Sermon: A Redemptive Dream of God

Date: September 10, 2017

Text: Genesis 37:1-11

Title: A Redemptive Dream of God: Joseph’s Story #1

 

During this summer, we went over the story of Jacob. It was a story of how God reshaped his identity from a trickster to a person of blessing. He fooled his brother in his eagerness for the birth right. He even fooled his father, Isaac, who was weak and blind. However, God called him out to the wilderness and made him go through a time of changing his identity. His original name, Jacob, meant the grabber. But God blessed him at the river after the night of wrestling and called him Israel. This month, I invite you to walk with me with the narrative of Jacob’s son, Joseph, a dreamer, through whom God delivered his entire family from the famine and brought to reconciliation.

Interestingly, Joseph’s story begins with another dysfunctional family. His father, Jacob, experienced the parental favoritism. Jacob was favored by his mother, Rebecca. His brother was favored by his father, Isaac. Although many of us believe that we equally love our children, many psychologists suggest that it is natural to admit that we favor a certain child over others due to the gender, personality, or certain need. Well, parental favoritism, however, often leads to the conflict and brokenness within the family. And the book of Genesis tells us that Joseph was the favorite of his father among his 12 children because he was born while Jacob was old.

Just imagine that parents decide to divide their inheritance for their children. They give their 15 years old pick-up truck to you. But they decide to buy a new sedan for your brother or sister. And they tell you, “We equally love you both.” Would you believe what they say? Or would you be jealous of your sibling and complain the unfair treatment from your parents? This is what Jacob does. Because he loved Joseph among other sons, he made an ornate robe with long sleeves. Joseph wore his robe to show his brothers that he was the favorite son of his father over his brothers. The scripture tells us that they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

Although the popular image of Joseph from our Sunday school and movie might describe him as a faithful man with God’s dream, we find his character, not just immature but also arrogant. The scripture says that he was a young man of seventeen. It is a wonderful age. My former parishioner who recently deceased used to tell me how he met his lovely wife from the high school when he was only 17 years old at the prom party. Some are filled with excitement for going to the college. Some are filled hope for working and starting their careers. Many 17 years old are eager to leave their parents and gain their independence from them.

I am sure that Joseph was a young man with many excitements for his future. But see after he tended the flocks with his brothers, he came home and went to his father to bring a bad report about them. “Dad, Reuben forgot to give the water to your sheep. You know, Judah only sleeps during the day while I work hard for you.” Well, his father Jacob does not correct him but allows him to be spoiled. And how more trouble comes to him because of his dreams. He had a dream that he and his brothers were binding sheaves of grain in the field. Then his sheaf rose, and the sheaves of his brothers gathered around and bowed down to it. He not only dreams but also knows what it means. But he immaturely goes to his brothers and tells them about it. And the scripture tells us that they hated him all the more.

Here is more trouble. Joseph had another dream. This time, the sun and moon and eleven stars bowed down to him. He knew that his brothers were pretty upset when he first told them about his first dream. But it seems that he is eager to upset them even more. He again goes to his brothers and tells them the dream that his entire family including his mother and father would bow down to him. Joseph lacks humility. He is so caught up in his achievement, dream, and success. It is all about him. He does not care about how others might feel about him.

How about you? What were you like when you were 17 years old? Were you filled with many visions and dreams for your future? What did you want to become as you were growing up? What kind of family did you want to make or what kind of spouse did you think you were going to meet? What was your character like? Were you a person of humility caring about others around you? I wonder how many of us can relate to Joseph that when we were 17 years old, our life revolved around us. It was about my career. It was about my house. It was about my family. It was about my success…

I admit that I can relate to Joseph when I was 17 years old. When I was in the high school, my neighborhood was notorious for its poor education. Going to a college is a choice one can make. But the chance was very limited in our town. But with the grace of God, I was able to make it to a good school through which I met my wife, Sungha. But when I was at the school, I was not grateful. I thought that I was there because I was a smart kid. I was full of complaints. I was critical of Christianity, condemned the church for its corruption and exclusivity, and everything.

For Joseph, his arrogance and insensitivity bring him to the unwanted pitfall of his life. His father, Jacob, asked him to go and check on them grazing the flocks near Shechem which was about 60 miles away from him. When he arrived at Shechem, his brothers took it as an opportunity to plot against him and even kill him. They say, “Let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him.” Just imagine how hateful his brothers were against Joseph because of his broken relationship with them over the years fueled by the favoritism of their father.

