Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review of Trip to Thailand and Cambodia, Part 2 of 3

Greetings dear friends at LCGS,

This is the second part of the article that I began in the last issue of the Wool Gatherings newsletter. The first part concentrated on my experiences in Thailand, specifically Bangkok, and the culture that is present in that area and windows for the Gospel to be heard. In this article I will discuss my experiences in Cambodia. We entered into Cambodia after a 40-minute flight into the city of Siem Reap. Our flight was on Bangkok Air, which advertises itself as a “boutique” airline. After receiving a hot, wet towlette before the flight took off we were given a full meal once we got in the air. Now, this was indeed a full meal, with a main course, vegetables or fruit, water, dessert and you had another complimentary beverage: juice, pop, wine or beer. No sooner than we had finished the main course of our meal, that we heard the pilot go over the intercom, “Flight Attendants, please prepare for arrival.” We then had about one minute to scarf down whatever food we might have or get it off the tray that was about to be picked up so we could hold it and finish what was left during the descent.

The reason that we went into Siem Reap was so that we could visit Angkor Wat, which was the royal temple built by the Angkor Empire around 1200 AD. The site covers a large area of P1080098land with several temples and building dotting the landscape. Each building was built separately with the latest structure being built around 1500, close to the time the Martin Luther  was reforming the Church. The main temple site was built around 1200 and is built like a fortress, with a moat surrounding it and a large wall protecting the temple at the centre of the complex. The temples were all originally built in accordance with the Hindu religion, but were defaced somewhat when a new emperor sympathetic to Buddhism came to power. Both of these religions still figure prominently in Cambodia and the religious landscape has the same flavour as that of Thailand. The history of the Angkor Empire would figure prominently more recently in Cambodia's history, which I will discuss later on. Visiting Angkor Wat gave us a glimpse into the religious and historical background of the people of Cambodia and also gave us an idea of their current culture.

Cambodians are not as laid back and easy going as the Thai are, and are in fact much more pushy. When we arrived at Angkor Wat, the second we got off the tuk-tuk, the principle mode of transportation in Cambodia, we were swarmed by vendors trying to sell us wooden bracelets, post cards, or necklaces. They weren’t very old either, some of them not much older than eight years old. Yet they know every salesman trick in the book and every capital of any country you tell them. On Sunday morning we left Siem Reap and took an eight hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. Upon arriving at Phnom Penh, we got swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers offering us richtuk_tuk looking foreigners a ride to a hotel or wherever we needed to go, something that would not happen in Thailand. At times it was almost smothering and annoying, yet the differences between Cambodia and Thailand were apparent almost immediately. The people certainly have more need here, and the country in general is a little less developed. Often when having to choose between school and work, parents will have to send their children to work so that their family can make a buck or two and pay for a plate of food.

On Monday morning we visited a Church near a village about three hours outside of Phnom Penh. After travelling about ten minutes down a poorly maintained dirt road we came upon a rice farm where the congregation gathers for their worship service. They don’t have a building or any of the trappings that we associate with Church (altar, communion ware, paraments, vestments) yet they still gather in Christ’s name and worship their Lord and Saviour. They meet on the field that the pastor owns and works with his family (in the rainy season they meet P1100154 on the road) and have service and a Sunday School. When we arrived, several of the children were singing songs and playing out Bible stories, such as the Prodigal Son, for us and then a worship service. The Lutheran Church in Cambodia is currently learning the liturgy and have begun to learn Responsive Prayer 2 in LSB. Though most Cambodians are illiterate, and those who are educated have about a fourth grade education, the pastor and the deaconesses of the Church help the people learn it. Because of the problem of drunkenness and violence among men in the area, the Church usually makes inroads first to the women, who then talk to their husbands and start to bring them to church as well. But this is a slow process and as a result some of the churches in Cambodia are completely made of women, which makes the work of the deaconesses so important. Usually they are called on to be the shepherds for these congregations of women and will preach and lead worship until men start coming in to the church, at which point they will select one as their pastor and he will begin training and leading worship for the community.

