Sermon: Praise the Lord

Date: September 23, 2018

 

Text: Psalm 148

Title: Praise the Lord!

 

When I was 8 years old, my father moved to the countryside of Korea where he took a new church as a pastor. It was a small village where most people worked as farmers. After school, most of my friends went to the fields to help their parents with fertilizing the soil, sowing the seeds, or harvesting in the fall. Although we did not own a farm, my mother made a small garden next the parsonage where she planted flowers, vegetables, and fruits. She would spend hours working in her garden. One day, my mother, while working in her garden, turned to me and said, “Look at these flowers. Look how beautiful they are. As they wave in the wind, don’t you think that they are singing and praising God, their Creator?” As she was humming the melody of a hymn, it still lingers in my ears like yesterday.

The Psalmist also sings and praise the Lord. He says that everyone needs to praise the name of the Lord. It is not just human beings that praise God. Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies. Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures. You mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds. The Psalmist says that everything created in the world should praise God because at God’s command, they are all created. It is God who has established them forever and also issued a decree that will never pass away, which is the natural law that governs the movement of the universe.

Have you visited a place and witnessed the grace of God in the beauty of God’s creation? In August 2003, I was studying English in Sydney, Australia. Toward the end of my stay there, I decided to travel from Sydney to Melbourne with my friend from college. If you drive the car straight to Melbourne, it takes about 8 hours. But we traveled by the shore enjoying the ocean road, which took us about 15 hours in car. Our second evening, we stopped the Phillips Island where we could see penguins come out of the oceans. There were about 50 people sitting on the beach, not being able to take pictures because the flashlight could make them go blind. I was surrounded by the sound of waves, sea gulls, and wind. We sat and waited for about one hour. And there, in the middle of dark evening, we saw hundreds of penguins come out of the ocean and make a little parade right next to us, heading toward their nests.

When I saw the miraculous actions of these penguins, I could do nothing but praise God who designed God’s creature with instinct and beauty. I am sure that many of you have witnessed something like that in your lives. Maybe when you visited Niagara Falls for the first time and heard the might sound of the water fall, you praised God in awe. Maybe when you visited the Grand Canyon and saw the eagles flying high, you gave thanks to God for allowing you visit there while you still breathed. Maybe you did not have to travel that far to witness the wonderful hands of God. Just like my mother, you sowed the seeds of flowers at your garden. When the spring came, you saw the little plants come out with life and blossom into beautiful flowers. Winter was there. But spring surely comes. And you praised God for the faithfulness of God at your little garden.

The Celtic Christians also had wisdom in joining the creation of God for praise. In the Celtic Spirituality, there is a sense of unity with all creation, both human and nonhuman, that transcends time and space. Its unity brings the whole world together as participants in the singing of one great hymn of praise. In the Celtic tradition, there is a story about a mother who tells her children that each day must start with the human voice joining in the song of the birds, since in the whole created order, all the creatures of earth, ocean, and sky were giving glory to God, it was foolish for the human beings not to join them. So from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, from the literate and the illiterate, from the earliest to the present day, we have the same message: Join in the worship of the whole universe. Alexander Carmichael says in Carmina Gadelica, “it is dumb of us not to join the creation of God in their giving glory to God.” (Esther De Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer)

I know that we often have a difficult time to praise God. From time to time, in our spiritual journey, we encounter trials and tribulations along the way. We often suffer loss, grief, loneliness, illness. We feel not appreciated and loved as we are. How can we still celebrate and praise God? As I drove around the town this week, I start to notice some red on the trees. It means that they are changing their color from green and red. No one told them to change their color. But they obey the words from their Creator. And they praise God even though they might lose all their leaves soon and even wither during the cold winter. But they still praise God because the spring is surely coming after the long night and cold weather. In the same way, the Celtic Christians also lived with a rhythm keeping the relationship between the light and the dark, both winter and spring. The Celtic year begins with the feast of Samhaine on November 1, when darkness overtakes the light. By entering the season of winter, the Celtic Christians considered their life as the gift of God, not something to control.