But Reuben, the first son of twelve, tries to alter the plan and save his life. “Don’t shed any blood. Let’s just throw him into this cistern in the wilderness” They were eating their meat while their brother Joseph was starving in the pit. Then they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites going on their way to Egypt. Another brother Judah says, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites instead.” Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and tried to cover up the story by killing a goat and dipping the robe that their father made for him in the blood. They brought the bad report to their father, “We found this.” Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for him saying, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.”

Joseph, a young man, spoiled by his father’s favoritism, a young man who was arrogant and self-centered, is now forced to live as a slave. He is taken out of his comfort and privilege and forced to unknown future. In “What’s your Story?” Sarah Heath insightfully suggests that God calls Joseph out to adventure through what seems like a pitfall in his life. Just like his father, Jacob was reshaped in his character through the trials under his uncle, God calls Joseph to go to unknown territory believing that God will surely walk with him and reshape his identity and alter his life. We will learn more about the redemptive plan of God through the turmoil of Joseph. But the message seems clear to me. When we think that it is all about me, God calls us tells us that it is not about us. It is actually about God. It is also about others God calls us to serve.

I was retired from the military in 2001. I was still disillusioned with my life being arrogant and self-centered. But I was not happy that although I was studying at the seminary, I did not have a call to ministry but only grumbling about the church. I was 20 years old and came to visit my uncle and aunt in Baltimore for two months. On Sundays, we always went to a Korean immigrant church. One Sunday, I decided to visit a United Methodist Church on the same block as the Korean church. The pastor was very graceful. The congregation was very diverse with white, black, and Hispanic/Latinos. I was very touched by the pastor who was full of energy and joy walking back and forth engaging the congregation. After the worship, he asked me what I was doing in Korea. When I told him that I studied theology, he said, “Oh, you should go to Boston University. I went to the school as well.”

I did not know at that time that God was speaking through the minister that God was calling me to follow God to unknown adventure. It was a journey that called me to come out of my family, friends, and comfort zone in Korea. But I am glad that I was able to follow God by God’s grace at that time. It is because I came to realize that it was not about me. Although I was an arrogant and self-centered person, God made me see an alternative reality through the congregation in Baltimore. Maybe some of us today feel like that we are trapped in the pit just like Joseph was. You are not happy about your situation because you believe that you were forced to be there. But I hope that we see the hands of God calling us to follow to unknown adventure through which God will bless not just us but also those around us.

As theologian Donald Miller says, the story we live today is a redemptive story of God. It is about how God saves us from our sins and calls us to live as God’s children in our faithful response to God’s grace. It is not about us. But it is about God. And it is about the people and God’s creation that God is calling us to go and serve in God’s love. I hope that we answer the call and follow God even though we cannot predict our future, we cannot calculate the benefit. But God has a wonderful plan for us. God has a story of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation at the end of the story for us. Let us boldly take out steps to the adventure together. Amen.

Sermon: Overcome Evil with Good

Date: September 3, 2017

Text – Romans 12:9-21

 

Around 6 am this past Tuesday, it was said that North Korea launched a ballistic missile eastward over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. According to Japanese officials, the missile broke into three pieces and landed some 730 miles off the coast of Hokkaido. If you know the history, this was not the first missile test by North Korea that fired over Japan. It happened in 1998 and 2009 as well. When things like this happen, my friends and parishioners ask me, “You must be worried about your families and friends in South Korea.” Well, the fact of matter is that South Korea has always lived in conflict with North Korea since the war in 1950. People know how to find peace in the middle of tension. But what is alarming is that North Korea claims that it has developed not just IRBM but also ICBM which stands for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile. It means that no one is safe around the world.

Although the missile test by North Korea is not new, this one was more provocative because it took place while Kim Jung-Un threatened to bomb Guam as the next target. North Korea is defined as one of the evils in the world. They are the enemies of the world peace. They must be destroyed. When we deal with any possible threat to our life, civilians, and country, we define the other party as the enemy to be destroyed. That is exactly what happened with the Iraq War in 2003 that overturned the government of Saddam Hussein. That is what happened with killing Osama Bin Laden in 2011. That is what is still happening with the war against ISIS. We are at the war with our enemies because they pose threat to our lives and even claim that they were behind the terrorism 9/11, Boston, and Paris. But the problem is that the war is not ending. Even after we take out the terrorists, they are still grown not just abroad but also home right here.

