Sermon: Peace in the Midst of Fear

Date –  April 23, 2017

 

Text – John 20:19-31

Title – Peace in the Midst of Fear

 

Last week on Easter morning, we shared the story about Mary Magdalene who went to the tomb while it was still dark and found that his body was missing. Later, Jesus came and she thought that he was a gardener. What a dramatic reunion after the dreadful time of death! We celebrate together singing, “Christ Lord is risen today.” And we come to the very next passage in the scripture, the gospel from John. Mary already told Jesus’ disciples that he was risen from the dead. Guess what they are doing now. They gathered in a secret place and locked the door behind them. Why do they do that?  John tells us that they feared the Jewish leaders. They saw what happened to Jesus. People shouted, “Hosanna!” and welcomed him as he rode on a donkey and entered the city. And the next day, they shouted, “Crucify him! Kill him!” Although the political leader like Pilate could not find him guilty, he sentenced him to the cruelest punishment for the worst criminal – dying on the cross slowly and painfully. And Jesus’ disciples are worried that that is the same fate they will have to face if they are caught by the religious leaders. They feel that their lives are threatened.

Have you ever been there? That your life feels threatened. Personally, I feel like it might not be a bad thing to learn some martial arts before planning to travel in the airplane these days. Anyway, we may say, “I don’t know. I guess I am ok. After all, I live in the United States, the most powerful country in the world.” There have been 200 school shooting in America since 2013.[1] That is like an average of nearly one a week. I guess I am ok because I don’t go to school anymore and my kids are done with school. Many seniors today are forced to choose between paying for health care of buying groceries? I guess I am ok because I am still young and working. Or I have saved enough money for my retirement. Many immigrants live with anxiety that they might be separated from their children and forced to go back to their country facing poverty and violence. I guess I am ok because I am a U.S. citizen. Many war veterans come home often Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder constantly feeling anxiety and fearful, and often suffer from moral injury. I guess I am ok because I never went to a war.

The story can continue on. And we can say that we do not really feel threatened in our lives. But guess what? Just imagine for a second that you are raising your voice for these people that I just mentioned. We start to raise our voice against gun violence and support gun-control. We protest against the cost of health care and welfare for our senior citizens. We care for the immigrants whether they are legal or illegal and urge the government not to deport them back to their country but give them a fair opportunity. Instead of just calling our war veterans heroes, praising their acts of patriotism, we start to listen to their stories of moral consciousness and pain. Just imagine for a second that you join the protest in Boston shouting, “Black Lives Matter!” You stand there to support equal treatment for everyone by supporting their movement. All of sudden, we are labeled as dangerous or threat to the status-quo of our society. And I am sure that we will feel threatened in our lives as well.

Isn’t that why Jesus’ disciples are hiding in fear and locked the door behind them? When the religion condemned the tax-collectors and adulterous women, Jesus forgave them and invited them to the table. When the society drove the lepers and sick outside the community, Jesus healed them and brought them back to their families and friends. Children are so noisy. They are naive and do not understand the adult conversation. Please keep them out so we can listen to you better, said his disciples and people. Jesus invited a child to sit on his lap and blessed the child. Jesus was rebellious to many societal code and ethics of his time. “Jesus, we have our own way of keeping peace for our religion and society. Please leave us at peace.” Jesus was seen as a threat to the status quo because he cared for those on the margin of the society and radically invited them to the kingdom of God. That was why he was killed on the cross labeled as a threat to the society and religion.

And whenever we, the good people who want to follow Jesus, feel threatened in our peace, the way we do the worship, the way we do the fellowship, the way we do the mission, the way we select leaders, the way we raise our children, the way we spend our money, are challenged, we want to gather in a safe place, lock the door and say, “Keep out.” We claim that we want peace. But by peace, we mean the absence of trouble, any threat to the way of our living. As long as we do not lose our control on our lives, control on our family, control on our work control on the way we run the church, we have peace. When we feel that our power, privilege, and life are at risk, that is what we do. We only prefer our own survival by hiding in our safe zone to facing the trials and sharing the burdens of others as our own.

