Sermon: Whose Conversion?

January 29, 2017

Text – Acts 9:1-20

 

We all know about the Apostle Paul, the greatest Apostle in the history of the church, the author of many epistles in the New Testament, and the missionary to the gentiles. Of course, we also know the story about his conversion, as was read to us from the passage this morning. But if we read Acts from the beginning to the end, we realize that Paul is not the only character who experienced conversion. Chapter eight tells us about the Ethiopian eunuch who was converted by the help of Philip. Chapter ten tells us about Cornelius and his family, who were converted at the time of the ministry of Simon Peter. The story of Acts is not just about Paul but I believe it is mainly about the Holy Spirit who unfolds God’s redemptive plan for both Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, if we only focus on Paul’s conversion, we are likely to miss another important character in this passage.

There was one more person involved in Paul’s conversion. His name was Ananias. He was a pious Christian who lived in Damascus. One day Jesus appeared to him in a vision, asking him to meet Saul and restore his sight. Ananias had already heard about Saul of Tarsus. He was a persecutor who went from house to house looking for the followers of Jesus, dragging them off, and putting them in prison. Now he was coming for Ananias, his family, and his fellow Christians. Who knows that Ananias was actually happy to hear it from Jesus saying, “Thanks for the heads-up, Jesus! We are going to take our revenge this time for all our brothers and sisters who died in his hand.” If Saul had a potential to persecute more of the followers of Jesus, would it not have been better if Saul died? He was frustrated, afraid, and outraged as seen in his response to Jesus, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” (v.13)

Ananias is angry because Jesus is asking him to go and meet Saul. Ananias is upset because he knows what that means. When people meet together, there is a opportunity of reconciliation and forgiveness. When people block themselves from each other, there is only division and miscommunication. In my work as pastor, I often observe that being present with one another is the best way to resolve the conflict. Just sending email or responding on the social media is an easy way to avoid our contact that might bring two parties together and be healed in relationship. I have heard about a minister who heard many complaints from his parishioner. “I don’t like you sermon. I don’t like your leadership…” The pastor decided to go to the workplace of his parishioner and be with him helping his work for hours. He recounted that his time together with this person brought them together in reconciliation and mutual understanding.

Ananias is upset because he knows that Jesus’ invitation to meet Saul means also to forgive him for what he had done. In 2007, there was a horrifying incident that shook the U.S. – a massacre of 32 students and faculties at Virginia Tech University. When the news first identified the shooter as an Asian male student, I just hoped, “Please not a Korean. Please not a Korean.” The next day, the news released the photo of the shooter as a Korean student – Seung-Hee Cho. Many Asian students at Boston University seemed worried because there would be any regulation or even ban on the international students. As I look back the event, I think that it was such a stupid hope that I wished that the shooter would not be a Korean. Many people do not know whether I am a Korea, Chinese, or Japanese. What differences would it have made? If any, there would be regulation on the international students as whole because what mattered was that we were strangers and different in this society.

But we see that Jesus is persistent with Ananias. Jesus said to him, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument!” God was going to use Saul who was the great enemy of Christians as God’s vessel to bear a witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I strongly believe that this is how God works in this world. When people mocked Matthew because he was a tax collector, Jesus called him as one of his disciples. When people hated Zacchaeus calling him “a sinner,” Jesus called him first and forgave him saying, “Salvation has come to this house.” When the Samaritan woman at the well tried to avoid the public because of shame, Jesus comes and meets her offering the living water. God turns someone whom we consider less likely to be used by God into the chosen instrument through which the kingdom of God will be proclaimed. God never abandons those we call “outcasts,” but calls them in order to entrust them with a great mission.

So Ananias went and entered the house where Saul had been fasting for three days. Saul does not even know who just entered the house. He had become a blind. He was weak because he did not eat or drink for three days. If Ananias could finish all tragic death of his Christian brothers and sisters by Saul, this was the time to end it all. But Ananias calls Saul, “My Brother Saul.” and then he said, “The Lord, Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” A miracle happened. Saul’s eyes were healed. More surprisingly, he was baptized in the name whom he had long despised. Ananias forgave Saul for what he had done to the people of God. I believe that if Ananias did not forgive Saul from the depth of his heart, Saul would not have been healed, commissioned, and baptized with the Holy Spirit.