While we are struggling with the terrorism, war, and missiles, we hear the words of Paul who exhorts the Christians in Rome, “Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.” He even says, “Bless those who persecute you; but do not curse them.” I acknowledge that I also have a hard time accepting Paul’s words. Most of us might dismiss his exhortation as archaic as it can be. Above all, it sounds very counter-cultural today. You commit crime. You have to pay for it. I read so many people arrested for possessing illegal drugs in their vehicles from our local news all the time. You cause harm to others. You have to compensate for what you do to them. That is the logic of our society. That is how the law organizes our society. But Paul’s words reflect on another kingdom, not this world, but of God that values forgiveness and reconciliation.

Paul gives us two reasons why we need to overcome evil with good. One is theological that we are created in the image of God who ultimately forgives and loves. He says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” In other words, when we judge our neighbors as our enemies and take avenge by using our power and rights, we are taking the role of God who is our ultimate judge on the final day. Of course, this does not mean that we have to negate the necessity of our government, law, and justice system. They have their roles with the civic duty to uphold what we agree as law of our society. However, as St. Augustine said in the City of God, we need to recognize that our ultimate citizenship belongs to the kingdom of God.

Paul also gives us practical reason of why we need to overcome evil with good. He says, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” When someone treats us ill, the expectation is that we do the same to the person. Say the harsh words just like the person did. Strike the cheek as we are hit on our cheek. But when we repay the evil with our kindness, mercy, and friendship, we create in their hearts agony and frustration. Gandhi called non-violence as truth force. When one does not repay evil with evil, the purpose is to convert our opponent as our friend. While people see non-violent as passive tactic or sign of weakness, Gandhi saw it as the weapon of the strong that points to the truth.

When I was about 10 years old, I was sometimes bullied by this kid. He was stronger and bigger than me. So, I came up with a solution: I asked my parents to send me to Tae Kwon Do school to study the self-defense. I learned how to kick and throw punch. But the sad news was that he could still beat me because he was much stronger than me. Well, we ended up becoming friends eventually. How? I invited him to play the baseball with me at the church on Sunday morning while the adults were worshiping in the church. We often hit the ball and threw the ball in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, we broke several windows at the church and adults came out of the church looking for the suspect. The best way to eliminate your enemy is to make the person your friend. That was my lesson from my friendship with him.

As the U.S. is struggling with North Korea today, I am sure that some of us are anxious, some of us are upset, and some of us are confused. While we are still discerning what our responses should be as individual and national, Paul’s instruction might be the key to solve the conflict today. In February 2008, the New York Philharmonic went to Pyung-Yang, the capital of North Korea and performed a concert playing the national anthems of both North Korea and the United States. It is said that the event was the first significant cultural visit from the U.S. to North Korea since the Korean War. The highlight of the concert was that the orchestra ended with playing the popular Korean folk song “Arirang.” It is a song that someone is broken-hearted because his/her love is leaving her. So, one sings that his/her love shall not walk even two miles before his/her foot hurt.

I would like to invite you to watch the video with me. And see how music brings two countries, cultures, and ideologies together. Look at how the audience from North Korea is touched by the music.

As we pray for peace in this nation and world, Paul’s exhoartation sounds true as I watch this video over and over again. We do not overcome evil with evil. Rather, we overcome evil with empathy, compassion, and friendship. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, only light can drive away darkness. Let us over come evil with good by the grace of God. Amen.

 

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

Sermon: Be Clothed with the Power of God

Date: May 28, 2017

 

Text – Luke 24:44-52

Title – Be Clothed with the Power of God

 

The other day, I was visiting a parishioner from our church at Davis Place. When the nurse saw me coming, she seemed delighted. You don’t see many people seem delighted these days to see a pastor or priest walking around. But she asked me if I could spare some time to go and meet an elderly woman. I agreed to do so and walked in to her room. As soon as I entered the room, I realized that I just stepped a farewell moment. She was surrounded by her children and grandchildren who were crying with tears and giving kisses. She seemed half conscious but responsive as the people said how much she meant to all them, how much they all loved her. In the middle of farewell, I was invited to say a prayer for her bidding God to embrace her soul. As I came out of the room, I was also emotional sharing the grief and pain of the family.

