Monday, February 1, 2016

A Simple Gift

Matthew 2:1-12, Epiphany C, January 3, 2016

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

This is the story of a Palestinian American Christian woman named Naomi. Her name means beautiful, and she became a beautiful light in another’s eyes. This Naomi’s story takes place in Albuquerque, of all places.

While Naomi was walking through the Albuquerque airport terminal to her gate, she heard over the intercom that her flight would be detained four hours. Although a bit bummed, Naomi didn’t think much of it. She could handle waiting four hours.

Then the next message over the speaker was a bit more urgent, “If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Naomi’s gate was 4-A, so she went there quickly.

At her gate, she found an older woman in traditional Palestinian dress and wearing a head scarf. She was on her knees wailing. Naomi looked up at the flight attendant’s desperate expression. Seeing Naomi’s olive-colored skin, the attendant pleaded for her to help this older woman. Naomi didn’t speak much Arabic, yet she knew enough to ask what was wrong.

Hearing her own language, even if terribly spoken, the older woman quieted down. Naomi discovered that this woman thought that the flight was canceled, not postponed. She had a medical procedure scheduled for the next day, and she was sure that she wouldn’t make it. Now both breathing a sigh of relief, they considered how they would spend their four hours together. 

So, they found the older woman’s cell phone and called her son. Naomi told him - in English - what had happened. Then, to bide their time, they called this woman’s other sons, too. Then Naomi wanted this woman to be able to speak Arabic with someone, so they called Naomi’s father. Although her father was Christian and this woman was Muslim, they discovered that they had many Palestinian friends in common. 

After two hours of talking on the phone, the Muslim woman was calmed down. She was laughing and talking joyfully. She was so full of good cheer that she must have been like the wise men when they found the Jesus child.

You see, her joy in that moment was so special. It was almost holy. All of the weight of her grief, terror, and discomfort was lifted from her shoulders. Now relieved, she could find time and space to breathe. 

I can only imagine that is what the wise men went through. For they too were not Jewish or Christian. They were foreign Zoroastrian astrologers. They saw the stars change, and they knew that a world-changing event had happened. They followed that star to Judea, yet they couldn’t find Jesus immediately. 

So, these wise men went to Jerusalem to discover where the King of the Jews was born. The scribes and chief priests told them that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, as the Hebrew scriptures had foretold. Only then could they once again follow the star until they found the young Jesus with his mother Mary.

Upon finding the child king, the wise men paid him homage. This means they either honored him as they would a king, or they worshipped him as they would the Lord. Because these men are pagan, we don’t know whether they honored or worshipped.

Then they gave those famously odd gifts - gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are gifts fit for a king, but not for a child. These gifts also foreshadow Christ’s life and death, for the spices are used for anointing and embalming. These gifts are expensive and seemingly frivolous, yet some other gift can also make the world of difference. 

So, we return to Naomi and the older Muslim Palestinian lady in Albuquerque. After two hours of talking, the older woman sticks her hand in her bag and comes out with a sack of homemade mammal cookies. These wonderful date and nut cookies were covered in powdered sugar. This woman happily went around offering cookies to all the women at the gate. Sorry guys. 

Surprisingly, not a single woman declined. This strange assortment of women - of all races and religions - were joined together in that moment. They all were covered in the same powdered sugar. This simple gift of a cookie ended up being like a sacrament to these people. Seeing how special this moment was, the flight attendant pulled out complimentary drinks. Two little girls passed out apple juice and lemonade to everyone at the gate. All because one Muslim woman offered some cookies to a few women.

Naomi concludes her story, “And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—has seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”

This is true. Not everything is lost. Our good Lord can work through the stars in the sky to bring a few wise men to the Christ child. And our Lord can work through Muslim women (and men) to bring a holy moment to Christians. Not everything is lost. In fact, the best is yet to come. I pray that we each take a moment to look around and find the face of God in people who do not look like us, especially Muslims. By the grace of God, we will be able to do so. Amen.

Blue Christmas

John 1:1-5, 10-14, Blue Christmas C, December 22, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

On December 12th, my mother's father passed away. We knew that he was in his last moments as we traveled to the Christmas party for my father's side of the family. My mother had posted on the Facebook event for this party to let everyone know that her father might die. 

