Luther King realized he had a gift for singing. He loved music and decided to share his gift by joining the church choir. Once in high school, Martin Luther discovered he had another gift, the gift of public speaking. Desiring to express this gift, he joined the school's debate team and won first prize in an oratorical contest.
Relying on his gifts of speaking, prophecy, and leadership, Martin Luther King Jr. eventually became an American Baptist minister, an activist, a humanitarian, and a leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement during the 1960’s. And though he struggled with depression throughout his entire life, he did not give into despair. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and offered his time, talent, treasure, and spiritual gifts to advance civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs. This is what gave his life meaning. He organized the March on Washington in 1963 where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. There, he established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.
In 1968, while planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. For his courage, his prophecy, and for his willingness to share his God-given gifts for the building up of the common good, we celebrate his life this week. While we still have a long way to go in the arena of human and civil rights, our nation is more just and more equal because of his efforts and passion for social justice. Here are a few of his prophetic utterances (his strongest spiritual gift) that influenced human history and has touched my own heart:
- “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about thing that matter.”
- “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
- “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
- “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
- "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character!”
- “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
Now some of you may be thinking that God has not given you such a gift to make an impact. But this is erroneous thinking that not only diminishes your life but it also diminishes this world. Almost 2000 years ago, Paul reminded the church in Corinth that all people have been given at least one spiritual gift and that these gifts are given to us by the Holy Spirit. So if you want an encounter of the Holy, you don’t have to sing special songs or light a candle or go away to a monastery. Instead, all you have to do is the share your God-given gift. By doing so, the Holy Spirit, who is the source of all spiritual gifts, will be made visible your life.
Not all of us have the gift of public speaking, or prophetic utterances, or leadership like King did, but we all have been give at least one gift, which when shared, creates a sacred moment. Perhaps your gift is in teaching, or acts of service, craftsmanship, or administration. Maybe your gift is mercy, or encouragement, or compassion, or generosity, or hospitality. If so, what a difference you can make in the lives of others. For those who share your gift of encouragement, you are not only offering hope to someone who is discouraged, but you are making the moment sacred for yourself. When you donate food to the Food Bank, or pay the vet bill of your neighbor’s dog, or pledge to the church, you are making the Holy Spirit visible by sharing your gift of generosity. The bottom line is that the Holy Spirit has given each one of us at least one gift. And when we share these gifts, our lives become more meaningful and the entire community benefits. That is what spirituality is all about. It is about us being lifted up so that God can be glorified in the ordinary day to day activities. So if you want more meaning in your life, if you want life to make more sense, then share your gifts freely.
Now some of you may say that you don’t have the opportunity to share your gifts because you are too old, or too young, or too sick, or too busy. This kind of thinking diminishes our lives and makes them less meaningful. Life loses meaning when we become too self-focused and hold back, or we think have nothing to give to others. Last week at our Health Ministries meeting, a few folks spoke about their experiences of using their gifts even while being laid up in the hospital. One had undergone a serious surgery and wrapped himself in a prayer shawl while recovering. When hospital personnel would come into his room and ask about the shawl, he used this as an opportunity to speak about his faith and his church. He could have just sat there in silence and watched people come and go and go, feeling sorry for himself. But instead, he shared his gift of evangelism and told the nurses about the people at Trinity who prayed over these shawls while they knitted, crocheted, and weaved.
And then of course there the many makers of prayer shawls who share their gift of craftsmanship for the benefit of the whole community. Whether they recognize it or not, they are making the Holy Spirit visible in the ordinary days of their lives by offering the comfort of a shawl to those who are ill or troubled in spirit. How do they make the Holy Spirit visible? Paul tells the Corinthians that God is the source of all spiritual gifts and that these gifts are activated by the Spirit. So when we offer a spiritual gift, whether it is a gift of helping, or praying, or service to others, then we are making the Holy Spirit visible in that moment!
Another member of the Health Board spoke about the gift of prayer and how the prayers of so many of you made a difference in her recovery. Those prayers sustained her hope and they sustain mine. Being intuitive, I can actually feel your prayers at times. So if you want a better rector, then keep on praying for the one you have! Every time you pray, every time you care enough to reach out to those in need, every time you share your gift, you are creating a spiritual experience, not only for yourself but for those who benefit from your gift. So if you have a thirst for spirituality, find out what your gift is and then offer it to others. If you would like to know what your gifts are, there are ways to discern them and I can help you with that. If you see a gift in someone else, mention it to them and encourage them. I know that Trinity Church could use some more gifts for the building up of our community so that we can thrive into the future and be a witness of God’s inclusive love in Amador County. Thank you to all of you who continue to share your gifts for the benefit of our church family.