When we realize that the main purpose of God’s creation is to praise God, and that all God’s creation is already praising God whether we join them or not, the boundary between what is sacred and what is secular collapses. This whole world reflects the wonderful hands of God who has created everything with power, grace, and love. When we talk in the woods thinking that we are having some alone time for ourselves, we are actually surrounded by the nature that is already praising God in their very beings. Our walk turns to a time of celebrating and rejoicing along with God’s creation. As Beth Richardson beautifully writes in Christ Beside Me, Christ Within Me, we see the bird nest looking fragile and sitting on the electrical box. As we see the protection of the eggs by the mother bird, we rejoice with them in our praise of God who also protects God’s people and creation, giving us what we need for today and tomorrow.

Because life is seen as the gift of God, we are enabled to fill our hearts with praise and thanksgiving. As we give thanks to God for the material world and nurture the gratitude and reverence, we become a more faithful stewards entrusted to preserve the earth rather than exploit and destroy it. As we glimpse the presence of God surrounding all God’s creation and the universe, we also give thanks to God for the mundane activities of daily work. When we appreciate the goodness through God’s creation, our response is not complaints or grumbling. But it is gratitude and thankfulness. Even when we sleep at night and rest, God still grows the crops on the field with morning dews, wind, sunlight, and rain. We often think that it is us who needs to do all the works. But even when we fail to do our works, God is still faithful in providing us, helping us, and saving us.

Amen.

 

Sermon: God with Us

September 16, 2018, Celtic Worship: Bless to Me #1

 

Text: Psalm 113

Title: God with Us

 

Many of us feel that we are always running. We wake up. We are late for the work or for the school for our children. We hurry to where we need to be. When we are busy, there is always someone who is blocking our way in front. We often grumble, “Why do they have to block the road at this time and do the construction work?” We quickly stop by a coffee house. We hurry to work. As we sit, we quickly go over the agendas for the day. I need to get this done. I need to meet someone. I need to travel to a meeting. We go and shop at the grocery store with so many on the lists. We come home. Our children are back from the school. We have dinner, but we rarely talk. Mother asks her child how his day was at the school. “Fine. I am done with the dinner. Can I just go to my room and play the game?” The couple sit at the table and frustrated with all the bills and mortgage that are due. Everyone is tired. They go to bed.

Every day, it is the same routine. It is about our works. It is about our children. It is about our marriage. It is about our plan for an upcoming vacation. It is about paying the bills. It is about checking with our doctor. It is about driving from one place to another. It is about volunteering here and there. It is about exercising at the gym. It is about planning for the retirement and how my pension will pay all the bills. Although we all come from different places, if you are like me, we tend to fill our schedule with so many to-do lists. After all, that is one of many legacies from the Protestants – the work ethics. We need to work every day and every hour. That is also what we teach our children. If you want to succeed with your career or education, you need to work hard and earn it. And often working hard means being busy.

In our busy schedule, whether retired or not retired, young or old, we often push God to the margin of our time because we just do not have time for God. Well, I go to the church on Sunday and give my time to God through worship. It is like another checkbox. Did I take my medication for today? Check. Did I call my friend for our upcoming dinner? Check. Did I buy the Christmas gifts for my children? Check. With all the lists in our schedule, we might ask, “Did I have time to read the Bible? Did I have time to worship God?” Check. If our daily schedule is like a zero-sum, we try to allocate our time to everyone who deserves our attention with equal piece of a pie. But we often experience that our life does not have time to give full attention to God, our relationship with our Creator. We just don’t’ have a time for prayer.