I remember this young man from my first church in New Hampshire. Many in the town knew him as he walked around the town because he did not own a car. He had a long hair uncombed and untangled. No one knows when it was the last time he took a shower. His pants were torn here and there. He was not a homeless but lived a very lonely life. One Sunday, he came to our church by walking 1 hour 20 minutes from his house to the church. I could see some of the eyes were uncomfortable as he walked around the church. I saw a parishioner shook his hand with him and turned around and rubbed his hand on his pants. I was afraid if he would feel welcomed because he was making lots of people uncomfortable. But he kept coming back to the church every Sunday. One day, I was sipping a cup of coffee with him in the downtown. I asked him, “So, what motivates you to walk all the way from your house to the church on Sundays?” He said, “It is because everyone at the church treats me like a king.” Then I learned that in the midst of fear from some, there were people who asked him if he needed a ride back home. People who asked him if he had foods in his house.

The good news in the Gospel story is that Jesus comes through the door. He does not even knock on the door saying, “It is me. Please let me in.” He just goes through the door miraculously. My guess is that the disciples were so fearful that they probably would not believe even if Jesus called their names. They probably thought that those trying to capture them imitated the voice of Jesus so they could lure them out the door. After he comes through the door, what do you think he would say to them? “Ta-da! See? I told you that I would be resurrected!” “Hey guys, Did you miss me? Here I am!” Instead, he says, “Peace be with you.” He says, “peace.” In the midst of fear, grief, and turmoil, Jesus gives them peace from God. For God, peace is not the absence of the trouble. Rather, peace comes to us right in the middle of sharing the suffering for Christ. For Christians, Christ himself is the peace that God promises to us.

Several years ago, I visited Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA where Martin Luther King Jr. was the pastor along with his father. With the new building as the current site for worship service, the old building has been modified as a museum for MLK and the civil rights movement. In the middle of the place, I saw a picture of MLK locked in jail looking out the window. The picture was when he was locked in Birmingham. In April 1963, the court issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing.” In other words, the city was telling the protesters demanding racial equality and justice, “Go back to your home. We do not want any trouble. We just want peace in our society.” But MLK along with other leaders were roughly arrested and locked in the jail. While he was in the cell, he saw a newspaper smuggled by an ally that had a statement from eight white Alabama clergyman against King, basically saying, “Bring your fight to the court. We want peace  on the street.”

The newsletter promoted MLK to write his response, which later became known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He says, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

As I reflect on us as the Easter people, I think that we are not a group of people that seeks peace defined by this world – absence of trouble. But I think that we are a group of people seeking trouble instead. We seek trouble because we care for the people rejected and neglected by our society and even church. We seek trouble because we believe that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We seek trouble our very Lord, Jesus Christ, died on the cross for disobeying the rules of his society and religion in his radical love for people. We know that the very peace we seek is none other than Jesus who also sends us out to the world saying, “As my Father has sent me, I also send you.”

A Christmas hymn was written by Edmund Hamilton Sears, a Unitarian minister in Wayland, MA, in 1849. They say that it was a tough time for many. The California Gold Rush was creating excitement but seriously disrupted the lives of many caught up in Gold Fever. The Industrial Revolution was uprooting people from their small farms to the cities where they often experienced poverty. And you know that the tensions over slavey would plunge the nation into a terrible war very soon. In that context, Sears wrote a hymn “It came upon the midnight clear” with Jesus bringing peace to a weary world.

 

It came up-on the mid-night clear, that glo-rious song of old,

from an-gels bend-ing near the earth, to touch their harps of gold:

Peace on the earth, good will to men, from heaven’s all gra-cious King

The world in sol-emn still-ness lay, to hear the an-gels sing.

 

When the world was raging in storm with oppression, hopelessness, violence, God sent Jesus as a meek baby who was sleeping in the manger surrounded by his loving parents, stinking animals, and foreigners watching him. This baby grows and bears the sins of many and goes right into the cross for us. And the question for us is, “Are we also wiling to abandon our own sense of peace and seek the peace he offers as we go out to the world to face the messiness of our lives?” “Are we ready to encounter the Risen Christ who comes through the door of our fear and celebrate with him?”

 

[1] https://everytownresearch.org/school-shootings/

Sermon (Easter Sunrise)

Date – April 16, 2017 (Easter Sunrise Service)

Title – I Have Seen the Lord

Text – John 20:1-18

 

Many churches in New England tend to gather at the water to celebrate Easter Sunrise Service. It is probably to face the rising sun at dawn and be reminded how the light overcame the darkness in Christ’s resurrection. Or it could be the water reminds the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples according to the Gospel of John. He invited his disciples to the breakfast and ate the fish they just caught fresh. But what happens in the very beginning of Easter story takes place at the cemetery. It is probably not the best place we want to do in our daily basis. No one says, “Honey, let’s go out for a picnic today. Let’s go to the cemetery.” Cemetery is the most dreadful place in the world reminding us the pain in losing someone we love. It is a place of emptiness and death.