Much of the educational problems that occur in Cambodia stem from an era in the mid to late 1970s, during a period when a communistic ruler named Pol Pot came to power. One of the objectives of Pol Pot was to turn the clock back and remake Cambodia into the Angkor Empire, what was perceived as the golden age for Cambodia. This meant forcing the people out of the cities onto the farms to create a completely agrarian society. Like most totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century there was a constant suspicion of revolt, thus the educated and intelligent class of Cambodia were persecuted as enemies of the state. This meant that all those who were educated, and those who wore glasses because that’s a sign of intelligence, were put into prison and were tortured until they confessed to plotting against the government. Once they confessed they were then sentenced to death and would be executed in a field that became known as the Killing Fields where they would be buried in mass graves. Our group visited both one of these prisons as well as the Killing Fields. It was a sobering experience that gave all of us a deep look into the sinfulness of man and cruelty our sinful nature is capable of doing. The result of this genocide is seen today in the lack of education that the people have in Cambodia.

Once again, there is so much that I could tell you about my experiences in Cambodia, but I have tried to stick with the highlights and give you glimpse into this foreign culture. We did not get to spend as much time out on the town at night, but we did get to enjoy the Russian market in downtown Phnom Penh, where one of my classmates bought a copy of the movie Avatar months before it came out on DVD. We enjoyed a dinner at the Foreign Correspondents Club, where foreign correspondents used to stay when visiting Cambodia, and a dinner at a fancy restaurant with one of the missionaries from the LCMS and his family. It was a wonderful time and I enjoyed my experience, though at this time I was starting to get ready to come home and missing the familiar food of home. The next article will give a summary of the trip and look at what I was able to get from the whole experience.

Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Have you ever heard the phrase, a little taste of heaven? Usually this phrase refers to something that we consider to be perfectly made, whether it be a piece of chocolate cake, a perfectly done steak or a ride in the lap of luxury. These experiences make us feel so good that we think that this must be a glimpse of what heaven is like. But because no one here knows what heaven will be like completely, we have to say that our experiences are just a little taste of heaven.

In our reading from Revelation today that is exactly what St. John gives us, a little taste of heaven. We catch a glimpse of all the saints in heaven praising God with the angels right before the throne of God. It is in this heavenly scene that we see a restoration of the relationship that God intended to have with us. God and man enjoy a direct fellowship with no veil between them to cover the complete glory of God. Just as God walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden God will walk with us in heaven. Yet as vivid as this description of heaven is, it still gives us just a little taste of what heaven will be like. But even still, we are given enough for our faith to rejoice in what God has done for us and to cling to the promise of this heavenly reality guaranteed for us.

Within this book as a whole, John is taken up to this heavenly reality by God in order to bring some comfort to the churches of his time. The purpose of this comfort is to show Christians that while life may be difficult now, God is leading us to a far better reality in heaven with Himself.

St. John is writing this vision down to show that this is where God is leading us and where all this trouble is going to end. In the Gospel reading today, which also comes from the pen of St. John, Jesus is quoted as saying, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me” (John 10:27). St. John is showing the Christians that they will participate in the heavenly scene that he has witnessed. He wants them to know that they are included in those people dressed in white and singing praises to God with the angels. It is a comfort that we can take home too. This is where God is leading all of us, gathered here today. We will also be gathered among that great throng, clothed in white and dwelling with our God in paradise.

St. John shows readers that reaching this heavenly reward does not depend upon them, but upon God, and His work alone. That is the greatest comfort that we could ever receive. And yet we have such a problem with it. We don't like thinking that we can do nothing to earn it, and I doubt that the people that John was writing to liked it very much either. Why? Because we all want to be worth something and what's more, we want to earn it. I want to get there on my own because that means that I am better, I did it all by myself. I earned it. It was the problem then, and it's the problem now. We want to earn it. Well, okay, but we're not going to earn those bright, white robes. Do you know what I am wearing underneath this white robe? Black. Do you want to know what's underneath Pastor's and Mark's white robes? Black. Why? Because that's what we've earned. Our sinful flesh has earned these black clothes, or as the prophet Zechariah describes it, we've earned nothing but horrible, filthy rags. In his own vision Zechariah describes Joshua, representing all Israel, standing before the angel of Lord in heaven wearing nothing but shameful rags (Zechariah 3:3). That is all we've earned. Unfortunately we don't fit heaven's dress code.

But Zechariah's vision does not end there. Joshua's rags are removed, and a new set of pure and clean robes are put on him. Not because of anything he's done, or that he has earned, but because of the work and promise of God (Zechariah 3:4-5).