This was not just Saul’s conversion. It was also Ananias’ conversion. It is by the grace of God that we come to know Christ and believe that he is our Lord who forgives our sins. Whether you were first led to the church by your grandparents or mothers, you received the good news in Christ that he forgives us and embraces as God’s children. That is not what we work for. That is a gift from God just as Saul met Christ on his road to Damascus. Saul who did not believe now becomes a believer to go out and proclaim who Jesus is. That is conversion. But for those who believe in Christ, the story does not end there. God still works in us increasing the grace in us. The Holy Spirit empowers us to be more like Jesus in his love for God and love for neighbors. Ananias meets Christ and experience growth in his love for enemy through forgiveness. That is another conversion – change that happens us not only dramatically but also gradually.

After the Virginia Tech tragedy, I read that people put 33 memorial stones, not 32, for the victims on the grass of the school. One of the stones is for Seung Hee Cho, the shooter. A woman named Barbara left a card and flower on his memorial stone. The card reads, “I feel bad in knowing that you did not get help that you so desperately needed. I hope that your family will find comfort and healing. God bless.” Also on the news I saw another woman saying, “Love can overcome.” When tragedy like that happens, people ask question, “Where is God?” “If God were alive, could not God have prevented something like this?” People talk about the absence of God in the midst of tragedy. However, I believe that we witness the presence of God in the midst of tragedy when people are brought together in forgiveness and reconciliation.

If you have anyone whom it is difficult to forgive, I invite you to read works by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He says, “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger. However, when I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out of the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.”[1]

Albert Tomei is a justice of the New York State Supreme Court. A young defendant was convicted in Judge Tomei’s court of gunning down another person in execution style. The murderer had a bad record, was no stranger to the system, and only stared in anger as the jury returned its guilty verdict. The victim’s family had attended every day of the two-week trial. On the day of sentencing, the victim’s mother and grandmother addressed the court. When they spoke, neither addressed the jury. Both spoke directly to the murderer. They both forgave him. “You broke the Golden Rule – loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You broke the law – loving your neighbor as yourself. I am your neighbor,” the older of the two women told him, “so you have my address. If you want to write, I’ll write you back. I sat in this trial for two weeks, for the last sixteen months I tried to hate you. But you know what? I could not hate you. I feel sorry for you because you made a wrong choice.”

Judge Tomei writes: “For the first time since the trial began, the defendant’s eyes lost their laser force and appeared to surrender to a life force that only a mother can generate: nurturing, unconditional love. After the grandmother finished, I looked at the defendant. His head was hanging low. There was no more swagger, no more stare. The destructive and evil forces within him collapsed helplessly before this remarkable display of humaneness.”[2] Here, I disagree with Judge Tomei. I do not think that this is a display of humaneness. It was a moment of the kingdom of God breaking into this world when we the followers of Christ forgive others as Christ has already forgiven us for our sins against God and others.

In the midst of these conversions of both Saul and Ananias stands Jesus. He is the One who first appeared to Saul to forgive him and commission him as his witness. He is the One who said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He is the One who came to this world to reconcile us to God. He is the One who showed us how to love our God and our neighbors. This is the Good News, beloved. Because we have Jesus, we can forgive and reconcile with our neighbors. Because we have Jesus, we can step out of our own tradition, background, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, and rejoice in God’s presence. Because we have Jesus who showed us how to love God and our neighbors, we can go out to the world with confidence that God loves God’s people and God’s creation. As Jesus told his disciples to be the light and salt in the world, we have to shine the light of Christ in this world. The light that blinded the eyes of Saul but changed his whole life – The light that led Ananias into the reconciliation with Saul.

 

[1] Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Marina Cantacuzino, The Forgiveness Project.

[2] “Touching the Heart of a Killer,” New York Times (3-7-97)

Small Group Study: the Liberation of God

Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically challenged our nation with the dream that everyone would be respected and loved regardless of who they are. It is because everyone is created in the image of God. However, it seems that we still witness racism that deeply divides our country with racial prejudice often dehumanizing certain groups of people. In recognizing such broken reality, we invite our congregation to study together how God listens to the cries and prayers of the oppressed as in the Book of Exodus. We meet Moses who was living his life happily as he had nothing do with the suffering of his people. We read how God met him at the burning bush, sent him back to Egypt, and delivered God’s children from slavery. This study will help us to be attentive to the racial injustice of our society and how we can attempt to dismantle it as God’s people who are called to justice and righteousness. We invite you to join us for a time of discernment and fellowship.