When I was attending Boston University for theological education, I attended a predominantly black church in Boston. I still remember Chantal, a prayer warrior, who went up to the lectern upon the invitation of the pastor and prayed fire on the congregation. She was a woman of deep faith and love. She had divorced her husband many years ago. When she learned that her ex-husband was diagnosed with terminal illness and no one to take care of him, she graciously took him in her house and treated him. After he passed away, she stopped by at his tomb everyday either on her way to work or after her work. She was emotionally broken to the point that some of the mother saints at the church had to step up and tell her that she stop going to the cemetery everyday.

And I can see Mary approaching in the cold morning still in the darkness because she was deeply grieving. She probably knew that she could not get into the tomb because the stone blocked the entrance. I honestly don’t know what she was trying to find there except that she was feeling empty and broken. And that is probably many Christians do not gather at the cemetery for Easter Sunrise Service because it symbolizes emptiness, brokenness, and even failure. And yet, we know that Jesus comes and meets Mary at the tomb because the grace of God comes and surrounds us when we feel like we lose our hope and fall into despair. As Frederick Buechner said in Telling the Truth, there is the bad news before good news.

Jesus asks Mary, “Woman, why are you crying?” I do not know if Jesus is trying to maximize the emotions of celebration by taking his time. When I was at the elementary school, I would come home with my face looking unhappy. My mother knew that I had the school exams that day and worried that I did not do well from the exams. She would sympathize and tried to comfort me saying, “Son, it is ok. You can always do better next time.” When she looked as sad as me, then I would pull the exam out of my backpack that says A. “Mom, it’s ok. I got A from the exam today.” She would grab my cheek painfully but celebrate with me together over the good news I had from the day.

Jesus wants Mary to name her pain – why she is crying. I hear that is what God is also asking us today. Why are you here? Why are you in pain? Why are you crying? Maybe some of us failed as parents. We regret that we could have done better as parents with more understanding and love. Maybe some us here grieve over the loss of our loving ones. We wish that we told them how much we loved them while they were still with us. Maybe some of us need just some message of hope and courage because the world as it is seems groan in pain with war, terrorism, racism, sexism, and genocide. Wherever we might come from, the risen Christ knows us as we are and calls us by our name. Jesus calls her name, “Mary.” Her eyes are opened and recognize that it is Christ who is risen from death.

Christ turns our sorrow to joy, crying to laughter. Death is conquered. We shout Hallelujah because the risen Christ is the sign that there is nothing in this world that can separate us from the love of God. There is nothing in this world that can deny that we are beloved children of God despite our failure, imperfectness, and desperation. Christ comes to us and meets us where we are in the midst of our sins and brokenness and make us new creation since we abide in his grace. The resurrection of Christ is also the promise for our resurrection. Paul says in Romans 6, “If we have been united with him in a death like this, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. If we have died with Christ, we will also live with him.”

When I was a teenager, we had a pastor in the neighborhood. He had two children, a daughter and son. Both of them loved their parents and loved God. One day, his son went out to the lake in the town with his friends to swim on a hot sunny day. But he did not come back home that day because he drowned. The whole town was devastated to hear such a tragedy. Lots of people stopped by in their effort to comfort him and his wife. But none of them could ease the pain in his heard feeling like he had no reason to live anymore. He was supposed to go to the church and preach the good news at the pulpit. But he felt completely empty and nothing to offer to the people at all.

One day, my father told me that this pastor called him to tell him an incredible story as churches were getting ready for Easter. He had a dream at night and saw his son laughing and playing in the kingdom of God. There was no voice from God. He just watched his son alive than ever rejoicing in the presence of God. When he woke up, he could believe that the resurrection of Christ was real than ever. He could join Mary in claiming, “I have seen the Lord!” because Christ who is raised from death would bring him and his son together in God’s glory. There is nothing in this world that can separate us from the love of God through Christ who deeply loves us as God’s children.

As Mary became the first witness of Christ’s resurrection and spread the good news, I pray that we also become the witnesses of resurrection today. As God raised Christ from death, when God raise us from despair, emptiness, and frustration, we have no option but to stand courageously and say, “I have seen the Lord.” In the middle of cemetery, the most dreadful place, the symbol of death and failure, we meet the risen Christ who tells us, “Peace be with you.” I pray that God give you peace in your heart today. I pray that God give healing in your family today. I pray that God give new life in your congregation today. And I pray that God give love and grace to our community and nation today.