Most of us are not fans of farewell. We think that we are ready. But when the moment comes, we tend to be emotional with memories of love. But it is part of our life. It is what it means to be human. As the high school students graduate, their parents need to say farewell to them if they move away for college. It is a farewell. When your family or friend decides to move to another area, it is a farewell. When we retire from our work, we think about our final words and speech for our co-workers. It is a farewell. When our family is ordered to go abroad and stationed for military work, it is a farewell. When a Methodist pastor is called by bishop to move to another church, it is a farewell. When our loving ones depart from this world, it is a farewell. All these moments become emotional with sadness because of the lives shared.

In our scripture reading, Jesus bids farewell to his disciples. The Book of Acts tells us that Jesus stayed with his disciples for 40 days after his resurrection. After reminding them why he had to die and be resurrected, he is about to taken into heaven. In Christian calendar, we call today “Ascension Day.” Although the scripture tells us that the disciples were filled with joy, I wonder if the farewell was just a joyful moment for everyone. I wonder if these was anyone who held onto Jesus’ foot saying, “Lord, you cannot leave us. We are not ready yet. Besides, who would believe that you are resurrected from death if they cannot see you physically? We need you at least another year. Please stay with us.”

The other day, I was working with the Community Café on Friday. As I was doing the dishes in the kitchen, a gentleman wanted to engage in conversation with me. When I told him that I was the pastor, it seemed that he wanted to argue with me why Christianity is all lies. He said, “Who believe such a lie that Jesus came two thousand years ago and died and resurrected? Can you prove it with any scientific evidence?” Well, if Jesus stayed two thousand years more with us till today, I could have easily showed him the physical evidence. I can imagine that there could be no war among religions. But I do not have such so I asked him what he believed. He answered, “Oh, I believe that the aliens came to the earth and created the whole civilization.”

Despite the grief in farewell and solution to doubt about his resurrection, Jesus ascends to heaven in the story today. I think that he does so because he submits to the will of God in love. Jesus submits to the will of God willingly and lovingly. In Christian doctrine, we believe that God is three in one. God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Although they are equal in status, they share one substance which is love. God exists in relationship but submits to the will of God out of love, not out of coercion.

WM Paul Young, the author of The Shack writes insightfully in his book, “Submission can be a beautiful word of relationship or a terrifying word of power and control. God is relational and therefore submits because God’s nature if other-centered and self-giving love.”[1]  As the very existence of God is relational, person to person, Christ shows us what it means to submit to another out of love when he prays at Mountain Olive before being arrested. The gospel of Luke tells us that he was in great pain prayed so sincerely that his sweat fell to the ground like drops of blood. And he prayed, “Father, if you will, please remove this cup from me. But do what you want, not what I want.” (Luke 22:42) He submits to the will of God even sacrificing his own life for the sake of others.

Jesus who submits to the will of God also shows what it means to serve others out of love. The night before he was arrested, he took a towel around his waist and lowered his back to wash the feet of his disciples. It was not a gesture of friend, but servant. Peter certainly could not let him do it because he was his teacher, master, and Son of God. So, he said, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus responded, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:8) His submission to God and others is grounded in love, not coercion or obligation. And out of his love for God, Jesus ascends to heaven so that the Holy Spirit would come and empower his disciples and followers.

Second, Jesus ascends to heaven so that the Holy Spirit would come and empower the disciples to go to the world. When Jesus turned 30 years old, he started his ministry publically. For three years, he travelled constantly, performing miracles, teaching the crowd, healing the sick, and proclaiming that the kingdom of God was already here in this world. At the same time, he nurtured his disciples for three years so that they would continue the work that Jesus had done giving the authority and power in the Holy Spirit. Although they all ran away from him, betrayed him three times, and still did not understand why Jesus had to go through death and resurrection, Jesus still gave them the power of God that turned them from people of sorrow to people of joy, people of hopelessness to people of purpose.

In the past, I once met a pastor who said, “Oh, my congregation has grown so attached to me. They tell me that I am the only one who can minister in this church. The bishop better not send me to another church. Because if she does, my church will stop participating in giving the mission share to the conference.” When a pastor elevates himself or herself as the only person favored by the congregation, I am very skeptical that the person is doing what Jesus told us or showed us to do. As the mission of the United Methodist Church is to “make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world,” our job description is to empower people to follow the way of Christ – be loving, forgiving, merciful, reconciling, and pursue justice and righteousness of God.