 

Text

  • The Bible (Exodus 1-20)
  • Holding Up Your Corner Participant Book by F. Willis Johnson (If you would like to order the copy through the church, please email us at <putnam-umc@snet.net>

 

9781501837593

 

Time

  • Sunday 9:30 am – 10:30 am
  • Wednesday 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm

 

Study Schedule

  • February 1, 5

Segment 1: Orientation

Segment 2: Empathic Models of Transformation

Exodus 1 – 3 (God listens to the cries of the slaves)

 

 

  • February 8, 12

Privilege Quiz

Segment 3: Acknowledge

Sunday 12: Rev. Joyce Whetstone (joining the study group)

Exodus 5 – 11 (God sends Moses for liberation but Pharaoh refuses)

 

 

  • February 15, 19

Segment 4: Affirm

Exodus 12 – 15 (God frees the slaves and leads them to the wilderness)

 

 

  • February 22, 26

Segment 5: Act

Segment 6: A Suggested Next Step

Exodus 16 – 20 (God makes the covenant with God’s people)

 

 

Movie Day (February 11, Saturday 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM)

Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad

 

bystr0jbkbk-movieposter

 

Sermon: Life Interrupted

January 22, 2017

Text – Matthew 4:12-23

As a father to young boy, I often sit and watch the Disney Channel. I watch Mickey Mouse and the Club House, Miles from Tomorrow Land, PJ Mask, and Little Einstein… etc. And I often feel uncomfortable with commercials interrupting the show constantly saying, “Don’t go anywhere. We will be right back after these commercials.” Obviously, there is a plot for the show that builds tension that requires resolution. But the show constantly interrupts with many commercials that have nothing to do with the plot of the programming. I first thought that American TV has many commercials so that people can use the bathroom or make the popcorn in the microwave. But news article from Times in May 2014 points out that the American programming has been increasing more commercials over the years because more ads mean more money for the TV industry.[1]

As people, we may not appreciate such interruption in the middle of our lives. Since we have limited time and resource, we want to get our works done more effectively and quickly. You gather for a business meeting in the afternoon. You care for your company but want to finish your work as soon as possible so you can go home, rest, and spend some time with your children. But in the middle of the meeting, Johnny raises his hand and constantly interrupts your meeting, making jokes and telling stories that really have nothing to do with the business agendas. I wonder if you have had Johnny in your work place. But I do know Johnny when I go to my clergy meeting. Most of people would not appreciate disruption. We have the flow of our lives. We have the rhythm of our meeting and work.

As we read the story from the Gospel of Matthew, I wonder if Peter and his brother Andrew also felt the same. They were fisherman at the Sea of Galilee. Just like another day, they probably caught some fish that would be enough to sustain their families and business. Maybe they were giving thanks to God for catching the fish for the day and hurrying to mend the nets so they could go home and see their families. But all of sudden, a man appears to them and say, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus interrupts their works in the middle and even disrupts their whole lives by calling them to follow him. How would you have responded to him if he came to your work places and told you, “Follow me”? Wouldn’t many of us say, “Sir, I am quite happy with my job and my family. Maybe another time.”

What is interesting with the Gospel of Matthew, unlike other Gospels, is that the story of Jesus’ calling two sets of brothers could have been omitted here but still continue as an intact plot. After John was arrested, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He calls his first disciples. And then he continues on in his work of proclaiming the kingdom of God by teaching in synagogues, curing every disease and sickness among people. It is like there is a story of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God that is interrupted by another story of Jesus calling his first disciples. It is like the writer of Matthew is intentionally interrupting the storyline by telling us how the ordinary and perfect lives of Peter and Andrew are interrupted. He wants to tell us to be attentive when our lives are interrupted because it could be a sign of Christ’s invitation for us.

One day, I took Daniel to a playground inside a mall in Massachusetts when he was only a year and half old. As many parents do, I was sitting on the bench and reading from cellphone. Daniel constantly wanted to get my attention screaming and yelling. I was a little irritated because I thought that he was interrupting me from doing my works – reading emails, checking the news, scanning Facebook. After a while, I realized that he kept interrupting me because he wanted to show me that he could come down the slide on his own. He used to be so scared to come down the slide before but he wanted to show me proudly that he now could do it. I could have missed it totally. But I am glad that he was so persistent that I did not miss a moment of his growth. Daniel’s interruption became an opportunity for me to reflect on my parenthood and appreciate every moment with him as a divine gift.

Jesus interrupts the lives of Peter, Andrew, James and John. These were not people who had nothing to do or no one to lose. They had their perfect jobs. They had their perfect families. They had their perfect lives. But Jesus tells them that he needs them. Why? When he probably could have done all the works by himself? When he had the power to cure the disease. When he had the power to calm the storm and walk on the water. When he had the power to turn the water into wine. When he had the power to feed five thousand and four thousand people. Why does Jesus stop by at these boats and interrupt the lives of good people like these men? This story interrupted by the calling of his disciples reveals to us how God works in this world. Although God could have done it all by Godself, God refuses to work alone. God desires to do it with us. God invites us to come and taste and work for God.