Easter Egg Hunt

Easter Egg Hunt

Date: April 15 (Saturday) 2 PM

Place: Parsonage (26 Eden St. Putnam)

Come with your children, grandchildren, and their friends. We will gather the eggs and play fun games together. We will also share with them the meaning of Easter.

 

egg-hunt

Sermon: The Gift of Temptation

Date: April 2, 2017

 

Text – Matthew 4:1-11

Title – The Gift of Temptation

 

Jim Grant in Reader’s Digest told about someone else who faced temptation. An overweight businessman decided it was time to shed some excess pounds. He took his new diet seriously, even changing his driving route to avoid his favorite bakery. One morning, however, he showed up at work with a gigantic coffee cake. Everyone in the office scolded him, but his smile remained nonetheless. “This is a special coffee cake,” he explained. “I accidentally drove by the bakery this morning and there in the window was a host of goodies. I felt it was no accident, so I prayed, ‘Lord, if you want me to have one of those delicious coffee cakes, let there be a parking spot open right in front.’ And sure enough, the eighth time around the block, there it was!”

It seems that many of us do not really talk about temptations. Maybe, it is easy to consider the light side of temptation by thinking about how to overcome our temptation with the chocolate, ice cream, or ice cream. If we are more serious about it, we might think of the A.A. group that meets weekly celebrating the story of overcoming the temptation to the alcohol or substance use. But at one point in our life, we deal with many temptations whose consequences could be devastating. A couple of Sundays ago, I heard that our Sunday school taught the Ten Commandments. And one of the children raised her hand and asked, “What is adultery?” As I heard the story, we all laughed together. But it is a serious matter, as we all know that the consequence of adultery is brokenness to our marriage or someone’s.

But in today’s sermon, I want to address more about temptation as not such as good versus evil, somewhat easy to distinguish. But I mean more as what looks good versus what is faithful. William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. He drew “The Second Temptation” that illustrates the temptation story of Jesus in the middle of the wilderness. What is interesting about this painting is that the person that stands next to Jesus looks more like a Hebrew prophet. He looks pious and sincere but actually is Satan who is tempting Jesus to jump from the top of the pinnacle. He does not have horns on his head, or fangs in his mouth. He does not hold pitchforks in his hand. The painting probably describes the nature of temptation in more foundational way – temptation lures us into believing that we are actually doing something good, not necessarily doing something bad.

After Jesus was baptized, the Gospel tells us that the Spirit drove him to the wilderness. It is interesting that Jesus taught us how to pray saying, “Deliver us from the temptations.” God gives us strength to overcome when we deal with temptation. But God does not promise our life free of temptations. As it is our human condition, Jesus also participates in it by obeying the command to go to the wilderness. He fasts for 40 days. Just imagine how famished he was after days and nights of hunger and thirst. When he is panting in agony, Satan comes to him and whispers to his ear, “If you are the Son of God, why don’t you turn these stones into bread?” I hear from his whisper that Jesus is tempted to save himself. He is to help himself. There is nothing wrong about caring for your own needs.

It makes sense to us. I hear many Christians argue, “Jesus said love your neighbors as yourselves. Jesus did not exclude ourselves from the object of love and care.” There is nothing wrong with self-care. Even Jesus sometimes withdrew to a remote place where he could rest and pray alone. We need to tend to ourselves and help ourselves. But the problem is that we build a wall around ourselves and our life becomes just about us. It is about my health. It is about my family. It is about my marriage. It is about my children. It is about my vacation. There are plenty of Christian preachers who lure us with such message today. “Just be positive in your mind about yourself. You are blessed. You are good. You are wonderful.” There is no language of sin, brokenness, and suffering in the world. There is no justice, righteousness. In a way, the worst enemy of Christianity today is not Islam, but group of Christianity that promotes individualistic happiness as the ultimate goal of Christianity.

But Jesus responds to his adversary saying, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” It is very easy to respond to our immediate needs and be satisfied with that. But Jesus resists such temptation by trusting in God who is the source of our life. Jesus becomes the true bread for all of us. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a ministry consultant. I told her that I was upset with many churches in our conference that all their ministries have become nothing but fundraisings. Some of them say, “We are here to exist. What’s wrong about collecting some money from the neighborhood so we can continue our tradition and memory in this church?” She took a moment to contemplate and said, “Bob, many churches are struggling with spiritual depression. After they struggle financially and spiritually for a while, they come to the point where they can do nothing but stay open. There is no mission. There is evangelism.”