The issue of spirituality has been going on for thousands of years. We seem to like the idea of the Holy Spirit as long as we can imagine it as some sort of nebulous, comforting, force field. But for Paul, spirituality has little to do with feelings and a lot to do with concrete actions generated by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of ordinary believers. What this means is that Holy Spirit has given you gifts. Yes you! And when you share these gifts, God becomes visible and the moment becomes sacred. So let’s work together to find out what those gifts are and how you can use them for the building up of the common good. For this, we were born.
Sunday, January 10, 2016
Mercy: A Wellspring of Joy, Serenity, and Peace Reading: Luke 3:15-17; 21-22 Epiphany 1
By the Rev. Karen Faye Siegfriedt; Trinity Episcopal Church, Sutter Creek, CA 1/10/16
The American pilot glanced outside his cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision. “My God, this is a nightmare.” “He’s going to destroy us.” The men were looking at a gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovering just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas in 1943, and the German fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill.
The American pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had been shot to pieces and his plane was alone in the skies above Germany. Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead, his blood frozen in icicles over the machine guns. But when the Americans looked at the German fighter pilot again, something odd happened. The German pilot did not pull the trigger. Instead, he nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn't shoot down the slow-moving bomber. Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea, took one last look at the American pilot, saluted him, peeled his fighter away, and returned to Germany. "Good luck," Stigler said to himself. "You're in God's hands." (Story found in an article on the internet)
So what prompted this German during a wartime encounter to show such mercy to the Americans? I think he was able to show mercy because he recognized the common humanity of the enemy when he locked eyes with the American pilot. Years later, that American pilot would track down this merciful German fighter for a reunion that reduced both men to tears.
Mercy! This is something that is in short supply today. Mercy is showing compassion or forgiveness towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. Mercy is an act of kindness that springs from a spirit of generosity. When we come face to face with our own suffering and have compassion for ourselves, it becomes easier to have mercy on others who are suffering. In spiritual terms, mercy is the light of Christ enkindled in our hearts that shines forth when we reach out with empathy through acts of compassion and forgiveness. Mercy comes from the French word, merci, which means thank you. Mercy is the subject of today’s sermon.
At the beginning of Advent in 2015, Pope Francis declared this coming year as the Jubilee of Mercy. It will be a year to contemplate the mystery of mercy, which can be a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. It is a time to focus our actions, our love, and our political sentiments to free those in bondage, whether it’s physical, emotional, or geographical. The year of Jubilee was first declared in the Old Testament some 3500 years ago. It was also called the year of liberty and it would occur every 50 years. It required all Jewish people to let their land lie fallow for a year in order to regenerate the soil. But it also required forgiveness of debts, the return of properties, and the freeing of Jewish indentured slaves from their bondage. These laws of mercy recognized that having to sell one’s family’s land to cover a debt is a desperate move. And without the resource of having land, a pardoned debtor would only plunge immediately back into debt. These laws were practical rules for the practice of a holy life. But unfortunately, there is no record of a Jubilee year actually occurring in Israel’s history. Just as it is difficult for us to forgive hurts and debts, so it was for the ancient Jews.
Embracing a posture of mercy is not something that comes naturally to most of us because we are not biologically programmed for it. Instead, we are hardwired to fight or flight, to give tit for tat, to look out for #1 first and foremost. We live in a society, which counts, measures, judges, and punishes those who offend. We get weary of those who screw up and do not do their part. We have a tendency to hold onto old hurts, justifying our anger and refusing to let go. We prefer being right over being loving. In summary, we prefer justice over mercy. But the God we worship, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of mercy and loving-kindness. And as followers of God’s son Jesus, we are called to show mercy. So how do we begin to take on the mantle of mercy, as missionaries of love and forgiveness? Let’s take a look a today’s gospel reading and see if we can gain some insight.
Today we are celebrating the feast day of the Baptism of Jesus. According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus went out to the Judean desert and was baptized with many others by John, a rather colorful but intense character. John the Baptist was one of those end-of-times prophets who believed that a new world order was about to come into fullness, a world in which love, peace, justice, mutual support, freedom, and dignity would be the operating principles. So certain was he of this new world order that he became passionate and zealous and called people to repent. For John, being baptized was a sign of their commitment to end self-centered and harmful ways of being and put on virtue and faithfulness.