What if our everydayness is a form of prayer? What if our prayer is immersed in everything we do? We embark on a journey, or pilgrimage, to deepen our knowledge of Celtic Christianity from today for the next seven weeks. When we say Celtic Christianity, we refer to certain features of Christianity, distinctive from Western Christianity including the Catholic Church and Protestants. The word, the Celt, implies wanderers who resided outside the Roman Empire. By region, it covers Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Galicia in Spain. While many cities in the Roman Empire became urbanized with the philosophical and cultural influence that tended to rationalize Christianity, many people in Celtic Christianity lived in rural areas, touching the stone and water, overlooking the ocean, feeling the breeze from the hill, looking the sky touching the earth.

We will have more time to learn about these people. But one of the features common to many Celtic Christians was this. They lived their lives in the form of prayer. They considered their waking, breathing, working, resting, cooking, cleaning, or sleeping as a way to pray and please God. They lived their lives in a way that Emmanuel – God is with Us, was not just a statement of faith, but reality. Because they believed that their very being was grounded in the presence of God, many of their prayer words included, encircle, encompass, uphold, and surround. As Christ came through the incarnation and dwelled among people, Celtic Christians believed that God was in every moment of their lives from the morning to evening.

In Psalm 113, the Psalmist sings, “Praise the Lord, Praise the name of the Lord. From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised.” We encounter the word “praise” in the Bible so many times. But there are seven different specific meanings to “praise.” The one used in Psalm 113 is Hallal. When we say, “Hallelujah,” it comes from this base word, “Hallal.” While the other Hebrew words for praise are translated as “praise God with extended hands, praise God with a musical instrument, praise God with knees on the ground,” Hallal is this. “To praise, to boast, to celebrate, to be clamorously foolish.” When we often pray, it is often about what we ask of God. “God, I want you to do this for me.” There is nothing wrong with it. But when we speak of Celtic blessing, it mainly our offering of a prayer of gratitude. We bless God for what God has done and given us.

Of course, we often have a hard time of praying to God or praising God in times of difficulties. How can we sing of the glory of God in times of death and sorrow? How can we praise God in times of earthquake and hurricane? How can we celebrate God in times of illness and emptiness? The tradition tells us that Jesus sang Psalm 113 along with his disciples before he went to pray at Mount Olive where he would be arrested by the soldiers and priests. In sensing the imminent danger and peril, Jesus still did not forget to praise God who was surely walking with him. Although we tend to have our own picture of the destination of success, health, and victory, Celtic Christians understood the Holy Spirit who blows where it wills. Jesus’ praise of God stemmed from his trust in God who knows where we come from and knows where we will go.

St. Patrick is one great example, a person who never stopped praising and praying to God, especially never losing his praise under challenging circumstances. In the 5thcentury, Patrick was born in Roman Britain. At the age of 16, he was captured by a group of Irish pirates. He was enslaved in Ireland for six years. In Confession, Patrick says that his time in captivity was critical to his spiritual development. It was during this time of slavery he encountered God and became a Christian while working as a shepherd and praying to God. Later, he escaped from slavery by traveling to a port, two hundred miles away. Although Patrick became a free man, he then had a vision in his dream that God was calling him to go back to Ireland and be a missionary. And he did. And he wrote a poem and prayer right before converting the king of Ireland. It is called “Breastplate.”

 

Christ with me

Christ before me

Christ behind me

Christ in me,

Christ beneath me,

Christ above me,

Christ on my right,

Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down,

Christ when I sit down,

Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me

 

For St. Patrick and many Celtic Christians who have gone before us, prayer was not a practice to be added to our busy schedule. Instead, prayer was the mode of our being. We praise God when we wake up for giving us another day of blessing. We praise God when we breathe for there is air provided by God. We praise God when we drink coffee, for those who worked hard to plant the beans, grew them, roasted them, and brewed them for us. We praise God when we are stuck in the traffic so we can sing a hymn praising God without minding others. We praise God when we sit at the table for a meal, for the day God has given us, for the friends our children met, for the meals that many worked hard. If we believe that God fills the earth with the grace of God, we let God also fill our hearts with gratitude, joy, imagination, love, and peace.