So when we arrived, we were surrounded by hugs and love. Some had read the post, others hadn't. Then, halfway through the party, my mother received the phone call. She pulled my sister and me into an empty room as she heard the news from her brother. From then on, our experience of the party changed. When we reentered the party, we sat back down to our abandoned plates of food. Many people simply walked up to my mother and gave her a hug. 

No words needed to be said as the tears flowed. So, from then on, about half of my family knew that my mother's father had passed away while we ate. Others didn't have a clue. My mother oscillated between tears and laughter. We truly enjoyed the rest of the party, even as we began to wonder what her family's Christmas party would look like. 

Isn't this how so many of our Christmas celebrations will be this year? If we are brave enough to join our families, we will oscillate between tears and laughter. We will confide in those who know our struggles, and we will put on a fake smile for those who don't. We will remember and tell stories, and we will create new traditions without our lost loved ones.

All of us are grieving something. Most of us are grieving for people who have died. Others of us are grieving for broken relationships and hard life changes. We are grieving for our living loved ones who are struggling with illness even as we grieve for our deceased loved ones who lost the battle. 

For some of us, our lives are a little easier now, no matter how hard that is to admit. Even though caregivers would gladly take on all of that work to have that one alive again, they also can breathe a sigh of relief that they need not worry about wheelchairs and medications. Our sick loved ones were never a burden, yet they did take a lot of our time.

For others of us, our lives are a bit more complicated now. We struggle to find a way forward without them. We also need to deal with all of the paperwork and phone calls involved in closing an estate. All of our lives are different this year.

For those of us who have lost a loved one, we know that they are at peace. At the same time, we search for living peace. So, this evening, we turn to the One who provides that peace. We turn to the One who is love embodied. We turn to the One who is the Word.

As we honor Christ coming to us in the flesh, I can’t help but wonder, why? Why would our Lord choose to come live among us? Our Lord who created the entire world and all living things. Our Lord who can make promises lasting generations. Our Lord who is constantly surrounded by angels praising Him. Our Lord who can make barren women pregnant. 

Our Lord who can change the world from the safe distance of heaven. So, why would the Lord then choose to come down to earth in the flesh? Knowing how messy our lives are, why would the Lord want to get messy with us? Why would our Lord want to put on flesh and blood and experience all of the limitations that come with that? Why would our Lord then be willing to die for us? 

I think this is the beautiful reality of the incarnation. Jesus, being fully God, had all of the power of God to perform miracles and teach us the truth. Yet Jesus left the safety of heaven to put on the flesh and blood of a child. Jesus experienced the messiness of life, from a newborn through to an adult. Jesus experienced all of our sadness, our anger, and our anxiety. Jesus cried when Lazarus died. Jesus threw over the money changers’ tables. Jesus worried for his mother. 

Yet Jesus also experienced all of our hope, our joy, and our love. Jesus pulled little children onto his lap to talk to them. Jesus shared meals with his closest friends. Jesus cared deeply for his family. Jesus, in all his fleshiness, experienced life. The best and the worst of earthly life was his to feel in his thirty three short years. 

So, before the Lord gave us life eternal, He experienced life on this earth. Throughout the centuries, the Lord continued to make promises to the Israelite people and to the entire world. All of those promises were then fulfilled in Jesus Christ. 

Everything was fulfilled in Jesus who is the Word made flesh. In Jesus who is life eternal. In Jesus who is the light of the world. Even despite all of the darkness in our lives, Jesus’ light never ceases to shine. For those of us who are grieving loved ones, Jesus wipes our tears away. For those of us who are grieving broken relationships, Jesus provides us with new relationships. For those of us who are anxious about the future, Jesus continues to shine a ray of hope. 

This Christmas season, no matter what you are facing in your lives, I pray that you find time to find Christ’s love in your heart and in the hearts of those you encounter. Amen.

Mary Did You Know?

Luke 1:39-45, Fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 20, 2015

When we look at the Magnificat (Luke 1:46b-55), we hear Mary's proud song of defiance. She knows that she is special and that her child will save the world. So, when we look at the song, "Mary Did You Know?" the answer is yes!

Joy in the Lord

Philippians 4:4-7, Advent 3 C, December 13, 2015
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
For so many of us, we cannot find joy this Advent. So many of us are grieving over loved ones. We all are grieving for D. W.. Others are frustrated by the hate against strangers that is spewing all over the internet. So many of us are finding short tempers in ourselves and those around us. With all of this weighing on our hearts, how can we find the space in our hearts to rejoice? 

