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.

The metaphors of heaven

Revelation 21:1-6, All Saints Sunday B, November 1, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
My father’s father passed away on my thirteenth birthday. While my father’s grief was still fresh, he had a dream of heaven. He fully believes that this vision came directly from God. 

In this vision, my father saw my grandfather in a dorm room, not unlike where my father stayed at the University of Illinois. Grandpa was sitting near his desk, leaning back in a chair reading. Grandpa was content.

Then Walter Payton, the famous Bears player, walked by. He was wearing street clothes, yet he had a football in his hand. Walter leaned in the open dorm doorway and said, “Jack, do you want to go to the tv room with me and watch some football?” My grandpa hopped out of his chair and went along. 

Not too long later, my dad had another dream which was a continuation of this vision. This time, Grandpa was in the cafeteria. He had a tray of food and turned to look where to sit. He saw Abraham Lincoln eating alone, so my grandfather sat down with him. I can only imagine what sort of conversation they had.

For my grandfather, my father, and me, our years in college were like heaven. Being able to read all day, spend time with friends, and have conversations with important people is what it is all about. Yet, when my father described these visions to me, he made it clear that he did not believe that all of heaven is one dorm or even one college. People have their own ideas of what is the perfect place to be. For my dad, this vision is not a literal description of what heaven is like. 

What this vision did for my father, though, is provide some comfort. Even to this day, my dad looks back on these visions with fondness. He knows that his dad is in a better place. He knows that Grandpa is with God. 

To some degree, I think this is what the book of Revelation is all about. It does not describe literally how the world will end, nor does it describe literally what heaven will be like. Instead, it speaks in coded symbolism. Scholars can interpret some of those symbols based on the text’s original context, yet others remain a mystery. Even so, I’m not sure if deciphering the code is the point. If you step back and look at the bigger picture, I believe that the book of Revelation is meant to provide some degree of comfort.

With all this in mind, I am still curious about what John of Patmos means when he says that he saw “a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” (v. 1) and that God is “making all things new” (v. 5). This author is speaking truth, even if he is not speaking fact. What does a new heaven and a new earth look like?

One commentator online says that the best way to understand this is to read C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. More specifically, The Last Battle describes the end of the Old Narnia and the beginning of New Narnia. Just like Revelation and my Dad’s vision, C. S. Lewis is using metaphor to describe what heaven will be like. Because he wrote a fictional novel, he had more freedom to express his ideas in beautiful, figurative language. Even though Lewis is describing the end of a made up world full of talking animals, his descriptions are spot on. Replace “Narnia” with “Earth” and you get the point.

Lewis describes a severe scene in Old Narnia. A monkey dressed up a donkey in a lion’s skin and tried to pass him off as Aslan, the Jesus figure in these tales. This leads to an epic battle between the true Narnians and the Calormenes who worship an idol. The last king of Narnia left the battle’s end as he saw a mysterious door and walked through it. As he entered New Narnia, he met all of the good kings who had died before him. All of these people were mysteriously ageless, no matter if they died young or old.

Then Aslan appeared in the doorway and called all of creation from Old Narnia to him. He judged these creatures one at a time, although it seemed to not last very long. Aslan sent the wicked into eternal darkness and invited the good through the doorway. Once everyone welcome into New Narnia had entered, King Peter closed the mysterious doorway and took out the key. Old Narnia was gone, and it was time for them all to experience New Narnia. “Come further in! Come further up!” (p. 181) Aslan bellowed.

As the characters moved in and looked around, they marveled at how much everything was so much like Old Narnia while also being so different. The colors were brighter and deeper. The mountain range looked further away and yet…somehow… “more like the real thing.” (p. 193) The land that they had previously experienced was only a shadow of the real dream where they were now.

One of the characters exclaimed, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the Old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this…Come further up, come further in!” (p. 196) 

Then everyone began to run. They felt the rush of air and the joy of moving, yet they never became out of breath or sore. They realized that they could not feel afraid, nor angry, nor sad. They found all of the beloved people and creatures they had met on their previous journeys. This New Narnia truly was heaven, and their new journey had just begun!

We may not know exactly what a new heaven and a new earth will be like, yet we can hope. We can hope that it will be just as exhilarating as C. S. Lewis describes. Maybe everything will be like it was, but richer, deeper, and brighter. No matter what, at the time that we experience heaven, it will be more of everything good because we will be with God. Surrounded by God's love like we have never experienced before, it must be worth it. We hope for the future because of God's promises! Amen.