For this coming week, I would like to suggest this as a way of prayer for us. Adam Hamilton is pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. He once preached a sermon on baptism and invited his congregation to remember their baptism each day. To do so, he prepared a prayer card and encouraged his audience to hang it in their shower and recited each time they stepped into the shower. The prayer goes as follows,

 

“Lord, as I enter the water to bathe, I remember my baptism

Wash me by your grace. Fill me with your Spirit

Renew my soul

I pray that I might live as your child today and honor you in all that I do.”

 

Some of you might think that this is too long. Then I encourage you to say this instead,

“I am a child of God.” Let each morning begin with praise of God who walks with us from the sunrise to the sunset. Let each morning start with gratitude remembering that it is God who gives us another day with purpose. Let each morning also begin with excitement for what God will be doing in this world through us, and with us.

Sermon: Home Is Where We Meet

Date: December 10, 2017

 

Text – Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13

Title – Home Is Where We Meet

 

When we say the word “home,” it seems to bring many emotions. Comfortable. Relaxing. Embracing. Peaceful…etc. Advent and Christmas is the season that people think about the meaning of home more. People drive or fly to be with their families. One of the images is that the families sit around the fireplace next to the Christmas tree. Children are excited to tear open the gift boxes on Christmas Day. Grandparents tell the stories holding their grandchildren. Ham is cooking inside the oven for the dinner. Children from college come home for the vacation. Soldiers come home to be with their family. When we say the word “home,” I wonder if you have any specific place in your mind.

For me, it is hard to pinpoint and say that this is my home. In growing up as a Methodist pastor’s kid, my childhood was always on the move. I remember living in 3 different towns until I turned 8 years old. After finally spending 12 years at one small church in the countryside, my life started rolling again from place to place. I went to the college. I joined the military. I wanted to explore the world and learn English so I went to the Philippines and Australia. I finished the college. I came to Boston to study theology. Then, my life now is that when the bishop says, “It is time to move,” my family pack everything and move. So, it is hard to pinpoint and say, “This is my home.”

Recently, I had an incident that made me feel like I was far from home. When I was waiting to pick up Daniel at the school, some children were exiting their classroom for recess. As they were passing by me, one of the boys, looking like 7 or 8 years old, started laughing at me and saying, “Chinese!” Well, it is not the first time people look at me and say, “Ni Hao?” What am I supposed to say? “Not all Asians are Chinese?” It is a little boy so I cannot judge what implication he had exactly in his mind. But in the hallway, this boy was laughing at me for being different. I looked at him directly with a stern face, implying “stop.” But he kept going on. And I started thinking what Daniel is going through at the school now.

Well, my case is different from most of you in this church. But I wonder if some of you also share similar experience as mine. I wonder some of you feel like you miss home. I know that some of you are not from here originally as well. Some of you are from the mid-west. Some of you are from the south. I know that you all have your family around here. But you always feel like that there is another home in your heart. It is not that you can go back there now because the place you grew up is not recognizable now. Probably new restaurants. New neighbors. New buildings. But in your dream, you often find yourself being back to the place with your father and mother and your siblings. The sense of missing home in your heart.

In today’s text, the writer of Psalm sings such memory of being home. “Lord, you were favorable to your land. You restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people. You pardoned all their sin.” In other words, the Psalmist is saying, “O God, you used to be so much nicer.” Why does the singer say that God used to nicer? Many biblical scholars agree that this song was written either while the Israelites were in exile in Babylon or they just returned to their homeland they found ruined. In other words, they miss their home where they had and enjoyed the abundance in God. But they are all gone now. They are far away from their home and miss it badly in their hearts. So, the song praises God who was very gracious in the past.