In these times when so many of us are overwhelmed by sadness, anger, or both, we struggle in so many ways. The passage from Philippians has a few words of encouragement for us. Edward Pillar finds five pieces of good news for us in this passage.

First, hold on to the joy to be found in God (Philippians 4:4). 
A simple way for us to hold onto the joy of the Lord is to look around us every day. Despite our grieving, the Lord still gifts us with beauty. In particular, the sunrises along the river are simply gorgeous.

Second, hold on to the character of Christ (Philippians 4:5). 
Political analysts on cable channels are so often at each others' throats. We have come to expect that sort of language - a sad sign of our times. Yet Krista Tippett, on her podcast On Being, always talks in a quiet, soothing voice. Her show usually focuses on faith, yet she talks to a wide range of people. No matter the topic, Krista Tippett is able to keep her interviewees calm and collected.

Third, hold on to the nearness of God (Philippians 4:5). 
Every weekday morning when I say some words of prayer in my office, I light a candle. I find that the flicker of the candle flame reminds me how close God is. I know that God is listening to my prayers.

Fourth, pray with thankfulness (Philippians 4:6). 
Although our prayers are often long and filled with requests, we have so much to be thankful for. Despite our grieving and our yearning for the health of our loved ones, sometimes we need to step back, quiet down, and simply pray, "thank you Lord."

Fifth, God’s peace will be our guard.
We can trust in the Lord to protect us from all that comes our way. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Monday, November 30, 2015

From Fear to Hope

Luke 21:25-36, Advent 1 C, Nov. 29, 2015

When we respond to dangerous situations, we can either respond in fear or hope. For example:

The pastor from Texas responded out of fear, yet the pastor from Rhode Island responded out of hope and love. In our gospel lesson today, Jesus tells us that the world will get worse before it gets better. As we respond to natural and human-made disasters, the world tells us to respond in fear. Yet Christ tells us to respond with love and to live in hope.

Christ calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The entire Old Testament proclaims that we are to care for the orphan, the widow, and the alien (foreigner). So, we have an obligation to care for the Syrian refugees. The world tells us to leave them across the world so that we don't welcome any terrorists. That is a fear response. Christ tells us to welcome them here (trusting our government's vetting system to keep us safe). As Lutherans, we proclaim this together: 
The greatest example of moving from fear to hope is found in this video: 

May we have the bravery of this young child to find the hope in these difficult times.
As Christ has taught us, we will stand tall, respond with love, and live in hope. We can do this because of what Christ has already done for us on the cross. Amen.

The Reign of Christ breaking into our lives

John 18:33-37, Christ the King B, Nov. 22nd.

My sermon began with Al's story:

This story tells of what we think of Christ breaking into our lives - those moments when the Lord's presence is so heavy you can't help but notice it.

Sometimes Christ breaking in is more complicated, like the story of Kelly:

Kelly was executed because the reign of Christ isn't complete yet. The reign of sin and death is still prevalent in this world. We look toward the day when Christ will return, when death will be destroyed for good. We look toward that day with hope and expectation. Amen.

Hannah and Mary

1 Samuel 1-2, 25th Sunday after Pentecost B, November 15, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
It has happened again. Terrorists have struck fear into the hearts of millions as they murdered at least 120 innocent lives in Paris. These extremists carefully chose locations where common citizens would be out enjoying the city. Those murdered were no threat to anyone.

Events like these can seem to be unfathomable. What could bring a group of people to chose to murder so many innocent lives? What could inspire someone to be willing to put on a suicide belt? What horrors must they have faced in their lives to create such horrors in other lives? 

What happened in Paris is a great tragedy. It strikes a bit closer to home because those murdered looked like us. We may not have seen the names and faces of the dead, yet we know that those murdered were out socializing in Paris. So, many most likely were white and moderately wealthy. ISIS intentionally attacked a western nation and threatens more attacks to come. 