When Jesus fed the five thousand people, he did so not out of nothing but out of a lunch box of a young boy whose mother packed five loaves of bread and two fish. When the boy generously offered his lunch box, Jesus blessed the food and fed the five thousand people with 12 baskets of leftover. The boy probably felt disrupted by the request of Jesus. But his generosity would lead to the miracle of abundant food for the multitude. How about the Good Samaritan? When there was a man dying on street because he was robbed, stripped, and beat, the priest and Levite come but pass by. They did not want to be interrupted by helping this person. But the Samaritan accepts the interruption as a call to be a neighbor in need. The one who is rejected and marginalized religiously, politically and socially becomes the model for the true neighbor.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor who had a promising career as scholar in the U.S. during the World War II. However, in noticing the evil rising with Hitler and Nazis government, he decided to go back to Germany to be with people and nurture young seminarians by sharing their lives together. In his book “Life Together,” he writes, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks. It is a strange face that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God’s ‘crooked yet straight path.”[2]

Jesus still comes to us and meets us where we are. We often do not recognize him because we are preoccupied with our own concept of peace, happiness, and safety. We might believe that we have figured out our life plan – when we would get married, when we would have our children, how much we put into pension, when we would retire, and where we would buy our house …etc. But Jesus comes to us and interrupts our perfect lives. He tells us, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” If Peter and Andrew knew Jesus’ background as the son of carpenter, they could have responded, “We know much better what it takes fish.” But they abandon everything that they have. And they start to follow to unknown, unsafe, and uncomfortable places. But they follow Jesus in their faith – the faith that is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

Jesus meets us where we are. Jesus does not negate our background, our skill, and our gift. Rather, he transforms them for the work of God so that what we do, what we know can glorify none other than God who created us in God’s image and has given us new purpose of our lives – to love God and to love our neighbors. When I spent one week at Rolling Ridge in North Andover, the Methodist retreat center, I met 9 students who came to seek ministry. Some of them were already retired or near retirement. They thought that they could enjoy their time with their families and grandchildren. But Jesus came to them, interrupted their lives, and called them to serve God and God’s people. They came from many different backgrounds – computer, education, library, sales …etc. Jesus now uses their knowledge and experience to proclaim the kingdom of God right here with us when we share the love of God with one another.

I believe that Jesus still comes to us and meets us as individual. He comes and whisper to us when we meditate, when we walk, when we drive. He tells us to follow him because he needs us in this world. Jesus comes and meets us as church too. When we hear the cries and pain of our neighbors, we know that it is the voice of Christ calling us to the world. We follow him and realize that he has already been there for us. Are you feeling interrupted in your lives today? Are you feeling frustrated because your plans are being altered? Maybe Christ is extending invitation to follow him through the interruption in your lives today. Won’t you answer his call to follow today? Let us arise and sing together, “Where He Leads Me.”

[1] http://time.com/96303/tv-commercials-increasing/

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast 2017

Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast 2017

Place – Putnam Lodge of Elks 574

Time – January 16 (Monday) 2017, 8:00 AM

16114702_1324427730954089_7177990657614775454_n

Tourtellotte Memorial HS Modern Music Ensemble

15977296_1878034432430177_1320247353189975565_n
photo credit: Valentine Iamartino

Keynote Speaker: Dr. Matthew Hughey (Professor of Sociology, University of Connecticut)

“Dr. King, Racism, Black Lives, and How It All Matters: Toward a Sociology and Theology of Justice”

2017-01-16-09-32-41

Artworks from Sunday School Children at Living Faith UMC

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Gathering for the Breakfast

2017-01-16-08-03-45

 

About 100 people attended the event. Many expressed that this event was meaningful and wished to see it continue in the future. We are grateful for all the works that our planning committee has put together for such a short time. [Rev. Louise Dumas, Rev. Judy Gehrig, Kathi Peterson, Angela Sanchez, Lorna Wade, Kathy King, Doug Ewing and Bev Shaw] We are also grateful all those who came early that morning to help us prepare. God bless our church and ministry!