The Ascension of Jesus, therefore, describes the mission of the Church in the world. Jesus told his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things” (v.48) – who Jesus is and what Jesus did.” Through our faith and work, we are to be the witnesses of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. So, when the person at the Community Café challenged me saying, “Prove if Jesus was really resurrected.” My response to him was, “Christianity is not about proving with scientific fact. It is about living the story.” People whom we serve might come from places of despair, poverty, brokenness, or sickness. But when we serve out of love of Christ, they experience the power of God that transforms their lives. They also wish to follow the way of Christ by finding joy and love in their lives. They also wish to serve others.

And finally, Jesus ascends to heaven so that we become a people of anticipation and hope. In Acts 1:11, it says that the disciples looked up into the sky until they could not see him anymore. Suddenly, two men dressed in white clothes stood beside them and told them, “Why are you standing here and looking up into the sky? Jesus has been taken to heaven. But he will come back in the same way that you have seen him go.” The promise is that Jesus will come again even though no one knows the time. He will come and complete the story of redemption in fullness. Whenever we share the bread and cup, the liturgy reads, “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”

When my parents come, they usually arrive at the Boston Logan Airport. From Korea to Boston, it is about 20 hours trip including the layover. I can imagine how exhausting the trip is. But when we meet them at the gate, they beam in joy and delighted to see us as if they forgot the fatigue from the trip. And I see that is true with other families at the gate. When a soldier comes home, he or she is welcomed by the family and friends with tears being delighted to reunited again. Until then, they can only see each other through video chat on their smartphones. They can communicate through emails. Likewise, we discern the will of God through the Bible. We learn from our ancestors of faith. We encounter Christ from those we serve. But the final day comes when we will see the face of Christ directly in joy.

As we gather to worship, gather to serve others, and gather to wait, we hear the words of Christ who says, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised. But stay here until you have been clothed with power from on high.” I know that some of us struggle today. Some of us doubt. Some of us feel lost. But the good news is that Christ promises to us that God has not forgotten about you. God will send you what God has promised – the Holy Spirit who will clothe you with the power of God. God will give you the strength for today and tomorrow. God will give you the power to forgive and reconcile. God will give you the power to testify to the truth. God will give you the power to serve others and make disciples and change the world. And God will give you the power to wait until Christ comes in final victory over death and enjoined by the communion of the saints. No more tears. No more sadness. May God equip us with the power from on high today. Amen.

[1] W. B. Paul Young, Lies We Believe about God, 47.

Sermon: Follow the Shepherd

Date – May 6, 2017

Text – John 10:1-10; Psalm 23

Title – Follow the Shepherd

In 2006, I joined a mission team from New England Conference and went to Nicaragua for a week. It was a time of spiritual renewal for me as I witnessed how the Christians gathered to proclaim Christ as their Lord, feed the children, and educate them. One day, we visited a small church on the top of a mountain that I cannot recall its name now. I was honestly surprised that people could live in that place because the top of mountain seemed to lack many resources – water, food, and electricity. I still remember the joy on the faces of about 30 children that received some gifts from the mission team.

Several boys took me out to outside the church and showed me a horse tied to a tree. I told them, “I have never ridden a horse before.” But they insisted. Well, I thought that I could ride the horse like I used to watch a western movie with cowboys. As I gave the sign, “Go!” guess what happened? The horse did not even move his foot. The children were giggling watching me struggling on the horse. When one young boy gave a command, the horse started moving slowly. Even the horse knew whom to listen.

In today’s reading, Jesus converses with his disciples with the Pharisees watching them, “I am the shepherd.” Of course, we are used to the image of Jesus as the shepherd who looks over the little lamb in his arms in the drawing. What we don’t think about is that if Jesus is the shepherd, we are the sheep. Our popular image of the sheep is that it is innocent, peaceful, and calm. But sheep is a vulnerable creature.

First, it is vulnerable to the predators. When I was a kid, I used to go and see my grandparents in the countryside. Outside the yard, they had a couple of goats with small horns. Although they were small, they would spot me and ready to attack me with their horns at any time. At least, the goats were able to defend themselves despite their size. But the sheep is different. They have no means to protect themselves. So they tend to herd together for protection. Or, they flee from the predators.

Second, the sheep is vulnerable to itself. In the Highlands of Scotland, a sheep would often wander off into the rocks and get into places that they couldn’t get out of. The grass on these mountains is very sweet and the sheep like it, and they will jump down ten or twelve feet, and then they can’t jump back again. They would also vulnerable to themselves as they would wander from the flock and left behind.