In the Disciple Bible Study, we have been recently studying how Moses was instructed by God to build the tabernacle as the place of worship for God. What is interesting is that God ordered Moses to put the ring on each corner of the arc of the covenant. But it was not just the arc of the covenant. God ordered to put the ring on the tabernacle as well so that when the time came to move, the priests could carry the tabernacle and the arc of God with the poles. God guided the Israelites through the wilderness by the cloud and fire. When the cloud came down and stayed around the tabernacle, it meant that God was there. When the clouds moved, it was the time for them to pack everything and follow and move.

It was interesting to me that the Israelites did not find the sense of home through the houses, their hometowns, or buildings. In their journey through the wilderness, they constantly moved from place to place. So, there is no point arguing which place they could pinpoint and say that this is our home. Rather, they found their security, their comfort, and their hope in God who was constantly on move. Wherever the arc went, it symbolized the presence of God who was with them. Wherever God was, the Israelites found home. When the Israelites were about to lose their battle against Babylon, Jeremiah told them that it is ok. God would go with them to the foreign land and surely be with them there.

And I was reminded of the special Christmas Eve I spent when I was in New Hampshire. While people were growing excited to spend Christmas with their families and friends, I realized that I and Sungha were not the only ones that did not have families here. In my church, there was a young man with a mental illness who lived alone with his cat. He yearend to come to the church every Sunday because the church was the only place that was nice to him. Since he did not have a car, he walked 1 hour and 30 min to the church every Sunday. There was also a family of single mother and her 3 years old son that lived in the housing project that was considered as dangerous. After the Christmas Eve service, we gathered for a special celebration with burgers and soda from McDonald.

As we shared the spirit of fellowship and hospitality, I felt in my heart that I was home. It is not the physical building that brought the sense of home. The house was rather unorganized, messy in the dangerous neighborhood. But the sense of being together, embracing one another as friend, and seeing the face of Christ was what brought a sense of home to me. The church is Greek is ecclesia. It means “being called out of the world.” It is interesting to notice that we do not choose to come out of the world and decide to become Christians. It is the work of the Holy Spirit who calls us, even though we might not share much in common, even come from many different places, and make one body in Christ together. As Christ welcomed strangers, forgave sinners, and healed the sick, we know that Christ is in the middle of us when we gather in his name and serve one another in humility. Home is right here with us.

Advent is the season that we hear the story how God came to this world and found home by dwelling among us. Christ did not come as the prince of the powerful or the rich. Rather, he came as a meek and humble baby of a carpenter and his teen mother surrounded by animals and shepherds. And the message Christ brings to us is “Emmanuel” – God is with us. God is right here with us even we struggle with despair, hopelessness, and anxiety. God is right here with us and we find home in the presence of God. We find the presence of God when we are called by the grace of God to make new family by welcoming and embracing one another as new brother and sister in Christ. And I want us to watch a video this morning which is shared in this season of Advent.

Somehow, I think this story illustrates what Christmas is about. When we were far from God because of our sins and brokenness, God still came to us in Christ and adopt us as God’s children again. God comes to us and dwells among us calling our place, however messy it might be, home. And whenever we gather in God’s name, sharing the spirit of radical hospitality, love, and peace, it is our home. May God bless us all as we faithfully wait for the coming of Christ whose message is this, “God is with us.” Amen.

Sermon: What Kind of God?

Date: November 19, 2017

 

Text: Matthew 25:14-30

Title: What Kind of God?

 

Last night, our church hosted Music Concert for the People of Puerto Rico and Mexico. I was surprised that we had many people attending on Saturday evening. I was notified after the concert that we raised about $1700 to be given to UMCOR. My gratitude goes to everyone who performed, sang, shared the stories, and served foods. There is something that I need to confess this morning though. The idea of the concert was not my idea. In September after the earthquake in Mexico and hurricane in Puerto Rico, Ron suggested that we could do some hymn singing and raise the money to help them. When Kathi heard it, she brought the idea to me. I said, “Yeah, it is a great idea, Kathi. Let’s think about it.” But in my mind, I hesitated to go ahead because it is a lot of work. Well, I need to think about the Stewardship Sunday. I need to think about Advent Sundays and Christmas. I just wanted to play safe, convenient. But there are times when you know that the Holy Spirit is pushing you to step out of your safe zone.