Sermon by Pastor Judy: A Passion for Justice

Date – January 15, 2017

Text – Isaiah 49:1-2

“Listen, far-flung islands, pay attention, faraway people: God put me to work from the day I was born. The moment I entered the world he named me. He gave me speech that would cut and penetrate. He kept his hand on me to protect me. He made me his straight arrow and hid me in his quiver. He said to me, ‘You’re my dear servant, Israel, through whom I’ll shine.’” 

Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

“On this Sunday in which we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we realize that learning to recognize God’s word for ourselves and for our time may involve more than just our willingness to serve God……

We need mentors who will help us recognize when God wants us to sit in the silence and listen to what is going on around us.

We need friends…..Who encourage us to discover God’s activity for ourselves.

We need leaders….who encourage the telling of God’s truth no matter how painful or life-changing that word may be.

We need to both look for those who help recognize God’s prophetic word and to be those people whose response to God is ‘Here I am.’”  (Whole People of God 1/16/2000 Adult Study)

 

“The ideal servant’s mouth is like a sharp sound. The servant’s voice is sharp, not destructive or harmful.

The servant’s words are sharp, pointed to the present issue because of his seclusion and time alone with God, hidden ‘in the shadow of God’s hand.’

The servant’s word is also sharp and piercing because it is like a polished arrow, prepared and polished by God.

Still the servant is a human agent, not immune to failure, disillusionment, and weariness.

Yet the servant is revived by the assurance of the guarantees from the God who called.

The servant has the personal assurance that what God began, God will complete.

God has been and will continue to be the servant’s strength, enabling God’s servant to fulfill the mission for which the servant has been called: to bring restoration to Israel and to be a light for the Gentiles.

The servant’s work shall not be in vain.

Even the kings of the earth shall hear, heed, and hasten to bow at the Holy One of Israel, the one who has chosen the servant.” ( 2005 Preaching Manuel)

 

I would like to share with you the words of Dr. Martin Luther King from his well known “I Have a Dream” speech, a servant’s words that are indeed sharp, and words that do pierce like a polished arrow. I will do my best to convey Dr. King’s passion for justice and truth in my own way!

 

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.

It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 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 one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with it s vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and nullification,’

one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’

This is our hope.

This is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!’

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children,

black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

 

Free at Last! I suspect that those words speak not only to being free from the bonds of slavery, but in the context of our day, being free from many things, most importantly, fear.

I read that the night before Dr. King began his ministry of non-violent resistance, he spent the night at his kitchen table, praying for strength and courage.  

He was very much afraid, and much like Jesus in the garden, and many of us in our own garden of Gethsemane moments, asked to be delivered from this call to sacrifice.

However, in the morning, strengthened by God’s Spirit, he began his journey.

Thank God, we as fallible human beings do not have to rely on our own strength alone, but knowing that God is always faithful, we can trust in God’s presence with us as we strive to imitate Christ and his passion for justice for all of God’s children.

May we all remember that courage is not, never being afraid, but is in reality, taking action in spite of our fear.

As we remember Dr. King and all who seek peace and work for justice, I pray that we too will, with courage, open our hearts and our minds to opportunities to exhibit that same passion for justice and peace in our time.

 

Let us pray:

Gracious, Loving and compassionate God, as we seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, give us the capacity to also dream of the day when justice will roll down like water on all of your precious children, regardless of the color of their skin, the way in which they worship, whom they love and how they love. May we dream this dream that can and will bring glory to you, but a dream that will bring peace to a broken world. In the name of the one who calls us to dream, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Sermon: The Beloved!

Date: January 8, 2017

Text – Matthew 3:13-17

 

A story is told about the baptism of King Aengus by St. Patrick in the middle of the fifth century. During the rite of baptism, St. Patrick leaned on his sharp-pointed staff and accidently stabbed the king’s foot. After the baptism was over, St. Patrick looked down at all the blood, realized what he had done, and begged the king’s forgiveness. He asked the king, “Why did you suffer this pain in silence?” The king replied, “I thought that it was part of the ritual.” I am sure that we all have some episodes to tell when we baptized our children, grandchildren, or children of our church members. I remember when we baptized Daniel three years ago, he pooped his diaper big time right before being baptized. I could feel the smell and warmth in my hands as I was holding him in my hands.

While many people consider the baptism as an occasion of family celebration, Christians come for baptism because it is a door to the discipleship of Christ. We commit ourselves to following the way of Christ by being baptized in the water. St. Augustine taught in the Early Church that people were born with the original sins and had to be forgiven through the baptism. Since many infants died due to the lack of proper nutrition and medication in the middle ages, people wanted to baptize their babies as soon as they were born so that they could guarantee the ticket to heaven. But in the United Methodist Church, we practice baptism not because it assures us of going to heaven, but mainly because Jesus practiced in baptism himself as in Matthew 3. This is why we call it the sacrament along with the Communion.