The unsettling feeling that this makes in our gut is not dissimilar to what the Israelites experienced during the time of the judges, the time before our first lesson. After the Israelites settled in the Holy Land and before the monarchy was created, the people struggled to stay under control. The book of Judges tells of such atrocities like: 
    • Jael murdering Sisera by nailing a tent peg through his temple
    • Jephthah killing his only daughter as a sacrifice for the Lord
    • A group of men raping and murdering a concubine; then her master cuts her into twelve pieces and sends them across Israel.
After all of these terrible acts, often of violence against or involving women, we then hear the story of Hannah. She is living a comfortable life, happily married. Yet she is barren. Her greatest desire is to have a son. She wants this child not for her own protection or economic support. Instead, she desires a son because she is measured socially by her ability to bear children. Her marriage is not enough - she needs a child.

Hannah needs a child to bring her joy. She may be able to love her step children, but that is not the same as raising her own flesh and blood. Hannah saw how her husband and his other wife drew close as they watched their kids grow from babies to toddlers to children. Hannah wanted to have her own baby to suckle at her breast, her own child to smile at her, her own child to love her so deeply.

When the Lord finally heard her prayers and opened her womb, Hannah somehow knew that this child was destined to greatness. She dedicated her son at the house of the Lord at Shiloh. Her prayer is recorded in chapter two, what we read in place of the psalm. This beautiful poetry proclaims God’s mighty power to overturn the wealthy and lift up the lowly. 

It may seem odd how one little baby can bring so much hope into the world. Can one child really make that much of a difference? Yes. I have seen this in my own family. The Scheibels are a pretty close family. What started as my grandparents, my dad, and his five siblings has grown through the generations to include about 45 aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins. We first cousins were each others’ best friends growing up. Even my mom, who divorced out of the family decades ago, continues to be included in all Scheibel events. 

Then, in 2007, everything changed. Our happy family was struck with tragedy when my cousin J died suddenly. Just 30 years old and days before her wedding, a pulmonary embolism took her life. My family was devastated. J’s mother, my Aunt J, hasn’t truly smiled since then. 

The Christmas after J passed away, we found out that my Uncle G had cancer. He passed away in 2009. If that wasn’t enough, about a year after that, J’s dad, my Uncle C, died suddenly, also from a pulmonary embolism. So, over the course of four years, three of my family members died tragically from natural causes.

Needless to say, family parties were a bit more somber after that. My family needed a reason to hope again. We needed to smile. We needed a child in our midst to bring us joy. In November 2011, my nephew L gave that to us. 

With such a happy baby to pass around, we couldn’t help but smile. As he grew, we rejoiced with his progress. As he began to walk and talk, he brought joy into all our lives, even Aunt J. After grieving for her daughter and her husband, she still doesn’t smile much. But at least now she is not overwhelmed with grief when she sees us happy.

One baby can change family dynamics. One child can bring joy where there was only grief and despair. One little one can make a world of difference. Lukas brought some much needed healing to my family. Yet Hannah’s child did so much more.

Samuel grew up to be an important prophet. After the terrors of the judges, Samuel blessed the first kings of Israel, Saul and David. David would then bring peace to the people, a peace the likes of which they would never experience again. Samuel did not bring peace on his own, yet he pointed towards the peace that would come.

It is fitting that the song that Hannah sang when Samuel was born is very similar to the song that Mary sang when she was pregnant with Jesus. Both of these prayers rejoice in the new life found in babies. Both sing of God’s power to bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly. Both proclaim that God is in charge.

We need to hear Hannah’s song just as much as we need to hear Mary’s song. We need to hear that God will make all things right in the end. We need to hear that only God can judge terrorists just as only God can judge any of us. We need to hear of God’s mighty power. Because when terrorists have the ability to destroy anything or anyone, we desperately need to hear that God is in control. 

When Hannah prayed her prayer, Samuel was still a young baby. She could not have known how Samuel would help to change the history of Israel. Even so, she hoped as she prayed. She trusted in the Lord.

When Mary sang her song, she had not yet given birth to Christ. She could not have fully understood how Jesus would change the world. She knew that Jesus was the child of God, yet even she could not know how Jesus would save the world. Even so, she hoped and she trusted God’s word. 

Samuel brought peace to Israel, and Jesus brought salvation to the world. Yet despite all of this, there is still evil all around us, found this week in terrorists. Despite the life that Jesus gives to us, there is still death all around us, stealing away loved ones. We cannot fully experience the salvation that Jesus gives to us until we too face death. In the meantime, we trust in the Lord. We trust that the Lord is enacting justice. We trust that the Lord is in control of our lives and of the world. Most important, we trust that the Lord will give us life everlasting. Amen.