And I believe that is why Jesus uses the image of our relationship between himself and us as the shepherd and sheep. The sheep needs the shepherd not just for guidance but also survival. Without the protection and guidance, the sheep would not be able to survive one day. Moreover, Jesus says that he has come so that we may have the abundant life. The abundant life that overflows with joy and happiness. The abundant life that gives a purpose of our life in this world, and relationship that enriches us.

Of course, some of us might think, “That is not true. I am in control of what happens in my life. I am not a sheep. Rather, I am strong enough to defend myself and guide myself.” I am successful enough with my career. I am not like those who constantly worry where the money comes from tomorrow. I am healthy enough. I am not like those who struggle with addictions. I am well surrounded by my family and friends. I am not like those who feel lonely and vulnerable. We can go on saying, “I have a good self-esteem. I have my principle. I have my education. They are what guide my life. I am a pretty independent person.

But from time to time, we come to a point in our life that what we considered as the foundation of our life comes to an end. When we realize that it is gone, we feel stripped and vulnerable. We feel depressed and feel lost. I can share with you that I went through such times in my life. There was a time when I felt like I was a young handsome man with good education and promising future. But there came a time that destroyed my self-esteem, my health, and relationship. My witness is that those cannot be the shepherd that guide my life.

While the sheep is a vulnerable creature, Jesus calls us sheep because it recognizes the voice of its master. It intuitively knows the voice of the shepherd who was there when the sheep was born, fed it, and guides to the green pastures. A group of tourists visited a farm with sheep on the hill in Norway. The shepherd invited the tourists to call the sheep and see if they would respond. They said the same words that the shepherd said. Occasionally, one or two sheep would raise their head but they do not move at all. But when the shepherd calls, they not only raise their head but also run to the shepherd. They feel comfort and love from their master.

This past month has been rough for me and my family as some of you know. The week before the Holy Week, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I honestly felt like walking through the valley of death. My younger brother and sister-in-law in Toronto decide to go back to Korea to help my mother for the surgery and recovery. I felt very vulnerable. For days, I did not even want to call my family in Korea because I was afraid of the next news I would hear. There is a Korean saying, “A monk cannot shave his own head.” I am the pastor at the church providing spiritual care for the people. But I felt really vulnerable at the moment.

But then I realized that while my mother was expecting the surgery, God was also calling me to deeper relationship with God. God wanted me to raise my head and flee to God as God called my name. You read the Bible. And you realize that God who laid the foundation of the world in the beginning knows us better than anyone in this world. And we call our God the Good Shepherd because this God strangely sacrifices His own life for the sake of the sheep. Jesus warns of those who steal, kill, and destroy their flock. Although they might act like the shepherd, Jesus calls them the thief.

Jesus, instead, lays his life for his flock. He gives his life so that we can have new life in him. According to the story from the Highlands of Scotland, when they sheep wander off and stuck in the cliff, the shepherd will wait until they are so faint and they cannot stand. And they put a rope around him and he will go over and pull that sheep up out of the trouble. Some might ask, “Why don’t they go down there when the sheep first gets there?” The answer is that “They would dash right over the precipice and be killed if they did.”

When we feel the most vulnerable, we wonder why our good shepherd is not responding. We complain that there is no God in the midst of trouble and suffering. But I believe that Christ our Shepherd is watching over us right there. It is often when we let go of our ego, our own ways, our own wisdom, then we realize that the Holy Spirit gives us the wisdom where God is leading us as our shepherd.

My mother’s surgery went well. The doctors are taking good care of her for her recovery process. In our phone conversation, my mother said, “You know son, our church lost a person last year to pancreatic cancer. He was only 58 years old. I cannot imagine what he and his family went through. And I feel that God is calling me to be more loving and compassionate toward the cancer patients in the future.” I realized that in the midst of her struggle, she was walking with her shepherd who was calling her into deeper relationship with God.

And I also invite you to recognize the voice of your shepherd. I invite you to realize how much you all mean to your shepherd. If God, the Creator of the universe, is willing to die for us, I believe that there is nothing in this world that can deny how much God loves us. I hope that you give your hand to your shepherd promising to walk humbly and walk in the light and righteousness of God. I hope that you go deeper in your relationship with God always discerning the guidance and voice of your shepherd.