In today’s reading, Jesus appears at the Jordan River and comes to John who was baptizing the people. John is shocked to see him because he thought that he was not worthy to baptize him. So, he says, “I cannot baptize you. Rather, it should be you who baptizes me.” If baptism is for the sinners as St. Augustine taught, why does Jesus come for baptism? Douglas Hare, a New Testament scholar, comments that Jesus willingly came for baptism because of his solidarity with sinners. The one who will save his people from their sins by submitting to a baptism of annihilation must here consecrate himself to his vocation by joining the sinful multitude in the waters of the Jordan.[1] Although he is the Son of God, the ruler of his kingdom, he “takes the first step on the road to Calvary” by being baptized.

By being incarnated and baptized, Jesus stands in solidarity with us in knowing what it is like to suffer hunger, pain, and sorrow. He understands what it feels to be betrayed by those we love, and broken hearted. He completely understands what it is to be human being. The grace of God comes and meets us where we are. When he was baptized and came up from the water, the scripture says that the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God calls Jesus, “My Beloved.”

In 2008, I was taking a preaching class at Yale Divinity School. It was my turn to preach that day. I do not remember what I preached or what text I preached from. After the class, a classmate came to me and wanted to hug me saying, “You called us “Beloved” You are the first person whom I ever heard in the pulpit saying that.” I was puzzled by what she said. I did not even know where it came from first but realized that I intuitively adopted the word from Union United Methodist Church in Boston where I was nurtured by the wonderful congregation. The senior pastor, Martin McLee, always addressed the congregation in his preaching, “Beloved!”

As I look back my experience with Union, I can see that it was extraordinarily caring to be called beloved when you do not feel loved in the society. Union is a predominantly African American congregation. Many of them still remember the days in the Civil Rights Movement, racism, and lack of opportunities. I still remember when Bill stood among the congregation and said, “I am just a nobody trying to tell everybody, about somebody, who can save anybody.” Although people often experienced denial, ignorance, and rejection in the society being regarded as nobody, when they came to the church, they were called “beloved” by God who created them in God’s image wonderfully and fearfully. Therefore, they were regarded as somebody by their neighbors.

The essential meaning of baptism is also this. God embraces us as we are and calls us God’s beloved. When we feel like we are doing everything for our jobs, our families, our marriages, our children, and our health, there are times that we are still failing. No matter how hard we try, we still feel not loved. We do not feel respected for what we have done, all the sacrifices we have made. But the baptism of Christ teaches us that God calls us God’s beloved not because of what we have done, but mainly because who we are. God loves us as God’s children unconditionally. That is called the grace of God, the gift that comes to us, not the result of our works.

And to me, it is very important for us to hear the message of Jesus’ baptism in the beginning of the New Year. Jesus spends his youth with his parents until he turns 30. As he sets out in his journey filled with hardships and eventually the cross in Jerusalem, he comes for baptism where he is reminded of his identity, who he is – He is the beloved of God. As we begin the new year of 2017 filled with many visions for ministries and missions in our community and the world, we are aware that there would be many challenges. There will be times when we would be stretched in our perspectives and experiences. The way of Christ does not guarantee trouble free road. Rather, it calls us to be faithful by walking humbly with God. And the first step for us is to renew our identity – that we are beloved of God.

When I was preparing to come to Boston in December 2003, my mother started knitting a neck muffler. It was as thick as a couple of inches and 3 feet long. I asked my mother why she was making it when she could buy one at the shop. She said, “Son, I hear that Boston is such a cold city. I feel strange that I am buying you one-way ticket to Boston and will not be able to take care of you as you are home here with me. But every time you wear this, I want you to know that I loved you very much. You are dearly loved by me and your father who pray you here.” As I was about to embark my new chapter of life journey in Boston, my mother wanted to remind me who I was.

And this is what I believe that God is calling us to do in the town of Putnam, Thompson, Woodstock, and Killingly. By meeting our neighbors, serving the foods, giving clothing, sitting with them, God wants us to be the voice for them calling the, “the Beloved.” When people are disinherited, suffer physically and emotionally, feel alone with no one who care about them, or just go through difficult times in their lives, God wants us to remind them who they are and to whom they belong. “You are the beloved of God.” When we sit at the table with them, break the bread, and hold their hands, we realize that the kingdom of God is right here with us on this earth. I invite you to turn to your neighbors and say, “You are beloved by God, no matter who you are, no matter what you have gone through, you are still beloved of God.”