After the first temptation with turning the stone into bread, Satan brings him to the pinnacle of the temple and whispers, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” Satan even quotes from the scripture, “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Simply put, he is saying, “You are not going to die.” It seems that Satan is telling Jesus, “Go and destroy yourself.” The second temptation is self-destruction. It is interesting that our human nature is that we often seek thrill and pleasure when we stand on the verge between death and life. Before I married Sungha, we went to Six Flags in Springfield, MA. I am not a big fan of the rollercoaster. I had the worst day sick to my stomach while Sungha had the best day in her life.

In a more serious matter, self-destruction lures us into believing that there is nothing wrong with destroying ourselves. I hear Satan whispering, “Do you really think that you are going to save the world? Give me a break. Let’s see if you can save yourself. You can try if the angels would come and protect you. What do you have to lose? If you die, you do not have to go through all the pain and suffering through the trials, whipping, and dying on the cross. Just finish it already.” Such whispering takes away one’s purpose of life. It encourages one to be satisfied with eternal amnesia.

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to speak with a social worker from Putnam High School. She was very concerned about the legalization of drugs in the country. I know that legalization has been a political issue centered on criminalization. But she was deeply worried about the health of many young people who would be exposed to more drugs. Monica and other adults work with a group called SAAD to encourage young people in Putnam to make healthy choices in their lives by avoiding drugs and alcohols. But I believe that it should be adults who maintain healthy lives first so that young people could adopt such mentality and learn from us. Adults need to stay away from drugs for substance use. Adults be healthy in their mind, body, and spirit, instead of choosing self-destruction. Jesus responds to the adversary, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” He responds to the second temptation that is based on the scripture with scripture.

At this point, Satan is frustrated and comes up with the final temptation. He takes Jesus to a very high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. “If you fall down and worship me just this once, I will give all these to you.” Just imagine that someone takes us to the top of Empire Building in the New York City and shows us around all the beauty of the city at night. And you hear, “you see this beautiful city? If you show me any sign of respect this once, I will give all this to you. The Time Square. Central Park. Rockefeller Center. All these buildings and houses will be yours.” Think about how rich you will be. Why not show a little sing of respect and own all these things? The third temptation is a temptation to worship something else other than God who has created this world and created us.

And the purpose of such temptation is to divert our attention from worship God. God created us to love and worship God in the beginning. The image of God in all of us indicate the intimate relationship with God founded on the love of God for us. When we seek God with all our minds and hearts, God gives us joy and happiness in our hearts that are different from that in this world. It is not temporary joy and happiness that we have today and lose suffering emptiness tomorrow. Rather, it is joy and happiness that grow in our heart knowing that we know the purpose of our lives why we are here and how God is shaping us and molding us as God’s instrument. But we lose our focus of our worship when we worship something else.

In our world today, I believe that it is easy to translate such temptation as self-worship. Jesus is told that he can seek his own privilege, affirmation, and respect. And in our culture, we are tempted to do the same thing especially through the social network service. In the Forbes magazine, a team of psychology warned that social media narcissism is on the rise. That’s not to say that everyone on social media is a narcissist but it is where these people tend to hang out. People share often what happens on Facebook and Twitter because their content appears at the top of the newsfeed. As they become the center of attention, they expect how many people would affirm their picture or posting with like or wonderful praise.

You know, I have done that myself as well. When I was struggling with ministry, I put posting that says how wonderful I was doing with my ministry. Or just post pictures of my life such as selfie or picture of my family. Of course, people would say nice things here and there trying to encouraging me. But the issue does not go away. If the struggle comes from physical relationship with another person, I am called to go and sit with that person and be reconciled. Social media is not the place where I need to go and express my emotion to wide audience without any filtering. If the struggle comes from my relationship with God, then I need to kneel in my heart before God and healed spiritually. Instead of seeking my own comfort and affirmation, we need to remain silent so that the Holy Spirit may speak to us whether whispering or thunder-striking. And Jesus answers, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

The good news is that we are not alone in this constant struggle to answer such a question. Jesus already prevailed the devil by trusting in God’s words. That is what Jesus also invites us to do; to prevail our temptations by trusting in God’s words. Blaise Pascal once said, “It is vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your insight only lead you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good.” Maybe the gift in times of temptations is that we can rely on God more that ever as the source of revealing who we are meant to be and what we are called to do. We do not necessarily follows what seems good to us, or what makes sense to us culturally. Instead, we follow what is faithful to God. Amen.