As we hear from the scripture lesson from Matthew 25, I wonder if you share my trouble that I do not find anything wrong with the third servant. So, the master goes on a journey, calls his servants and entrusts his property to them. He gives 5 talents to the first one, 2 talents to the second one, and finally 1 talent to the last one. My mind tells me that if I were the third servant, I would grumble because it does not seem fair to be given just 1 talent when my colleagues are given more than my portion. So, the master goes away for a trip. The first two servants do a great job with trading and make double of what they have. The third servant buries the talent in the ground. And my question is this, “What is the problem with that?” At least, he did not go out and wasted it. The master comes back home and greatly rewards the first two servants. But he harshly rebukes and punishes the third servants who wanted to play safe, convenient, and certain.

What is the problem with playing it safe? At least, you can predict the future. The first two servants went out and did the trade. It is possible for them to lose all they had and appear to their master with nothing and say, “Sorry, master. We have lost all you have given.” The third servant could at least bring the exact same talent to his master. The result is secure. The result is predictable. Isn’t it what we all want? If you are still working and paying the pension for your retirement, or if you have already retired and received your income from pension, would you want your company to use your pension aggressively with a possibility of losing it or preserve it conservatively?

Our lives as Christians could be also about playing safe, convenient, and predictable. People could just gather for worship service, share some fellowship inside but never dared to go out to the world to face the challenges, hardships, and struggles. When I was working as Teaching Assistant at Boston University, I saw lots of students who were filled with enthusiasm for their ministries. One day, I met one of my former students who looked so tired and even angry. I asked him, “What is going on? How is your ministry?” And he said, “Well, I thought that I could come and turn around this declining congregation. I suggested that we do some programs to reach out to the children in the community, do ministry with the poor and hungry. And they tell me, “Joe, we are not really interested in changing who we are. I know you talking about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But our mission is to make sure that we as the church exist in this town even after you are gone.”

When Jesus tells us the parable that the master entrusting his property to the servants, it is insightful to know that one talent is a large sum of money, “equal to the wages of a day laborer for fifteen years.” Some commentators believe that one talent in today’s world could amount to one million dollars. So, when the master gave the last servant one talent, he actually trusted his servant that he could manage such a large money. The Gospel tells us that the master gave his property to his servants according to their abilities. It indicates intimate relationship between the master and his servants because he knows their capabilities. He intimately knows them to the point that one could experience growth instead of break-down when pushed to face challenges.

And Jesus implies God as our master who knows what we are good at and what we are not good at. God who created us in God’s image and calls us God’s children God is the One who knows where we can grow and how we can grow in our love for God and God’s people. And God gives us all talents and gifts. God may not instruct us how exactly to use our talents and gifts. As each servant must decide how to use his time during the master’s absence, we are also called to discern how to use our talents and gifts until Christ comes back in his final glory. Faithfulness is not merely obedience to directions. Rather, faithfulness means responsible discipleship. The grace of God is a gift given to us that we did not earn. But it is our responsibility of what we do with the grace of God. We are saved by our faith in Christ who redeems us from our sins and adopt us as children of God. But it is our responsibility to live as the children of God in this world, not by ourselves, but empowered and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.