 

Would you please stand if you are able, and sing together with us “Jesus Loves Me?”

 

 

[1] Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation: Matthew, 21.

January 1 – The Lamentation of Rachel

Date: January 1, 2017

Text – Matthew 2:13-23

 

It is the New Year. 2016 is no more. 2017 has arrived. I am sure that people gathered for celebration yesterday. No more Christmas tree. No more Christmas caroling. People might say, “It is a time to move on.” For those who still have Christmas decoration and tree in their house, let me share with you good news. For Christians, the season of Christmas is not over yet. Christmas actually ends with Epiphany which is January 6. So, if you tell me that you still have Christmas tree and wreath on your door, I believe that you are not procrastinating at all. You are just faithful Christians who understand how Christian calendar works.

So, before the season of Christmas ends next week with the story of how Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, I want to invite you again to the story of how our Savior came to this world and what happened at that time that still speaks the truth to our world today. The three wise men from the East came to pay the homage to the baby Jesus. After worshiping him, they were warned in their dream not to go back to King Herod since he asked them to tell him where he could find the baby Jesus when he actually wanted to kill him. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in the same way in his dream and told him, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Joseph got up in the dark midnight and brought his family to Egypt. And here comes the trouble. When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. And the Gospel of Matthew says, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children.” The lamentation of Rachel.

Some of us might think that Christmas is a season to be happy and celebrate. Lamentation does not fit in with the mood of the holiday. As a matter of fact, when we come to the church, we should not hear any negative message. We only want some encouraging and positive messages. Bishop William Willimon is a retried bishop who ministered in Northern Alabama Conference. He tells when he was pastoring a church in Atlanta Georgia, being approached by a woman in his church after the worship service. She said, “You know, Will? I quite like the message from this pastor in Houston, TX, whose sermon is aired on TV. He always preaches some positive message unlike you.” Bishop Willimon paused for second and responded, “Of course, he can preach a positive message unlike me because he does not know you.”

In Christianity today, it seems that the message that preaches prosperity seems to prevail in many churches. A distorted message that if you just put your trust in God, you will be greatly rewarded with wealth and good health. All you need to do is just to be positive about yourself then God will do all the magical works. Such message does not share any moral challenges in our society. Such message does not recognize that there are unjust suffering and pain in this world especially for those who are vulnerable and oppressed. Such message does not preach the full gospel because it does not include the lamentation. It is not willing to share the pain and burden of mothers like Rachel who lose their children in hunger, famine, war, and illness. But tell them, “If you just switch the mode of your mind, all will work out in God’s plan.” It neglects the pain and cry of the poor and marginalized.

And yet, the wailing and lamentation of Rachel are still here persistently drawing our attentions because they indicate the reality of our broken world today. In the story from Matthew, the lamentation of Rachel is caused by King Herod also known as Herod the Great. I can tell you that King Herod was a vulnerable person who was not supposed to be the king so he exercised violence and manipulation to keep his kingship. He was not born as a Jewish origin. His family was the offspring of Edomite, a foreign country, that later converted to Judaism. In growing up in the Jewish community, Herod was probably mocked by his friends and neighbors that he was not a Jew, but a foreigner who did not belong there. He was treated like an outsider but determined that he would alter the course of his life by becoming a leader of this country.

Later, Herod was initially appointed governor of Galilee because of his loyalty to the Roman Empire in his support for Hyrcanus. However, when Antigonus, Hyrcanus’ nephew took the throne from his uncle, he went to Rome to plead with the Roman council. I guess he was successful in his persuasion because he was appointed as the king of the Jews by the Roman Senate. A foreigner who was mocked and finger pointed by others now came the ruler and king. But he wanted to secure his position not just by the decree of the Roman government but also by the family and blood. So, he abandoned his wife, Doris, and his young son, Antipater, and chose to marry the granddaughter of Hyrcanus. He not only left them for another marriage but also banished them. So, when he heard from the three wise men that a king of Jew was born in Bethlehem, he felt vulnerable and challenged in his kingship. He was determined to do anything to find this baby Jesus and kill him.