Repentance is translated from the word, metanoia, changing one’s mind, embracing a new way of thinking. Unfortunately in our time, repentance has been reduced to feeling sorry for personal moral transgressions. So we never do the hard work of cleansing our minds of garbage, untruth, prejudice, and repetitive responses to old hurts. And thus we fail to get on the trajectory and move in the direction to where God is leading us. This is where baptism comes in. Baptism is really not about becoming a member of a particular church. It is about being open to the power of the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth, empowering us to do more than we can ever do on our ego strength alone. Baptism is about being marked as Christ’s own forever, calling us to a higher level of consciousness and virtue. It is about being committed to a spirit-filled movement, working toward a new world order where we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. It is about striving for justice, peace, and the dignity of every human being. It is about thinking differently than what our culture has taught us. It is about healing our brokenness and reaching out in mercy to relieve others of their brokenness. In February of 1993, Mrs. Johnson's 20 year old son, was shot in the head by a 16-year-old teenager named Israel after an argument at a party. Israel had been involved with drugs and gangs, was tried as an adult, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He served 17 years before being released. After her son was murder, Mrs. Johnson was filled with anger and hatred. She wanted justice and wanted to see Israel locked up like a caged animal. The murder was like a tsunami to her. Shock. Disbelief. Hatred. Anger. Hatred. Blame. Hatred.
But then she realized how this hate and anger was eating away at her soul. “Hurt is hurt, it doesn't matter what side you are on,” she said. A few years ago, this 59-year-old teacher and devout Christian asked if she could meet with her son’s killer at Minnesota's Stillwater state prison. She said she felt compelled to see if there was a way in which she could forgive her son's killer. It was mercy, that fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who is willing to look into the eyes of others who are suffering and broken, that motivated her to do this.
At first Israel refused to meet with her. But then nine months later, he changed his mind. Israel said he was shocked by the fact she wanted to meet him. He said: “I believe the first thing she said to me was, 'Look, you don't know me. I don't know you. Let's just start with right now.'” The pair met regularly after that. When Israel was released from prison around 18 months ago, Mrs. Johnson introduced him to her landlord - who with her blessing, invited Israel to move into the building. Mrs. Johnson and Israel are now close friends, a situation that she puts down to her strong religious beliefs but says she also has a selfish motive.
Mrs. Johnson said: “Unforgiveness is like cancer. It will eat you from the inside out. It's not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he's done. Yes, he murdered my son - but the forgiveness is for me.” Today Israel works at a recycling plant during the day and goes to college at night. He says he's determined to pay back Mrs. Johnson's clemency by contributing to society. He now visits prisons and churches to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. It was an act of mercy that gave him another chance at life. (Story found in an article on the internet)
Jesus said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” So as you renew your baptismal vows in just a few minutes, pray that God will instill in you a spirit of mercy, thus giving you the courage and the conscience to proclaim by word and example, the Good News of God in Christ. After all, “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.” (Pope Francis)
Thursday, January 7, 2016
Monday, January 4, 2016
Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
By the Rev. Karen Siegfriedt; Trinity Episcopal Church, Sutter Creek, CA 1/3/16 Christmas 2/C
There’s been a lot in the press lately about the subject of free speech. Freedom of speech in the United States is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, this freedom of speech is not absolute. The Supreme Court of the United States has recognized several categories of speech that are excluded from this freedom, such as threats, obscenities, childhood pornography, and military secrets to name just a few. In more recent times, university students have begun to protest against faculty and administrators who have challenged their world-view, thus making them feel uncomfortable. In short, they want to curb the faculty’s right to free speech, in order to protect the students’ fragile egos. This happened a few months ago at Oklahoma Wesleyan University when a student was offended by a sermon on love. Here is a letter from the University’s president in response to the offended student:
“This past week, I actually had a student come forward after a university chapel service and complain because he felt “victimized” by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13. It appears this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love. In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him, and his peers, feel uncomfortable.
I’m not making this up. Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic. Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them “feel bad” about themselves, is a “hater,” a “bigot,” an “oppressor,” and a “victimizer.”
I have a message for this young man and all others who care to listen. That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience. An altar call is supposed to make you feel bad. It is supposed to make you feel guilty. The goal of many a good sermon is to get you to confess your sins—not coddle you in your selfishness. The primary objective of the Church and the Christian faith is your confession, not your self-actualization. So here’s my advice:
If you want the chaplain to tell you you’re a victim rather than tell you that you need virtue, this may not be the university you’re looking for. If you want to complain about a sermon that makes you feel less than loving for not showing love, this might be the wrong place. If you’re more interested in playing the “hater” card than you are in confessing your own hate; if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn; if you don’t want to feel guilt in your soul when you are guilty of sin; if you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them.