Sermon: Our Road to Emmaus

Date – April 30, 2017

 

Text – Luke 24:13-35

Title – Our Road to Emmaus

 

A man approached a little league baseball game one afternoon. He asked a boy in the dugout hat the score was. The boy responded, “Eighteen to nothing – we are behind.” “Boy,” said the spectator, “I’ll bet you are discouraged.” “Why should I be discouraged?” replied the little boy. “We haven’t even gotten up to bat yet!”

I admire how this boy is hopeful even down by 18 in the baseball game. But if we were talking about the Red Sox game, I guess many of us would walk out thinking that we just wasted our money. We would simply walk away.

In our lives, there are many moments that we feel like that it is over. There is no chance of coming back from it. When there seems to be no hope and despair looms in, many people tend to take mental flight from their reality. Some go to the market and buy a big pint of ice cream. Some spend so many hours watching TV. Psychologists call it “mental escape from reality.”

And I believe that is what the two disciples are doing in our reading from the Gospel of Luke. They are traveling to a village called Emmaus which is about seven miles from Jerusalem. The scripture does not tell us exactly why they are traveling. But my prayerful assumption is that they are trying to escape from their reality because it is disappointing and ugly. I do that with my wife, “Honey, let’s go to Sonic for some milkshake.” She knows that our drive to Sonic in Smithfield gives us enough time to discuss what is happening.

While the disciples are walking along, a stranger comes near and starts to walk with the two disciples. He asks, “What are you discussing with each other?” They stopped their walk looking sad and unbelievable. “Don’t’ you know what happened in Jerusalem?” The stranger asks, “What happened?” They say, “Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in deed and word, was condemned to death on the cross. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

They say, “We had hoped…” Just like we say, “We had hoped that our job was going to make us happy…” But the statistics say that half of Americans feel unhappy about their jobs today. “We had hoped that our new-born child was going to make our marriage more solid…” John Jacobs, the author of All You Need Is Love & Other Lies, says that child is a serious threat to your marriage. “We had hoped that the doctor would be able to do something for my husband who just got diagnosed with cancer…” “We had hoped that our new president and government would do a better job than the previous one…” We are surrounded by “We had hoped…”

And when we feel that our hope does not meet our expectation, we travel to Emmaus. We try to escape the reality of brokenness and hopelessness. Maybe we think that there is nothing we can do about it. So, we just hope that the time would bring the healing or make some progress. Or we simply think that it is a time to move on.

For many Methodists and non-Methodists, yesterday it felt like walking our road to Emmaus. Karen Oliveto is a Methodist minister who served Glide UMC, the fifth largest congregation in the U.S. for 8 years. Last year, she was elected as a bishop and appointed to Rocky area. But some clergy and laity in South Central Jurisdictional Conference brought a charge on her to void her election. It is because she is a lesbian who has been married to her spouse, Robin, a deaconess in the UMC. Our Methodist doctrine still considers homosexuality as incompatible with the Christian teaching.

After 4 days trial, the Judicial Council ruled that her election as bishop is against the church law. To be honest, it was shocking but not surprising. It is because the Book of Discipline has not been changed yet regarding human sexuality. But many people are disappointed because they hoped that maybe the Judicial Council would affirm her election as a bishop and affirm our church slogan as “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.” And I see that people from other denominations invite Methodist clergy or those seeking ordination simply walk away. Our hope was not realized. It will never happen. So, we find ourselves walking toward Emmaus.

I do not know how many Methodists feel the pain from the decision by the Judicial Council. Maybe many are likely to say, “That is more social issue than spiritual issue. Church needs to talk more about the spiritual issues.” Frederick Buechner interprets Emmaus as “the place we go to in order to escape – a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, “Let the whole damned thing go hang.” It makes no difference anyway.” Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday.”[1]

In the midst of despair and disappointment, the two disciples engage conversation with the stranger. As a matter of fact, they realize that they are learning from the stranger when it is supposed to be them who know more about who Jesus is. They urged the stranger strongly and said, “Stay with us because it is almost evening.” They share hospitality with him by offering a table and food. As the stranger took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, their eyes were opened and they recognized him. It was Jesus, their teacher who died on the cross in Jerusalem. Before they could say any words, Jesus then vanished from their sight.