The story of Herod tells us that we need to watch out when the people in leadership care more about their privilege and position than the well-being of people they are entrusted to serve. When they are vulnerable and insecure, they are often willing to harm the innocent and weak to cover their weakness. At least, that is what is happening with South Korea today. President Park was recently impeached by the parliament because of her corruption. In the meantime, she was not supposed to become the president of Korea in the first place because she is a daughter of dictator who arrested, tortured, and executed anyone who challenged the government in 1970s. On April 16 2014, a ferry that carried over 500 passengers sunk in the middle of the ocean. And the speculation today is that President Park actually permitted this to happen in order to cover for the rigged election. It is still mysterious what she did for 7 hours after 300 high school students were drowning in the ferry. But the wailings and lamentation of the mothers and fathers who lost their children still continue on today.

Matthew says that when Rachel was weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled. There is a saying in Korea that when you lose your parents, you bury them in the grave. But when you lost your children, you bury them in your heart. Many of us were shocked to hear the death of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds this week. “Singing in the Rain” was the first Hollywood I watched as a kid. I fell in love with Debbie Reynolds – her beauty and her singing and acting. In growing up as her daughter, Carrie Fisher shared that it was not easy to live as her daughter. In her memoir, she says, “I think it was when I was ten that I realized with profound certainty that I would not be, and was in no way now the beauty that my mother was.” Fisher had started smoking marijuana at 13, and became out of control with her drug use in hear early 20s. When her daughter tried to estrange herself, Reynolds never gave up on her daughter. Only one day after Fisher died from heart attack, Reynolds passed away. Her son, Todd Fisher said, “She didn’t die of a broken heart. She just left to be with Carrie.”

Even as I speak at the pulpit this morning, I would never understand the tragedy of mother who loses her child. When we lose our child, there is nothing that could possibly compensate. There are no words to comfort. But people come and tell you, “It is a time to move on. It is not good for your health.” You often wonder if it is because they really care about your health, or because they are not comfortable with the situation in which they do not know what to say. Sometimes, it is better not to say anything but just be present in the midst of tragedy and loss. But because people are uncomfortable not being able to say the right words, they say the wrong thing. But Matthew says that Rachel refused to be consoled because they are no more.

When we share the sorrow and sit with those who grieve and suffer today, we sing the song of lamentation. We may not be able to answer why something like happened to the innocent children in Bethlehem. But when we sing the song of lamentation together, we come to realize that we are not alone but surrounded by the presence of God who surely does not abandon us alone but walks with us in this journey. In the midst of the tragedy, we witness how God works in this world in God’s grace. God warns the three wise men, the foreigners who had a different religion, different ethnicity, and different culture not to return to King Herod. God warns Joseph, the step father of the baby Jesus, in his dream not to go home but live as refugees. God chose the most unlikely people to protect the life of this new born baby who would redeem the world from its sins later.

The lamentation of Rachel wound become the lamentation of Mary, as she would watch the death of her son on the cross bearing the sins of the world. But in the midst of tragedy and despair, we find the hope arising in God. Singing the song of lamentation is not an act of distrust in God. Rather, it is deeply grounded in the faithfulness of God who would surely step in and help us in times of trouble. Someone said that the opposite of love is not anger, but indifference. When we completely lose our love for someone, we suddenly realize that we are not even angry with that person anymore because there is no more hope. There is no more expectation. But when we still have hope for amendment, we express our anger with those in relationship. Walter Brueggemann, Hebrew Bible scholar, says, “The laments are refusals to settle for the way things are. They are acts of relentless hope that believes no situation falls outside of Yahweh’s capacity for transformation.”[1] The song of lamentation is a sign of our hope in God.

If you still wonder why we speak of the song of lamentation on this first day of New Year, I believe that God calls us to sing the song and pray the prayer of lamentation because that is where we will find the grace of God at work today. Still, there are hundreds of children in Aleppo, Syria, being bombed watching their parents and siblings die. Instead of avoiding the cries of their mothers, we sing the song of lamentation with hope that we will indeed lay down the weapons and live side by side together. Still, there are over 14,000 death every year in this country who die from gun violence. Among the casualty is over 3,000 children and teenagers who are victimized by the gun policy.[2] As children of God, we should not avoid the lamentation of their mothers but sing with them together.

There is an all-time favorite hymn for many people. Great Is Thy Faithfulness. The hymn is actually based on the song of Lamentation – Lamentation 3:22-24. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great if your faithfulness.” It was written by Thomas Chisholm. Born in a log cabin in Franklin, Kentucky, Chisholm became a Christian when he was twenty seven and entered the ministry when he was thirty six. However, his poor health forced him to retired only after one year. While working as a life insurance agent, Chisholm still wanted to find a way to praise God’s goodness. He says, “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me nay wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”

 

If you are able, would you please stand with me and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”?

 

 

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology, 29

[2] http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/past-tolls