Sermon: Draw the Circle Wide

Date- August 20, 2017

Text: Matthew 15:21-28

Title: Draw the Circle Wide

 

I need to confess that I have some story with the text from today. It was the text to preach from when I was taking the preaching course at Boston University. When you prepare a sermon or speech, there is a principle that you need to have one theme sentence. After hearing my sermon, Dr. Dale Andrews, my preaching professor, challenged me, “Man, do I hear that you are trying to say that this text is so mysterious that you don’t quite understand?” I answered, “Yes, that is correct.” “Why?” he asked again. “Well, how can Jesus call this poor woman ‘a dog’ and say such harsh words? I just don’t understand why he would do that.” He challenged me more seriously, “Why can’t you call Jesus a racist if he is one then?” I said, “I can never call Jesus a racist.” I went back to dormitory but still deeply troubled in my heart.

How about you? What do you think? Do you think that Jesus is a racist in this story? If we want to understand why Jesus is treating her harshly, we need to understand the context where Jesus and the woman come from. This conversation is happening in the district of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon are cities located on the west coast of the current Israel. These cities were occupied by mostly Gentiles who flourished by successful trade. While many of these gentiles were growing rich with trade, they often exploited from the Jewish community in the land that depended on agriculture. So, imagine for a second that Jewish community that suffered from the political and social oppression by the Roman Empire and at the same time experiencing poverty while the Gentiles in Tyre and Sidon were experiencing abundance.

When Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he is pointing to his own people and community that needed some good news for that day. Jesus is arguing with the Canaanite woman that we are the ones that are suffering now. You already have enough for today. Jesus is drawing the circle of his own community. And he is pointing out the circle where she belongs. It is a mentality of us versus them, mentality of we versus the others. I believe that such mentality is what caused the tragedy of violence in Charlottesville, and triggers division politically in our society today. I would like to believe that most people in our town would not participate in such a mob bringing torches and wearing hoods. But even those who do not participate would hold such a view that it is about us versus them.

It is about whether we are republicans or democrats. It is about whether we are citizens or non-citizens. It is about whether we are born here or not born here. It is about whether we are evangelical Christians or progressive Christians. It is about whether we are whites or blacks. It is about whether we are heterosexuals or homosexuals. The list can go on and on but what holds these together is that we draw our own circles regarding who we are and it is by our human nature that we want to protect our interest, tradition, history, culture, or people intact. And we even see from our text today that Jesus is participating in belonging to his own circle. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He even goes further rejecting the request of this woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Ecumenical doctrine among many Christian churches affirm the belief that Jesus is the perfect God and at the same time the perfect human being. He was born into a Jewish family of Joseph and Mary. His family gathered for the celebration of Sabbath, and celebrate the Passover in remembering how God delivered God’s people from the slavery in Egypt. He and his friends went to the synagogue and were taught in the Torah and other Rabbinic tradition. He walked around his town watching poor people being beaten by the Roman soldiers because they could not pay the taxes. He saw his own women being ridiculed and made fun of by the soldiers. After all, Jesus is a Jewish young man who knew his tradition and shared the struggle of his own community. When we see our own family or community suffers, isn’t it what we are supposed to do? We protect our people. We put our people first. We fight for our people.

But you see here, the writer of Matthew tells us that this Canaanite woman is persistent. She insists Jesus grant her wish because it is not about her; it is about her daughter who is being tormented by a demon. It is possible that she tried everything. She went to see a doctor but was told that there is nothing wrong physically with her and no treatment available. She went to see a priest of her own religion but was told that there was nothing he could do. Whether you come from America, Korea, the Philippines, Russia, or any other countries, I believe that the one thing that is universal in all cultures is that we are willing to do anything for the well-being of our child or to save the life of our child. And this woman is even willing to suffer the humiliation from Jesus as long as she can hold onto the hope that her child would be healed.

And she makes an incredible statement that shows how far a devastated mother or father is willing to go. She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She is saying, “I may not hold the equal status as you or your people. But I still beg you to show mercy to my dying child.” “I ask you to show compassion to my suffering people.” And Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the scripture tells us that her daughter was healed instantly. Jesus had the circles where he belonged and where she belonged. They could not be crossed over. But he crosses the circle here. He changes his mind. And this to me is the good news I believe that God is giving us today.

Or I would like to believe that he is drawing the circle wider because he does not abandon his own people, the Jewish community that suffers politically, economically, and spiritually. He continues to be their Messiah sharing the good news and performing the miracles. But because of the faith of this Canaanite woman, Jesus now even goes to the towns in the Gentile area and minister to the foreigners. It is not like Jesus is simply abandoning the circle A and move on to circle B. But he draws the circle A bigger and wider so that he can include circle B. In our society, we are experiencing many changes – our value, our family, our people, our politics, so rapidly that we feel like we are losing what we once stood for. And Jesus definitely understands that because he is a perfect human being. But he draws the circle wider to embrace those who are considered outside our family, our community, our religion and share the good news.