And here in this text, just like Joshua, we too are given the white robes that St. John describes. The black clothes that your sin has earned you are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ and become white. The blood of Christ, spilt for you on the cross on that one Friday afternoon, cleanses you from all sin (1 John 1:7). The prophet Isaiah puts it this way: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). It why I wear this white robe, that even though I am black with sin, through the blood of Christ that sinfulness is washed away and I wear the white robe of righteousness. And this is also why we come to this very altar, to receive the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Where you take and drink the blood of Christ, and you are washed white in the forgiveness of sins. It is at this altar that we receive a little taste of heaven as we are renewed in the washing of His blood.

Through this vision of the saints gathered together, who have received white robes through the washing of the blood of the Lamb, St. John gives his hearers yet another source of comfort that they can hold on to. And that is that even though we all suffer in this world, we will be absolutely free of all suffering in heaven with our God.

When Christ returns to earth on the Last Day or when we ourselves die and rise before that Day arrives God has promised that He will deliver us from all evil. In heaven, there will be no suffering or hunger, for we will be with God and He will be our shepherd and our protector. Jesus' warns His disciples in many places that they will experience trouble, that people will be persecuted for their faith and that there will be suffering in life. Yet even in that suffering, He invites us to look to Him and trust in Him as the one who owns the victory for us. It is not a victory that God has not won by hurting our enemies, but by allowing Himself to be hurt and die for us.

Unfortunately, this world, which has been corrupted by sin, is so full of suffering that we might begin to doubt the victory that God has won for us. St. John had written the book of Revelation to churches who were being persecuted and suffering, and many of the people might have been questioning why God would allow such suffering to come upon them. Some of them were even on the verge of rejecting their faith just so their life could be just a little bit easier. We too join in the wonder about this sometimes—why God would allow such bad things to happen. We might begin to suffer and doubt God's will for our lives and so we ask why a loving God would do this? If God loves me why am I in such a bad spot right now? Suffering touches all of us at one time or another in all kinds of different ways, whether it be illness, or pain, or stress, or depression we all feel it. At times the world seems so full of suffering that we might join with my favourite golden boy and say, “We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life.” This world is not perfect, everything God created to be good and without suffering, has been corrupted ever since the sin of Adam that continues in our own flesh. When we suffer we are driven to hopelessness, to despair. We feel isolated and alone.

Perhaps you are one of those who are suffering right now, or you know of someone who is suffering; comfort them, and be comforted, with the promise of God that suffering will not last forever. John records His promise later in chapter 21: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” We have been claimed by God through baptism and have been brought to faith through the work of the Holy Spirit and when we join that heavenly host we will experience this everlasting joy that is ours now through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus Christ is our good shepherd (John 10:11). As we heard from the Gospel of John earlier, “I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). “The Lord is my shepherd,” David writes, “I shall not want, He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23:1-2). Just as Christ is your shepherd now and leads you here to feed you with His Word and the news of your sins forgiven, He will personally lead you to “springs of living water.” This living water is described in the Psalms as the “fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). As Jesus Himself said to the Samaritan woman at the well “whoever drinks of the water that I give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14). Just as Jesus gives us His body and blood so that we might be fed and nourished and strengthened to life everlasting, so also will Christ give us this feast in heaven so that we may celebrate with Him and all the saints the complete fulfilment of the hope given to us by God. Even though this world is full of suffering, we take comfort and we are joyful, in the hope and promise that we have in our shepherd Jesus Christ, that He will lead us to heaven where we will never feel the sufferings of sin and death.

At times this world to offers us small glimpses of heaven, the problem is that they are all too fleeting, and can never match up to the glory that is described in Scripture and are too soon replaced by hardship, stress and pain. But through the promise of Christ we will be a part of this heavenly scene, walking with God and singing praises to God with all the faithful. It is in the Sacrament of the Altar that we are given a true and real glimpse of heaven as we participate in a foretaste of this heavenly joy and are strengthened by God to endure our sufferings and be brought into our heavenly home. In our struggles during this life we can be comforted by the promise that through the death and resurrection of Christ we will be brought to this heavenly throne room. So receive this comfort that God will bring you to His heavenly throne room where all suffering will cease and the relationship that Adam and Eve enjoyed with the Lord in the Garden will once again be restored. Comfort others, too, with the hope that you have in Christ that when He returns your body will be restored and perfect. Clinging to this, our hope and our joy, we go out to bring this promise to all the world so that everyone might know and believe, so that all people might also cling to the hope that is found in Christ.