At OKWU, we teach you to be selfless rather than self-centered. We are more interested in you practicing personal forgiveness than political revenge. We want you to model interpersonal reconciliation rather than foment personal conflict. We believe the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin. We don’t believe that you have been victimized every time you feel guilty and we don’t issue “trigger warnings” before altar calls.
Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a “safe place”, but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others; that the bad feeling you have while listening to a sermon is called guilt; that the way to address it is to repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them. This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up. This is not a day care. This is a university!” (Dr. Everett Piper, President Oklahoma Wesleyan University)
This past week, I had the opportunity to attend a four-day meditation workshop on purification at a Tibetan Retreat Center. It was a great way to start off the new year. The purpose of the retreat was to purify our minds of the bad feelings, negative actions, and other afflictions that prevent us from being more compassionate people. After all, becoming more compassionate is precisely what the Christian and Buddhist paths are all about. We need to have more compassion for ourselves and for others if we want our world to change. Change begins at home and feeling uncomfortable, or guilty or sad is a good motivator for change. “If you want to be comfortable, forget about being wise. If you want to be wise, forget about being comfortable.”
It takes a lot of courage to face the darker parts of ourselves and admit that we are part of the problem. Many folks never take an honest look at their negative thoughts and afflictions but would rather blame others for their pain. As a result, they continue to be troubled in their thoughts and emotions, which ultimately have a profound affect on their mental and physical well-being. By not addressing our negative afflictions, we actually perpetuate our own suffering and project this suffering onto others by our distorted view of life. And so I spent 4 days engaging in the process of purification, where I was encouraged to examine my conscience and to come in contact with those uncomfortable and guilty feelings. By doing so, I was moved to that place of regret and repentance. This led to new insights and a clean heart. Christians call this process of purification, confession and reconciliation. The Buddhists call it a process of intelligent regret leading to purification. Both paths lead to healing and a holy mind.
So here is what I learned about intelligent regret. It begins with a reflection on any action (past or present) we have done that was motivated by ignorance, attachment, or aversion. This could be anything like harmful speech, hurtful actions, criticism of self or others, feelings of envy, revenge, victimhood, or any other afflictions that we might harbor. We contemplated the various ways that these afflictions lead to suffering either our own suffering or the suffering of others. Once we felt the guilt and regret, we then went through the process of healing, concluding with a pledge to abstain from those negative actions in the future. Ultimately, the goal for this process of purification is to grow in compassion for ourselves and for all human beings. When we feel deep regret for what we have done to perpetuate suffering, we are more motivated to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of others by treating them with equity, justice, and dignity. Compassion is not about warm and fuzzy feelings. It is about initiating action to relieve suffering.
In today’s gospel story, we read about the interaction between the magi and King Herod. Wise men come from the East seeking the Christ child. They meet up with King Herod who becomes frightened when he hears that he might have a little competition with this child whom the magi describe as “king of the Jews.” Historically, Herod has been described as a madman who murdered his own family, including his wife and two of his sons. He killed many religious leaders including John the Baptist. Once he realizes that the wise men had tricked him by not returning to Jerusalem to let him know of the location of this special child, he sends his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all male children under the age of two years old in order to protect his kingship. In summary, he was prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition. Talk about negative karma!
Now imagine for a moment, that Herod had decided at some point in his life to purify those negative thoughts and emotions that distorted his perception of the world. Imagine if he had taken the time to engage in a process of intelligent regret about his fear of losing power, his grandiose delusions of his position, his emotions of envy, and his actions that had caused great pain to others. Think about the number of lives that might have been saved, the untold suffering that could have been prevented, and the inner peace that he could have experienced had he made the effort to seek after wisdom rather than worldly power. Then think about your own life and how you might relieve the suffering of others.
It seems to me that as we enter into the season of Epiphany, we are left with three choices. We can like Herod, seek to kill the Christ child by allowing those negative thoughts, emotions, and actions to dominate our lives, thus extinguishing the light. We can ignore the Christ child all together, and continue to exist without making any effort to increase in wisdom. Or we can seek out the Christ child and like the magi be overwhelmed with joy by embracing this Light and inviting the Holy Spirit to purify our conscience. Only one of these choices will lead to a life of compassion. Which path will you choose to take in this new year of 2016?