Some people might consider such a message as political. Oh, it is social gospel message. But it is also deeply rooted in personal holiness, our relationship with God. It is because we are once considered as the enemy of God. In Romans 5:10, Paul says, “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” Our sins alienated us from our relationship with God making us believe that we can be happy in this world without God’s love for us. And the consequence of such alienation from God is death. God could have stayed in God’s own circle. But God comes to us by sacrificing God’s only Son, Christ, so that we might live eternally with God. And God does that for us who were once considered as the enemy of God, who is God calling us today to reach out and be reconciled with?

In our troubled time watching the hate groups of KKK and Neo-Nazis marching in the middle of the university campus in Virginia, I am drawn to a picture of Jewish mother holding and kissing her daughter one last time before they were executed by the Nazi officer. I hear the cry of the mother who is shouting, “Have mercy on me; my daughter is about to be killed.” In our troubled time with the bombings and shootings in Syria, I see the picture of many Syrian mothers who hold the dead bodies of their children crying, “How long should we suffer such evil today?” I see the CNN interview with the mother of Heather Heyer who got killed by a car plowed into a group in Charlottesville. When the anchor asked her if she had some words for the person who killed her daughter, she said, “I want to be the voice she can no longer be. But I would rather have my child back.”

Let me ask you this morning. Who are the cries of mothers that Christ calls us to listen to? Who are the cries of people that Christ calls us to draw our circles of relationship wider? In the middle of our society broken with ignorance, hatred, and stereotype, I find the good news in Christ who understands us deeply as he was also the perfect human being but give us strength to step out of our comfort zone, step out of our own community of interest and right, but meet and love people in other circles radically as God loves them in God’s grace and mercy. I pray that God empowers all of us, our community, and our world to live in such radical love today. Amen.

 

Sermon: Do Not Be Afraid

Date: August 13, 2017

 

Text – Matthew 14:22-33

Title – Do Not Be Afraid

 

In 2006, I went to Nicaragua for a mission trip with both clergy and laity from New England Conference. We opened every day with devotion, visited churches, and served those who struggle with atrocities of poverty especially women and children. One day, we visited Masaya Volcano. There was a zip lining over the mountain with caldera and crater. Our group leader said, “Well, why don’t we have one of us do the zip lining?” People looked at me since I was the youngest of the group. One retired clergy said, “My insurance does not cover this.” After giving the instructions in Spanish, the staff asked me in English, “Ok?” Even before saying, “No,” I was pushed over to the top of the mountain, screaming all the way. You know what the worst of the story is? I struggle with acrophobia.

Some people feel thrilled when they deal with the fear that often risks their lives. That is why some people jump out of the airplane. Some people jump over the cliff with only wire hanging on their leg. My wife, Sungha, tells me that she did it in New Zealand. Some people will go to Woodstock Fair in September trying to enjoy some extreme rides. There is a TV show called Fear Factor that tests the participants with many gross things to eat. What kind of extreme activity have you done in your life that put you on the line between life and death? But not many of us would dare to jump into the water in the midst of storm because we believe that we can walk on the water?

The Gospel story tells us that people followed Jesus wherever he went. In seeing that they were hungry, Jesus performed a miracle of feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. After the miracle, the disciples got into the boat and went to the other side and Jesus stayed behind and went to the mountain by himself to pray. But the disciples struggled with the storm all night long. Peter, Andrew, John, James, they were all fishermen who knew the water. But there was nothing they could do in the midst of the storm just rocking from left to right and right to left. When they were stuck in the middle of the water, they saw Jesus walk toward them on the water. They were terrified and said, “It is a ghost.” They cried out in fear.

But Peter somehow took the courage and said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He got off the boat in excitement. One step. Two step. Three step. He started walking on the water. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became afraid and started to sink. As I imagine myself being Peter, I am even amazed that he even got off the boat in the first place. How many of us would say, “I am perfectly fine staying on the boat, Jesus.” But Peter responds to Jesus by asking him also to walk on the water. In zip lining, you hang onto the wire. When you jump out of the airplane, you have the parachute. But Peter has nothing to hold onto. All he has is his faith in Christ and jumps into the water.