If we realize that what we have from God today are gifts from God – whether it is our money, our possession, our family and children, and even our lives, we cannot just play the spirituality of safe, convenient, predictable, certain, and fearful. It is because God who serves certainly did not play safe in God’s terrestrial realm. Instead, God came down to the world, dwelt among us, and gave God’s only Son, Christ, to die on the cross. In our Disciple Bible Study, we discussed how terrible it was to read Abraham commanded by God to sacrifice his own son on the altar. It was because God was testing the faith of Abraham. But we know that when he raised his knife, the angel of God stopped him. One of the members, Linda, then said, “But God allowed Christ to die on the cross.” When we say that we are to love our God with all our hearts, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all our strength, we are called to love and imitate God who certainly did not play safe, convenient, and predictable. Rather, we see God in Christ who faces challenges, risks, and uncertainty.

In Five Practices of Fruitful Congregation, Bishop Robert Schanse calls the “Risk-Taking Mission and Service” the practice of church that actively going outward to engage the world and proclaim the good news through the words and actions. It includes “the projects, the efforts, and work people do to make a positive difference in the lives of others for the purposes of Christ, whether or not they will ever be part of the community of faith. I believe that our church in Putnam is strong with Risk-Taking Mission and Service. We constantly push our limits and engage our community by offering foods through Daily Bread and Community Café. We clothe the naked by offering NU2U ministry. We led our youth group to the mission trip in Philadelphia. We offer the love of Christ to our young people not just Sunday school but also Vacation Bible School. What other ministries have I missed? Bishop Schnase says that Risk-Taking Mission and Service is such fundamental activity of the church that failed to practice it in some form results in a deterioration of the church’s vitality and ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

I believe that Risk-Taking Mission is critical both to individual and church. As we as individual greet and welcome strangers, we see the face of Christ in them no matter where they come from. As we serve them, we embrace the humility of Christ by lowering ourselves. Instead of becoming the third servant who just goes home and buries his talent in the ground, we are called to use whatever God has given us today to wisely use for the glory of God who calls us to serve others in the name of Christ.

There is one thing that I would like our church to embrace risk and push ourselves to come out of our comfort zone. Everyday, we get the posts from Facebook that people who are arrested by the police officers for misdemeanors or crimes. We can read the comments on those postings that people ridicule those who are convicted and say that they deserve to be punished. First of all, we do not know the stories of their lives. Maybe, someone needed some money to feed his or her little children who were going hungry. I am not saying that their acts should be justified. But I wonder what Christ would tell these people who are locked in the jail with their families facing uncertain future without their husband or wife, brother or sister. There is a correctional facility in Brooklyn with male inmates. Thanksgiving is coming next week. We get together with our families, children, and friends and celebrate with so much food. What can do we about those inmates or their families as the followers of Christ?

Bishop Schnase shares a story of how we might take up the risk-taking mission in our lives. Lucas runs a small business, has a young family, and volunteers frequently at church. After a spiritually powerful experience on a Walk to Emmaus retreat, he prayerfully searched for ways to respond to God’s call to make a difference. He did not feel called to ordained ministry, but he did want his life marked by greater service to Christ. He joined a team of men who met weekly for months to plan a prison ministry, Kairos, to offer spiritual sustenance to those serving time. He and his team received permission, signed waivers, and were permitted to spend seventy-two hours in a maximum-security facility for violent offenders. He describes the experience as nothing short of life-changing for himself as well as for many of the incarcerated and the other volunteers. Their significant engagement, genuine conversation, gracious respect, and active concern broke down barriers and established relationships that would extend for years.[1] And I want us to watch a video of Kairos ministry.

In Matthew 25:36, Jesus says that when I was in prison and you visited me. Let me ask us. What kind of God are we serving? Are we serving God who stays out of the world, who enjoys the lofty status of divinity? God who plays safe and convenient and predictable? Or are we serving God who intermingles with the messy realities of this world, who stand with the poor, the naked, the sick, imprisoned, and oppressed and suffering? Where is Christ calling us out to take the risk-taking mission and service? I pray this morning that God gives us the spirit of audacity to live out the good news in Christ rather than being satisfied with the spirit of safety, predictability, and convenience.

 

[1] Robert Schnase, The Five Practices of Fruitful Lives

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.