The disciples did not even know who Jesus was until then. But they embraced the stranger and invited him to the center of the table. They gave the privilege of breaking the bread and blessing it to the stranger. In the midst of sharing hospitality, they realize that it was Jesus who had been walking along with them in their journey to Emmaus. Hospitality is not just that we act friendly with strangers with gentle smiles and handshakes. Rather, hospitality is to invite the strangers to the center of the table in which we are willing to lay down our own stories and tradition and learning from them.

Bishop William Willimon describes how stranger determines the vitality and identity of the church. In his former congregation, the people welcomed as a member a woman who was due to her addiction, homeless. As family was assigned to lead the church in receiving Alice as Christ would receive them. They had two years of successes and disappointments, frustrations and wonderful surprises, hard work that stretched patience and finances. When Alice had been off alcohol for a year and was thriving in a new job, Willimon thanked the woman who was instrumental in her recovery. “You should thank Alice,” she responded. “Before she joined Trinity, we were in danger of becoming a club for sweet old folks. Alice made us a church!”[2]

While many churches say all kinds of nice things about them, it is actually strangers who often come from the margin of our society who reveal the true identity of who they are. We welcome you. But here are all the things we want you to follow if you want to be part of our church. We want you to come and join our church but you cannot be the leaders of our church. We want you to come but please don’t stir the water by talking about justice and righteousness. We just want peace in our church family.

As I also struggle with the conflict regarding homosexuality within the United Methodist Church, I come to it not as an issue to be solved, but as my memory of Union UMC in Boston where I attended as seminarian. One Sunday, the pastor invited any strangers to come and join the church by saying, “The door is open.” A gay couple, Bill and Mike, walked to the front and gave their hands to the pastor. Bill said, “We love God. We want to find our church family. But every church we tried, we were told that we could not join them. But here we find our spiritual home. We want to be here with you.” And they wept together in front of the congregation.

Mother Pilgrim, being in her 90s, slowly walked toward the couple and gave them a hug. And everyone including little children in the sanctuary came forward to give them a hug. She said, “Welcome home.” There were tears and laughter as these people finally found a place where they felt embraced as they were, as God embraced them as God’s beloved children. We talk about church doctrine. We talk about what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 or Galatians 5. But when people who were rejected by the church and community experienced the love of Christ, our theological and ideological debate dissolved.

Many try to find the presence of God from elegant music, praise band, or sight-provoking visuals. People declare that “this is a sacred space” when they feel something majestic that comes across much bigger than themselves. But I felt the presence of God in that moment when the strangers are welcome and invited to the center of the table. When we gather as one community and break the bread together with those who are rejected and denied by our society, that is when the face of Christ was revealed to us and realize that Christ has been walking along with us as strangers.

After the disciples realized that the stranger was Jesus, they got up and returned to Jerusalem. They go back to proclaim that “The Lord has risen indeed!” They were initially escaping from Jerusalem because it reminded them of the death of their teacher. The sign of failure. The sign of disappointment. But now, they go back to the same place to proclaim the good news in Christ. “He is risen! We have seen him!”

Although many of us want to escape the reality of disappointment saying, “We had hoped…” Christ calls us back to the messy place in our life and world. It is because the cross that symbolizes the ultimate sign of failure and death turns into the sign of new life and resurrection. Christ calls us to go back and proclaim that Christ is risen today. And that is why I believe that Christ walks with our church today although it is not perfect and it is often broken in its system. In the midst of brokenness and death, we are called to witness the resurrection of Christ who overcomes alienation with love.

In the midst of frustration and anger within the UMC today, my prayer is that we encounter the risen Christ through the strangers that we never expected. When we realize that Christ has been walking alongside with us through them, we are called to go back to Jerusalem where we can surely proclaim that Christ is risen today. And Christ will give us new life in what seems like death. As my Mother Saints used to sing, I am gonna join them and sing, “I’m gonna stay on the battlefield. I’m gonna stay on the battlefield. I’m gonna stay on the battlefield till I die…”

How about us this morning? Are you also walking your road to Emmaus because you are disappointed? You had hoped something good from your work, your relationship, your health, your church but disappointed that it did not happen? I invite you to recognize who is walking with you in your journey today. Although many of us tend to find some sign through extraordinary things, Christ is already walking with us as ordinary strangers inviting us to open our hearts with them and walk with them together. Maybe, the United Methodist Church needs to change its sign from “We welcome you” to “We need you, strangers.” Amen.

[1] NIB: Luke & John

[2] William Willimon, Fear of the Other, 71-72

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.

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.