And he is now sinking because he was terrified by the strong wind. Fear comes in and makes him fall from his trust in Christ. Although many of us were taught to have faith in Christ unlike Peter, how many of us actually sympathize with him as we recount many times when we felt like we were also sinking into the deep water with nothing to hold on? When I was a kid growing up in the countryside of Korea, we had many farmers that came to worship with us. One woman who was from Seoul married a local farmer. They were blessed with twin – boy and girl. One day, a hurricane came and swept the whole town devastating most of the farms. So devastated, the husband took his own life in front of his two children. I remember the wife came to the church every Sunday in tears as she just became a widow with twin children, not knowing anything about farming. I am sure that she felt like sinking in the water.

The Gospel of Matthew says that fear drove Peter to sink in the water. As I reflect on the scripture for today, fear came and drove Peter to death when he lost the sight of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and preacher said that fear drives us to the death of our relationship with God and our neighbors. He said, “Fear is, somehow or other, the archen­emy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.”[1]

And I believe that we are witnessing how fear can drive us to death not just personally but also socially and politically. The recent sanction by U.N is driving North Korea to threaten the U.S. with a nuclear war. And the U.S. government promises North Korea that any military threat will be met with the retaliation of fire and fury. Fear drives us to demonize North Korea that is ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world with 24 million living in extreme poverty. And the evangelical pastor is telling the government that it is the will of God to nuke the poorest country in the world. As there is the alteration of threats by the politicians, the people are the ones sinking in the water, drowning in the water of sins and brokenness.

Fear is also tearing this country apart from inside. Yesterday, there was a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville consisting of Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan armed with machine guns. We are talking about the 21st century in which many believe that we are living in a Post-Racial era where there is no racism or segregation anymore. White supremacists gather in a rally because of fear that they project on Jews, blacks, Catholics, immigrants, and women thinking that they are losing their power over to them and need to claim them. And as we remain silent thinking that this is free speech, we are all sinking in the deep water driving us to death of our morality and belief. This is not a bipartisan issue of whether you are Republican or Democratic. It is a serious challenge to our identity as a citizen, and as a believer in God.

Although Germany was labeled as the evil during the World War II, the country has been trying to confess its sin against the world and not to repeat it by establishing laws against Holocaust denial. It is labeled as a criminal law when anyone incites hatred against a national, racial, religious group, or assault the human dignity of others by insulting, or approves or denies an act committed under the rule of National Socialism.[2] While some people see it as so called “free speech,” I am reminded of what George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher, said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” And when many Christians and churches remain silent today because of fear to stand up and raise their voice, I tell you that we are sinking in the ocean either because we are afraid of the strong wind that might threaten our lives, safeties, and privileges.

But the good news I hear in the Gospel is that when Peter is drowning in the water because of fear, Jesus reaches out and pulls him out of the water. And Jesus tells him later, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18) As Eric Elnes creatively describes in “Gifts of the Dark Wood”, I can imagine that other disciples are laughing at Peter saying, “He surely knows how to sink.” Jesus knows that it is by our nature that we sink all the time. When challenges come in our lives financially, physically, emotionally, when challenges come questioning our belief and morality, we often sink in fear. But Christ comes to us and says “Take courage.” Our courage comes not from ourselves but by staying focused on Christ.

A few weeks ago, people who volunteer at the Community Café were invited to Pastor Judy’s house for a pool party. I brought Daniel with me. He is usually very excited to be around the water and fear always gets in the way. He usually dips his toes in the water but would not go into the water. All he would do is just scream. As I was in the water, I stretched my arms to him and said, “Daniel, it is ok. I will not let you go. Come to dad.” All of sudden, he jumped into the water. That was the best feeling ever as a father. It was because I realized that although he was fearful of the water, he still trusted me as his father.

As the protests in Charlottesville progress, there are Christian brothers and sisters who interlock their arms in front of people with machine guns and weapons asking, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble, hardship, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” They proclaim in peace and love, “There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In the midst of fear and threat, I believe that they are not drawn by the fear of the strong wind but focused on Christ who reaches out to them.

I am sure that some of us are struggling with some forms of fear that pull us away from our relationship with God and others. And today, I believe that our troubled society reveals that we are struggling with the fear that leads to demonizing those on the margins of our society. And we Christians are struggling with the fear that makes us hide in the walls of the church and reserve from speaking the truth. But in the midst of our fear, Christ tells us to stay focused on him because our redemption comes from him. Yes, we might sink in fear from time to time. But Christ who calls us as his sheep would never let go of our hands. As he builds his Church on the sinking rock, he is also calling you and me, even though we are not perfect in our faith, in our words, in our actions, to follow him all the way. And how would we answer to him as God’s children today?

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sermon “Overcoming Fear”

[2] Laws against Holocaust Denial, Wikipedia